“No damsels in distress! No pretty castles! No such thing as Robin Hood!”
So says Peter Capaldi’s know-it-all Time Lord in the trailer for Saturday’s episode of Doctor Who, “Robot of Sherwood.” So how come Da Vinci’s Demons star Tom Riley is playing the British legend in the show? In truth, we didn’t bother asking the actor that spoiler-ific question when EW jumped on the phone with him and episode-writer Mark Gatiss earlier this week. But there were plenty of other matters to discuss, from the apparently fiercesome swordfighting skills of guest star Ben Miller, to Gatiss’ quite possibly mistaken belief that his part as an envoy of the Iron Bank on Game of Thrones will prevent his character from meeting an untimely demise. Check out our powwow with the rambunctious pair below.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What can you tell us about “Robot of Sherwood”?
MARK GATISS: Ah, well, it’s the Doctor meets Robin Hood. That’s the most straightforward pitch there’s ever been, really! Steven (Moffat, Doctor Who executive producer) said to me, “Would you do Robin Hood?” And I thought, “Yes!” I’ve always been a huge fan of the Errol Flynn film (1938’s Michael Curtiz-directed The Adventures of Robin Hood), one of the greatest films I think ever made. But I’ve never been much of a fan of any TV series. I think it’s a film idea. I think it runs out of steam in a series. So the idea of doing a kind of potted version for Doctor Who seemed ideal, really.
I had an initial concern because it’s sort of like a celebrity historical, except of course Robin Hood didn’t exist. So it’s slightly different territory for Doctor Who. But then the whole point of it really is that Clara says, “There’s someone I’ve always wanted to meet” and the Doctor says, “There’s no such thing as Robin Hood.” And then, when the arrive, it’s practically the Errol Flynn movie. So that was the central conceit.
TOM RILEY: As Mark says, it’s interesting that when they show up, they’re straight in the middle of an Errol Flynn movie. On the page, [the character] had that feel of that traditional, heroic element. He’s almost too good to be true.
And are you too good to be true?
RILEY: Am I too good to be true? I’ll leave that to Mark. Mark?
GATISS: He’s far too good-looking, and far too nice, and far too talented. So, yes he is. My one proviso before I embarked on it, I said, “I will not do a drab Robin Hood.” I find it so depressing when people try to make it realistic. Robin Hood is a great fairytale and that’s what we tried to do with this. It’s amazingly sun-drenched. Even when I was writing the words on the page I thought, Christ this is a ridiculous hostage to fortune, it’s bound to rain. But it didn’t! It was glorious.
Well, you filmed in Wales and, speaking as a Welshman myself, obviously its famous for it’s warm weather and sunshine.
GATISS: When did you fall through the looking glass, Clark?
Tom, tell me about the audition.
RILEY: Well it was actually — you don’t know this, Mark — but I was offered the role straight-out, which was a lovely surprise, and the email came through while I was watching Mark in Coriolanus at the Donmar. Brilliant, bizarre timing.
GATISS: Did you take the call?
RILEY: I took the call from the front row!
GATISS: I wondered what that pinging noise was…
RILEY: [Laughs] I didn’t pick it up until after. It was a strange coincidence. It was just lovely to be thought of for something like this. When things to come through as direct — “We thought you’d be great for this!” — you don’t assume it’s going to be such a great part, a fantastic role, and obviously one with so much fantastical baggage. It was a treat. It does mean a lot to me. I’ve been saying to Mark forever, “Why haven’t I been on Doctor Who yet?” But I never expected, when I was, that it would be someone so iconic.
How did you two meet in the first place?
GATISS: We were married once.
RILEY: That ended horribly.
GATISS: We met doing Poirot (the David Suchet-starring detective show) in Morocco in…2008?
RILEY: Yeah. We were out in the middle of the desert.
GATISS: And neither of us were the killer, so we bonded over that. I have this wonderful picture of Tom. His shoes were too big, so had to wear two pairs of socks…
RILEY: [Laughs uproariously]
GATISS: We called him “The Cankles,” didn’t we? I’ve got this brilliant picture of him flicking the v’s at me as I’m taking a picture of his enormously fat, old man ankles.
RILEY: [Laughs] My grotesque ankles!
GATISS: Yes. And it was at that point I thought, One day he must play Robin Hood for me!
Tom, what was the most memorable moment of the shoot?
RILEY: Probably Ben Miller’s ferocious sword-fighting style will stay with me forever. The fear! Fearing for my life!
GATISS: I think Ben took a bit of you away with him, didn’t he?
RILEY: Yeah, he did a bit. But, honestly, I’ll probably take away the laughter from the job. There was lots of it, onscreen and off.
Mark, how different is it writing for Peter Capaldi than it was writing for, say, Matt Smith?
GATISS: I’ve written for all four of the modern Doctors and it’s essentially the same process. As (Doctor Who writer) Terrance Dicks once said, “The Doctor is always the Doctor.” You just obviously have to have a go at what you think the new one will be like. I know Peter a bit, so I knew what he wanted to bring to it. But at the same time you can’t really tell until you start getting the speech patterns and you start seeing bits of footage. To be utterly frank, because I knew that he wanted to do it in a gruffer and less human way, essentially the first draft of “Robot of Sherwood” was like a season 16 Tom Baker story. As soon as you start writing the Doctor as less human, and more grand, and slightly more abrasive, Tom is what comes into your head. So that’s how it started and then obviously I brought in much more of Peter as I went along and I was sent footage from episode 1 and stuff like that.
Tom, where are you at with Da Vinci’s Demons at the moment?
RILEY: Right in the middle. I’m in Swansea and I just finished a monster day, in more ways than one. But it’s fantastic. We’ve got a new showrunner for the third season, John Shiban, who [worked on] the middle few seasons of Breaking Bad. So the show’s kind of shifted away from what it was before into something new. But, yeah, we’re right in the middle of it. It’s deep! I can’t see the end yet!
I believe you are also in a film adaptation of my favorite British novel of the past few years, the American Psycho-meets-Britpop Kill Your Friends.
RILEY: I am! Yeah. I got a text from one of the cast just this second saying that they’d come out of ADR and it’s fantastic.
What can you tell us about your character?
RILEY: I’m Parker-Hall. He’s kind of the nemesis of the hero [but] the villain of the piece is the hero. We kind of face off against each other. I haven’t seen it yet. Hopefully, it’s going to be brilliant. It certainly felt like it was going to be on set.
GATISS: Are there any monsters in it?
RILEY: Only the ones I wrestle with in my soul.
GATISS: I’ve lost interest. Is Doctor Who in it?
GATISS: Not interested.
Mark, what’s the word with your other show, Sherlock?
GATISS: Steven and I are writing the special at the moment, which we’re shooting in January. Then we’re doing three more towards the end of next year. So there will be four in total! Which is a world record. But we don’t know when they’ll be on.
A lot of people in here will know you from your role in Game of Thrones as an envoy of the Iron Bank. Can I borrow twenty pounds off you? I am absolutely good for it!
GATISS: Well, you’re very welcome to, but you know there are terrible penalties if you don’t pay it back on time. The Iron Bank always gets its money back! The thing I’m most confident about is that I may have a good chance of surviving until the end of the series. Because bankers are like cockroaches. I shouldn’t say that. They’ll kill me within five seconds now.
RILEY: Yeah, you’ll be throwing yourself off the top of the castle after the great Westeros Wall Street Crash!
GATISS: I hadn’t thought of that.
“Robot of Sherwood” screens on BBC America. You can watch the episode’s trailer below.