The Owners: Interview with Sylvester McCoy

Sylvester McCoy talks Doctor Who, The Hobbit and working with Maisie Williams in their new horror, The Owners.

The Owners

Adapted from the graphic novel ‘Une Nuit de Pleine Lune’ from legendary creators Hermann and Yves H, The Owners is set during one night in Nineties rural England, when a retired couple (Sylvester McCoy, Doctor Who and Rita Tushingham, Doctor Zhivago) find their isolated house besieged by a gang of young criminals. The thieves think it will be easy to make them give up the secret of their safe. But they have no idea the nightmare they’ve gotten into and soon need to fight to escape the house alive. Also starring Maisie Williams (Game of Thrones), Ian Kenny (Solo: A Star Wars Story) and Jake Curran (Maze Runner: The Death Cure). Original Soundtrack by Never Not Nothing. The Owners was adapted for screen and directed by Julius Berg (La Forêt).

We spoke to genre legend Sylvester McCoy about travelling, still playing the Seventh Doctor, The Hobbit and discovering a Doctor Who cafe!

How did you first get involved in The Owners?

The casting agency has cast me in a few good things – The Hobbit being one of them – so when they phone me up I always take notice of what they think I should look at and when I heard [The Owners was being directed by] a French director [Julius Berg] that excited me as well because I like to work with people from other countries and places. I worked with an Iranian director just because he was Iranian and I thought ‘I’ve got to work with an Iranian director’.

The foreignness of it excited me and then when I read the script I thought: ‘wow yeah, that’s a really interesting script and that will surprise any people who know my work’.

What did you think of the film when you first heard about it?

The ending was very surprising and there are lots of little twists all the way through, so that’s exciting to do. Also the thought of working with Maisie [Williams] and with the glorious, amazing Rita Tushingham, who had a huge effect on film in the Sixties and Seventies. To have that privilege; all these things attract you to a job, but the script is also really fascinating – full of twists and turns and surprises.

[The Owners] was based on a Belgian graphic novel. Funnily enough, Belgium’s famous for the sort of thing that happens in this film… You can see where the inspiration comes from!

You play Richard Huggins, a victim of a burglary who isn’t quite what he seems. Was that a fun role to play?

It was, yes. It’s great because it’s night and day really. It starts off as light and then goes very dark. I love the idea for the character. In the sense, it’s a love story. He loves his wife so much and he’s sadly losing her to Alzheimer’s, therefore he will do anything to hang onto her, to keep her with him. The sad thing is, well, I can’t tell you what turns out… but there’s a dark side and you can’t blame him.

If you’re playing someone who’s horrible, they always say ‘try and find something positive’, and that’s the positive. He loves her so much. I like the idea: ‘The Owners: a love story’ [haha].

The Owners: A Love Story?

How do you go about choosing a project?

Things are all slightly different now, but a director once said to me: ‘Sylvester all I have to do is wave an airline ticket at you and you’ll take job!’ I love to travel, I love exploring other places. I love going all over the world and I have, thanks to being an actor, travelled the world extensively.

I met Michael Palin the other day. I’ve known Michael for many years and he lives near me. I was telling him that I decided to go by train from London to Bangkok to meet my granddaughter, which I did. It took me six weeks and I travelled extensively through Europe, Russia, Mongolia, China, Vietnam, Cambodia and had the most amazing adventure!

While I was on the Trans-Siberian express, I was sending out different messages to my agent – little photographs and videos of what I was doing – not thinking that my agent was putting them up online! So I didn’t know the rest of the world was watching and to my surprise, I arrive at a station somewhere in Siberia, and I’m greeted by Dalek! A Russian Dalek! I was like ‘wow’ and then I thought there’s a logic to that: What will you do with the Daleks? Send them to Siberia!

Another thing that happened on my journey – I had just left Hanoi and a message come through saying: ‘Oh, I believe you are in Hanoi, you must come and visit the Doctor Who Café’ and there was a photograph and there was a café in Hanoi with the TARDIS on the roof! In Vietnam! Part of me wants to go back to Hanoi and visit it… ‘Why are you going to Hanoi? Is it to eat Vietnamese food (which is brilliant)? No, it’s to go to the Doctor Who Café…!’

Later on there were other places where people, Hobbit fans, would arrive and it slowly built up. At first I was like ‘how do they know?’ Just my stupidity. But it was delightful and also disturbing at the same time because I was off on this big adventure all by myself.

I was saying to Michael: “You inspire me Michael and your journeys.” And he said: “You did it on your own?” I said yes and I saw a kind of ‘oh gosh’ [moment and] a bit of envy in a way because he said “everywhere I went I had a cameraman and all that”. I mean, they made it easier for him but he was never alone on that epic adventure.

I remember years ago, when I finished Doctor Who, thinking ‘what can I do now?’ and I thought: ‘ A travel show! An alien’s introduction to the world!’ But it never got off the ground and then Michael came along and did his brilliant stuff. Lovely man. Damn him haha!

Was it tough shooting The Owners in just one house?

Oh yes! [There was] a healthy atmosphere of claustrophobia [but] that helps in many ways!

One of the negative things about doing The Hobbit was that we were in huge studios and a lot of times we were just in a room painted green. Luckily with my early outing in television way back in the Seventies, I was used to working with greenscreen. It had just come in and I was part of a program called Vision On so I was very au fait with it when I got to New Zealand to do The Hobbit

With The Owners, it definitely had the right location to give you that feel. All sorts of things help in the creation of what you’re doing with the atmosphere, it makes it easy.

There is a fair amount of action in The Owners – how was that?

It was well-rehearsed. There was a lot of rehearsal. There were lots of takes on it because there are six of us continuously, so each person got their own take.

It was quite exhausting really! I had a very long speech and we did it so many times that by the end of the day I couldn’t speak! I’d worn my lip muscles out! I said these long lines – about a page and a half which is quite a long speech for a film – and then they went and cut it! Not the whole speech, but they cut it down. I kept thinking ‘oh why didn’t they cut it down [before] so I didn’t have to learn it!’.

The Owners required a lot of rehearsal due to the amount of action involved.

Would you describe The Owners as a horror film?

Yes, I mean, there is horror in it, but it’s not a horror film, I don’t think. It’s a psychological thriller… with a bit of nastiness thrown in! [Sometimes] you write something and you see it the way you’ve done it and then you show it to people and they see it sometimes very differently. It leaves you thinking: How do I describe this? It leaves room for discussion.

That’s the fun of it really. If you look at it from such an angle, you can feel sorry for the poor little man.

You’ve been in big budget projects like The Hobbit and independent films like The Owners. Do you have a preference on what you like to work on?

I don’t know really, there are positives all-round. Both of them are completely different experiences and that’s what’s great. I could not do a soap. I have been guested on things like Holby City and over the years I’ve done the odd guest thing. I thought ‘I can’t do this, I need it to be different’ and so the joy of them is that they are so different

In The Hobbit, it was a green room, yet in my imagination there were hawks and goodness knows what else attacking and charging and running. The Hobbit was great fun. That was a great adventure. [My character Radagast] is pulled along on a sled by rabbits (well they weren’t actually rabbits, it was a little motor car and 12 men dressed in green!).

What is it about genre that appeals to audiences?

Science fiction attracts very passionate people. Millions of people. In a way, there’s something almost quasi-religious about science fiction. Some people might think this is the wrong thing to say, but I think a lot of religions in a sense are science fiction. I mean the invention way back when they started thinking about the stars, the sun up there, figuring out how it works, the science of it…

People ask, why is Doctor Who so popular? Why is Superman so popular? The reason, I think, is because they say there are five or seven stories under the sun and mankind’s genius is to take these stories and retell them and entertain themselves with them. One of those stories is someone coming from out of the world, down on to Earth, taking on human form and fighting evil and trying to help the human race. Religions, many of them, have taken that story. Superman is something like that, Doctor Who is the same… It’s a story we need to hear.

Before geekdom became the rulers of the world, in the early days (and I was The Doctor just before that), people were lonely and they found solace in science fiction. Science fiction is about all sorts of different, amazing ideas, creatures from all sorts of planets, all different but all exciting and therefore, being different became the accepted thing.

This may be a bit too pompous [but] in a way science fiction has helped bring about a much more liberal and accepting society.

Sylvester describes The Owners as “a psychological thriller… with a bit of nastiness thrown in”.

You’re still playing the Seventh Doctor in Big Finish’s audio productions, what’s it like still playing him?

It’s just a joy, like putting on one of your favourite coats. I enjoy it. The glorious thing (which I discovered in my ignorance as I didn’t know too much about Doctor Who when I got it) was that I’d been handed a role that you could mine for so many different things. As an actor it could be comic and tragic, you could get all of it in there and that’s the joy of continuously doing it.

They send me a script and sometimes it’s comedy and that’s great fun. And I get to work with Sophie [Aldred] and Bonnie [Langford]. I mean Bonnie didn’t have the happiest time I don’t think on the television series but she’s been allowed to blossom beautifully with Big Finish. It’s great, and their food is brilliant…

Is there a different set of skills to hone in on for your voiceover work?

Yes, it’s certainly different. The great thing is you don’t have to learn the lines, which sometimes for Doctor Who – there were mind-bending things that you’d have to learn. Long lists of scientific gobbledygook!

Also, you do actually focus in on yourself. With audio, it just comes right out [of your mouth]. You really feel physical energy and pleasure in getting it right. It’s more [about] your imagination and the audience is doing the same thing in their head, they’re seeing it [their minds] and it’s the same for us.

What have you got coming up next?

Well, I’ve been chatting to Rob Zombie… We were supposed to be making a comedy horror film in Hungary but the pandemic got in the way. But they keep coming back and moving the dates, so hopefully that will happen as soon as the pandemic allows.

There’s also a lovely short film that I’m looking forward to doing, written by some young people. And then there’s Big Finish and saving the planet again as The Doctor!

Signature Entertainment presents The Owners is on Digital Platforms 22 February and DVD 1 March. Main image credit: Simon King.