Jodie Whittaker is an enthusiast. She talks quickly, hands wave everywhere, infectious laughter punctures the rapid-fire conversation as she flits from subject to subject, barely pausing to finish a thought.
But with the great power that comes with taking perhaps the biggest job in British television drama comes great responsibility. She has to keep her personal politics in check. It’s not always easy.
We meet in a hotel in Soho in London’s West End. She shows me over to “the posh seats” by the window. And while it is, in her words, “proper cold” outside, Whittaker always reserves a warm welcome for The Big Issue. “It’s a brilliant magazine that I buy every week,” she says.
I begin to ask about the 37-year-old’s vision for 2020. What view might someone who travels through time on television for a living – and does it better than ever judging by the preview we’ve seen of the new series – have on this new year and new decade that we mere mortals may not?
“You want my new year’s resolution? My new year’s resolution is to put my fucking phone down!” she says.
“Now it’s been updated, it tells me how much I look at it. I’m a grown-up, why am I looking at a toy for that long every day? That’s what I think, anyway.”
Thanks for sharing, Jodie! But back to your vision for 2020.
This is where it becomes tricky. The general election has not yet taken place and it doesn’t take a Time Lord to know that the political future is still in flux.
“We have got major stuff going on,” she says. “So I don’t know how I will feel. Either I will feel devastated or I’ll feel really excited because there are fresh eyes. I hope we move beyond [Brexit] but in a way that is…” She turns to her publicist, sitting across the room, ready to guide her away from plot spoilers and more.
“Can I just say how I voted? No? Fine. What will be interesting is whether my faith is in the person who is assigned to lead us or if it is someone I do not feel confident with.
“I think that’s as far as I can go with what I can say, otherwise I will go on a rant and then I will panic and you will get a phone call later saying you can’t write it!”
She moves to marginally safer territory. Whittaker, who smashed through sci-fi’s longest-running glass ceiling when she succeeded Peter Capaldi in the 2017 Christmas special, is clear-eyed and full-hearted as she looks to the new decade.
“What we should do going forward, and what I feel I need reminding of, is take huge inspiration from the groups of young people who are putting their voices out there and articulating what we grown-ups can’t,” she says.
“You have a wave of children in the US, speaking about what fundamentally affects them on a day-to-day basis. They want change and they’re going out peacefully en masse and talking about that.
“We have Greta [Thunberg] putting herself at risk of criticism to say what needs to be said to move us forward – and we as grown-ups can take inspiration from a united massing of non-violent protest and voice. It’s inspiring. However deflated we feel, throughout history, people have come together and got over massive hurdles. The one we potentially can’t get over is climate change. So how can our generation think we shouldn’t be listening to the next one? I mean, they’re the ones that have to deal with all this.”
I imagine the Doctor would be impressed by Greta Thunberg. After all, she listens to people equally and it is the smartest voice in the room (not the loudest) that she always tunes in to.
“That’s the thing. Yes. I am absolutely nicking that,” she says. “But it’s true. Me and another person may disagree on a million things but the one thing we do agree on could result in change. If you never listen because you see difference before you see similarity, that’s where disaster strikes for me.
“You are never too old or too young to give advice. So you need to be able to receive it from any age group. The new year needs to be open ears and open hearts. Don’t lose hope.”
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I ask whether playing the Doctor, who goes out into the world creating positive change, confronting her fears, has emboldened her? Whittaker considers the idea.
“What’s so incredible about playing the Doctor is that fearlessness,” she says. “Knowing the outcome could be devastating but doing it anyway, swimming out and not saving anything for the swim back. That is really extraordinary.
“It makes me feel like I wish I had more Gallifreyan traits. Because I’m not very good at being like a five-year-old who runs into the playground and tries to climb everything. I miss that feeling. I love playing someone who has that sense of adventure without thinking, ‘If I fell it would really hurt’, which is my natural instinct.
“I am not a rule-breaker in any way. Neither is Mandip [Gill, who plays Yas]. Both of us can’t be a minute late for a parking meter. I’ll be absolutely bricking it over any accidental rule break. Oh my god, I’m boring!”
I watch certain episodes to see the progression of the Doctor’s relationships with certain monsters. But I only see what I need
Reader, she’s not. And neither is Doctor Who, which returns in a whirlwind of explosive energy with a double-bill, featuring Sir Lenny Henry and Stephen Fry.
“Those two are not just famous for their talents but they’re famous for who they are as well,” says Whittaker. “It must drive them insane but you go in knowing loads about them – I’m immediately boundary crossing.
“I knew Lenny [from Broadchurch] and he is as lovely and warm as you’d expect. I felt quite emotional about Stephen being in it because for me, when we look back at the voices of our generation, only time will tell how significant and impactful and important he is to articulate, inclusive thought.”
Whittaker is thrilled to be back after a year off our screens. And she feels settled in the role.
“I feel like I’ve been accepted as the Doctor,” she says. “There was a pressure. If I’d have been a guy in this role I’d have only been representing my own casting as an individual. But it felt like I could hold people back if nobody liked what I brought to the Doctor.
“The gender question is now going away. Hopefully it won’t make the news next time.”
The role expanded Whittaker’s profile enormously. Her breakthrough turn in Venus was critically acclaimed, she regularly starred in quality film and television dramas, and Broadchurch was a huge ratings smash. But Doctor Who is different.
“It wasn’t life-changing in the sense that I didn’t have to wear a mask to walk around,” she says. “People are wonderful and really respectful. If you can negotiate your way through that jungle, there’s things that are incredibly positive about becoming more famous. The Children in Need documentary [where she recorded a charity version of Coldplay’s Yellow next to a photo of her nephew Harry, who died aged three in 2014] was brilliant, and showed I can be starstruck as well. So I do get it.”
The gender question is now going away. Hopefully it won’t make the news next time
Whittaker’s increased profile meant she recently met members of the band as she recorded Yellow for the Children in Need covers album – an idea she helped make happen when actor Shaun Dooley explained it on set of The Ghost Monument, the second episode of the last series of Doctor Who.
“If you were going to say what is your dream thing to happen in make-believe, it would be to sing with your favourite band,” she says.
“I am obsessed with [Coldplay drummer] Will Champion. That poor man. I do things like name my dream dinner party and say ‘Will Champion, Michelle Obama…’ Now I have actually met him it’s so embarrassing. I am a grown-ass woman and he’s a grown man. Fangirling from a distance is ace, but when you are put into the room it is absolutely mortifying.”
So when Coldplay next headline Glastonbury or the Albert Hall…
“THEY SHOULD CALL JODIE! There is no danger I won’t be at that gig, and if they want me on stage I will be there with bells on, saying: ‘Shush, Chris. We don’t need you on this song!’”
For now, Doctor Who is the only thing on the horizon for Whittaker. She talks through her timetable for next year – lots of promo then more filming. Her second series, she says, builds on the high-octane style of the previous new year special, in which she encountered the Daleks.
“We are so sneaky, we said there were no classic monsters in our first series. Which was true. It was very deliberate to save the classic monster for the special,” she says.
“For Chris [Chibnall, Doctor Who showrunner], there’s no point having this extraordinary toy box of classic monsters if you’re not going to use them. But you don’t want to short change them with a crap episode that doesn’t serve the chemistry between the Doctor and the returning monsters. The episodes with the Judoon and the Cybermen in the new series are amazing.”
Do these encounters with old foes send her back to previous series of the show? Whereas some of the more recent inhabitants of the TARDIS – particularly Peter Capaldi and David Tennant – were hardcore Whovians, Whittaker was not. Instead, she brought a fresh take on the role, unencumbered by history.
“It sends me into a massive headfuck to watch all their extraordinary performances. I think: ‘I don’t do that. I might do a little bit of that. How do I do that?’ And it isn’t helpful.
“I watch certain episodes to see the progression of the Doctor’s relationships with certain monsters. But I only see what I need. I can only be authentic if it really comes from instinct of where I feel like I place my Doctor.”
The highlights of her first series as the Doctor were perhaps the historical episodes – Rosa, featuring Rosa Parks and bus protests, and Demons of the Punjab, set around the partition of India. This time, Whittaker is excited about an episode featuring [inventor and futurist] Nikola Tesla – “there’s a perfect connection to sci-fi because he is adamant he had a message from Mars” – as well as the deepening of relationships with the Doctor’s friends, played by Gill, Tosin Cole and Bradley Walsh.
Will the character get darker, as previous Doctors have, as she experiences more horrors, new losses, further heartbreaks?
“Some of those things take a particular toll,” says Whittaker.
“The new series is a huge learning curve… but I can’t tell you how. And this isn’t my last season so there’s no point cramming every single side of the entire character into every episode. We’re not in a rush because we hand these shoes on. For me it’s a transition through this universe. And it’s an epic journey.”
Doctor Who returns with Spyfall (Parts 1 and 2) on New Year’s Day and January 5