It’s fair to say that new Edgar Wright movie Last Night in Soho is full of twists and turns, many of which we wouldn’t want to discuss just yet – but it’s no spoiler to say that one of its more arresting casting choices is Matt Smith, whose character Jack makes for one of the more unsettling storylines in the film.
We first meet Jack during lead character Elloise’s (Thomasin McKenzie) flashbacks to the 1960s, where he meets up with the mysterious Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy) and promises her dreams of stardom. He’s all charm and wry chivalry, defending her from predators and dazzling her with a hint of a better life she could lead.
But (as revealed in the trailer already) it’s a mirage. It turns out one of the biggest predators in Sandie’s life is none other than Jack himself, and over the course of the film audiences are treated to a rare sight – Matt Smith getting to play an out-and-out villain, and a truly nasty one to boot.
Of course, Smith has portrayed shady characters before –he briefly popped up as a version of Skynet in the panned Terminator: Genysis and as the violent “Bully” in Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut Lost River – but these projects have tended to be fewer and less high-profile, with Smith’s best-known roles remaining Prince Philip in The Crown and the heroic Eleventh Doctor in Doctor Who.
Put simply, Matt Smith doesn’t get to play the villain that often, and Last Night in Soho plays with that expectation. Smith’s natural charm and charisma made him a popular Doctor – and they’re in full evidence here as Jack wins over Sandie quickly, playing the hero and respecting her boundaries, only to brutally take advantage of her trust later on.
“I guess the thing about that character – and the way a character like that operates – is that they do it all through charm,” director and co-screenwriter Edgar Wright tells RadioTimes.com.
“I think the thing that was important to have Matt in that part, is that Matt has to be charming in that part. He’s one of those characters who’s the kind of dangerous man you meet after midnight in a London club who isn’t exactly what he says he is. He would have to be incredibly charming to get away with what he does.”
Later, Jack’s all the more menacing because of the way he’s insidiously wormed himself into Sandie’s life, more or less pulling her strings (as hinted at in a marionette-themed dance sequence) as he profits from her misery.
“It’s charm turning into coercion,” Wright says. “I think the thing that’s interesting about Jack as a character is that, when you first meet him in the movie, he introduces himself as a manager. And I think that’s probably exactly what he thinks he is. Not that the character necessarily needs any sympathy, but if there’s any tragedy to that character, it’s that he maybe has ideas above his station, but not the talent to pull it off.”
Physically, Smith also seemed perfectly built for the role. When casting him in Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat noted his chameleonic ability to seem old and young, human and alien made him perfect for the part.
“Every detail is absolutely right – boffin and action hero, schoolboy and professor, hot young guy and ancient wizard. He’s like Patrick Moore trapped in the body of an underwear model,” he said at the time.
And in Last Night in Soho, his ability to shift demeanours lends itself to Jack’s heel-turn. A face that seemed handsome and roguish twists to become menacing, brutal. And Wright agrees, noting that Smith has “such a great face” that transcends different times.
“He is sort of timeless, in a way,” he tells us. “I think you can imagine Matt in a ‘60s film very easily. I don’t mean this as any kind of knock, but he doesn’t have a contemporary face to me. Which is great, because he’s somebody that feels timeless, like a sort of timeless movie star. I would totally buy him in a movie from that decade.”
In the end, Smith’s part in Last Night in Soho is relatively small, and the film’s tricky subject matter makes it unlikely that he’ll receive too much attention for his performance (especially as it’s buried between star turns from McKenzie, Taylor-Joy and the late, great Diana Rigg).
But for those who’ve been waiting for a different sort of role from him, it makes for arresting watching. Like the characters in Last Night in Soho themselves, you might end up finding it quite haunting.
Last Night in Soho is in UK cinemas now. For more, check out our dedicated Movies page or our full TV Guide.