Tennant was born in Bathgate, West Lothian, the son of Alexander "Sandy" McDonald (1937–2016), a minister who served as the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, and Helen McLeod (now deceased). He grew up with his brother Blair and sister Karen in Ralston, Renfrewshire, where his father was the local minister. Tennant is of Northern Irish descent; his maternal great-grandparents, William and Agnes Blair, were staunch Protestants from County Londonderry who were among the signatories of the Ulster Covenant in 1912. William was a member of the Orange Order. Tennant's maternal grandfather, footballer Archie McLeod, met William and Agnes' daughter Nellie while playing for Derry City FC. McLeod was descended from tenant farmers from the Isle of Mull.
At the age of three, Tennant told his parents that he wanted to become an actor because he was a fan of Doctor Who, but they tried to encourage him to aim for more conventional work. He watched almost every Doctor Who episode for years, and he spoke to Tom Baker at a book-signing event in Glasgow. Tennant says he was "absurdly single-minded" in pursuing an acting career. Tennant was educated at Ralston Primary and Paisley Grammar School. He acted in school productions throughout primary and secondary school.
Tennant's talent at this young age was spotted by Scottish actress Edith MacArthur. After seeing his first performance at age 11, she told his parents he would become a successful stage actor. Tennant also attended Saturday classes at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama; at 16, he passed an audition for the Academy, one of their youngest students, and studied there between the ages of 17 and 20, taking his stage name from the Pet Shop Boys frontman Neil Tennant after reading a copy of Smash Hits magazine because there was another David McDonald already on the books of the Equity union. Tennant has stated that he later had to legally change his name to Tennant to meet Screen Actors Guild rules.
Tennant made his professional acting debut while still in secondary school. When he was 16, he acted in an anti-smoking film made by the Glasgow Health Board which aired on television and was also screened in schools. The following year, he played a role in an episode of Dramarama. Tennant's first professional role upon graduating from drama school was in a staging of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui costarring Ashley Jensen, one of a few plays in which he performed as part of the agitprop 7:84 Theatre Company. He also made an early television appearance in the Scottish TV sitcom Rab C Nesbitt as a transsexual barmaid called Davina. In the 1990s, he appeared in several plays at the Dundee Repertory Theatre.
Tennant's first major TV role was as the manic depressive Campbell in the Scottish drama series Takin' Over the Asylum (1994). During filming, he met comic actress and writer Arabella Weir. When he moved to London shortly afterwards, he lodged with Weir for five years and became godfather to her youngest child. He has subsequently appeared with Weir in many productions: as a guest in her spoof television series Posh Nosh, in the Doctor Who audio drama Exile (during which Weir played an alternate version of the Doctor), and as panellists on the West Wing Ultimate Quiz on More4 (Weir later guest-starred on Doctor Who itself after Tennant left the series). One of his earliest big-screen roles was in Jude (1996), in which he shared a scene with Christopher Eccleston, playing a drunken undergraduate who challenges Eccleston's Jude to prove his intellect. Coincidentally, Eccleston portrayed the incarnation of The Doctor immediately preceding Tennant's.
Tennant developed his career in the British theatre, frequently performing with the Royal Shakespeare Company. His first Shakespearean role for the RSC was in As You Like It (1996); having auditioned for the role of Orlando, the romantic lead, he was instead cast as the jester Touchstone, which he played in his natural Scottish accent. He subsequently specialised in comic roles, playing Antipholus of Syracuse in The Comedy of Errors and Captain Jack Absolute in The Rivals, although he also played the tragic role of Romeo in Romeo and Juliet.
Tennant contributed to several audio dramatisations of Shakespeare for the Arkangel Shakespeare series (1998). His roles include a reprisal of his Antipholus of Syracuse in The Comedy of Errors, as well as Launcelot Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice, Edgar/Poor Tom in King Lear, and Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, all of which he performs in his natural accent. In 1995, Tennant appeared at the Royal National Theatre, London, playing the role of Nicholas Beckett in Joe Orton's What the Butler Saw. In television, he appeared in the first episode of Reeves and Mortimer's revamped Randall and Hopkirk in 2000, playing an eccentric artist. This is one of his few TV roles in his native Scottish accent. During the Christmas season of 2002, he starred in a series of television advertisements for Boots the Chemists. He began to appear on television more prominently in 2004 and 2005, when he appeared in a dramatisation of He Knew He Was Right (2004), Blackpool (2004), Casanova (2005), and The Quatermass Experiment (2005). In film, he appeared in Bright Young Things (2003), and later that same year appeared as Barty Crouch Jr. in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
Doctor Who returned to British screens in 2005, with Christopher Eccleston playing the role of the Ninth Doctor in the first series. Tennant replaced him as of the second series, making his first, brief appearance as the Tenth Doctor in the episode "The Parting of the Ways" (2005) at the end of the regeneration scene, and also appeared in a special 7-minute mini-episode shown as part of the 2005 Children in Need appeal, broadcast on 18 November 2005. He began filming the new series of Doctor Who in late July 2005. His first full-length outing as the Doctor was a 60-minute special, "The Christmas Invasion", first broadcast on Christmas Day 2005. Tennant had been formally offered the role of the Doctor during rehearsals for The Quatermass Experiment. Although the casting was not officially announced until later in April, both castmates and crew became aware of the speculation surrounding Tennant; in the live broadcast Jason Flemyng (Quatermass) changed his first line to Tennant's Dr Briscoe from "Good to have you back, Gordon" to "Good to have you back, Doctor" as a deliberate reference.
Tennant has expressed enthusiasm about fulfilling his childhood dream. He remarked in a radio interview: "Who wouldn't want to be the Doctor? I've even got my own TARDIS!" In 2006, readers of Doctor Who Magazine voted Tennant "Best Doctor" over perennial favourite Tom Baker. In 2007, Tennant's Doctor was voted the "coolest character on UK television" in a Radio Times survey.. Writer Russell T Davies made the decision not to use Tennant's own Scottish accent for the character as he did not want the Doctor's accent "touring the regions", using Estuary English instead. Tennant has gone on record as saying that, contrary to tabloids reports, he was not upset at not being able to play the role in his own accent and in fact had never wanted to. However he was pleased to be able to use his own accent in one episode, when the Doctor briefly masquerades as "Dr James McCrimmon" of Edinburgh in Tooth and Claw – a nod to the Second Doctor's companion Jamie McCrimmon.
He previously had a small role in the BBC's animated Doctor Who webcast Scream of the Shalka. Not originally cast in the production, Tennant was recording a radio play in a neighbouring studio, and when he discovered what was being recorded next door convinced the director to give him a small role. This personal enthusiasm for the series had also been expressed by his participation in several audio plays based on the Doctor Who television series which had been produced by Big Finish Productions, although he did not play the Doctor in any of these productions. His first such role was in the Seventh Doctor audio Colditz, where he played a Nazi lieutenant guard at Colditz Castle. In 2004 Tennant played a lead role in the Big Finish audio play series Dalek Empire III as Galanar, a young man who is given an assignment to discover the secrets of the Daleks. In 2005, he starred in UNIT: The Wasting for Big Finish, recreating his role of Brimmicombe-Wood from a Doctor Who Unbound play, Sympathy for the Devil. In both audio productions, he worked alongside Nicholas Courtney, who reprised the character of Sir Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart. He also played an unnamed Time Lord in another Doctor Who Unbound play Exile. UNIT: The Wasting, was recorded between Tennant getting the role of the Doctor and it being announced. He played the title role in Big Finish's adaptation of Bryan Talbot's The Adventures of Luther Arkwright (2005). In 2006, he recorded abridged audio books of The Stone Rose by Jacqueline Rayner, The Feast of the Drowned by Stephen Cole and The Resurrection Casket by Justin Richards, for BBC Worldwide.
He made his directorial debut on the Doctor Who Confidential episode that accompanies Steven Moffat's episode "Blink", entitled "Do You Remember The First Time?", which aired on 9 June 2007. In 2007, Tennant's Tenth Doctor appeared with Peter Davison's Fifth Doctor in a Doctor Who special for Children in Need, written by Steven Moffat and entitled "Time Crash". He later performed alongside Davison's daughter, Georgia Moffett (as "Jenny") in the 2008 episode "The Doctor's Daughter".
Tennant featured as the Doctor in an animated version of Doctor Who for Totally Doctor Who, The Infinite Quest, which aired on CBBC. He also starred as the Doctor in another animated six-part Doctor Who series, Dreamland. Tennant guest starred as the Doctor in a two-part story in Doctor Who spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures, broadcast in October 2009. He continued to play the Tenth Doctor into the revived programme's fourth series in 2008. However, on 29 October 2008, he announced that he would be stepping down from the role after three full series. He played the Doctor in four special episodes in 2009, before his final episode aired on 1 January 2010, where he was replaced by the eleventh doctor, portrayed by Matt Smith. The Daily Mirror reported that Tennant was forbidden from attending Doctor Who fan conventions while playing the role, to avoid the chance that he could accidentally let slip any plot points during filming of the series. However, Tennant claimed this was false and that he had never been banned or discouraged from attending conventions.
Tennant and Billie Piper returned to Doctor Who for the 50th anniversary special, "The Day of the Doctor" broadcast on 23 November 2013, with then-stars Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman and guest star John Hurt. The same month, he also appeared in the one-off 50th anniversary comedy homage The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot directed by Peter Davison.
In October 2015, Big Finish Productions announced that Tennant would return to the role of the Tenth Doctor alongside Catherine Tate as his former companion Donna Noble in three new stories from Big Finish. The stories feature current and previous Doctor Who actors, including Strax actor Dan Starkey, former Davros actor Terry Molloy, and many veterans of Big Finish, including Niky Wardley, who portrayed Eighth Doctor companion Tamsin. The three stories were released in May 2016.
While playing the Doctor, Tennant was also in the early December 2005 ITV drama Secret Smile. His performance as Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger at the Theatre Royal, Bath, and Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, was recorded by the National Video Archive of Performance for the Victoria and Albert Museum Theatre Collection. He revived this performance for the anniversary of the Royal Court Theatre in a rehearsed reading. In January 2006, he took a one-day break from shooting Doctor Who to play Richard Hoggart in a dramatisation of the 1960 Lady Chatterley's Lover obscenity trial, The Chatterley Affair. The play was written by Andrew Davies and directed by Doctor Who's James Hawes for the digital television channel BBC Four. Hoggart's son, Simon, praised Tennant's performance in The Guardian newspaper.
On 25 February 2007, Tennant starred in Recovery, a 90-minute BBC One drama written by Tony Marchant. He played Alan, a self-made building site manager who attempted to rebuild his life after suffering a debilitating brain injury. His costar in the drama was friend Sarah Parish, with whom he had previously appeared in Blackpool and an episode of Doctor Who. She joked that "we're like George and Mildred – in 20 years' time we'll probably be doing a ropey old sitcom in a terraced house in Preston". Later that same year he starred in Learners, a BBC comedy drama written by and starring Jessica Hynes (another Doctor Who costar, in the episodes "Human Nature", "The Family of Blood" and "The End of Time"), in which he played a Christian driving instructor who became the object of a student's affection. Learners was broadcast on BBC One on 11 November 2007. Tennant had a cameo appearance as the Doctor in the 2007 finale episode of the BBC/HBO comedy series Extras with Ricky Gervais. In November 2008, Tennant played Sir Arthur Eddington in the BBC and HBO biographical film Einstein and Eddington, which was filmed in Cambridge and Hungary.
In 2009, he worked on a TV film version of the RSC's 2008 Hamlet for BBC Two. From October 2009, he hosted the Masterpiece Contemporary programming strand on the American Public Broadcasting Service. In December 2009, he filmed the lead in an NBC pilot, Rex Is Not Your Lawyer, playing Rex, a Chicago lawyer who starts to coach clients to represent themselves when he starts suffering panic attacks. The pilot was not picked up and the project was shelved. In October 2010 he starred as Dave, a man struggling to raise five children after the death of his partner, in the British drama Single Father. For this role he was nominated as Best Actor at the Royal Television Society Programme Awards 2010. In 2011, he starred in United, about the Manchester United "Busby Babes" team and the 1958 Munich air disaster, playing coach and assistant manager Jimmy Murphy. In September 2011, he appeared in a guest role in one episode of the comedy series This is Jinsy, and also started filming True Love, a semi-improvised BBC One drama series, on location in Margate, Kent; the series aired in June 2012.
In April 2012, Tennant played lead in a one-off drama The Minor Character for Sky Arts. Between April and June, he filmed Spies of Warsaw for BBC Four, in the lead role of Jean-François Mercier. This drama series shot in Poland is an adaptation of Alan Furst's novel The Spies of Warsaw. Tennant auditioned for the role of Hannibal Lecter in NBC's Hannibal; he was narrowly beaten for the part by Mads Mikkelsen, but show developer Bryan Fuller has indicated that he was sufficiently impressed by Tennant that he would like to cast him in another role in the series. On 9 June 2012, he started filming the 3-part political drama series The Politician's Husband for BBC Two, playing an ambitious cabinet minister who takes drastic action when his wife's career starts to outshine his. Also in June it was announced that Tennant would star in the new ITV detective series Broadchurch. The series was filmed in Clevedon, North Somerset, and Bridport, Dorset, between August and November 2012, and aired in March 2013 . Tennant also presented the new comedy quiz show Comedy World Cup, in Autumn 2012 which ran on Saturday nights for seven episodes.
Between late January and March 2013, Tennant filmed The Escape Artist for BBC One. He plays a talented, junior barrister who is yet to lose a case. The three-part series aired on BBC One in October and November 2013. Between January and May 2014, Tennant filmed the US remake of Broadchurch, re-titled Gracepoint. Tennant filmed the second series of Broadchurch during summer 2014. Tennant also portrayed the villainous Kilgrave in Jessica Jones, a television series from Marvel and Netflix. All 13 episodes were released on 20 November 2015.
In autumn 2015, Tennant's name was announced for Scottish feature film I Feel Fine, a thriller set in Glasgow in the 1980s. However, as of January 2016, the film has been postponed indefinitely. In February 2016, he began filming Mad to be Normal (previously titled Metanoia), a biopic of the renowned Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing, produced by Gizmo Films. He filmed the third series of Broadchurch between May and October 2016.
In late 2016, Tennant will appear in writer/director Daisy Aitkens' first feature film, You, Me and Him (previously titled Fish Without Bicycles). The film is co-produced by Tennant's wife, Georgia, and had originally been due to co-star his father-in-law, Peter Davison; however, Davison withdrew from the film in October 2016 due to a scheduling clash. Tennant will play Cale Erendreich in the film Bad Samaritan due for release in 2017. The film is written by Brandon Boyce, and directed by Dean Devlin.
Despite his recent focus on television work, Tennant has described theatre work as his "default way of being". He joined the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), to play Hamlet with Patrick Stewart and Berowne in Love's Labours Lost in 2008. From August to November 2008 he appeared at the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon as Hamlet, playing that role in repertory with Berowne that October and November.
Hamlet transferred to the Novello Theatre in London's West End in December 2008, but Tennant suffered a prolapsed disc during previews and was unable to perform from 8 December 2008 until 2 January 2009, during which time the role was played by his understudy Edward Bennett. He returned to his role in the production on 3 January 2009, and appeared until the run ended on 10 January. On 12 April 2011, a photograph of Tennant as Hamlet featured on a stamp issued by the Royal Mail to mark the RSC's fiftieth anniversary.
In January 2012, Tennant was appointed to the Royal Shakespeare Company board, to be on the selection committee interviewing and choosing the new artistic director. It was announced on 23 January 2013 that Tennant would return to the RSC for the company's 2013 winter season, playing the title role in Richard II at Stratford-upon-Avon (from 10 October to 16 November) and transferring to the Barbican Centre in London (from 9 December to 25 January 2014). Tennant will repeat his performance as Richard II in the RSC's 'King and Country' cycle in 2016, starting at the Barbican Theatre in London. before transferring to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York.
David Tennant is currently a Member of the Board.
Tennant was the "Star in a Reasonably Priced Car" on Top Gear in December 2007, where he claimed to have unsuccessfully auditioned for a role on Taggart 26 times. Tennant is the voice behind the 2007 advertising campaign for catalogue retailer Argos, and appeared in adverts for The Proclaimers' 2007 album and learndirect in June 2008 (using his natural Scottish accent in both). Tennant also lent his voice to adverts for Tesco Mobile, Nintendo Wii, and American Express.
Tennant appeared in Derren Brown's Trick or Treat. In TV & Satellite Week (26 April – 2 May issue), Brown is quoted as saying: "One of the appeals of Doctor Who for David is time travel, so I wanted to give him that experience. He was open and up for it, and I got a good reaction. He's a real screamer!" The episode aired on Channel 4 on 16 May 2008, and showed Tennant apparently predicting future events correctly by using automatic writing. Tennant also returned for the final episode of the series with the rest of the participants from the other episodes in the series to take part in one final experiment.
Tennant appeared in the 2008 episode "Holofile 703: Us and Phlegm" of the radio series Nebulous (a parody of Doctor Who) in the role of Doctor Beep, using his Lothian accent. Also in 2008, he voiced the character of Hamish the Hunter in the 2008 English language DVD re-release of the 2006 animated Norwegian film, Free Jimmy, alongside Woody Harrelson. The English-language version of the film has dialogue written by Simon Pegg, who also starred in it as a main voice actor. In early 2009, Tennant narrated the digital planetarium space dome film "We Are Astronomers" commissioned by the UK's National Space Centre. On 13 March 2009, he presented Red Nose Day 2009 with Davina McCall. He joined Franz Ferdinand onstage to play the guitar on their song "No You Girls" on a special Comic Relief edition of Top of the Pops. In summer 2009, Tennant filmed St. Trinian's II: The Legend of Fritton's Gold. The film was released in December 2009.
In November 2009, he co-hosted the Absolute Radio Breakfast Show with Christian O'Connell for three consecutive days. He returned to cohost the show for one day in October 2010 and again in September 2011. Tennant also provides the narration and all the character voices for the audio book versions of the Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III stories by Cressida Cowell such as How to Train Your Dragon. In these audio books, he employs his vocal skills to create a vast cast of recognisably distinct voices. Some of his most memorable characterisations include the Norfolk yokel of Norbert the Nutjob, the broad Glaswegian of Gobber the Belch, the hissing and whining Cockney of Toothless the Dragon and the sly insinuations of Alvin the Treacherous. He also played the role of Spitelout in the recent animated film adaption of said books.
On 7 March 2010, he also appeared as George in a one-part BBC Radio 4 adaptation of Of Mice and Men in the Classic Serial strand. He appeared with former costar Catherine Tate in the Shakespeare comedy Much Ado About Nothing at London's Wyndham's Theatre from 16 May 2011 to 3 September 2011. For his performance as Benedick he won the BroadwayWorld UK Award for Best Leading Actor in a Play.
In September 2011, it was announced that Tennant would voice a character in the movie adaptation of Postman Pat named You Know You're the One with a planned 3D theatrical release for spring 2013. In October 2011, Tennant started shooting the semi-improvised comedy film, Nativity 2: Danger in the Manger in Coventry. He played dual roles: the main character, put-upon teacher Mr Peterson, and his "golden boy" twin brother and rival. He appeared in a multi-million-pound campaign for Virgin Media. One advert was voluntarily withdrawn after a complaint lodged by BBC Worldwide, which believed that the advert broke the corporation's guidelines by featuring references to Doctor Who that appeared to be a commercial endorsement of the service.
Tennant starred opposite Rosamund Pike and Billy Connolly in a BBC/Origin Pictures film, What We Did on Our Holiday, a semi-improvised comedy from the writers of the popular BBC sit-com Outnumbered; shooting took place from 17 June to 30 July 2013 in Scotland. The film was released in September 2014. He is the narrator on Xbox One video game Kinect Sports Rivals.
On 9 February 2015, Tennant appeared on the Radio 4 panel show Just a Minute, becoming the show's most successful debut contestant.
Between March and June 2017 Tennant will appear in Patrick Marber's Don Juan in Soho at the Wyndham's Theatre. Also in 2017, he took over as the voice of Scrooge McDuck for Disney XD's DuckTales reboot, replacing the character's longtime voice actor Alan Young, who died in May 2016.
Tennant was named "Coolest Man on TV" of 2007 in a Radio Times survey. He won the National Television Awards award for Most Popular Actor in 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2010. He was voted 16th Sexiest Man in the World by a 2008 Cosmopolitan survey. Tennant was ranked the 24th most influential person in the British media on 9 July 2007, according to MediaGuardian. He appeared in the paper's annual media rankings in 2006. In December 2008, he was named as one of the most influential people in show business by British theatre and entertainment magazine The Stage, making him the fifth actor to achieve a ranking in the top 20 (in a list typically dominated by producers and directors). He was voted the third best dressed man in Britain in GQ reader's poll for 2013. Tennant's popularity has led to impersonations of him on various social networking sites, leading the BBC to issue a statement making it clear that Tennant does not use any of these sites and any account or message purporting to be or from him is fake. In the expansion EverQuest: Seeds of Destruction for the game EverQuest, a character was introduced called Tavid Dennant, named after David Tennant. The character when interacted with makes a number of references to Doctor Who.
In 2008, Tennant was voted "Greenest Star on the Planet" in an online vote held by Playhouse Disney as part of the Playing for the Planet Awards. Later that year, he underwent surgery for a prolapsed disc. He is a supporter of the Labour Party and appeared in a party political broadcast for them in 2005; in 2010, he declared his support for then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown. In April 2010, he lent his voice to a Labour Party election broadcast. In 2012, he introduced Labour Party leader Ed Miliband at the Labour Party Conference. In 2015, he also lent his voice to a Labour Party General Election broadcast. He is a patron of Worldwide Cancer Research.
In December 2005, The Stage placed Tennant at No. 6 in its "Top Ten" list of the most influential British television artists of the year, citing his roles in Blackpool, Casanova, Secret Smile, and Doctor Who. In January 2006, readers of the British gay and lesbian newspaper The Pink Paper voted him the "Sexiest Man in the Universe". A poll of over 10,000 women for the March 2006 issue of New Woman magazine ranked him 20th in their list of the "Top 100 Men". In October 2006, he was named "Scotland's most stylish male" in the Scottish Style Awards.
Tennant married actress Georgia Moffett on 30 December 2011, having met her when they co-starred in the Doctor Who episode "The Doctor's Daughter". They have four children, including Moffett's child from a previous relationship whom Tennant adopted. Moffett is the daughter of Peter Davison, who played the Fifth Doctor.
Tennant does not discuss his personal life or relationships in interviews, stating in 2009 that "relationships are hard enough with the people you're having them with, let alone talking about them in public". He believes that religion "must have" shaped his character, and he is an occasional churchgoer.