“I did hope,” says Michelle Gomez darkly, in a pleasantly bland BBC conference room in Cardiff, “that there was life in the old Missy yet.” This recent Doctor Who development, in which the Doctor’s nemesis and fellow Time Lord the Master became the Mistress, has reached a plane of unhinged menace that previous incarnations could only have dreamt of.
One journalist, a Whovian from a Doctor Who magazine, asks 49-year-old Gomez shyly how deep the sexual chemistry was between Missy and the Doctor. “You’re reading into it something I’ve never even thought of,” she replies. But… doesn’t she snog him? “Oh, she’ll snog anything! She’d snog a Dalek.” This is a surprise after Missy’s extermination last week.
The usual thing with actors is to be surprised how short and/or good-looking they are up close. Both of those things stand, by the way: she is much shorter than you’d think, and possessed of an intense, charismatic sheen that she constantly downplays, claiming at one point that she was saved from a life of boredom in a long-running show by “this face. Thankfully I’ve got this face. It’s not an easy face to cast.”
With Gomez, though, the main surprise – which it shouldn’t be, considering her breakthrough performances in The Book Group and Green Wing – is how funny she is. Self-deprecating, caustic, surreal… you never know where the next laugh will come from – you only know it’s coming.
“I’m a Doctor Who fan first and foremost,” she claims, “and then an actor. I knew what it meant to change the Master’s gender. But I didn’t want to be daunted by that. I couldn’t think too deeply about it.” In fact, despite protestations, real and ironic, of her own intense laziness, she has thought pretty deeply about it.
“What’s interesting is that as soon as you make the Master the Mistress, it just blows open all these new possibilities for different relationships that couldn’t have happened before. With [the Doctor’s young companion] Clara, it would have been straight away, ‘What is the romantic connection, does the Master fancy her?’ No. We can move past that, into something much more interesting, much more detailed, which is life. That’s what life is. It’s not all black and white.”
Michelle Gomez is over from New York, where she has lived for the past eight years, with her husband Jack Davenport (whom you’ll know from This Life, Coupling or Pirates of the Caribbean, depending on your vintage) and their son, who has just started school there. “It does blow my mind, here I am, a wee lassie from Glasgee and my son’s got a Brooklyn accent. He’s now doing a comedy Scottish accent back at me.”
She is, typically, hilarious on the subject of getting work in the US, stressing its relentless bleakness, despite the fact that she recently landed a part in an HBO series, The Brink, which aired on Sky Atlantic in the summer.
“I’m being thoroughly rejected in America, I’m running around there with my wee bag of tricks, getting ‘Next’. Sometimes I walk into the room and just get ‘Next’ and have to walk straight out. Over there, what you’ve done here doesn’t count for anything. So I’m starting all over again. You have to earn it. I think I am, and always will be, an acquired taste, and if you like that taste, then, you know, that’s great. But I think it takes a minute.”
When, in the 80s, she didn’t get into drama school, she studied briefly to be a drama teacher; from there, she did theatre productions before being spotted by an agent. She describes this as a bittersweet moment, since she was giving the most serious performance of her life and was picked up for her talent as a comic.
Even after that, “there was a lot of theatre. There was a lot of dressing up and shouting for 20 pence.” But she has come to respect comedy utterly – “It’s like math. There’s a real science to it, in a way there isn’t to drama. A laugh’s a laugh. You either get it or you don’t.”
Wait a minute… Math? Nobody panic: the odd Americanism aside, she is very much an alien in New York, resolutely British in her cultural sensibilities. “British television does do something that American television doesn’t. They throw a lot of money at it, but in Britain, we know how to tell a story with integrity, nuance and depth. We do it with a fraction of the money but we still tell that story very well.
When British television gets it right, I don’t think there’s anything better. It’s all about the money over there. Here, it’s more about – this sounds really poncey – it’s more about the art, it’s about the skill, and I suppose I miss that a bit.”
We talk, as one always does to any woman over 35 and some far-sighted ones as young as 20, about the disparities between men and women in acting. Gomez says that, like most women of a certain age, she falls “between two categories. I’m not young and I’m not gnarled. So we tend to disappear.
“To depress you further,” she adds, raising the question of real life, “There’s this notion that, as parents, you become vessels for memories for your children, and at some point, you go, ‘No, I’m not ready for that yet, I still have to be out in the world doing stuff, and I want my children to see me doing stuff. You can’t lose yourself in the grey area, that umbrella of parentdom.
“I happen to be a parent, and do my very best there, but I happen to also be this person, and this is what defines me professionally – as women that’s really important to hold on to.”
Having said that, though, she doesn’t feel that her career has been crimped by motherhood. “I’ve become more discerning, so things become more valuable. Before, I’d have done anything. I’d just have been glad you asked. So I think I’ve now got a tiny bit of dignity.”
Underneath her insistence that she is rubbish, at best Marmite-y, there is so much warmth and respect for the people she works with, and the projects she’s done, that she sometimes accidentally traps herself into sounding faintly proud. Then looks appalled. Talking about Doctor Who, she concludes, “That’s what art is meant to do. Unpin everything and get you asking questions.”
So just to clear something up, I ask: “Is Doctor Who art?” “Oh I don’t know, is it art? Is any of it art? I can hear already loads of people yelling, ‘No, it’s just a kids’ show!’ But it’s not. It’s so much more than that. It’s just wondrous, it’s a wondrous world no matter what age you are.”
Doctor Who: The Witch’s Familiar is on BBC1 tonight (Saturday 26th September) at 7.45pm