"I enjoy life through make believe": Jodie Whittaker on playing the Thirteenth Doctor
The new sci-fi star may have struggled at school, but she's perfectly qualified to play the smartest alien in the galaxy, says Emma Freud
Over a decade before becoming the first female Doctor Who, the then 25-year-old Jodie Whittaker gave an interview to her local newspaper. She said: “When we were training, it was a 50/50 male/female split, but we knew when we came out that 80 per cent of acting jobs are for men. A woman is never going to get to be Bond or Doctor Who. That will never happen.”
Yet here we are, and I can’t think of a more perfect woman to take on this historic challenge. I first met Jodie in 2015 when I helped produce Dermot O’Leary’s 24-hour Danceathon for Comic Relief. We needed celebrities to come down and cheer him on, and although I’d never met Jodie, I’d become obsessed with her from watching Broadchurch. I sneakily found her email and asked her to swing by at any point during the 24 hours. Of the people I asked, 90 per cent came for half an hour during the day. Jodie doesn’t work like that…
“First I went to the shops and bought a Red Nose Day T-shirt,” she recalls. “I had to get an XXL because I was eight months pregnant. I got there at ten in the evening because most people had gone and I thought he might need a friendly face. Poor guy, by midnight he really hit a wall. I was dancing till 2am but then everyone got worried I was going to go into labour so eventually I was sent home.”
Born and raised in West Yorkshire, Jodie, now 36, has always been a dynamo. Her first stage job was at Shakespeare’s Globe (The Storm in 2005), her first movie was opposite Peter O’Toole (Venus in 2006) and her quietly devastating performance in Broadchurch as Beth Latimer made her virtually a national treasure.
When she calls by to discuss her new role as the Doctor, my son is at home worrying about his GCSEs. As soon as she arrives, Jodie reassures him that her results prove he has nothing to worry about. “I got five. An A* in drama – thank you – an A in PE, and threeCs. I was delighted, but the school – not so much.
“One of the things that made me nervous about playing the Doctor was having to play one of the most intelligent characters on TV. I’ve always considered myself emotionally bright, just not necessarily academic. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand things at school, I did – I just couldn’t take them in using the traditional teaching methods. There are 30 kids in most classes, and if you are in the back end of that, it’s hard to keep up.”
So how did she cope during her school days? “I’ve always learnt to enjoy life through make believe. As a kid I could sit, and play, and be, in a world I imagined – and it turned into
my way of learning. I’d struggle with things that didn’t capture that for me. But if I could apply my imagination to those subjects, it worked: so I gave a division sign a character and the numbers on either side a bit of a story. If I made it move or talk, it made sense and I could do it.”
I wonder if anyone has since pointed out to that school that this girl was described by Peter Capaldi as a “super-smart force of nature” and is now playing the most intelligent alien in the galaxy.
Luckily, those early knocks didn’t seem to hold her back – she has the confidence of a head girl. “It wasn’t massively angsty for me because my parents didn’t pressurise me academically. It’s all down to who you come home to. My parents just asked me: ‘Do you try? Are you a good person?’ That was all they needed to know.”
Were they similarly supportive when she decided to try acting? “Yes, very. I was really lucky – they supported the fact that I wanted to do something that wasn’t in their life. At 15, a careers advisor said to me, ‘Most actors don’t make it, what’s your back-up plan?’ My parents were furious and just said, ‘Do NOT have a back-up plan. Work at what you want to do.’” Christian Burgess, head of drama at the Guildhall in London, where Jodie went on to study acting, has said this about her: “I think initially Jodie felt she hadn’t had a very powerful, formal education, but she has this innate actor’s intelligence, which she gradually came to recognise as being much more useful than having been to Oxford or Cambridge. She’s fearless, that’s the thing. And when she decides she wants a job, she goes into a room and convinces them that they have to have her.”
So what exactly does this actress have that made her the perfect person to play the most enigmatic character in TV history? For one thing, the Doctor Who team had decided very early on that they were going to change the gender, she explains. “Chris Chibnall [the new showrunner] knew he was writing for a woman. We worked together on Broadchurch and he asked me to come in to audition with my own accent, and all my dget- ing, really being me.
“I think I have an energy Chris felt would drive this part. I’m more comfortable viewing things in the child version of me than the grown- up. I wouldn’t say it’s being fearless – because children aren’t scared, they don’t have the bruises – perhaps more naivety.
“It’s the ‘lightbulb’ thing. If you turn a light on in a cave, a grown-up will be scared of what’s in the dark bits they can’t see. Whereas a kid would be fascinated by the light. I’m not always the brightest spark in the room, but I know that I’ll keep on learning new stuff all the time. I want to play the joy, the discovery, the fear and the curiosity.
I have a short attention span, bound on set and my brain jumps from subject to subject. It turns out that is the Doctor in so many ways.” She admits to never having been a dedicated Who fan, but since getting the part has she studied the 12 previous Doctors as part of her process in creating the 13th? “I’d seen some growing up, but once I started auditioning, Chris was happy for me to come in with fresh eyes. Because of the wonders of the internet I was able to do the research thoroughly without actually watching every episode. I wanted to make sure my choices were instinctive to me, rather than mimicking a previous performance.
"As a new Whovian, when I handover to the next Doctor I can’t wait to cane every episode of this show – I’m going to start at [ first Doctor] William Hartnell and do it in order.” With one series of ten programmes under her belt, as well as a Christmas special, she’s employing the same tactics with the loquacious dialogue that she used with long division. “I’m doing what I do with every script. Always, everything is pictures. It makes perfect sense when I turn all that information into images. I get the script beforehand, I think, ‘That word means this version of the galaxy, what does that galaxy look like?’ I apply my very normal instinct when I’m talking about space, or time or historical events – and the pictures say it.”
In accepting the part, Jodie’s taking on more than the scripts – she’s part of the redefinition of women in the television industry, a potentially key player in the female army demanding parity, and she’s already thrown a mighty brick through the glass ceiling... “Thing is, I’ve never felt that there was a glass ceiling to break, because I’ve never put a glass ceiling up there. When I was little not looking like someone didn’t stop me from looking up to them. I wanted to be Mikey in The Goonies or Atreyu in The NeverEnding Story. I didn’t care it was a boy playing the part.
“I don’t want to defend the decision to have a female Doctor because there’s nothing to defend – I’m playing an alien. Matt Smith wasn’t qualified. Peter Capaldi wasn’t qualified. They can challenge me about my academic qualifications – ne – but no one can be properly qualified for this job unless they’ve got two hearts and come
Then how does she feel about the drama that surrounded the announcement of her getting the job? I truly hope that in a couple of years casting a woman in a traditionally male role won’t be so exciting – because when it’s not celebrated, it will mean it’s no longer unusual to have this sort of parity.
“I’m always asked, ‘Do you think James Bond should now be a woman?’ But that’s not the conversation. It’s really – ‘Should every point of view be the same?’ And the answer is no. Stories shouldn’t always be told from the same perspective. It’s a mistake to think that the only heroes are white men. I’ve spent the last nine months hanging out with my Doctor Who family – Tosin [Cole], Bradley [Walsh] and Mandip [Gill] – and those are very different points of view. I get to see the world for a fleeting moment through their eyes. How lucky am I? It’s the representation of humanity that matters. That’s The Conversation.”
And what about The Pay-Check Conversation – did she ask for equal pay? “I didn’t need to.”
On Sunday, when the first episode is broadcast, her life is going to change. How does she feel about her impending superstardom? “When I was younger and said I wanted to be an actress, lots of people said, ‘Oh, you want to be famous!’ No – I never wanted to be famous, I just wanted to be an actor, and it’s one of the things that goes along with doing the work. With other professions, like a tennis player, you’d never say to them, ‘Oh, you want to be famous!’ They don’t, they want to become the best that they can be – but they never get accused of ‘wanting fame’. I’m aware of it but it ain’t the aim. The aim is to do exciting work that reaches an audience.”
She’s already put in place some strong boundaries to protect her from the noise of celebrity – she never talks about her marriage, hasn’t revealed the name of her daughter, and isn’t on any platform of social media. “I find it hard when I’m really passionate about something, that I don’t have that public voice. But you can’t pick your public voice, and I only want it sometimes.”
A few years ago Jodie was asked to open the sixth form college of the school she attended. “I declined at the time, but in the future I’d love to go back and maybe talk to the students – it’s important to stress to young people that there are so many choices to make and so many differ- ent ways you can succeed.”
Last week, sitting alongside my schoolboy son, I watched a preview of Jodie being spectacularly brilliant in episode one of the 13th Doctor’s adventures. As the end credits rolled, he leant over and whispered: “I knew I didn’t need to do my homework.”
Doctor Who returns to BBC1 on Sunday 7 October