As the Oct. 7 return of Doctor Who approached, star Jodie Whittaker — the first female Doctor in the show's 55-year history — talked to TVGuide.com about how she got the role and what she's learned since moving into the TARDIS.
Obviously you knew Chris Chibnall from working with him on Broadchurch. What's that working relationship been like?
Jodie Whittaker: Yeah, I've loved working with Chris. I first met him in 2012 when we were doing Season 1 of Broadchurch. I adored working on Broadchurch, and throughout he's always been incredibly interesting and interested in actors. So we've always had that kind of relationship — if you have any questions, he's at the end of the phone. He's not an elusive writer who pops out of his cage ever three months. [Laughs] Particularly with [Whittaker's character] Beth, because it was such an emotional journey, there were times I would need to text him or get in contact, and he was always really giving with his time.
Broadchurch became a family quite quickly and we have all been very good friends since. So when I met up with him [around the airing of] Broadchurch Season 3, it was just like, "Oh yeah, let's meet for a coffee." Little did I know we would end up talking about the potential of me auditioning for the Doctor.
I think for me, if Chris had only known my work, I don't think he would've necessarily thought of me as right for the role, because a lot of my work has been emotional or heavily traumatized, with a quite heavy energy. But in real life, I'm quite hyperactive and manic. So I think he saw qualities in me that lent themselves to the role. I was lucky that he knew me personally, and knew that I was a team player and I really enjoyed being part of an ensemble, and I really love filming and being on set. You need someone who enjoys the job, because it's long hours.
I don't think people realize how immersive it is, because you're also the face of the franchise. You're on set for all those long hours, and you're also doing a lot of promotion. It's an all-in commitment, isn't it?
Whittaker: Yeah, it is. I mean, it's a dream job in so many ways, because no scene is the same, no episode is the same, and in every element of every part of this show, you have a lot to do. That's great. I prefer to be overworked than under-worked as an actor. No one wishes for the lazy days. It's full-on, but it's fun and it's playing pretend. It's hanging out with some really brilliant people and going to amazing places with them. At times, it's hard when you get in from a long day and you've still got two hours of line-learning to do for the next day's filming and your brain is full. But I wanted to be an actor from when I was a kid, so I don't knock this or in any way wish for this to go away quickly. It's so fun and it's such a moment, and it's come at a perfect time in my career and my life. Also, it's reminded me that there is hope for change within the industry as well, which is great.
They had Doctor Who on public television over here, so I have been watching since I was about 10. When I found out the Doctor would be a woman, I'm not ashamed to say, I was in tears.
Whittaker: As was I. I really cried when I found out, and I'm not ashamed. But it's important because for us — I'm 36, and when I was growing up, all of my heroes on TV and film, the parts I wanted to be doing, were not the ones that looked like me. They were the ones that were on the sidelines. The girls who were clapping at the side and waving at the boys, who were doing all the fun bits of action and having the heroic moments. I didn't want to be restricted in my professional career or in my imagination because other people thought women couldn't do certain things.
"But why keep doing the show if you're not going to invite change and celebrate that change? There's just no point."
It seems like things are really shifting and moving, but there's still resistance. How do you navigate that? Do you just ignore the internet entirely?
Whittaker: One of the main things that's been very healthy for me throughout my life and my career is having never entered social media. I didn't get a Facebook page, I never got Twitter, I never went on Instagram. It's a wonderful tool for so many reasons. But for me personally, it was never a direction I wanted to go in, because it lets in things that don't necessarily need to be a part of your day. I am very proactive of making sure I know the news and what's happening. So to then kind of dilute that with opinions, whether good or bad, of people who've never met me isn't necessarily helpful for my type of personality.
The overwhelming response to this has been positive. Also, it doesn't matter either way really, because it is what it is, and I'm having the best time of my life. I know that for a lot of Whovians, and for a lot of people who've never watched the show, this could be a moment that invites them in or it could make them re-fall in love with the show. Because it does tick all the boxes of what you love about it: It is about optimism and change and hopefulness. Everything's regenerated. We've got a new Doctor, we've got new friends, we've got a new showrunner, new producers. But the thing that's brilliant about Doctor Who is you've got 55 rich years of history to honor. But why keep doing the show if you're not going to invite change and celebrate that change? There's just no point.
Since the day of the announcement when you could finally share this news with the world, what's been the biggest surprise?
Whittaker: I started filming in October, and this is long time to be away from home — we do a shoot in London and then we shoot in Cardiff. It requires a certain amount of moving to a new place with new people who I'd never worked with. I had no idea when I first started I was going to fall in love with it so much, everything about it. I love living in Wales, I love the people I work with, I am particularly in love with the [actors playing the companions]. Mandip Gill and Tosin Cole and Bradley Walsh are three of the most generous, hilarious people I've ever had the pleasure of spending all day, every day with. It's fun.
I knew it was going to be hard, but the people that we've met and the world of the crew — who have been working on the show for years and years — have embraced us. We've become a part of a friendship group that we'll be in forever. It ticks all the boxes of why I wanted to be an actor, which is to have fun and to play pretend, and to go on an adventure. All jobs have certain elements of that, but this taps into my childhood dream the most.
I assume that you and Chris had discussions about the character. For you, what was the key to finding your Doctor — Jodie Whittaker's Doctor?
Whittaker: We didn't really talk that much about the character. I know that maybe sounds strange. I came in to the audition and most importantly played the truth of every scene. I didn't try to imitate, or try to show what I thought the Doctor was. Chris wanted to see my instinctive reaction to the dialogue and the scenarios from a place of fresh eyes, rather than going, "Right, how would a Doctor respond to this?"
For me, it was about capturing the right energy. I could've come in at a million miles an hour, which I did, and that could've felt completely wrong, but I was lucky that in Chris's eyes, that was what he wanted. He loved, I suppose, the bounciness, the energy, the lack of stillness I suppose I had. The things that excite me, even at 36 — I'm still a kid in a sweetshop. I wanted that kind of child-like awe and continual enjoyment of discovery, and to not have those social censors that we have when we get older. Life trains you to respond in a certain way. The wonderful thing about playing an alien is that all those rules go out the window. And Chris knows me — he gave me so much that it wasn't like I had to sit down and go, "Right. How am I going to play this part?" It just felt instinctive.
Also, there's the energy that Bradley and Mandip and Tosin brought. Having three friends in it all the time is brilliant, because you share this responsibility and this discovery continually.
"I wanted to celebrate the fact that this is a show for everyone, whether you've seen it before or not."
No judgment on my end, but did you watch Doctor Who growing up?
Whittaker: I'm a completely new Whovian. I turned up to my audition saying, "Look, we didn't watch it at home." I have obviously throughout my life had friends who've been in it, so we've watched episodes. I've caught it. But I said very honestly, "I haven't seen it all, and from you asking me to audition to now, I've not had time to sit and watch it."
Chris very honestly said, "You don't need to do that, because this is what I want. I want you to come in and to have your version of this. Your version as a fan would be one thing, but if you've not come from a fan [place] and you're watching it through 'homework' — it may cloud what is instinctive when you read something fresh and discover it."
If I was going to audition for Stranger Things, I've seen every episode. I would know the world and that would absolutely help me. But to not know it, and then to cram, to watch it [as homework], is the wrong way round for me personally. Then I would question whether these were my instincts or whether I felt as if I was maybe stealing, because I've consumed this huge amount of the show.
But that's my process. Now I feel like I'm not going to [dive in fully] until I wrap. When I hand over these shoes to the next Doctor, then will I start at the beginning. I'm going to watch the entire thing in order and I'm going to relish every minute without feeling like I did it wrong or without feeling like, "I should've done that."
Also, I wanted to celebrate the fact that this is a show for everyone, whether you've seen it before or not. Mandip's not a Whovian, Tosin's not a Whovian. Chris Chibnall is. Chris Chibnall has been one since he was born, and he knows and honors everything that's gone before, and we're respectful enough to do our homework and to know what we're saying, and to know the intricacies of the relevant moments. But then within that, we want to invite in the next generation of Whovians, [and say you must not] feel like you need an encyclopedic knowledge to enter. It can be quite overwhelming. But with this, we feel like we've done these 10 exciting one-hour episodes that are contained stories that will bring you in and honor what's gone before, but also be enough of a brand-new journey to capture anyone who's got the knowledge or doesn't have it.
Doctor Who is actually designed for viewers to leap in and have a new adventure every week, or every season. So the subset of fans who say, "Well, you can't be a fan unless you know this and that" — I don't agree with that. Of course, certain moments can be more fun if you know the backstory, but that kind of gatekeeping doesn't feel true to this show for me.
Whittaker: Yeah. Often half of the characters in the scene don't know [the history either] and you're all on the journey with characters. That's what's exciting about it is. Particularly for us, everything is brand new. New friends, new monsters, new everything, new worlds, and a new Doctor. That's what's so wonderful about it. You're an American and you've been a fan of this show, and when we were at Comic-Con, there was press from all over the world. There are fans everywhere. It's an honor to be in a show that touches so many people, but also, it touches so many people because it's inclusive rather than exclusive. That's the most important thing for me, that it feels welcoming rather than off-putting.
Doctor Who premieres Sunday, Oct. 7 at 1:45/12:45c. An encore presentation of the episode will also air later that night in the show's regular time slot at 8/7c.