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Interview: Sylvester McCoy on Hobbit, Minister of Chance, Who

INTERVIEWS - FILM

Talking exclusively to Shadowlocked, it's time to meet The Doctor - and the new wizard in The Hobbit, to boot...

The incomparable Sylvester McCoy

Sylvester McCoy is best-known to science fiction fans as the seventh Doctor in the BBC's Doctor Who series, taking over the role from Colin Baker from 1987 to the cancellation of the original series in 1989. But there's a very good chance that the Scottish-born theatre, film and TV actor may gain a whole new surge of popularity in the years ahead as he sets off to New Zealand to join director Peter Jackson and theatrical colleague and friend Ian McKellen to make two movies of Tolkien's The Hobbit, wherein he'll play the part of the wizard Radagast, a character from Middle Earth who was omitted from the original trilogy.

Even after the cancellation of Doctor Who, McCoy was never allowed to leave the Time Lord behind, and has participated in numerous audio and multimedia projects playing the Seventh Doctor over the last 21 years. The latest of these reprises a Doctor Who character from the 2001 webcast Death Comes To Time; the title character of The Minister Of Chance - an episodic Who spin-off with episodes available to download from iTunes from the 17th of March - is played by Julian Wadham, following in the shoes of Stephen Fry's origination of the role. McCoy is joined by fellow ex-Doctor Paul McGann and sci-fi luminaries Paul Darrow (Blake's 7) and Jenny Agutter (Logan's Run).

Although the actor is not reprising the Seventh Doctor for Minister Of Chance (playing instead the villainous 'Witch Prime') he has nonetheless been playing Doctor #7 all week for various Who-related projects. As he tells us...


Death Comes To Time - origin play for 'The Minister Of Time'Was there any talk of Stephen Fry reprising the role as the Minister Of Chance that he did in Death Comes To Time?

When Dan [Freeman, producer] started the project, he tried to get Stephen, but sadly, because he's ubiquitous, he couldn't do the dates. Just one of those things, really - he wasn't free when the recording could be made, so we had to think otherwise.

How did you get involved with the project?

Well, because of Death Comes To Time, which I played with Stephen and Sophie [Aldred] and many many others. Dan always discussed the prospect of doing more; although he killed me off...killed my career off! [laughs] He offered me a part and this time I said that I wanted to be a villain. They're much more fun. Having played a superhero for such a long time, it's kind of nice to be a nasty villain.

You actually put a very dark spin on the Doctor during your tenure on Doctor Who - was that your own input?

Yes it was. After I got to kind of know The Doctor and the history of Doctor Who, I just thought it would be rather good to try and go back in time, in a sense, being a time traveller, and recreate the mystery of The Doctor. That was one of the ways really - that he showed a darker side. And also he was around for nine hundred and fifty years. I think if you're around that long, you get a bit dark sometimes.

Sylvester McCoy as The Doctor, 1987-89Do you think it would have been nice if David Tennant had kept his accent the way that you and Chris Ecclestone did?

Yes, I suppose, in a way. My accent...I was never told I couldn’t do it, but I didn't really go for the Scottishness so much as the rolling of the Rs. Some people, all over the world, in fact, are surprised when they meet me, and the Scottish accent. Some people don't hear it [in the show]. But I never actually went for it as such in the way that Christopher Ecclestone went for the Mancunian accent - which was brilliant, by the way. I would have liked it if it could have been approached in the style of Billy Connolly - 'I love that fucking planet, by the way!'. Would have been much more fun!

Did the magical forest environment of Minister Of Chance get you in the mood for what's coming up in New Zealand with The Hobbit?

Yes, I'm off to New Zealand soon, and I'm very excited about that.

How long will you be there?

Oh, six to eight weeks, the first time, and then I've got to go back another three or four times over the next three years.

Ian Holm as Bilbo Baggins in 'Fellowship Of The Ring'What was the extent of your near-involvement in the original Lord Of The Rings trilogy?

I was up for the part of Bilbo Baggins, and it got down to the last few as these things do, and I was still very much in the picture. Not literally, though [laughs]. Finally it went to Ian Holm, but if he had been busy, I would have done that part. So they knew me from that, and they liked me, obviously.

I suppose if you were cast in a new Pirates Of The Caribbean film, that would complete the karmic catch-up for you - you were up to play Governor Swann in the 1990s, I heard..?

This is something that's been going around, but I have no knowledge of that. Maybe someone got in touch with my agent or something, I don't know. But doing Pirates Of The Caribbean would have been a hoot. I'd loved to have been in that as well. But now I'm going to be in an even greater project!

Absolutely. Will you enjoy working with Ian McKellen again after working with him for so long with King Lear?

Ian McKellen and Sylvester McCoy, among others, in the RSC's 2007 production of King LearYeah, it'll be great. We were working very closely for nearly two years in King Lear. The fool, who I played, and the king, who obviously he played, are two roles that are very entwined. We travelled the world together and he introduced me to Peter Jackson personally - as well as the Prime Minister of New Zealand! [laughs]. It'll be great. I'm looking forward to seeing him, and we've got some lovely scenes together.

From what sources is the character of Radagast being drawn for The Hobbit, because he's not a major presence in the book itself and he was written out of the original trilogy...?

There were bits of Radagast in the original books; there were bits of him in The Hobbit and some bits in Lord Of The Rings. They didn't use him in the film, so they're taking bits from there. Also there were later writings in the 1960s, I believe, in which Radagast was also mentioned.

How do you approach a role like this in terms of preparation?

[laughs] I work instinctively really; I'm not 'method' that way. Any actor worth his salt uses all sorts of methods and means to get to the character. But really I just try and learn the lines and not bump into the monsters.

The bird-loving Radagast from Tolkien's Middle EarthDo you feel these films can provide something special for Tolkien fans by giving extra background and coverage of characters like Radagast, who we don't get to see as much of in the book?

Absolutely. It's very exciting in that way. Having seen Lord Of The Rings, it's an astonishing piece of work. How do they do it? To concentrate for years in putting it together - the energy and concentration and commitment. It's extraordinary, isn't it? Three huge epic films. I just look forward to being part of that. There are some great British actors involved, as well as Cate Blanchett, who I'm madly in love with! [laughs]

Will we be able to recognise you in the role?

I hope so, yes!

It's not something that involves motion capture or heavy prosthetic make-up?

Not as far as I know.

Are you a fan of working with special effects? You're fairly used to it by now, I should imagine...

Yes, I am. Funny enough, I was doing some stuff like that yesterday. Working with a green screen background, I had to recreate the inside of the TARDIS - and it wasn't there [laughs]. Good fun, and all very silly!

What was the project?

Sylvester McCoy as The Doctor, 1987-89Ian Levine's putting together a piece of work that didn't get completed over the years, and I was there as The Doctor to kind of 'Doctor Who' them up. There are pieces that have been done too for The Brigadier and The Master that were never quite completed, so that work will make them a rounded whole. Also there's the 30th anniversary show of Doctor Who that was never made, and we're going to do a cartoon version of that. I was doing my role in that as well.

...there were a couple of projects that we were doing. One was actually filming to beef up a piece that's already been done, and the other was recording voices with camera so they can do a lip-sync for the cartoon.

So the reconstruction of the TARDIS is for a disc release?

Yes.

Can I ask which story that is?

There are a few...Downtime - that's one that's got a lot of dialogue. The [inaudible] Vortex - much shorter. Search Out Space; and Destiny Of The Doctors...also some audio lines for Dark Dimension.

Is playing The Doctor a kind of enjoyable life-sentence?

Yes, it's a great life-sentence. I enjoy it immensely. It's a great role and it's great to go back to it, and it allows me to go off and do lots of other things - as you know! [singing] I'm going to be a wizard...a wonderful wizard near Oz...

Sylvester McCoy, loving the spoonfulYou can't seem to escape playing the spoons, as with Doctor Who and King Lear. Is it usually your idea?

I've always loved music. Trying to get the spoons in...actually, I didn't volunteer the spoons for Doctor Who. There was a party afterwards when we were filming in Devon; I played the spoons at the party and [John Nathan-Turner] said 'My God, we've got to get that in Doctor Who! [laughs] It's also based on W.C. Fields. Whenever he did any filming, it was in his contract that he had to do juggling, because he started off as a juggler in Vaudeville before going on to become a great writer and comic genius. When he had to play Mr Micawber in David Copperfield he said [doing first-rate impersonation] 'Where's the juggling sceeene?'. The director said 'Dickens didn't write a juggling scene' and Fields said 'Well he has nooww'. [laughs] 'It's in my contract!'.

But that inspired me, so I actually played the spoons in The Mikado as the Emperor of Japan; I played the spoons in King Lear...I try to get them in everywhere.

What about doing it in The Hobbit?

I haven't quite had the courage yet [laughs]. I'll wait until I'm hanging out with them and we're old buddies, at a party - and I'll see if I can get it in.

Do you think Doctor Who's criticism of the establishment now is as strong as when you played The Doctor?

Ah - I'm not sure, really. I've only seen bits of the [new] Doctors. I have tuned in, not out of a sense of duty but curiosity...I thought the Christopher Ecclestone ones seemed a bit anti-establishment.

Do you think the show's anti-establishment stance was any contributing factor to the demise of Doctor Who in 1989?

I don't think it was. I don't think we could ever really go far enough [laughs] in criticising the establishment. I think it was more to do with the stupidity and vanity of the people involved, because they wanted to create their own work and they needed our slot. They just wanted to get rid of it because it had been there forever. No imagination: 'That's been there forever, let's get rid of that - then we can bring in El Dorado'.

Sylvester McCoy and Paul McGann recording 'The Minister Of Chance'What do you think of the idea of revenue-driven productions like Minister Of Chance?

I think it's very exciting, don't you? Also it takes away middle-men and lots of other things, and the creative artist can be a lot nearer to the final show. I have my fingers crossed that it will excite other people and they'll download it. I don't know quite how to do that myself, of course [laughs].

What other projects do you have coming up besides The Hobbit?

Someone wants me to do something at the Edinburgh Festival. I always love doing the Edinburgh Festival, so we're chatting about that at the moment. It's all very early for that, playing Arthur Scargill...

And then there's playing Lichtenstein - but even on that, I haven't been able to read the script yet, but that's something for the next couple of weeks, before I go down under. It's been very difficult to tie anything down for the rest of the year because of the uncertainty that's surrounded The Hobbit for the last year or so. I've had to turn down work which in the end I could have done last summer, and then it looked as though we were going to have to go out in November, December...

But that's show-business. It's always happening that way, so that you never really know what's coming up. I've kept most of the future free because I want to concentrate on The Hobbit.

So it's pretty much a constant gamble with projects that are in the air...?

Absolutely. It's always like that. I remember someone saying he was sad because Doctor Who was taken off the air - but I'm an actor; I'm used to that. You do stuff, and sometimes you're continuously promised Lear and end up with just a little handful of it...

Many thanks to Sylvester McCoy for taking the time to chat with us, and also to Robert Meiklejohn, Gabriel Ruzin and John Bensalhia for their input.

The Minister of Chance Official Website

See also John Bensahlia's review of Sylvester McCoy's Doctor Who debut:

Doctor Who complete reviews: Time And The Rani

and Shadowlocked's interview with another Minister of Chance actor, Gethin Anthony:

Interview: Gethin Anthony talks Game of Thrones, Minister of Chance


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