With the return of Doctor Who this weekend there is a whirlwind of excitement about the debut of Peter Capaldi and the return of the Paternoster Gang of Madame Vastra, Jenny and Strax.
Strax, a different sort of Sontaran, played by Dan Starkey, has become a fan favorite due in large part to his comedic antics and uncanny ability to misread every situation. Debuting in Season Six’s “A Good Man Goes To War,” Starkey’s lovable Sontaran “nurse” became one of the highlights of the Matt Smith era. Subsequent appearances as Vastra and Jenny’s “butler” in “The Crimson Horror,” “The Snowmen” and “The Name of The Doctor” were brilliant and then brilliant again.
His other Whoniverse appearances include a guest-starring role in the Tenth Doctor two-parter, “The Sontaran Stratagem” and “The Poison Sky.” He also appeared in The Sarah Jane Adventures as well as Peter Davison’s The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot. He also has starred in several Big Finish audio productions. He can also be seen in Russell T. Davies SF show Wizards VS. Aliens. Though he is small in stature, Starkey is a nice guy who is big on laughs.
We caught up with Starkey, sans makeup, this past November at Chicago TARDIS.
Rob Levy: How did you get the role of Strax?
Dan Starkey: The first episodes I did, “The Sontaran Stratagem” and “The Poison Sky,” they were with David Tennant and they had the Sonatarans, a classic series monster. They made the decision to make them quite small and compact. So my height helped me in that they were looking for an actor with my height. I was a huge fan as a kid so I was able to go back my mom’s attic and pull out my VHS copies of “The Invasion Of Time” and “The Sontaran Experiment.” So I turned up at the audition and did it and I felt like I had done about thirty years of homework to prepare for it.
RL: You have worked with David Tennant and Matt Smith. Can you describe the differences in working with both actors?
DS: Although I was in those episodes with David I didn’t really have any scenes with him. So the only interaction I really had with David is when he knocked me out with a mallet. So it was difficult to get the rub of him as an actor. I’ve seen Matt work a lot I’ve had a couple of scenes with him. He’s great. Part of the process of making television is that you have more than one take. Matt’s very inventive and he’ll give the editor a whole range of different options, trying lines and putting a different spin on them, one each time he does it so it’s great to watch him work. I’ve said before that he’s got huge amount energy because The Doctor is a part that takes up huge amounts of time. Sort of six days a week and you are an ambassador for the program. They’ve both done an amazing amount of work but Matt I’ve seen up close.
RL: You completely stole the Christmas Special (The Snowmen).
DS: I was very fortunate right at the beginning having that lovely scene with the memory worm. Yes that was hilarious.
RL: Your performance seems steeped in slapstick and Keatonesque and that type of comedy how did you develop that dynamic with Matt?
DS: I think it is dictated by the script to a certain extent, the relationship. Matt read the script before I did, obviously because he’s there all the time and he told me there was some good stuff coming up. I don’t know if you’ve seen Blackadder but it was a bit like that, Blackadder and his servant Baldric. At the read through for the episode we couldn’t look at each other without some sort of cracking up. I think it’s just working with people and building up a rapport. The good thing about playing Strax and Sontarans is that you have this rubber head on it sometimes takes people awhile to realize there’s me in there. We did The Crimson Horror before the Christmas Special so it was nice that I had a chance to sort of build up a relationship with Matt before we did all that Christmas stuff.
RL: Since you are in Season Eight are you looking forward to working with Peter Capaldi?
DS: It’ll be fantastic. I think he’s a great choice. He’s an actor whom I’ve always rated so it will be great to see what he brings to the role. It will be interesting to see a new Doctor being created our very eyes.
RL: Will you have to prepare differently now that you are working with a new actor as The Doctor?
DS: I suppose. It’s also dictated by the script. It all comes back to the text. It should be interesting. I’ve never met Peter Capaldi. Neve, who plays Madame Vastra, she knows him so we’ll have a little sort of working relationship there. It should be very exciting.
RL: How was it working on The Sarah Jane Adventures?
DS: It was what turned out to be the last episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures, which we didn’t know at the time not knowing how ill Lis Sladen was. The prosthetic I was wearing was the most extreme that I have worn. I had an animatronic eye in the middle of my forehead. I also had this sort of fiberglass chassis with a motor on it on the top of my head inside the mask, which was quite uncomfortable. Not very heavy but after a whole day–after eight hours a day of wearing it–it was really quite painful.
So the only way I could be kept comfortable was lying horizontally. So they eventually gave me a sort of sun manger. I couldn’t really hear anyone since I had this motor on my head and I couldn’t really see anyone unless they were directly in my line of vision. So quite a lot of the time, people would have to give me a prod so I could get my lines in. But Lis Sladen was great. She said “You’re giving a real performance” and cheered me along. She was very nice about it. She was a great leader of the company in that respect. She wanted to make sure everyone was welcomed on that set.
RL: How is Wizards VS Aliens working out?
DS: It’s going well. I think a third series is probably in the cards for next year. It’s a children’s program but it’s got some quite meaty sort of storylines in it. I think the second series has got even more bold with its storytelling.
RL: You are a part of The Fitzrovia Radio Hour. Can you talk about that a little bit?
DS: The Fitzrovia Radio has been going for about five or six years. Some of my old friends from drama school founded it and I am a visiting member of the company. What it is is that they started off doing old 1930s American radio scripts in a bar in London dressed up in sort of 1930s dinner suits and evening gowns for the ladies and they do live sound effects. First of all they were Anglicized versions of old American 1930s radio scripts and then as it carried on they started writing more of their own material. Now we have this show that has been going on the road for the last three or four years or so. It’s a magazine drama with three stories over the course of it, science fiction, and some spy stuff and it’s like a children’s serial. It’s a great sort of fun show to do. Next year we are working on a much bigger theatrical co-production with a regional theatre in the UK which will be The Fitzrovia Radio Hour Does Dracula. It’s not [just] a production of a 1930s radio show, it’s a subversion of it as well.
RL: Do you appreciate performing now without heavy makeup?
DS: Yes! That’s always a plus! I do lots of Big Finish audios as well where I play a Sontaran but don’t have to sit in a chair for three hours to be made up. My next little career goal is to get more screen work without a rubber head on.
RL: How are the Big Finish Audios working for you? You seem to be the go to guy for Sontarans now.
DS: I’ve done lots of Big Finish stuff but it’s the Sontarans that I do a lot. It’s the old series voices are a bit more throaty. After a day of doing that I need to reach for some cough medicine.
RL: What was it like working with Diana Rigg in “The Crimson Horror”?
DS: Well, obviously, I shot her so that was a bit of interaction [laughs]. It’s the closest I got to her. I ended up being a bit starstruck sitting next to her on set. She’s a real sort of trooper. She was great to work with.
RL: How much notice do you get that Strax is coming back?
DS: It’s variable. They try to keep a very tight reign on it and so with “The Name Of The Doctor” we only got the script a day before we started shooting. There wasn’t even a read through for it. I got the script and peered through just as I was about to get on the train to Cardiff and I was like, “Oh, I’m going through a glass window tomorrow afternoon!” That’s something to prepare for. Last year I thought I was just doing one episode and then there was the Christmas Special and then it turned into three. I have no idea what’s in store for next year but hopefully it will keep me in rent money.
RL: How long does it take to do the Strax makeup?
DS: Two and a half hours. Then the rubber suit takes about half an hour to get into as well so it’s about three hours.
RL: What’s the best part and worst part of getting into the Strax costume?
DS: What’s the best part of the makeup? It’s quite warm. Usually I have it put on and my hearing is muffled and it’s like wearing a pillow on my head. Usually I have to get up quite early and usually I have to have a doze at some point during the day and that’s quite easy to do when I am inside the head. I’ve sort of mastered the art of self-hypnotizing myself. It’s like a light trance because sometimes when I’ve got it on I can hear my own heartbeat. So I count my heartbeat and close my eyes and that sort of puts me in a relaxation state–which is sometimes necessary over a long shooting day. The worst part of it is probably wearing the rubber trousers, the blue battle suit. They’re rather snug and when they are on they’re on. I have to make sure how much water I drink otherwise it will be very uncomfortable.
RL: Do you think we’ll see Strax, Jenny and Vastra in a spinoff series?
DS: Everyone at conventions says it would be a good idea; certainly at least a special or something there would be mileage in it. I think that the other thing is that Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss are both really quite busy with doing Doctor Who and Sherlock. There would have to be space in the schedule to do it. Certainly I would be amenable to the idea of some kind of spinoff. I think it depends how long it will be because it can be a very long week wearing prosthetics. It depends on what the schedule was like.
RL: Finally, what would you like people to know about you that they may not know?
DS: I’m left handed. I can throw a pot on a wheel, cuz my dad’s a potter. I like eating curry.
For Whovians the return of Dan Starkey as Strax in Season Eight’s opener, “Deep Breath,” is definitely worth waiting for. He can found on Twitter here. For more info on the Fitzrovia Radio Hour, go here.
Starkey/TARDIS image via Gallifrey Lady.