There’s something almost puppylike about the way David Tennant bounds into this Beverly Hills restaurant with a face-splitting grin. He’s dressed chic-casual, slacks and sport coat over a vintage Brit-rock T-shirt, his face stubbly for “Broadchurch,” the British police drama he’s due to start filming the week after this meeting. That show will air later this year on BBC America, but he’s here right now to talk about “Spies of Warsaw,” a two-part miniseries airing on consecutive Wednesdays, April 3 and 10, on the same channel.
Filmed on location in the Polish capital, this adaptation of Alan Furst’s well-received historical novel, set during the days leading up to World War II, casts Tennant as Col. Jean-Francois Mercier, a French aristocrat who finds himself drawn into a complex world of intrigue and betrayal as well as an affair with a Parisian lawyer (Janet Montgomery) for the League of Nations.
“He’s a career soldier who was in the First World War and has been much decorated since, and now he finds himself the French military attache to Warsaw,” Tennant tells Zap2it. “But he also has a secondary, clandestine life for his country, where he is snooping around to see what is happening, particularly on the German side of the border. There was so much information flying around Europe at that time, and every country was kind of desperately looking over its shoulder to see who was doing what to whom and trying to second-guess what was going to happen next.”
It’s also perhaps Tennant’s most straightforward “leading man” role to date, which requires some adjustments for his legions of fans who associate the actor with his iconic role as the Tenth Doctor in the “Doctor Who” franchise. But then, Tennant is an actor who always has gone for the unexpected. His performance as Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which aired on PBS’ “Great Performances” in 2010, was devastating, but he also was careful to nail all the jokes. What? You didn’t know there were jokes in “Hamlet”? Then get thee to the nearest copy of Tennant’s performance.
“I think I’m known to most people for playing somewhat quirky characters,” Tennant acknowledges. “Even if I’m playing the hero of the piece, he’s usually a bit off the wall and out of left field. When I played Casanova (which aired stateside in 2006 on ‘Masterpiece Theatre’), he wasn’t the Casanova of legend; he was slightly offbeat and unusual. With ‘Spies of Warsaw,’ he’s straight down the line, somewhat inscrutable but a straightforward leading man. It was a new challenge for me to try to tell the story without ‘winking,’ without putting anything in parentheses. This character is without quirk, really, and I thought, well, I’m over 40 now; maybe it’s time to master that.”
Among the first things viewers will notice about Tennant’s character — OK, once past the curly coif he’s been saddled with — is that he’s not speaking with a French accent. And he wants you to know that’s an artistic decision, not professional ineptitude.
“No need to worry, that’s not my very poor attempt at a French accent,” he says, laughing. “There is actually an internal logic to the concept. Since the main character is French, but the audience is English-speaking, we hear him speak with a sort of a neutral English accent, and anyone else speaking English is actually speaking French, and the other nationalities speak English but with their natural accents, and the Germans speak German with English subtitles – which I suppose makes [the subtitles] French. I can see your eyes glazing over.”
He hesitates, then comically furrows his brows as he thinks this through further.
“As to when the English characters are speaking English to each other, I suppose by that logic they’re actually speaking French, so it doesn’t bear too much examination. Best just to go with it!”
Like most British TV films these days, “Spies of Warsaw” was filmed on a tight budget and timetable — eight weeks — but Tennant says he was thrilled to discover the breathtaking diversity of locations that Warsaw offers.
“Pretty much all of it was filmed in Warsaw, and parts of that city also double for Paris and Berlin and whatever other city the story went to,” he says. “We filmed in some absolutely beautiful places. Warsaw is an untapped filming resource. You could turn the camera in any direction, and there would be nothing you would need to fix in post-production. No amount of CGI can create something that beautiful and extraordinary.”
The miniseries has a retro feel to it that evokes some of the great British Cold War spy dramas. Asked why the Brits seem to have an affinity for playing spies — and being spies in real life — Tennant says it’s all in the upbringing.
“The first thing that comes to mind is that the British are brought up to believe that exhibiting yourself, your emotional life, is just not the done thing, so perhaps that predisposes them to succeeding in a career where your life can depend on being able to keep secrets,” he says. “It’s as if there’s a carapace in the breeding.”