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Sylvester McCoy on the pandemic: 'I've been very surprised that it hasn't bothered me' (exclusive)

Steve O'Brien
·6-min read
Sylvester McCoy in The Owners (Signature Entertainment)
Sylvester McCoy in The Owners (Signature Entertainment)

Don’t trust first impressions, that’s the lesson that new horror flick The Owners wants to teach us. 

Because, when we first meet septuagenarian sweethearts Dr Richard Huggins and his wife Ellen, they seem like the kindliest couple you could ever hope to share a cream tea with, living an idyllic life in an awe-inspiring Victorian pile in the Kent countryside. But Mr and Mrs Huggins are not quite what they seem as teenage tearaways Gaz, Nathan, Terry and Jean soon discover…

What follows is a brutally intense, often grisly horror from first-time feature director Julius Berg that will make you completely revise your impression of Sylvester McCoy. Remembered as the twinkly Seventh Doctor in Doctor Who from 1987 to 1989 and as the bumbling and loveable Radagast The Brown in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, The Owners spotlights a side of Sylvester McCoy the actor we’ve never seen before.

Read more: Sylvester McCoy says his concern over Jodie Whittaker casting was 'stupid sexism'

For all its scares and gore, however, the man born Percy James Patrick Kent-Smith doesn’t think of it as a horror film. “I think The Owners is a love story,” he laughs. “I think that’s how they should advertise it!”

Watch a trailer for The Owners

The movie partners McCoy with the great Rita Tushingham, who, like the former Time Lord, is cast very much against type. Famous for her roles in such classics as A Taste of Honey and Dr Zhivago, Tushingham, now 78, brings a manic-eyed ferocity to her role as the deranged Ellen Huggins.

“I’d not met Rita before but we got on like a house on fire,” beams McCoy, “so much so that after we did the really horrible scenes, we would suddenly turn into a comedy act. Everybody was waiting for us when those scenes were on because they wanted to see the routine. They kept saying we should go on the road as a double act.”

Rita Tushingham, Sylvester McCoy in The Owners (Signature Entertainment)
Rita Tushingham, Sylvester McCoy in The Owners (Signature Entertainment)

Second billed after Game Of Thrones’ Maisie Williams, The Owners gives McCoy one of his chunkiest screen roles to date. He’s had a bit of a renaissance over the past decade or so, ever since Peter Jackson (who’s so nuts about Doctor Who and McCoy in particular he even bought Sylvester’s old costume at auction) cast the actor in his Lord Of The Rings prequel trilogy. So, how does filming a low-budget movie like this compare to working on a multi-million dollar behemoth like The Hobbit?

Read more: Hobbit actor says films became 'a big punch up, driven by technology'

“In many ways, they’re very similar,” he points out, “because it all boils down to you, the other actors and the camera. I mean, The Hobbit had 3D cameras, so they're slightly bigger and they’re not as easily manoeuvrable as a small camera. A lot of my stuff on The Hobbit was just me in the corner of the studio on greenscreen. I never got up into the mountains charging around on things. I got pulled around by rabbits, that was it!”

Sylvester McCoy as Radagast The Brown in The Hobbit (New Line/Warner Bros)
Sylvester McCoy as Radagast The Brown in The Hobbit (New Line/Warner Bros)

Before Covid hit last year McCoy had a lengthy list of projects lined up in a host of countries (“A friend of mine once said, ‘Sylvester, in order to get you to do a job, all I have to do is wave an airline ticket!’”) but found himself marooned in France for four months, after the first lockdown. For someone who loves to work and who loves even more to travel, lockdown should have been a nightmare, yet it’s proved anything but.

“I've been very surprised that it hasn't bothered me,” he says matter-of-factly. “If you’d said this is my future for a year, I’d have said, ‘Oh god no, I hate that, I'll never survive it.’ I mean, my hobby is just getting on a train or a plane or boat and going somewhere, that's what I want to do with my life. I thought this would be a terrible imprisonment. But it hasn't been, strangely.”

Of course, he’s still been able to work, if not in more exotic climes. Only the other week he was a guest, alongside Colin Baker, at a virtual Doctor Who convention and he’s able to record his Big Finish Doctor Who audio plays from home. 

In fact, though his last TV story aired just over 31 years ago, Doctor Who still looms large in his life. In mid-January, a specially filmed trailer for a forthcoming Blu-ray boxset was released which featured the now 77-year-old actor back in his old Seventh Doctor garb (not the original, mind, that’s in Peter Jackson’s house in New Zealand), opposite his 1987 co-star Bonnie Langford. The sight of Sylvester playing the Doctor once again, if only for a few minutes, gladdened the heart of many a greying Doctor Who fan.

“Oh good, I’m glad,” he beams. “People have said it was nice. It felt a bit odd watching it though, because I just saw this rather chubby little man wearing a question mark pullover who vaguely reminded me of someone…!”

Despite his continuing connection with Doctor Who, he doesn’t watch the new show (“I did at the beginning, then I was off traveling the world, so you lose touch”), though he reveals that The Bureau, Call My Agent! and especially The Plot Against America have been his most recent TV binges.

“I thought The Plot Against America was amazing,” he raves. “Absolutely brilliant and so pertinent to our times really. I’d recommend that.”

With the end of lockdown on the horizon, he’s looking forward to getting back to work properly, with another horror movie already in the diary.

MUMBAI, INDIA - DECEMBER 20, 2015: Scottish actor Sylvester McCoy at the fifth annual edition of Mumbai Film & Comic Con at Goregaon,  on December 20, 2015 in Mumbai, India. (Photo by Aalok Soni/ Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Sylvester McCoy at the Mumbai Film & Comic Con, 2015 (Aalok Soni/ Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

“I’m doing a Rob Zombie film in Hungary,” he reveals. “Then there's another short film that I want to do, about an old man who walks with death. There’s another Big Finish coming along too and something came in yesterday from a Malaysian film company, which really excites me, cos, you know, travel.”

It sounds like he’s having way too much fun to ever consider retiring, we suggest.

Read more: 'Doctor Who' cut to eight episodes for next series due to coronavirus troubles

“Oh, gosh, no,” he laughs. “No idea what that means, retirement. There's no reason to really while I can still remember a line or three!”

The Owners is out on digital platforms from 22 February and on DVD from 1 March.