Imagine if a Time Lord and Skyler White teamed to solve a young boy’s murder in a small Northern California town? That’s what it’s like for fans of Doctor Who and Breaking Bad approaching Fox’s Gracepoint, which takes David Tennant and Anna Gunn, beloved for playing for iconic cable TV roles, and puts them into a big broadcast prime-time crime series. For Tennant, the role means embracing the unusual, perhaps unprecedented, step of reprising the same character he played in Broadchuch, the U.K. version of the show (though Fox has added a different ending for Gracepoint). For Gunn, it means leaving behind an Emmy-winning performance of a tightly-wound character that was both career-making and fan-divisive. Below the actors take our questions about Gracepoint, which debuts on Fox on Oct. 2.
EW: Let’s start before Broadchurch. What was each of your all-time favorite mystery show?
ANNA GUNN: We always said Cagney & Lacey was our inspiration. That was something that made us laugh nonstop, not because this is like Cagney & Lacey, though we could be a team like that—
DAVID TENNANT: And I’m playing Tyne Daly.
GUNN: Yeah, I’m the blonde and you’re the brunette. So that’s my ridiculous answer.
TENNANT: I’d go with Murder One. That was such a novelty because it was one story told over a number of episodes, like Gracepoint.
GUNN: That was great.
Is there anything you see actors doing in detective shows that you tried to avoid?
GUNN: I interviewed a couple different people and went on a ride-along. They pointed out clichéd things on TV shows, and I think the major thing for me was that so much of being a good detective is watching and listening very carefully and less about putting overt pressure on a suspect. It’s not really the way that’s done in the real world. So much of it was really about watching and listening and being an observer rather than cliché about the hard-boiled detective strong-arming anybody.
TENNANT: Because the story is as much an emotional story as it is a procedural story, and as much about people as murder, hopefully you avoid cliché by being true to that emotional life.
Anna, had you seen the original before you started on Gracepoint?
GUNN: I saw the original and was just head over heels for it. It was brilliant. I know that some of the actors did not watch it because they didn’t necessarily want to be influenced, and was a little worried about having somebody else’s brilliant performance hanging in your head. But in this case [Broadchurch co-star] Olivia Colman and I are so different from each other and I thought it would serve me to watch it. Plus I was just intrigued and I’m really glad I did watch it because its a good show and just watching the choices she made was very helpful for me. It informed a lot of the things I ended up doing.
Coming off Breaking Bad, Anna, I’m sure you had plenty of options. Why this role?
GUNN: It was everything I wanted after playing a character like Skyler, who is fairly buttoned-up and wound rather tightly. I was delighted to see this whole human being with a lot of different colors to her. She’s tough and she knows she’s good at her job, but she’s also got vulnerability and some insecurity about whether she’s doing things correctly.
David, was there a sense of déjà vu doing this a second time?
TENNANT: I don’t think it was as much as everyone expected. Actors are used to repeating things. On stage you do it eight times a week. Telling the same story is not foreign to us, and this didn’t even feel like that because you’re telling it with different people and telling—at times—a different story. [The roles] felt very different in my bones.
This is such a serious drama. How do you combat that on set?
TENNANT: It was a continual Cagney & Lacey meme. It probably drove everybody else mad, but we found it hilarious.
GUNN: I know and I still do.
TENNANT: I’ve probably got about 20 photographs on my phone of us pointing guns in a Cagney & Lacey manner.
Since the endings are different, how does the quality of the Gracepoint ending compare to Broadchurch’s?
TENNANT: It would be odious to compare. What they have is a very different note, which is thrilling for me. I feel like I’m almost saying too much just saying that. There’s a real thrill to come.
GUNN: They’re both equally wonderful and thrilling and will take the audience on a journey that’s equally true. It just means the writing is so good, they take you off on a different path, but it’s got—frankly, I feel both have equal emotional impact.
TENNANT: It’s hard to form a sentence that doesn’t give something away.
GUNN: They’re both equally as truthful and engaging and compelling.
TENNANT: And surprising, I think.
GUNN: Equally surprising.
Anna did you give David any American accent tips?
GUNN: No! When you’re in a scene with somebody you’re not paying attention to that, you’re paying attention to the human being sitting across from you—and his accent’s good.
What did each of you find most impressive about the other person’s performance?
TENNANT: For me it’s that I never felt for a second this was somewhere I’d been before. Objectively some of the lines are the same, but Anna has such a different energy and clarity as a performer I never felt like these were scenes that were familiar to me, they felt fresh and new—and that’s a credit to her.
GUNN: Oh, thank you. I think I was just impressed with how we were very present with each other all the time. It’s great when you know you have a scene partner you can throw things at each other in different ways and you know they can receive the ball and throw it back a different way. I think we had such a sense of fun with each other that it felt playful and joyful to do that kind of acting even though its a serious story. You couldn’t ask for anything more as an actor.
I know you can’t give away exact spoilers, but was most challenging scene you shot?
GUNN: Ohhhhh, I don’t know if I can say. The most challenging, hm, a couple of them come in the second to last, or even last, episode.
TENNANT: It builds to a sharp end, this story. The most rewarding [acting] moments are at the end. That’s true for both of us.
Anna, there’s talk you could return as Skyler in the spin-off Better Call Saul. Which part of Skyler’s story would you most want to visit?
GUNN: Well it’s a prequel, so it’s before Saul meets Skyler. Anything could happen, since [executive producer] Vince Gilligan is a genius. But I don’t believe she’s met him before. Maybe she got into a fender bender, so she could only afford that kind of lawyer.
Speaking of old roles, Peter Capaldi told us he sometimes texts you, David, for advice on Doctor Who. What advice have you offered?
TENNANT: He needs no advice from a whipper-snapper like me. All we’ve done is compare experiences. It’s an unusual show to be part of—it comes with a lot of attention, most of which is lovely, some of which is overwhelming. I’ve been a witness group for him. He’s a brilliant actor and I’m very excited to see him in that part.
If a third country asks you to star in their version of Broadchurch, would you do it?
TENNANT: [Laughs] The trouble is, my French isn’t that good.
TENNANT: But I’m taking Icelandic lessons, so fingers crossed