"Doctor Who" star Jodie Whittaker on the Time Lord's new (old) enemies and advice for her successor

The actress chatted with "Salon Talks" on the legacy of the Doctor and her ongoing message: Do not lose hope

By Mary Elizabeth Williams
January 11, 2020 8:30PM (UTC)
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Jodie Whittaker ("Salon Talks")

It was one of the most instantly meme-able moments of 2017. A hooded figure in a long coat tramping through an idyllic patch of greenery. The chirp of birds. The snap of a twig. And then . . . a familiar, much loved whoosh, a hand opening to reveal a key. And then, a hood lowering to reveal the smiling face of the newest regeneration of the universe's favorite Time Lord.

When Jodie Whittaker assumed the mantle of the Doctor, she had a big TARDIS to fill. Not only was she about to become only the 13th (13th-ish, but that gets complicated) actor in a lineage that dates back to 1963, she was the first woman to assume the role. There were a few inevitable outcries of heresy, but overall, the "Broadchurch" and "Black Mirror" veteran has been greeted with enthusiasm by diehard fans and newcomers, thanks to her energetic, witty, double-hearted performance. Now, in her second season in the role, Whittaker finds herself taking on some of the Doctor's most iconic adversaries, as well as the critics who still wonder if she's playing the role "as a woman."

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Whittaker joined me on "Salon Talks" to discuss how the show nods to the 007 franchise, her advice for the eventual next Doctor and the role she's still most recognized for.  Watch the conversation on Salon TV, or read interview below.

This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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New season. It's very exciting.

Yeah, it's got a very big opener, big episodes of very high octane and adrenaline for all of us — and some very big reveals.

Last season was so much about establishing you and establishing this new group of companions and very new storylines. Starting with the end of the last season, now we are going back, we are getting deep into the mythology. This is Time Lords, Gallifrey, the Master, possibly the Cybermen. How do you prepare for something like that? You did not grow up in a Who house.

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No, I didn't. Some interviews it becomes apparent, right?

Because people know this is deep stuff.

The reason why the show is so extraordinary is because of the fan base. I'm happy to say the fan base have an encyclopedic knowledge over me, but I think you would have to have lived under a rock to have never heard of Cybermen, to have never heard of the Master, Gallifrey, all those things. It's strange, without even growing up in the household of it, those terms are still incredibly familiar. What's so exciting is not only in our first season have we established our monsters, have we established our friendship and family, but it feels like we've been truly welcomed into the Who universe where we have our own Master. And the Doctor not only meets the Daleks at the end of last season, but also Cybermen and Judoon.

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All of those little Easter eggs and callbacks in these first episodes [this season] are going back sometimes to things that happened decades ago in the show. It's very exciting for generations of fans.

With Chris [Chibnall, the series showrunner], certainly nothing is an accident with him. The planning of the transition from Season 1 to Season 2 is completely intentional, before I even probably got the part. I think he wanted to keep it as dynamic and interesting for "Who" fans as it is for new fans, so that you don't feel like you can't connect because you might not know the history. With meeting the Master, you feel like [actor] Sasha [Dhawan's] entrance is so extraordinary that whether you can reference the Master or not, if this is your first time watching it, you get it. You get it, and you know that this is an enemy of old, and that you don't have to know that this is a throwback to an episode in whatever season. If you get it, brilliant. If you don't, that's totally fine, too.

The stakes are different for you now this year as the character and as an actor. The first season that you were on the eyes of the world were upon you in a way that it would be for any new person stepping into that role.

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Absolutely, and then you add on…

The woman thing. So what has changed for you this year? How have you sunk into the role?

I think it's because the noise is quieting down. For us, particularly when walking on set for your first day, your first day is a very different thing. When you've played this role for 10 episodes or 11 episodes previously, you being in the costume is a second skin. I always knew from the way I wanted to play, but also from Chris' and all the showrunners' extraordinary guidance, that you're never going to show all sides all the time. The genius and wonder of this role is that you never know in what direction it's going to go and you don't know what that's going to reveal in yourself as an actor, as the character. That what people may feel like they didn't see last season, they may see this season.

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For me, the fear in Season 1 was, am I doing it right? Am I showing as much as I can? Actually knowing that when you have 10, 11 episodes, that you don't cram it all in at once. It's not a 90-minute film. We have the space to play. The fact that the moments of surprise, it was surprising to me the actor as they are to the Doctor. So use that. Don't be fearful of the unknown. When you're approaching a role that is steeped in so much history, it can be quite overwhelming and terrifying because you want to make sure you do it right, but then the joy of this role is anything is possible.

You've said you never hesitated about trying to get this.

Do you know why it was? It's really interesting. The second we had the conversation about auditioning, there was a head and a stomach reaction. The stomach and the head and a heart. The heart went [in] like that, and the head went like, "Oh, I don't want to be famous." That is always a problem if you're an actor, if you don't want to be famous. It's quite complicated because this is a job that essentially puts you sometimes in a public place. I know from my friends who've been in this, that is a very public place. I hounded Chris and sent him all these images and was like, "On my next audition, blah, blah, blah, blah. This is what I think the artwork should blah, blah."

I hounded and hounded him. But the minute I was offered it, Chris sent me the most perfect message. About two days later, he went, "You might be spiraling." You know what it was? It was so euphoric and I was so emotional about it. But it's like that weird feeling when you go, oh, okay, and you feel like you're in freefall. You know those elevator drops? This is exciting, but you don't know what's at the bottom. But now life is, I am the Doctor. I've been the Doctor. The show didn't explode because I'm a woman. I enjoyed it and I loved it. The changes within my life are absolutely of a positive sense. So there's a sense of like, ah, okay.

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And you have been accepted.

Yeah. Or not, by somebody. That's "Doctor Who," right? That's why you have the joy of having 13 of us to dip in and out of and like those moments. And to be somebody's first Doctor is extraordinary. I think that's the thing that's so exciting. But then to be someone's potentially 13th, who's been with it for so long, is wonderful. You can't be everything for everyone, but I'm playing it and doing it in the way I want to do it and feel like this Doctor is.

Do you feel that this time around a lot of those questions about "Are you going to play the Doctor as a woman?" have died down?

Yeah, it's fine. I think what's interesting is what I felt was the pressure beforehand that I think is different. David Tennant, Peter [Capaldi], as actors, that in itself needs no explaining that the pressure on you is exciting and exhilarating but terrifying. We will have all had incredibly similar feelings about it. But what was an added fear for me was the slight projection that I represented all actresses. When David got the part or Matt [Smith] got the part, it was solely on them as an individual and how they did. Whereas I felt like if I've made choices that people don't like, I could potentially hold women back. I seem to be in the media representing all actresses, which obviously isn't the case and shouldn't be, but in these moments when women are given these opportunities, is. That was the fear for me.

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I was listening to an interview you did with David Tennant about a year ago, and people were asking you about James Bond and how this relates to the 007 franchise. Now in these first two episodes, there's so clearly this 007 plotline that just leans right into this idea of you are as the Doctor, but also kind of as 007. And also then, you're teaming up with two great women from English history.

Our gender doesn't necessarily play a role in our narrative until it plays a role in someone else's. Until the door shuts because of it, it's the person shutting the door, not you. We don't go around our day going, "Oh, can I do this? Can I do this?" It's just we are, it is. It's other people's responses to us that highlight our gender. In the witches episode, [I'm] bounding in and nobody believes I could possibly be the Witchfinder General. It must be [the character] Graham because this period of time she wouldn't be. It's always highlighted in other people's responses.That's why it was never going to be the overarching theme of the season. But to deny it in moments in history would be to misunderstand that as well in its power.

I love the little nods, like in the episode where Ada Lovelace is firing the cannon in the showroom in London. She's reprimanded for a woman touching it and she's like, "I find myself completely capable." It's a nod to the period, but also to the fact that Ada Lovelace, we now know what she's responsible for and how extraordinary, that in that time she overcome certain things.

And to walk that line as the grounding figure in this show, of normalizing the idea of women doing things and just being people or being Time Lords, but also then highlighting these moments. Whether it's race or gender expression or ability or age, the show does that and always nods to it, but then also moves forward.

The thing about "Doctor Who" that is so important is that with every new group of people being thrown into this family — whether it be the writers, creatives, or the cast — we have this wealth of history. Chris could go in any decade, any period, any future time in a universe that you wanted to go into with his storytelling, but he's living now. So to not reflect now and to not use our hindsight or our current struggles would be to take away a certain element of the show. It's always representing the time that it lives in as well as showing you these new POVs and these new worlds. I think that that's why it keeps getting recommissioned, why there keeps being another Doctor, why people have loved it for so long because you never know what you're going to get and from what perspective.

This show is always so full of heart and so full of a strong moral center. We live in such a divisive time. Yet people still rally around this show, love the show. It still has this base of people who come from very different perspectives, very different ideas about how the universe should work, and yet there is something about the deep philosophy and the goodness of this show that is so deeply appealing and it's lasted for generations. What do you think that's about?

Because there is hope in darkness. That's why. I think the Doctor has such an incredible hindsight and such an incredible sense of loss and future hope. The Doctor never reduces either a race or an opportunity to judgment. The Doctor's seen through adversity comes huge achievements and huge journeys. That the wonderful thing that you can transition into your own life. The Doctor continually shows you that you don't know. And it's okay to not know. It's okay to be wrong. It's okay to be scared, but do not lose hope. I think that at this moment in time is a wonderful thing, if as humans we can cling onto that.

And then you get to say that in the second episode. Stepping into this role, that is a life definer. Wherever you go, whatever you do, you are one of five people now in this century who have played this role. What do you think of then about, so what do I want to do next? How do I create my next act? How do I become another character after this?

Do you know what? I think this came for me at the perfect time, and that might not always be the case for everybody. Going forward, it might happen in someone's career, a point where it's an extraordinary moment, but it might pose certain challenges. For me it came in a moment when I have been a part of some extraordinary dramas. I feel as if I've had the opportunity to show that I am an actress and I can do more than one thing. This job has given me a sense of playfulness. The unknown can often be really fearful, but I love the fact that I just don't know where things are going.

I love that tapping into that childish dream of when I grow up, I want to play pretend for living. If this is my moment, if this is my defining role, that's fine. That's absolutely fine. I'll take it. As far feeling like I need to show I can do this, this, this and that, I don't feel like I have that pressure because the job opportunities I've had to get me here have been showcased in that. I also will come out of it a completely elevated actor because of this experience. They could take me in a different direction. But if I'm 70 years old walking down the street and in that one moment I'm the Doctor for whoever walks past, and all they know me as is one of the Doctors and they couldn't list anything else on my CV, that's fine.

Up until now, I've had such extraordinary different work. You're always fascinated by what sticks with people. I get "Black Mirror" all the time in America and it's because it's gone on to Netflix. I did that years ago. It always surprises me how often I get stopped for "Black Mirror" and I'm like, wow, it's a 60-minute episode.

You can't predict what impacts, and also for me to suddenly stress about the future when I'm in such a joyous position . . . I'm incredibly personally ambitious, but my ambition isn't solely limited to work. It's limited to life. I love my mates, and when I go on jobs I collect friends; my main ambition is to be able to make loads of new friends. That's my life ambition, and to enable myself to go nice places with my mates, rather than "I need to be there, there, there." I'm here now. There might not be a tomorrow.

I love seeing you in this role. It's so iconic for so many people. The Doctor is so meaningful to so many people. This is a character that is cherished. You got some words of advice when you stepped into the role from some previous Doctors. To the next person, whoever he or she is, whenever that is, what would you tell that person?

I think instinctively own it, and I mean that. Own the moment. This is such an extraordinary time. I cannot tell you how joyous it is to step on the set in Cardiff. I love those people so much. The crew are absolutely amazing. You have no idea how many brilliant people you are going to work with, who are going to open their arms to even though this is potentially their tenth season or whatever. This show is bigger than all of us, but let it be as big a moment for you as it possibly can because it'll go like that. That is what everyone said to me and I cannot believe I've already shot my second season. It has gone like that. But also this is a time for you with ultimate expression and we can't always say that on set. In so many job, there is this restriction, that restriction. And this, it's a playground. And what a thing to have as an adult.

Somewhere, there is a future Doctor taking notes, Jodie.

Yeah, getting ready, ready to take that hood down.


Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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