Jodie Whittaker is not the first actor to play The Doctor on the BBC’s beloved adventure series Doctor Who. (She’s not even the 13th, though that is her designation within a canon that spans 55 years of TV, film and radio adventures.) And though Joanna Lumley popped up as one of the character’s regenerations (along with Rowan Atkinson, Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent and Richard E. Grant) for a 1999 charity special, Whittaker is the first woman to officially play the role, embodying the genial Time Lord from Gallifrey in the new season that’s just started back up on Space channel.
The Yorkshire-born Whittaker – who dials down her native accent considerably for the show – first got noticed opposite Peter O’Toole in 2007’s Venus, and established her sci-fi bona fides thwarting an alien invasion in South London alongside future Star Wars hero John Boyega in 2011’s Attack The Block. But most people know her best as Broadchurch’s shattered Beth Latimer, whose young son’s murder sets the series in motion. The show’s creator, Chris Chibnall, replaced Steven Moffat as Doctor Who’s show runner, and he brought Whittaker along as the new Doctor, taking over from the departing Peter Capaldi.
In Toronto for a whirlwind press day on the heels of New York Comic Con, Whittaker is chatty and energized, still riding the high of Sunday’s season premiere – the most-watched episode of Doctor Who since the show returned in 2005 – and what looks like fandom’s approval of her performance.
You were announced as the new Doctor in July 2017, and the character’s debut is a major pop-culture event both in the UK and abroad. You’ve done interviews and chat shows and panels and Comic Cons… so is there any question you haven’t already been asked?
The main thing that we as a company want to convey – and it’s hard to always convey, if you are the [primary] person everyone talks to – is the sense of the ensemble. With all these interviews, most of it is aimed at me, but the thing is, I’m a tiny dot in the show. There’s a beat in the first episode that’s like the best moment of my entire life, when I stand up and they play a bit of the theme music. I didn’t pick that, and I didn’t write the music, and I didn’t edit it and I didn’t grade it, but I get the glory! And I get to talk about it. [laughs]
Okay, but it’s not like you’re not doing anything in that beat. You’re showing us that this Doctor deserves the theme music.
I know, I know! But I haven’t even said anything at that point! So there was a lot of pressure to earn it.
How much of that came from within? The show is old enough now that literally every new Doctor will have grown up with it. Were you a fan as a kid?
Well, I’ve grown up with it, but only in the sense of being British – you know, you walk into a café and you’re like “Oh, it’s like the inside of the TARDIS in here!” You know where it’s from and you know the context, but it wasn’t really on in my house. It started to become a part of my social circle when my friends were in it – some of my friends were Doctors. And you audition for [a guest role] and don’t get it, things like that. But for me, what was the most revealing thing about this Doctor was, I could get it. Because that’s the thing: when something has got a huge fan base already and has been going so long before you’ve even played the role, all you can think about, as the actor, is how much you don’t know.
That seems daunting.
It can be incredibly overwhelming and really terrifying, but then actually what is wonderful and helps you be a little bit Method, is that The Doctor has such a love of discovery and learning and never prejudging a scenario – that’s actually been a great way in for me, you know. I am on a journey of discovery like the Doctor is, and particularly because this Doctor faces 10 stand-alone episodes that are all new worlds, new moments in history that we haven’t visited yet on the show, new monsters and all that. It gives the fans something they haven’t seen before, but if this is your first season, it gives you ownership on that. “I remember when I met Tim Shaw [the monster in her first episode] and I jumped behind the couch!” Or, you know, “His face terrified me!” or “My first favourite friend was played by Mandip Gill!” The thing that I’ve discovered about Whovians is that there’s a real passionate ownership of this, which is wonderful because it’s not [an] ownership that excludes, it’s ownership that is about inclusivity, which is the show.
I’m really intrigued by the decision to end that first episode with flashes of all the guest stars who’ll be appearing this season – some of whom are actors we know, some whom aren’t so familiar, all dressed for whenever and wherever.
I know! It’s a brilliant way to go, like, “Here’s a spoiler but not a spoiler.” It means we don’t have to keep so many secrets. I actually don’t know if those actors knew that their character still was coming up at the end it’ll be great to chat to them when I get home and say, ‘Was that a surprise?” Because a lot of them won’t have told anyone they were in it! It’s such a secret! They’ve, like, lied and said “I’ve just gone on holiday for four weeks! Don’t ask me how it was!”
Yeah, I was going to ask about keeping secrets in the age of spoiler culture. It’s the same here with Star Trek: Discovery – every time an episode airs, three or four Toronto actors immediately tweet “Sorry! I know! Sorry!”
We remember when the internet didn’t ruin things because there wasn’t an internet! The first phenomenon of the internet for me – and I really remember it – was all the hype around The Blair Witch Project. I was like 15, 16 years old, and all of a sudden this documentary had been found and I believed the campaign about this “found footage”. It was like, “Oh my god I can’t believe that’s real!” And then you’re like, “Oh, it’s a film.” [laughs] But now we go, “By the way, we want you to know the ending before you even know who’s cast.” And it’s like, [exhausted sigh] “Oh, really?” And I think Chris has always been a big supporter of letting the audience be the first to enjoy [a story]. He did that with Broadchurch and he’s done it with this, and it’s lovely to be able to talk about the first episode, but also it’s great and easy for me to sit here and talk passionately knowing what’s to come. [smiles wickedly] My little box of secrets.
I mean, the second episode is just a few days away, we can probably talk about that a little…
No I can’t, because I’m too good at my job. [laughs]
Okay, we’ll stick to the premiere, which introduces the new Doctor in an adventure on Earth. And what was remarkable about it is how your Doctor does and says everything that The Doctor always does – save lives, solve problems, inspire companions to be their best selves – but because it’s a young woman doing it, the context is radically different. We’ve met a new Doctor literally a dozen times before, but it’s never landed like this.
It’s only a surprise to the other half, really. Because for [women], we never question our ability. We’re just told we won’t be able to do it. It’s not ever us thinking it, and that’s what’s so brilliant about it – more so than any other role I’ve played, the gender [of The Doctor] is so irrelevant. But it’s so important, this moment, because we’re all going “Look how irrelevant it is!” That moment has to happen, with relevance, but the response is that The Doctor is The Doctor. We’ve not wiped the slate clean why would you have 55 years of an extraordinary show and disregard your past? I think some of my most beautiful dialogue in that first episode sums up how we all feel: in life, sometimes change is scary, but stick with it and everything’s going to be okay.
I’ve never felt that my gender was a hindrance to me. I have just often felt that I couldn’t be seen as a certain thing because of it. But now playing this role, being able to play The Doctor, it means that young boys and young girls can have heroes who don’t all have the same perspective. On a great note as well, I share that with three fantastic companion friends that reflect all ages and backgrounds of 2018 in our social circles or in our family. You’re gonna have young girls looking up to [Bradley Walsh’s middle-aged] Graham at moments, as well as grown men being completely inspired by [Mandip Gill’s younger] Yaz. That’s the beauty of Doctor Who.
The show’s been more consciously diverse in its casting since it came back in 2005, but now there’s a matter-of-factness to its representation of England.
We know the society we live in it’s just not always reflected on screen. And I think the thing that makes this so exciting is if you take four of us into all these different worlds and moments in history and moments in the future and moments in other dimensions – then what a rich exploration of perspective you can get. It can’t possibly be a negative.
It’s different and the same.
Yeah. And that’s the thing: it always is. And there’s always a sadness at the loss of a Doctor, because for some people it’s their first. Some people’s only Doctor is Peter [Capaldi]. So to have to let go of him is heartbreaking – but for other people it’s like, “I’ve done this 12 times! Give me a break!” But with it comes endless possibility, and knowing that I get to pass these shoes on to somebody. Knowing that I will only be the first of something that will have many.
And right now, as of this week, you’re somebody’s first Doctor.
I know! That makes me want to cry. [laughs]