By Alex Moreland
Understandably, Mandip Gill wasn’t expecting to film anything new during lockdown. Work had finished on Doctor Who for the year, and when production shut down on Suspicion – an upcoming Apple+ thriller starring Uma Thurman, in which Gill has a supporting role – she’d already completed most of her scenes.
Then came Five Dates. It’s an interactive romcom – think Black Mirror’s Bandersnatch, but with romance, and also comedy – styled as a series of video calls between Vinny (Taheen Modak) and his five different dating app matches (one of whom is played by Gill).
“Obviously, I saw the word interactive, but didn’t really think too much on it,” explains Gill. “I just was like, ‘Yeah, cool. I like this. I’d like to get involved if I can’ – it just naturally happened that way.”
It proved to be a surprisingly straightforward filming experience, despite the complexities of the format. “I didn’t know how you’d film it, because it was massive – the script was massive, apparently 700 different endings. I was like, ‘How, what? I don’t get it. How am I going to remember this?’ But Paul [Raschid, director] had scheduled it in such a way that so many of the outcomes just flowed naturally.”
“My fear was that, because there’s so many lines, I don’t know how I’m going to remember the reaction to it – because you do two versions as well! You don’t want to go on a date with him, do want to go on a date with him, don’t drink, do drink. How am I going to remember all that? But it was scheduled and written so well, that that actually wasn’t [a problem]. After the first day and a half, I was like, ‘I could do this for another day and a half. I’ve got another day and a half of flow charts in me.’”
Five Dates is something of a departure for Gill in other ways, too, not just because of its unique format and filming conditions. First, there’s the comedy. “I’ve always said I’m not very good at improvisation, I don’t like trying to be funny, but with Five Dates, there was proper space for it, and I had to fill the gaps. I had no choice but to fill them. Then I was like, “Oh, maybe I’m actually all right at this,” – but I’d never actively say, ‘Oh, I can improvise’.”
“I think if I was going to ever challenge myself, it’d be in doing comedy,” she continues, “where I don’t find it as easy or I actually would have to really work on it. Whereas I watch a lot of drama, so I find it easier to do [those roles].” She’s attached to another comedy project at the moment, Count Abdulla, (by “a brilliant young writer. When we did the rehearsal read-through, which was before lockdown, the cast were absolutely brilliant in that”) which is still in early development.
There’s also the fact that, because Five Dates is a film, it’s standalone – unlike the television roles she’s most famous for, such as Hollyoaks and Doctor Who, where her characters “build up and bubble slowly” over the course of several years, with input from lots of different writers and directors. “I do like the change in working with different directors, because everyone has their own distinctive style. When you’re doing a long-running thing, it keeps you on your toes, keeps it exciting.”
“I do think, though, after I’ve finished [Doctor Who], would I prefer to go on to standalone things? Or things that are three, four episodes long, really work on a character, really build that character arc in those four episodes and then leave?” she ponders. “I think it would be challenging and really exciting to do even just an episode on something, but have a beginning, and a middle and an end to work on.”
“Three, four-part dramas [are also] the stuff that I watch,” Gill continues, and her enthusiasm for television becomes clear very quickly. She’s been watching recent ITV dramas like Des and The Sister (“My friend Amrita Acharia is in it, but they do such an amazing job that you stop going ‘Oh Amrita’s in this show’”), and points to actors like Olivia Colman, Keeley Hawes and Jodie Comer (“the nuances and the attention to detail in her work is amazing”) as particular inspirations. “I’m watching and learning stuff from them, because sometimes they’ll say a line and I’m like, ‘I would never have said it like that’. Then I practise the way that they’ve said it, just to see how they got to that intonation”.
It’s clear, talking to Gill, how thoughtful of an actress she is, and how much attention she pays to small details – she spends a lot of time talking about accents, for example, or her character’s posture in Five Dates. Beyond that, though, how much of her performance comes down to choices she makes in the moment? “I do my work, and I know all the stuff that I was taught and studied and I’ve picked up from people, but there is also a place where I leave it. I always think, ‘Why did you write so much on that script? Because that script’s at home.’ It might not work for everyone, but I do a lot of stuff instinctively. I couldn’t say ‘on that line, I’m going to do that’ or ‘I’m going to cry on that line’.”
“I probably am sometimes a bit of a nightmare because it’s like, ‘But your tear didn’t come out then’. Well, I didn’t feel it on that second time! I felt it in a different place,” she explains, laughing. “A lot of this stuff is based on my instincts, after I’ve written where I’ve come from and what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. Then you go to set, and it changes anyway, because the director has their versions, and then another actor is giving you something too. Most of acting, if not all of it, is reacting.”
She puts a lot of emphasis on collaborating with her co-stars (“we’re supposed to be dancing with each other!”) and learning from them, too. “Working with people like Brad [Bradley Walsh, on Doctor Who] and all the really young, amazing people that were on Five Dates – like Taheen, for instance, I learned so much from Taheen. I don’t know really what it was but I just think he was so giving and really free.”
“I’m so used to doing things that are really scripted and you must stick to the words – I was there with my script, ready to go, kind of rigid, whereas he was really free and flowing,” Gill continued, explaining what she’ll take from Five Dates going forward. I was like, ‘I think I’m going to steal that’. When I’m working now, I’m like, ‘Just because that’s your mark, doesn’t mean that you can’t also do all this other stuff’ – if that’s part of your character, you can do it all.”
Gill’s been acting for ten years now – and she’s starting to look ahead to the future, too, a couple of years down the line. “I think when I leave Doctor Who, it would be a case of me being really choosy with what I do, so that I’m fulfilled as an actor. I think I’d have to ask, ‘but is that remotely similar to the characters that you’d been playing for the last 10 years?’ Because I also need to stretch myself and actually be a bit scared about going to work a little bit.”
“On Suspicion, that was the first time that I was able to go, ‘Right, do something a little bit different’” she elaborates. “I hope, fingers crossed, that it is really different to the characters that I’ve played. I did really work on it, I had to work on my accent [a lot]. So fingers crossed, it plays out that way – but also if it doesn’t, then that to me is just a learning curve where I go, ‘Well, next time you really have to just work that bit harder for it to be further away from anything you’ve played before.’ [For the next few years] it’s choosing things and saying yes or no to things that allow me to change.”
Gill wants to try and stretch herself in other ways too. “I wrote a script and was like, ‘This is just not you. It’s not for you, love.’ I sent it to my friend Amir, and he was like, ‘Yeah, this is great.’ I was like, ‘No, it’s not, I actually know it’s not!’” she laughed.
“There was a time when I really tried to force things – I moved to London in 2015 and everyone was so savvy, creating their own work. I felt like I really needed to up my game because right now I’m a little fish in a big pond and all you do is acting. So, I did try to dabble, and I have ideas, I just don’t know… I think people who write have studied for years and I know it’s an art in itself.”
“That’s years of experience, and I’m not in that place yet,” Gill continued, explaining that she’d tried returning to writing during lockdown. “I have this really cool idea – it’s not cool at all, it’s really gritty obviously – that I keep thinking about and I keep sitting on and you know what? I will absolutely hate myself if someone ends up doing it, because it’s not an idea that they’ve explored on British television.”
Looking back on the last 10 years, then – and forward to the next 10 years, too – what’s the most important thing she’d want someone to take away from her work?
“I think more than my actual work, it would be if you could take away something from my career: that you can do and be anything. I know me being South Asian in Doctor Who is such a big deal for people in a positive way. If you can look, even if it’s not in this field, in any field, you can be anything you want to be. We’re brought up with so many restrictions [and] stereotypes – I hope that little people are looking at me going, ‘I can be anything I want.’”
Still, though, that’s enough about the future for the moment. There’s still the here and now to think about. Five Dates was made during lockdown, of course, but recently Gill has started to get back to in-person production. On the whole, it’s going OK. “Apart from everyone wearing masks and staying two metres apart, it honestly feels… It feels weirdly really normal and fine? But I probably got used to people wearing masks in everyday life. Scenes are probably written differently, but I didn’t see the other versions, pre-lockdown version. So, they’re smaller, but they’re working.”
The Doctor Who Christmas special comes to BBC One in late 2020/early 2021
Five Dates is released worldwide for digital download on Windows & Mac via Steam, PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and IOS/Android 2021 on 17 November.