Talking with David Tennant and Anna Gunn on the set of FOX’s ‘Gracepoint’

VICTORIA, BRITISH COLUMBIA. This past spring, my tour of Fake American Police Precincts took me from Bemidji, Minnesota in Calgary for FX's “Fargo” to Gracepoint, California in Victoria, BC for FOX's “Gracepoint.”

After avoiding incarceration in Bemidji, I find myself with two other reporters, a publicist and at least three or four hair-and-makeup professionals in Gracepoint's not-uncomfortable lock-up.

Once they have us behind bars, there's a very real chance that one of us will turn out to be the murderer in “Gracepoint,” since a consistent refrain from the entire cast is that none of them know know whodunnit and the person behind the death of young Danny Solano won't be the same character who killed Danny Latimer in the original “Broadchurch.”

It's early May on the “Gracepoint” set and they're finishing up paired production on episodes seven and eight and moving on to the climactic ninth and 10th episodes, but nobody has seen a script for those last episodes and nobody is admitting to outside knowledge.

While the Gracepoint PD holding cell is impeccably clean, it's also dark and gloomy, especially relative to the squad room, which is light and airy with high windows looking out onto the Sidney harbor. Gracepoint is supposed to be a small town, but the precinct is surprisingly upscale, with flatscreen TV monitors hanging in high-tech contrast to the dry erase boards clutter with potential suspects in the Solano murder. I'm not spoiling anything when I reveal that even though the episode takes place late in the season, you could fill a much smaller dry board — One of those “While You Were Out…” boards from college dorm rooms — with the people who aren't suspects at this point.

In the scene, David Tennant's Emmett Carver (He's Alec Hardy in “Broadchurch”) is expressing great exasperation with Anna Gunn's Ellie Miller (name unchanged from “Broadchurch”) about the usual conflicts that keep making it hard for them to solve this murder in a small town. Take after take, Tennant works himself into high dudgeon in an American accent that you can't immediately geo-locate based on a sentence or two. Carver suggests that Ellie is positioning himself to take her job, she strongly disagrees. Repeated. The case is getting to Carver. He's looking haggard. “Broadchurch” viewers might suspect health issues.

And after the completion of every scene, Tennant's energy level instantly rises and he and Gunn are cracking jokes with each other and the crew, many sporting hoodies from previous affiliations with shows like “The Killing” and “Spooksville.” The regionally non-specific American accent vanishes and the “Doctor Who” star returns to his native Scottish brogue. [Are all Scottish accents inherently “brogues”? Tennant's natural tones lack the roughness one associates with the word.]

After nonstop rain the day before, the sun has come out on Vancouver Island and Tennant is in fine form, even wandering by to mock the trio of journalists sitting in our mock hoosegow. 

He pauses.

“To be honest, you could probably break out. It's only made of balsa,” Tennant cracks, gently rapping on the bars of the cell.

Tennant can be light-hearted with us because he knows he's off-the-hook, conversationally. While we got 1:1 time with most of the “Gracepoint” cast — stay tuned over the next few weeks for interviews with Michael Peña, Victoria Kull, Kevin Rankin, Jacki Weaver, Jessica Lucas, Kevin Zegers, Josh Hamilton and more — Tennant and Gunn have to carry the bulk of “Gracepoint,” so they're only able to chat with the press en masse, one-on-three, as it were.

We'd chatted with Tennant a day earlier after he put in a lengthy day dedicated to promotion by the shore at Island View Beach Regional Park. In-between drizzle, rain and genuine downpours, the supporting actors were scurrying between the beach for a gallery photo shoot and a drippy press tent equipped with several heat-lamps. Gunn and Tennant photo responsibilities, plus EPK interviews at a secretive second location.

Waiting for Tennant that day became an article of faith, knowing his list of additional responsibilities, plus the emotional toll of shuffling around through the inclement weather all day. The photo crew, which included a drone mounted with a camera, came and went. Craft service came and went. One corner of the press tent caved in from the rain. 

As evening approached, though, Tennant showed up giving no indication of fatigue and ready to face the easily anticipatable questions about why he was drawn to essentially reprise his “Broadchurch” role in “Gracepoint.”

“I've had a couple of sorta close brushes with American television in recent years, things that nearly happened, things that were about to happen and didn't, things that could have happened,” Tennant admitted. And then this arrived, slightly from left field because, as you say, it was something that I was already very associated with, with 'Broadchurch.' But here was something, they weren't gonna make a pilot. They were gonna go straight and make a series. It was going to be executive produced by two people that I knew and trusted very dearly. It was a story that I knew worked. There were very few negatives, really. It felt like this was the thing to get involved with. Also, it was unprecedented. Certainly personally it was unprecedented. I didn't know of this happening a lot, so I thought, 'Well that's got to be a novelty.'”

He concluded, “It just felt like it was such an unusual opportunity and yet it had so many positives attached to it that it was something of a no-brainer in the end, I guess.”

At that point, we hadn't actually seen Tennant shoot anything other than stills and we hadn't heard Tennant's American accent yet, though many of the actors in our respective interviews had spoken of it admiringly. And as I already noted, Tennant isn't wedded to the accent when the camera isn't rolling. This wasn't like my interview with Martin Freeman at the Bemidji PD, where he stuck to his Minnesota accent throughout. 

“Obviously it's a very keen point of concentration when you come to do something like this. You want to get it right because you're having to fool the natives, I suppose,” Tennant said in cheerful Scottish tones. “It's something I had done before, so I wasn't coming to it fresh. I've worked with dialect coaches on accents before now, so I suppose I was familiar with the process. Ultimately, it's not really for me to judge, but I quite enjoy getting to work in different accents, because it somehow makes you feel like a different person. It makes you wear your clothes differently. It makes you walk differently somehow. It infects your being, sounding in different way, and that's the same when I use an English accent or a Welsh accent or whatever else you might do. It's a challenge, but it's something I quite relish, I think.”

Tennant may not be Method enough to remain in Mid-Atlantic American Accent all day, but immersion in the Victoria environs has had an unexpected side effect.

“What's getting difficult, and I didn't think this would happen, is as we get to the end of the shoot, the dialect coach is starting to come up and give me notes that I'm sounding too Canadian,” Tennant laughs. “I don't sound Scottish on set anymore, but just some of my 'abouts' and my 'beens' are all going a bit wrong. I figure I've clearly sorta crossed the Rubicon and I've got a new set of issues.”

As we're on the set, Tennant is in an interesting space, professionally. He's doing an American remake/reboot/update/adaptation of “Broadchurch” and as soon as he finishes production on “Gracepoint,” he'll be heading back Across the Pond to do a second series of “Broadchurch.” So while he knows that Carver and Hardy are very similar, he's prepared with his answer for how they're different, much of it relating to the tradeoff of Olivia Colman for “Breaking Bad” Emmy winner Gunn.

“He is recognizably the same guy, although he has a different name and although he's obviously from a different place. He has many of the same problems, both practical and psychological. So yes, he's prickly, but of course that very central relationship with him and Ellie Miller is so influenced by who you're playing opposition,” Tennant said. “It's a different flavor of prickliness because Anna's a very different actress to Olivia and that's been fascinating to see how that, how reacting to a very different type of partner, takes you off, again, in slightly different directions.”

Asked to compare the Colman and Gunn approaches — not the quality of the approaches — Tennant predictable demurred. 

“It's not for me to be too judgmental, is it, about how they choose to portray Ellie, but it's fascinating because they're very different and yet equally persuasive readings of the characters,” he said. “I've been wondering a lot about that, how much of that is cultural and how much is just to do with the actresses themselves. It's great for me, because it means that the stepping off point is so different.”

And Tennant was also enjoying his last days of not knowing whodunnit, or at least theoretically not knowing.

“Danny [Futterman] and Anya [Epstein] have promised that we're not moving towards exactly the same ending as we did on 'Broadchurch.' They could be lying. It could be a double-bluff, which is why I slightly watched what I said there in case this comes out in six months time and I look like I'm trying to delude an audience,” Tennant said. “I genuinely am in the dark. As I sit here today, I'm in the dark. We start shooting episodes nine and ten tomorrow, but Episode 10, I still don't have a script for.”

Of his own suspicions, he noted, “I'm basing my theories as much on backstage hints as I am on scriptual hints, I suppose. So I'd have to go away and practice my objectivity to know entirely how to answer that question. And also I don't want to give anything away by saying something I shouldn't, so I think I might plead the Fifth on this.”

Plead the Fifth? I guess we don't have to worry about Tennant becoming convincingly American.

[The conversation with Anna Gunn is on Page 2…]

So, like I said, Tennant was able to stop by our cell at the Gracepoint Police Department to kid around without worrying about going on the record.

Gunn, however, catches up with us for a full interview in, appropriately an interrogation room.

Our first question for Gunn is about the relaxed atmosphere between takes and the importance of finding humor between scenes that weigh heavily with tragedy.

“I think it's really important and it's something that Bryan [Cranston] and I shared as well on 'Breaking Bad' and I think both David and I were really relieved the first day on set when we met each other,” she says. “I know for him it must have been so odd coming from already having done one incarnation of the show with somebody as wonderful as Olivia and then coming over and wondering what his new person, his new cohort, was going to be like. And we pretty immediately had a really good rapport and that's so important, I think, because when you're doing something that is so gritty and dark and has that kind of steady, that really they have an imperative, both of them. They come from two different places to get there, but they both have the same imperative to solve this crime and it's the drumbeat behind the entire thing. So if you can't release that, though, in-between takes, it's just… Boy, is that tough to maintain over months and months. And I think it actually breathes good life into the element that I'm talking about, actually, if you have the other part of it. So we are a little bit of a goofy comedy duo when the cameras are not rolling. And probably even when they are sometimes. So there'll be some good outtakes.”

She adds, “We enjoy doing our Cagney and Lacey. He likes to be Lacey. He's taken Lacey, so there you go.”

We reassure her that she's just given us the ledes for our pieces.

Through the aforementioned interviews with the cast, a repeated question that we all inevitably asked was what their approach had been to “Broadchurch.” Had they been fans? Did they skip it entirely? Did they watch an episode or two?

Gunn falls into the “Watched the whole thing” camp.

“I did. I couldn't help it,” she laughs. “I know that quite a few of the other cast members didn't watch it, because they didn't want to be influenced or they didn't want to feel like they were gonna maybe mimick or have to imitate or live up to somebody else's performance. For me, I found it tremendously helpful, actually, to watch it, because I tried to pull out of it and watch it more from a storytelling perspective and to get the flavor of what they were doing. And also, I found so many clues in the character from what Olivia Colman was was doing. And we're very different people and so I really felt like she's one person and I'm a very different person and there's just no way I'm going to be able to do what she does and she's brilliant at what she does, but I'm just inherently a different human being. But I did find the essence of what she did, the essence of what she created in that human being, so helpful and so useful to me. And I've gone back, actually, and watched it.”

Tennant compared his return engagement in this story to doing multiple productions of the same play and Gunn also makes a theatrical reference.

“I think it's because I was part of a theater company where we had double-casting, so you had to do that. You would rehearse a scene and then step away and let the other person get on-stage and do it. So I learned to not be as possessive, maybe, of a character,” she says.

Not surprisingly, Gunn is impressed with this interesting experiment that Tennant is doing.

“He's created an entirely new character, which I think is an incredible thing,” she says. “Again, there's pieces and elements, certainly, that are absolutely very similar, but it's an entirely new person with new crevasses and new cracks and a new rhythm — It's really, really interesting — and a new sense of humor and tone and crackle and all sorts of things that I didn't expect, so it's really, really interesting to watch that come alive.”

This, of course, made me ask the most important question: If a Scottish TV network (or, I suppose, a British TV network) wanted to do a native version of “Breaking Bad,” would she want to play Skylar again, only with a different accent.

“I would do a terrible Scottish accent. He does a much better American accent than I would a Scottish accent. Scottish accents are very hard to do. So No.1, that would be very challenging. But yes, I do see the allure,” she laughs. “I do. I think it would be incredibly interesting to try, because it's not a remake. It's a new incarnation and it's being told and brought about and brought to life in a very different way and new life is being breathed into it by an extraordinary group of actors, so I can see why he was interested in doing it.”

“Gracepoint” premieres on Thursday, October 2 at 9 p.m. on FOX.