For the rest of her career, whatever heights she will go on to scale, Doctor Who is the role that will define Jodie Whittaker in the public consciousness.
“It lasts a lifetime,” she agrees. “To the fans you are always the Doctor.” Before her fleeting appearance at Christmas, 12 men had played the part* – the same number that have walked on the moon. It’s a small club she has joined – and it’s one you never leave.
“To be able to audition was incredibly exciting; getting the part knocked me for six,” she says. “It’s wonderful being the first Doctor who is a female. And I am enjoying the conversation. But if it is still a thing in five years’ time? If this would still be as big a moment? I just hope we start to see that women are not a genre in that sense.”
If Whittaker is feeling the pressure taking on one of British TV’s most iconic roles, she’s wearing it well. She greets The Big Issue warmly at the Covent Garden Hotel and could not appear more relaxed as she settles down with some fresh mint tea. She’s lively, engaged, laughs easily and talks even more quickly than some of her motor-mouthed predecessors. According to Doctor Who’s new showrunner and lead writer Chris Chibnall, the 13th Doctor is “incredibly lively, warm, funny, energetic, inclusive”. Over the best part of an hour, it becomes clear that all of this applies equally to Whittaker.
“I want to explore the Doctor’s childlike wonder,” she says. “I wanted to capture that moment in children where they are not self-conscious, where they prefer to trust rather than divide. That inclusivity and hope is what I really wanted to bring to it.”
A show with evolution and regeneration hard-wired into its DNA has changed more ahead of the new series than at almost any single point in the show’s 55-year history. New Doctor, new showrunner, new companions, new name for the companions – they are now the Doctor’s ‘friends’ – all-new monsters, new Sunday night slot and new writers and directors. And yes, new hope. The new team have asked big questions. What is Doctor Who for? What do we need from the planet’s oldest and greatest science-fiction series? In these divided times, they are bringing us Doctor Who as an open, welcoming space to revel in, a show to marvel at with an instantly likeable central character and a modern, diverse and representative cast. The shock of the new Who is how effortless the new team are making it all look.
Less than a month after completing filming on her first series, Whittaker is missing her new gang. “Oh my God, I love them. I am having huge withdrawals. Already.”
Whether it is modesty or a sign of the camaraderie that looks set to define the Chibnall and Whittaker era, the 36-year-old suggests the series is more of an ensemble than ever. She will share her adventures in space and time with Bradley Walsh as Graham, Mandip Gill as Yaz and Tosin Cole as Ryan.
“There are about a million WhatsApp groups – one for each episode. Things are better when you work as a team,” she says. “Doctor Who is only is what it is because people come in and do amazing work – and you can only do that if you enjoy where you are working. Nobody wants to work with an arsehole, so don’t be the arsehole.
“I am in every episode. I get to work with everybody who comes in. But there is no room for, you know, a clique. This isn’t that show. This isn’t that world. This is an inclusive, Whovian world and all of us are new to it.”
Whittaker returns to the idea that this is an ideal jumping-on point for the young, the old and anyone left feeling jaded, confused or intimidated by the show’s long and complex history. “It doesn’t require a degree in Doctor Who to get into it,” she says. Each time Whittaker’s praise of the new Who could be interpreted as an implied criticism of the past, she is lightning quick to clarify. “It never has, of course, but you don’t necessarily know that.
“When I started to audition, I felt woefully under-qualified. But Chris explained that a new perspective is exactly what he wanted. That is the wonderful thing about these huge shoes I am filling. No one plays it the same. There is no pressure on me in that sense. In a way, being the first woman is even more liberating.”
Whittaker recalls reading the lists of names linked with the job before she was announced: Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Paterson Joseph, Ben Whishaw, Olivia Colman, Thandie Newton, Tilda Swinton. “It didn’t matter how old, how young, where they were from – that was what was so exciting,” says Whittaker. “There was a list of incredible people and you couldn’t say anyone was similar. That should be the same for every role. Actors audition and the person who is right in that moment gets the part. But it is not always the case.”
One of the few things we know about the new series is that the majestic Alan Cumming will play James VI and I, confirming that the Doctor is heading for history. This makes Whittaker’s casting even more enticing.
These are the moments, in story terms, when the Doctor’s gender will matter. The Doctor is the same character – same massive brain and manic energy, same compulsion to help humanity and save worlds, same pacifism and principles, but future worlds and far-off planets are one thing. The past? That’s more complicated.
Previous Doctors landed in history as a white man. Will royalty, political leaders or regular folk from the past be as quick to cede power and control to Whittaker’s Doctor? And is this addressed in the scripts?
“The thing about gender in this is that the Doctor is the Doctor. So gender is irrelevant in that sense,” says Whittaker. “But within the world of history, within a social element, sometimes gender is relevant. And that would be a wasted moment if that wasn’t acknowledged in some episodes and worlds. That being a new point of view for the Doctor is interesting and brings up fascinating scenarios…” She pauses. A spoiler on the tip of her tongue. A big grin as, with great effort and restraint, she backs down from a big reveal. “Fucking hell. It is so fucking stressful!”
But Whittaker is ready. Since her impressive straight-out-of-drama-school big-screen debut in Venus back in 2006 she has been one to watch. Her early career also offered a close-up view of some of the best in the business.
“When I was in my twenties I got to work with a dynasty of extraordinary British actors in Peter O’Toole, Judi Dench, Imelda Staunton, Jonathan Pryce, Leslie Phillips, Richard Griffiths and Vanessa Redgrave,” she says, eyes wide, more of that wonder.
“I had this extraordinary three years of working with our acting gold. And it was also a masterclass in being a good person, an ensemble team player and respectful on set.”
Suddenly a household name, only the most ardent fans will know much beyond her acting career. Born and raised in Skelmanthorpe, near Huddersfield, trained at Guildhall, favourite band Public Service Broadcasting (The Race For Space has been on heavy rotation since her casting in Doctor Who, she says), knows the names of her local Big Issue vendors in London. That’s all we need to know.
Doctor Who is not the first time Whittaker has been at the centre of a show shrouded in mystery. After Tess Of The D’Urbervilles, Black Mirror, The Night Watch, St Trinian’s, Good Vibrations and Attack The Block, to name a few highlights, came the first series of Broadchurch – also written by Chibnall. It had the whole country gripped. Whittaker was compelling as grieving Beth Latimer, whose life was turned upside down by the murder of her son. She is adamant that Doctor Who, in its new Sunday evening slot, has to be at the heart of our national conversation.
“Otherwise what is the point in continuing to make it?” she asks. “Broadchurch had it, Game of Thrones has it. You want people to want to be in to watch it at the same time, when it is first on, so they are part of that conversation. To do that, it must reflect the world we live in.
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“Chris was very particular about this season relating to what is going on in the world now. That is really important, politically. It is about life. But this show also goes to new worlds, takes us back in time. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and the Doctor has that. To be able to show time to her friends in a different way is amazing. And it is seen through the eyes of an alien and friends like we have in our life – through the points of view of different ages, sexes.
“This show has to be part of the conversation. I don’t want to be the bit in Whovian history that nobody talks about.”
There is absolutely no danger of that happening. With her Doctor likely to inspire millions, who were the on-screen characters she grew up loving?
“I was brought up in a house where I wasn’t defined by my gender. But in the Eighties and Nineties society certainly did define that for me,” she says. “I wanted to be Mikey in The Goonies, I wanted to be Atreyu in The NeverEnding Story, I wanted to be The Boy Who Could Fly, I wanted to be the kid in Flight of the Navigator. Elliott in ET? You can’t teach that. The roles I loved were the boys. It wasn’t because they were boys, it was that they were the main roles, they were doing the things that I wanted to do.
“Every single film I love has something in it that inspires me. That is the wonderful thing about film, TV and theatre – your inspirations are never dying out, they keep coming in new forms. Even now, one of my heroic characters, and I am a 36-year-old woman, is Eleven in Stranger Things. That is a young child. But she is my hero.”
She is sounding more and more like the Doctor now, seeking and finding inspiration everywhere.
“I see myself in my favourite roles regardless of whether they look like me. It is a bit of a myth – that boys can’t look up to girls but girls can look up to boys and that is all right. It isn’t like that – your heroes are your heroes.”
Doctor Who starts on BBC One on Sunday October 7.
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