Jodie steps into the Time Lord’s shoes
Two days before we meet in London, the new Doctor Who gave a talk about her favourite films. Jodie Whittaker looked out at the audience and there in the front row was a young fan dressed as the Doctor.
Not Peter Capaldi’s buttoned and booted rock star version, nor any of his 11 predecessors, but her Doctor, the newcomer who will materialise on our screens this month after a tantalising glimpse granted on Christmas Day. The fan was a boy, and Jodie obviously
isn’t and never was.
“I am asked an awful lot about girls looking up to me as the first female Doctor,” she tells, “but just as important is boys looking up to women.”
It’s over a year after the announcement Jodie would succeed Peter on the popular sci-fi series (set to screen this month on TVNZ 2 and On Demand).
Although Jodie is a private person, she is still relishing the fuss. “It’s one of them jobs, isn’t it? You have to enjoy every moment of it or you’re in the wrong field. I mean, it’ll be nice when being the first woman doing something like this isn’t such a moment, but it is also exciting to know that it won’t have the same impact in the future.
“I’m just another actor playing the Doctor and the Doctor is an alien, so I’m just as qualified as anyone else to play that role – which is woefully unqualified.”
She has only one heart, we point out – the time traveller from Gallifrey has two.
“I do only have one heart. I’m just human and boring. Of course, I’m a woman too and people respond to the character in some scenarios as a woman. There may be certain times where it has an effect, but I was asked once, ‘Are you playing it as a woman?’ And I thought, ‘Oh, my God!’ I can’t ever imagine David [Tennant] answering the question, ‘Are you playing the Doctor as a man?’”
Jodie, the woman who will be the 13th Doctor, is 36 and best known as the bereaved mother of the murdered teen on Broadchurch, in which David – the 10th Doctor – was a detective.
Landing the part
Wearing black jeans and a Converse T-shirt as she talks to Woman’s Day, she has mid-length blonde hair, visibly dark roots and a Yorkshire accent in which she talks 19 to the dozen – a long way
from the curmudgeonly Victorian Doctor played by William Hartnell when the show launched in 1963.
As Jodie says, it was the obvious place for the show to go. But perhaps it was not so evident over that first coffee she had in 2017 with Chris Chibnall – the writer of five Doctor Who episodes who had the previous year been announced as the show’s new head honcho.
Back in 2013, he had cast Jodie as Beth Latimer in Broadchurch and they had just finished the publicity round for its third season. Now, he told her, he was cancelling all other projects to focus on television’s longest-running science-fiction series.
It’s important to remember that Jodie, born in 1982, grew up in a world without Doctor Who – the BBC cancelled the show in 1989. It was revived for a single TV film when she was 14, but it flopped.
By the time the Doctor’s spaceship, the Tardis, made its successful reappearance on our screens in 2005, Jodie was 23, performing at Shakespeare’s Globe and about to receive nominations as cinema’s newcomer of the year for her role in Venus alongside Peter O’Toole.
Her first connection with the show came in 2010, when she was rejected for a cameo in Matt Smith’s opening episode as the 11th Doctor.
It may have been with some casualness, then, that in the café where Jodie assumed they were just catching up, she joked to Chris, “Can I come? Can I be an alien? Can I play a baddie?” He replied, “It’s funny you bring it up because I actually wanted d to talk about whether you would consider auditioning for the Doctor.”
It seemed a terribly good idea. The part was not hers, however. The offer was to audition as one of an all-female shortlist.
The auditions were tough “and rightly so”. Jodie was called back, but since she was filming in Glasgow, she had to record the extra scenes on her iPhone in her rented flat. “When I
found out I had the job, I burst into tears. It’s a big deal and I respond like that. I can cry with joy and with sadness. I can get really overwhelmed.”
To accept the job of the Doctor is to swear an oath of silence. Jodie could tell no-one, apart from her agent and her immediate family, although she kept the news from her father because he is such a blabbermouth.
Her first task, again conducted in secrecy, was to work on what she would wear, as each Doctor is defined partly by their garb. Jodie met the costume designer, who scrutinised the images she had bombarded Chris with.
“There were just hundreds. Well, not hundreds, but 20 or 30 pictures that I sent. One of them was a woman in cropped trousers, braces and boots, and a black and white T-shirt. She had kind of messy hair that wasn’t a particular length – it wasn’t short and it wasn’t long.”
The new Doctor’s look is largely an extrapolation from that. Every detail, apparently, has a meaning that will be revealed. So a skirt was out of the question? “There’d be no reason because it’s not practical to run about in. Why would you wear a skirt or a dress? Why be cold?”
Jodie’s casting was made public in a short teaser on BBC One after the Wimbledon men’s final last year. We saw the Doctor walking through a forest wearing a long coat over a hoodie.
When she removed her hood, reactions from viewers were unsurprisingly mixed. Prime Minister Theresa May was in favour. Colin Baker, the sixth Doctor, said, “Well, I never. The BBC really did do the right thing.” A few fans swore never to watch again, while the fifth Doctor, Peter Davison, argued that boys had lost a role model.
The teaser, however, gave us no clue as to who her Doctor actually was. The day after the shoot, Jodie was at the BBC to film her regeneration scene for the Christmas episode. It was also Chris’ first day.
“For us on set, it was really emotional because he’s a huge Whovian and these were the first steps – this was him seeing
what he’d written on screen and I was making my very first appearance as the Doctor.
“I had a moment – I was in somebody else’s Tardis, in somebody else’s costume and I was about to take over from 12 people.”
Pictures of Jodie’s costume were released in November, but her scene in the Christmas special showed her shot in Peter’s outfit. The scant 60 seconds that followed at least contained one clue – when she spoke, saying, “Aw, brilliant!” it was in a broad Yorkshire accent.
“In the audition process, I always ask, ‘What accent do you want me to audition in?’ and Chris said, without hesitation, ‘I want you to use your own voice.’ It wasn’t, ‘I want a northern accent.’ It was just, ‘Use your own voice.’”
The way Jodie sounds is how they speak in Skelmanthorpe, the village 14km southeast of Huddersfield, where she was brought up and where her role was such big news that the butcher built a Tardis outside his shop. Locals call the village “Shat”, an abbreviation of “Shatterers”, a name they were known as in the early days of railway construction for their job of shattering rocks. When a taxi picks her up at the station, the cabbie always asks if she’s “a Shat lass”.
Her father ran a window business and her mother is a nurse. She went to the local Shelley College and arrived at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama hugely defensive about her education.
“I had a right chip on my shoulder. Particularly about Shakespeare because, at 20, never having read it, I was just like, ‘It’s terrifying.’”
Now, though, could Jodie play Hamlet? “I’d be more interested in Macbeth because I’m not cerebral. I move from here [she points to her stomach], not from there [tapping her head].”
She graduated in 2005, and embarked on a career that has spanned theatre, film and television. In 2008, she married US actor Christian Contreras, who she had met at drama school. They had a daughter three years ago but have never revealed her name.
On her biggest role yet as Doctor Who, Jodie says, “There are moments of anguish, but I feel that the way I enter into the role is with my eyes open and the lights on. You’re five years old and you’re in a dark cave, and the light goes on and you see every colour, texture, shape ... How exciting that would be!
“I wanted it to be like a light going on when the Doctor is regenerated and comes back, blown away by the beauty of everything and seeing it in things where it isn’t always obvious. Knowing when to be scared but using that fear to push yourself, not restrict yourself.”
What about romance on board the Tardis?
Jodie will be joined on her voyages by three new companions – or “friends”, as the show now prefers. Two are
Hollyoaks alumni Tosin Cole and Mandip Gill, and the third is former Coronation Street star Bradley Walsh, host of quiz show The Chase.
I assume the age gaps will preclude the sexual tension that generated heat around David’s Doctor and Billie Piper’s Rose Tyler. “We are a friendship group this season,” Jodie says firmly.
Beyond that, because of
the vow of silence, she can reveal very little about the nine months she spent filming her first season in Wales, except that it was the most fun she has ever had on set and also the hardest. At the season’s wrap party, Jodie gave a little speech and attempted some of it in Welsh. She gives the strong impression she thinks she failed at very little else on set.
When Chris is asked why Jodie won the part, he remembers her auditioning for Broadchurch and how she just rang true. But getting to know her, he discovered she was not only a “great tragedian” but also “a great comedian”.
“We haven’t seen this and some of that is my fault because for five years, she’s been grieving on Broadchurch. But you’ve met her. She’s lively. She’s funny. She’s a force of nature, the most entertaining person in the room. As soon as the take ends, she’s messing about and having a laugh.”
After her first audition, Chris’ greatest fear was “confirmation bias” – that he was seeing what he wanted to see from his friend. So he gave Jodie extra scenes to film.
“Did she tell you she constructed her own props? There was one scene that was the archetypal Doctor defusing a bomb that’s about to go off. I thought, ‘I know she can do emotion. I know she can do the humour and the energy. Can she do the techno-babble?’ She made a prop for herself. When the scene came back to us on video, she had a box with wires coming out of it. She really fought for this part.”
When she got it, the BBC drama head gave her The Talk – how once you are the Doctor, you are always the Doctor and “all the terrible things” that could mean. Jodie then turned to the society of surviving ex-Doctors, of which happily there are still nine. Only the first three – William, Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee – have permanently dematerialised. It began with a phone call to Peter, David and Doctor number nine, Christopher Eccleston. “Each of them gave her different pieces of advice,” explains Chris. “But I know that all of them said they wouldn’t change it. They wouldn’t swap it for the world.”
Jodie and her timetravelling companions (from left) Bradley, Mandip and Tosin. Below right: Lucky number 13! Jodie at a photo call with 12 lookalikes.
All aboard! The gang are all smiles at the premiere screening of Season 11.
Above: Jodie sheds a little light on her new role. Right: As Beth in Broadchurch with (from left) Charlotte Beaumont, Andrew Buchan, David and Olivia Colman.
Jodie with her husband of 10 years, Christian, who she met at drama school in London.