The Eleventh Doctor has landed in a wild new place in space and time: The early 19th Century England of author Jane Austen… if Austen had envisioned that world in the midst of an undead apocalypse.
In “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” Lionsgate’s film adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith’s zombified take on Austen’s classic, actor Matt Smith has a wryly comic turn as Parson Collins, the insufferably unsuitable suitor trying vainly to win the affections of Elizabeth Bennett (Lily Collins). Only this time, the plucky heroine and her sisters — in this incarnation well-versed in combat — help fend off a zombie invasion of the wealthy countryside outside of London.
Smith who walks off with just about every scene he appears in the wildly entertaining mashup of two disparate but equally revered genres, sat down with Spinoff Online to discuss playing the one guy who hasn’t mastered the art of the zombie takedown in the Burr Steers-directed film. The actor also discusses the varying delights of Austen and the undead, his intriguing turn as the England’s royal consort Prince Phillip in Netflix’s “The Crown, and what his stint on “Doctor Who” still means to him today.
Spinoff Online: Parson Collins is a part that, even in regular “Pride and Prejudice” without zombies — is a great actor’s holiday kind of part. Would you agree?
Matt Smith: Yeah, I think it’s a nice part. I think it’s an interesting part to play. There’s a lot in there that you can get a hold of.
What did the zombie element add to it for you? What made it even more fun, in this context?
I think it allows you to make broader brush strokes as an actor somehow, because the stakes are slightly heightened. For someone like Parson Collins, that allows him somehow to be — I mean, he’s not really good at zombies. So you’ve got something to play there. It makes him slightly paranoid and untrusting of the world. I think somewhere between that amalgamation of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” there lies an interesting comic line.
What’s fun about the tone and approach that you guys took with this is the characters are very faithful to the original characters. It’s just that they’re just dropped into a different context, the zombie apocalypse. There’s no winking at the audience, and you also get wrapped up in the characters.
And the love story, because that’s got to be real. We’ve got to invest in Liz and Darcy, and Bingley and Jane, and we’ve got to root for them and want them to be together. Burr [Steers] was very clear about that. He was very clear about there not being any winks and nudges and it feeling like a genuine retelling of “Pride and Prejudice,” but with zombies.
So given that you got a little room to play and invent and add, tell me about finding out how far you could go without going too far?
Hopefully as an actor you always try to touch the ceiling or push the walls or push the boundaries, or whatever it is. And I’m always trying to do that, really. So you throw a few things at the wall, you see what sticks. You throw things out there. I tried to do a lot of improvising and stuff like that. Yeah, just push the form as much as you can, but whilst respecting the fact that it’s got to feel truthful. Yeah. Hopefully, that is what I tried to do.
You get to work with people that are friends and that you’re close to.
Yeah. It was, actually, a big part of the draw.
Was it an instant “yes” just based on that? Or did you have to give the material a good looking over?
Of course, yeah. You always have to look at the material and read the script. But the fact that I had so many friends in the movie, and also I respect the actors in the movie hugely. I think there’s some really exciting young talent in there. People that will go on to have wonderful careers. So I thought there was a good energy about it, I suppose.
Did you have an prior affinity for either the Jane Austen source material or for the zombie genre?
I’ve always kind of liked zombies. Lesser the Jane Austen stuff. I’ve always kind of been into zombie movies. I think “28 Days Later” is the seminal zombie work, as it were. Obviously, this is a slightly different tone to that movie. Yeah. Sadly, I didn’t get to fight many zombies in this one.
That was probably a little bit of the fun too, though, is be able to watch everybody else fight the zombies while you duck out of frame.
Yeah, yeah. The girls are really sexy and kick ass. I think that’s, again, that’s a cool element to the film.
Did this apply at all to any sort of career strategy? You launched with this great platform of “Doctor Who,” where a lot of people became fans of yours, and now you’re getting to do other material. Was this a career-building move here, or was this just a fun job?
Yeah, it was a fun job, I think. I haven’t got any great strategy, really. I just try and base it on what is the interesting part and what I think will be the best challenge. With this, I thought there was a challenge in it and I had an idea about the character that I thought could work. So I sort of ran with it, really.
Every time you get a TV role where you play it over an extended period of time, there’s a risk of getting stuck in only being offered very similar kinds of things. How has your experience been? Especially something as iconic as “Doctor Who.” What’s been your experience been since then as far as the kinds of projects that are coming your way?
Well, I think “Doctor Who” is always going to sit in your ether for a bit, as it were. It’s something I’m very proud of as well. It’s not like I’m trying to actively shed that. Also, I just think you’ve got to choose things that challenge you in a completely different way, and hopefully The Doctor and Parson feel different. Also, I think going back to theater is quite a good choice to really just get better as an actor.
I mean, I’m playing Prince Philip at the moment, who’s very different to The Doctor as well. So it’s just about choosing work that feels like it’s going to challenge you in a different way. And it has a slightly different form to it, I suppose. But you can’t get too held up in over-considering these things. I think you’ve just got to take what you’re going to want to live in at the end of the day. You know what I mean?
You’re playing Prince Phillip in Netflix’s “The Crown,” which sounds like a really fascinating project to be involved in. What kind of research and preparation did you have to do in order to play a living person, or a famous living person?
A very famous living person — that we don’t know that much about, either. That’s what’s really interesting about him. Well, I read a lot and I talked to a couple of his former aids and equerries and stuff. He’s got a fascinating life, Philip. I mean, his mother was sort of estranged, committed at one point. His father went off to Monaco with another woman and didn’t really get involved with him. He was sent off to boarding school in Scotland. His sister died in a plane crash, and he still went to fly planes as a young adult.
Actually, when you think the whole of his life has been spent walking two paces behind his wife, and that’s what the series sort of investigates in many ways. Some wonderful actors, great writing, fantastic directors, so things cross really good.
Is it of a piece with “The Queen” in a sense, also coming from writer Peter Morgan?
Yeah, yeah. I mean, it bears lots of similarities to that, I suppose, in many ways, because it is about the Queen. It’s about her coronation and her ascent. But I think when it’s really interesting and when it really works for me is when you peel behind the masks and you get to glimpse these people as human beings, which is what we all want to do. We want to see the human side of them. I think Peter’s done well at revealing that.
Tell me a little bit about “Patient Zero,” which sounds like a…
It’s another zombie movie! [Laughs]
Not too far from this one, but not as funny–
Not as funny. It’s a different, again, it’s a different spin. I got to play an American and I guess play more of an action-based role, which was again, like I said, it’s just about trying to find work that challenges you in different ways. That represented another challenge.
What was the fun for you in doing the American accent?
Yeah. I’ve done it on stage a couple of times, and I did it in a movie called “Lost River.” I like doing accents. I think it’s quite an interesting starting point for a character.
You show a great facility for humor in this movie. Do you want to do more full-on comedy?
Yeah, I would. I love comedy. Hopefully it’s funny in this movie. I never sort of set out for it to be a comedic role, as it were. I thought it could always be, I guess I suppose in many ways he’s sort of the fop of the piece, isn’t he somehow? He’s sort of the clown. I guess I’m quite interested in the clowns and the aliens and the outsiders. Parson Collins is very much an outsider in that world. He doesn’t know where he fits in, which made him appealing to play.
The basic “Pride and Prejudice” story, it seems, does work in just about any context. Do you have an understanding of why it works so well?
I think there’s a timelessness to the love story, and a universality to it. Structurally, I think it’s well-crafted. So those things, a bit like Shakespeare, allow for reinvention because the foundations and the baseline are good and strong. It’s a strong story. And it’s a good love story well-told. And I think the period is quite an interesting period to look back on: the manners, the etiquette, the laws of the world. So yeah, I think that sort of finds a good foundation for a story to be retold.
We just learned that Paramount has taken a planned “Terminator” sequel off its release schedule and has yet to commit to another date. Is that something you were hoping to return to? Is that a role that they even told you there were plans to expand upon?
Yeah. I mean, I didn’t really know what the plans were for the next movie or the next couple of movies. To be honest, I don’t know much about it at the moment. I’ve just now there and then. So it’s not something that I’m up to speed on really. So I have to investigate it a bit more. Who knows? I think there’s certainly the potential for it to come back around.
What’s it been like for you, largely from your “Doctor Who” experience, to have fans who want to follow you from project to project, probably for the rest of your career? There’s always going to be an interest from a certain fanbase.
One hopes so. Yeah. I mean, the “Doctor Who” fans, I owe a great debt to. They’re wonderfully loyal, incredibly supportive. I’m just very proud to have been part of that show. It’s a fantastic part. And again, a bit like Parson Collins or even Hamlet or something, it’s a part that has been played before, but allows you to reinvent, if you can be inventive with it. So I’m forever grateful to the world of “Doctor Who.”
“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” is in theaters now.