Interview | Samuel Barnett on ‘Dirk Gently’ and ‘Doctor Who’

To understand Dirk Gently you must first understand Douglas Adams. The English author is probably best known for his sci-fi comedy The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but back in the late 1970s and early 1980s he was also a writer for the long-running BBC series Doctor Who, where he came up with several ideas that, over time, evolved into a brand new character whose adventures are just as bizarre and amusing.

Dirk Gently, a “holistic detective” (because he doesn’t so much look for clues as let the universe guide him where he needs to go), starred in two-and-a-half novels before Douglas Adams’ death in 2001, and although there have been attempts to bring the character to television in the past – most recently on BBC Four in 2010 and 2012 – there hasn’t been anything quite like Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, a series that takes place after the events of the novels, produced and written by Max Landis (Chronicle), who adds eccentric new characters and storylines into a world that was already plenty eccentric to begin with.

I picked up the phone yesterday to talk to Samuel Barnett, who plays the title character in the new BBC America series, to find out what makes his version of Dirk Gently tick, what it’s like working with an adorable corgi, and – in light of Dirk Gently’s history – whether he thinks a crossover with Doctor Who is in the cards.

(Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency premieres on BBC America on Saturday, October 22 at 6pm on BBC America.)

BBC America

Crave: For people who haven’t read the books, or maybe even seen one of the other adaptations, who – or what – is Dirk Gently?

Samuel Barnett: That is a very good question. “What” is Dirk Gently? So he’s a detective, but he’s a terrible detective. He’s really not good at what he does but he thinks he’s really good at what he does, and the way he works is, obviously, he is a “holistic detective,” which means that he senses connections between things that other people cannot sense or cannot see.

This isn’t like something that he believes in, it’s actually I guess like a bit of a pathetic kind of superpower. He really does receive messages and intuitions from the universe that help him see connections, but Dirk’s problem is he then doesn’t know what to do with any of that information that he receives. So he just acts purely on instinct and intuition and guidance from the universe, which is constantly getting him into trouble where he’s almost killed three times a day.

Hence, meeting Todd Brotzman, who for reasons that become more apparent as the season goes on, the universe has again told Dirk that this is the guy who’s going to help solve this particular mystery.

Todd feels in many respects like a typical Douglas Adams character. He’s very anxious and it feels like the universe is built against him. Whereas Dirk, you’re right, his superpower is he goes with the flow in a mad world. Is that relaxing to play, or is that more difficult to play as an actor?

[Laughs.] That’s a really good question. I actually find it quite hard work, because the way Max [Landis] has written it, Dirk’s thought processes are so quick and change like the weather, so he has a million different thoughts all in one speech and he speaks at a very quick-fire pace and he’s always changing the direction. I have to be very muscular the language, and therefore the performance feels quite physical and quite big.

Dirk is literally larger than life, in terms of most human beings, so I do find it hard to play. I know that Dirk has a line where he says, “I don’t know anything ever. It’s really quite relaxing.” [Laughs.] So the key is to make it look like it’s effortless, but no, it’s definitely one of the hardest characters I’ve ever played.

Had you read the books before, or did you read them once you got the part?

Well, I’d certainly read Hitchhiker’s Guide but I hadn’t actually read Dirk Gently, but I read them as soon as I knew I was auditioning. Because I’m a Douglas Adams fan anyway with Hitchhiker’s, so I thought… I tend to do that, I thought even if I don’t get the part, if it’s something that interests me anyway – because I’m a bit of a geek anyway – I was like, yes, definitely I want to read those books. So I did and absolutely loved them.

And I know that Max’s world is obviously quite different to the original books but I feel like what he’s done is create a world that, if Douglas Adams were alive and still writing Dirk Gently, I feel like this might be the next mystery that he wrote. Because I feel like Max has really captured the essence, certainly of Dirk, and then of the world in which Dirk finds himself, which Douglas Adams writes.

You know, I think Max has said you can’t adapt Douglas Adams, [because] a lot of Douglas Adams is in his witty observations of life, not necessarily in the character or plot. So Max has had to invent and reinvent a lot of stuff but he’s a diehard fan of the book so there’s plenty of Easter eggs littered across the first season of things like scenes or even devices that Douglas Adams uses, that they will recognize.

BBC America

I think it’s in the first episode that you reference the events of the first two books. Is this officially a sequel to the books, or is that something you could get to later, at a different time?

Well in a way it is. I like to think it is because certainly with the third, unfinished book that Douglas wrote, at the end of Chapter 11 of that unfinished book [The Salmon of a Doubt] he has Dirk landing in America to solve a mystery. So in a way I feel like, because some people asked if it’s totally different from the books, I’m like well, actually I think it’s just following on. If anything, Max has just updated the world in which Dirk is, which is think is right for 2016/2017, you know? I think what’s great about the books is that the books are pretty timeless. I think Douglas writes in a really timeless way. But I think so does Max, so I feel the world is still authentic.

When you talked to Max Landis about the character and that Dirk Gently inhabits, what was important for him to impart on you? Did have an important note, like “Never forget [blank]?”

Oh god that’s a really good question as well, um… no, I don’t think he did. I think what’s great about Max’s writing is that it’s all there on the page. You know, often with scripts you’re having to bring a lot of yourself to them, to kind of, in a way, fill in some of the gaps. But with Max’s it comes as a finished product. Anything you need to know will be there and it will be in the text. And there were some things that I felt confused about and Max would be like, “Well, it’s written in this bit.” Like, he has this encyclopedic knowledge of the whole of the first season. Actually when I got the part he explained the first season to me, I couldn’t take it in. The amount of detail that he goes into, he knows everything about it. It’s all there.

Really, I think his big one for me is, “How would Dirk do it?” because Dirk doesn’t have normal human reactions. He doesn’t understand normal social cues. So any time I got too, I guess, humane in a way, maybe too empathic, too compassionate, too human, he would be like, “Okay, now how would Dirk do it?” So that was always an interesting question, yeah.

Well, it raises an interesting question for me. Again, Dirk is a character who accepts fate as it comes and believes fate is always guiding him towards wherever he’s meant to be. What does he feel anxiety about? What is he afraid of? What drives him in that regard, or is that not part of his character at all?

Oh no, it’s very much part of the character, and that is what gets revealed slowly throughout Season One. You get a glimpse of some of Dirk’s backstory in his scene with Colonel Riggins and Friedkin in episode three, so you get just that short glimpse of it there, and then as the season goes on… Dirk does have a kind of nasty past and we actually get some flashbacks to his past, so you get to see more of where he comes from and more of what drives him. Really, I think it’s around episode five he even has a speech about why he does what he does. So as much as he lives for the moment and goes with the flow and all that stuff, fear is definitely one of his driving factors and we get to find out why.

BBC America

Tell me about acting opposite a corgi. 

[Laughs.] I mean, that dog… I absolutely adore Bentley, the corgi. He’s one of the cutest dogs I’ve ever seen. But sometimes, sometimes he would totally upstage me. Other times he just wouldn’t do what he was supposed to do. There was one particular scene where every time we did the rehearsal he was perfect and every time the camera rolled he wasn’t. I’m not exaggerating. It became like a joke. It was like he knew when we needed him to perform, he just wasn’t going to do it. We ended up doing that stuff against a green screen in the end, as two separate shots, because we just couldn’t get it. There are a lot of animals in the show, animals feature heavily, probably more starring than we are.

What are you most looking forward to? It’s a serialized show, you know everything that’s going to happen. We don’t. Is there a particular episode or moment you want audiences to look out for, because it’s your favorite or you think it’s your finest hour?

Okay first of all, I’m really excited to watch the whole thing myself because I’ve seen the first three episodes but there’s so much that goes on. The strands get really interwoven. So I’m excited to see how all that comes together over episodes four to eight, because I haven’t seen those ones.

The ones that I get really excited about probably are the whole of episode four, because that was completely brilliant to film. Like, I actually felt like I was in my own action movie. I loved it. And episode five as well, for me, where you really start to see Todd and Dirk’s relationship grow and change. And then episode eight is insane so I think people will like that one.

I know you can’t say to much, but do you think it’s going to be a wholly satisfying conclusion, or should get ready for a big season two tease?

A bit of both, I think. The one thing I will say about the show is that you will certainly be satisfied with the conclusion. Max hasn’t written a piece where at the end you go like, “I don’t get it. What was that to do with that?” It’s the kind of show where you can go back and watch from the beginning and go, “Oh ho! I see this little bit here and this little bit here, so now they make sense here.” But by the end of episode eight, seven into eight really, you understand everything that’s going on.

He’s made sure that the audience are taken care of, and also he’s made sure of that by having Elijah’s character, Todd, who is a normal everyday guy who gets thrust into these extraordinary circumstances, so that we enter this world through Todd’s eyes. We find out the information at the same time as Todd, so anything that he doesn’t know, it’s cool, we’re not meant to know it yet. But then certainly I think there’s a bit of a set-up for a season two. [Laughs.]

My last question: Dirk Gently was originally, at least partially based on some of Douglas Adams’ ideas for Doctor Who


Would you be down for a crossover, and if so, what would you like to do?

Oh, you know, I am a huge Doctor Who fan. [Laughs.] And in fact I met Peter Capaldi last week at Comic-Con and was like a gibbering wreck. Yes, I knew the Doctor Who history with Dirk Gently. It would be amazing. You see, I think that is a pairing that would actually work. Someone before asked me about what if Dirk met Sherlock, and I think the universe would implode. They just wouldn’t get each other.

But I think if Dirk meant Doctor Who that would be a match made in heaven, I think. I would love some sort of, either Doctor Who comes to Dirk or Dirk comes to Doctor Who and the TARDIS appears and they do an adventure together, and that’s it. I think that would be amazing. And it would be totally in-keeping. In fact you’ll see more and more as this season develops, you’ll see more and more that would be totally in-keeping with the way Doctor Who works.

Top Photo: BBC America

William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most CravedRapid Reviews and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.