“Never did I think I’d perform a play through Zoom,” he says. “It was truly bizarre not having the audience in the space, but I’m glad I did it. I’m crazy-worried about the theatre at the moment; there are so many wonderful individuals and such talent in that community.” Smith should know. He’s a prolific theatre and film actor, the youngest Doctor Who in history and The Crown’s first Prince Phillip. He’s propelled himself through a fast-paced movie career, multiple West End plays and next year will feature in forthcoming Marvel film Morbius as anti-hero, Loxias Crown, to boot. Not that you’d know it, one of Smith’s most beguiling qualities is his modesty. He doesn’t like making a big thing of his work, and as we drive through Fitzrovia, he brushes off any compliments that are thrown his way.Instead, the conversation turns to his motivation as an actor. “I’m very competitive, especially with myself,” he says. “It’s healthy if you can self-compete and push yourself in an almost athletic sense – not in the sense of wanting to outdo others, but to keep outdoing yourself. I quite like that approach in art.” This makes sense because Smith never planned on being an actor. “Football was my first love,” he explains, staring out of the cab’s window, a touch wistful. “I suppose it’s the finite lines of it, which acting has never quite managed to replicate for me. There’s something extraordinary about a team of sportsmen training for months to be the best they can be, but if they’re not good enough, one goal and 30 seconds at the end of 90 minutes of slog can mean losing out. That’s tough.”
Smith was tipped for a career in professional football as a teenager, but he had to quit the sport thanks to a back injury, walking away from a promising start. “It was hard, I felt lost for quite a while,” he says. “Thankfully, my dad was a great source of advice and encouragement, and I had a great group of friends and a passionate teacher who all pushed me towards acting.” Like many people, 2020 has given Smith a rare pause to reflect on his career, and when we ask him whether he’d do anything differently, his reply is characteristically candid. “I’d say yes, I would. I don’t think you always regret saying ‘no’ to things, but there are jobs I haven’t done that I wish I’d said ‘yes’ to, after all. I guess I wanted to be a pure artist, but there were jobs out there that would have been fun that I didn’t do for the wrong reasons.”
“I learned a load of poems during lockdown, it was the only thing I had left to do.”
Nevertheless, some of the decisions he made early on in his career have given him a clear perspective on where he wants to go next. “I don’t have a dream role per se, that’s like asking ‘what’s your favourite album?’ I’d just like to do something that’s challenging, next year.” So, while next year slowly rolls into view, Smith has been reading scripts and swotting up on poetry to pass the time. “I like trying to keep my brain happy,” he says, simply. You have to admire his optimism; spend half-an-hour with Matt and you’ll find yourself feeling unusually positive. As he quips when our journey ends and we hop out of the taxi, “it’s been a strange year, but it’ll all be alright in the end.” Morbius is in cinemas from 18th March 2021.