At last, the Doctor is in!
With his exit from the program last Christmas, Peter Capaldi left some big shoes to fill. But fill them they did. Jodie Whittaker’s casting didn’t just usher in a new era for the show (as the arrival of every new Doctor does), it also allowed her and showrunner Chris Chibnall to shatter a glass ceiling that stood for half a century. With all that being the case, the excitement for Whittaker’s arrival was palpable from the start and only grew stronger as the eleventh season premiere approached. And so it was that we sat down with Ms. Whittaker on the Sunday of New York Comic Con, mere hours before ‘The Woman Who Fell to Earth’ debuted with a worldwide simulcast. The conversation that followed touched on Whittaker’s approach to the role, the dynamic in the newly crowded TARDIS, and more.
When you first started working on this season with Chris (Chibnall), what was your first impression of the Doctor and who she was?
Well, the scripts were probably way beyond ever needing input from me before I ever started auditioning. I think the thing that was a real excitement to me and a revelation – because who knew I would ever be auditioning for it, but never mind feeling like you can do it – was when I got the sides for the audition, which were scenes that were written specifically for the audition process. The energy that Chris had… He says I brought it, but to me it bounced off the page. I think it’s who you talk to! But I just was like, “Aw yeah, get it!” This is all the things I love about playing. It’s movement. It’s jumping from thought to thought while having a clear purpose. It’s hopeful. It’s like enjoying the detail in an epic scale. It’s all those things, and I think it was very much on the page and it felt like you bounded into this Doctor’s world and the Doctor bounds into the world. But it’s obviously not a white slate. The Doctor has many traits that it’s always had. But I certainly didn’t say… I’m not important enough to see an early script and go, “I think I’ll do this.” It was like, “This is the script, we worked a long time on it.” And I was like, “It’s amazing! Oh, you’re kidding! You’re kidding!”
You’ve obviously worked with Chris before on ‘Broadchurch’, which is a drastically different show from ‘Doctor Who’. How is it different working with him this show?
I’d say no. There’s lots of similarities because it was a five-year process, working on ‘Broadchurch’, the three seasons we did, I kind of can’t remember the time when I didn’t know him and we weren’t friends and didn’t have a shorthand. I think the only thing I can say is it’s an extraordinary benefit having a shorthand, and he knows how I work, and he respects it, and he’s very generous with it. There are often a lot of questions, and without being pedantic, I’m quite detailed. And he loves that, thank God. I have also never been a writer and do not choose to think I am a writer in any form. So there is not a point where he goes… Where he gets a message that’s like, “I don’t think I’d say that.” You know, like he knows he’s not dealing with that, but then there is, “Okay, that word makes me think that. Is it supposed to make me think that or…?” And he enjoys the fact that I like that conversation before I get on set – like the week before when I’m going through it – and he is as detailed to it, to respond with it. But as far as approaching a role, it is quite similar. It’s not a similar role, it’s not a similar world, it doesn’t have a similar scope, but it’s the way I work and it felt completely normal to work like that again on this.
What have you found to be the biggest challenge in putting this season together?
The secrecy. In this day and age, and people’s ability to find things out and to think that spoilers are a positive, it’s really hard. Like you work so hard on something, and it’s not just us. Like we rock up last to set, get to leave the first. You know, everyone else who’s building the sets, creating the monsters, doing all the post, writing an incredible score. All that hard work, and keeping it secret because really it’s such a wonderful adventure if you don’t know the ending. And it’s hard in this day and age and was much easier pre-technology. And because of technology, it means this wonderful series will reach however many corners of the Earth. But it’s difficult when you’re just like, “Please just trust us, you don’t want to know!”
One of the interesting things about the Doctor as a character is how each new actor makes the role their own. So when you were cast, did you look into how any of your predecessors had approached it? And if so was there one that stood out from the pack?
So “no” is the short answer. The long answer being I didn’t grow up in a Whovian house. So being an actor and having… Some of my mates have been Doctors and I’ve got a lot of friends that’ve been in it, so I’ve obviously seen it and been exposed to it, but I’ve never seen like an entire season or an entire journey of a Doctor. So when I got it, my first impulse was like, “Right, I need to watch. Me and William Hartnell are gonna become best friends and we’re gonna start there and end up here!” And I talked to Chris about it, and there was a real feeling, for me, of “Would I do this for any other part?” If I was about to play Juliet in ‘Romeo and Juliet’, would I watch the most recent production of it? No. But the wonderful thing about ‘Doctor Who’ is it’s written. There is essay after essay, Wikipedia page after Wikipedia page, and the folklore and the mythology, and it’s all there. All the things I needed to bound into this role without feeling at any point that I was gonna second guess an instinct. And I thought, “In the audition, I brought this and they liked it.” Now I want to bring it and have a happy accident when it overlaps, but I don’t want the self-consciousness of “Have I stolen this?” For me. It’s only my approach, and you know, it can be hated or defended, but it was mine. And I feel like it served my insecurities. [laughs]
Are there any previous Doctors you’d like to work with if they were to come on back for a special?
Doc Brown. ‘Back to the Future’. [laughs] I think that would be the most amazing mashup! But if it was a previous Doctor of ‘Doctor Who’… I don’t know. It’s so difficult because there’s so much from everyone, I think… I love the idea that David Bradley was William Hartnell, and that was so moving to me, the use of time and space within an actor, and two actors playing the same “actor.” I don’t know, things like that I really love, so in a way what would be wonderful is if, like in a David Bradley sense, if someone was playing a Doctor who wasn’t the Doctor they’re playing in it. I think that’d be interesting. But unfortunately for all the fans, there’s no mashup this season. [laughs]
What’s the dynamic like with three companions? Typically in the past, there’s been a “lead companion” and people connected to them.
It’s three equal status companions. As I like to say, “my best mates.” And the thing for Chris as a true Whov, this was the start of it as a concept, you know? Back in the day, there was three and I think for him it felt like he wanted to really use that DNA of the show and bring it back. But the thing for me is I don’t know any different. So I imagine it is an interesting transition if you were Peter (Capaldi) and then, you know, a season came and there was three companions because he would have the comparison. But for me, it’s all I know. The wonderful thing is the energy and the unique relationships between all of us, you know? Like my relationship – or the Doctor’s relationship – with Yaz, or Yaz with Graham, or Ryan with the Doctor. All that is unique. And then with each other, Ryan and Yaz, and Yaz and Graham, Graham and Ryan, all that. And it gives you the opportunity to not only see these adventures and worlds through the Doctor’s eyes but through the eyes of people of all ages and backgrounds but actually a world in which we’re living today in 2018. And it gives you an opportunity to maybe explore a certain adventure through the point of view of… It feels very ensemble, it’s not always the Doctor at the forefront, which is interesting and makes it a very rich season.
Granted it’s still early days, but have you had a favorite fan reaction to your Doctor so far?
I had this really extraordinary moment at Comic-Con in San Diego, where we did Her Universe, and it was a surprise. So I was a surprise guest, but I got there, was taken backstage and I got my costume and I was gonna walk on with my coat and give a description, there was gonna be a surprise announcement. But it was this catwalk, and I was just feeling really confident and I’d had a lot of smoke blown up my ass the last two days, so I was feeling like a legend. So I was like, “I’m gonna walk the catwalk!” In my head, I was gonna walk on with my hood. She announced me as a late model, so I thought I’d have to walk and do a few laps and then go, “Guys!” But the weirdest thing – because I wasn’t at a ‘Doctor Who’ event, there might not have been one ‘Doctor Who’ fan there – but I was about three steps into the catwalk when you can hear the realization in the screams and it wasn’t turning into boos! And I was like, “This is amazing!” and I milked it for about ten minutes. I almost mic dropped. Like I turned back at the end and it took all my strength not to go [mimes mic drop – with sound effects]. But I very gracefully handed it back, and that would have to be my favorite so far.
The eleventh season of ‘Doctor Who’ stars Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, and Mandip Gil. New episodes air on Sunday nights at 8pm on BBC America.