“I was told that I needed to tone down the Northern, because a certain type of person wouldn’t marry me otherwise,” recalls the real-life Yasmin Khan.
Here, the real-life Yasmin Khan talks to Stylist’s digital editor (and official geek in residence) Kayleigh Dray about how she scored the role of a lifetime.
Do you look for something in particular when you’re trying to decide between roles?
I look for a great story. One that I would like to watch, or tell, or that I think needs to be told, because I know that, as an actress, I have a responsibility to tell certain stories and to tell them properly. But a role also needs to excite me. I don’t know if that’s selfish: I just think that, if I’m doing it for months, I want be interested in it.
Is there anything that would make you turn a role down?
When it comes to playing a character that’s not a Sikh, as I am, I always think, “Would I do this if the character was Sikh? Would I offend anyone in my family?” If the answer is no [to the latter], then I would always play the part. But there are still so many other roles that I would love to play, and hopefully I’m in a position after Doctor Who to be a bit choosier about which ones I do. I want to play Wonder Woman.
That would be great!
I just want to play really strong characters that get to do really interesting things. But I would also love to play someone really vulnerable. When I first started my career, I tended to do a lot of things just to get the work. Now I feel like I’m in a position where I can say, “That’s not something I actually wanna do. I don’t need that on my CV anymore, I don’t need to work for a few months, I only need to tell stories that need to be told.”
Do you believe there’s been a positive shift in the roles you’re being offered?
There are more parts that say ‘non-race specific’. Years ago, there was one Asian person in a soap and the entire Asian acting community was going for that role. Now, you can find a few different Asian people, and their character isn’t entirely based on their religion or culture: they just happen to be in a soap. But we’ve got a long way to go and I hope that, in time, I can audition for anything and just worry about being the best person for the job, not the right race.
Were you a Doctor Who fan before you were asked to audition?
No: I completely knew what it was, though, because my brother-in-law used to watch it all the time. So, when I got the call, I googled the top 10 episodes and started watching them at the gym.
So, when they approached you with the role of Yas, what was it that got you excited about it?
At that point, Bradley Walsh had been announced as the companion, so I thought I was auditioning for a guest appearance. The casting director was like, “we want you to make this character. Here’s the script and here’s a little bit about her, but we’re interested in what you can bring to the role.” So that was exciting cause then I was like, right, she can be this, she can be that – and then, on my second audition with Jodie Whittaker, I suddenly realised how much I wanted to be this character.
Also, I really wanted to play a police officer and I have done for years. When I was younger I wanted to be in The Bill, and I decided I’d be the first Asian person on the show. And then I got it in my head that I was going to be a police officer in Broadchurch. So, because I’m a little into The Secret, I decided to write these things down – and I put the words ‘Broadchurch police officer’ on paper.
People might go, “Oh, she’s a bit kooky, it’s the universe thing.” But, for me it’s just writing things and down and then implementing them – almost like a to-do list. So it’s not really magic, but it just so happens to be that I’m playing one under Matt [Strevens] and Chris [Chibnall], and that’s weird
How did you find out that you’d got the part?
It had been a long time since the audition and it had gotten intense. I phoned a friend and said, “Look, you’re quite spiritual, you’re into your angels, how do I get it out of my head?” Because I’ve honestly never wanted something so much. She told me to imagine that I’d got the part, how that would feel, to live in those emotions and then take myself for a walk – and, when I was on that walk, my agent called and she just screamed, “YOU GOT DOCTOR WHO!”
I just burst out crying. And I don’t show emotion in that sense – I’m not that kind of person.
I walked in a shop, bought nothing, and then had to phone my agent back and say, “I’m really sorry Sam, like, what part is it?” I still thought it was just one episode!
Was it more amazing, in a way, to come in with the first female doctor?
I have nothing to compare it to, but I feel really privileged that I have come in at this time. I still have this weird thing where I keep going, “Is it real?” I always feel like it can get taken away from me, and I don’t know why: I cannot fathom it being real. I have to keep reminding myself, “It’s done now. You’re Yasmin Khan.”
That’s called imposter syndrome, actually.
That’s what Jodie [Whittaker] told me, too. It’s a really annoying and strange feeling – like my life is a dream and I’m gonna wake up any minute.
They do that a lot in Dallas, but I feel like you’re locked in now. Myself and all the other Doctor Who fans just want more Yas scenes, so we can get to know her properly and figure out what her unique skill or strength is.
I think, for Yas, it’s her initiative. Usually, the Doctor looks at the companions and figures out what they’re good at and tells them what to do, but you often find that Yas does the maths herself, and, just sometimes, she gets to the conclusion at the same time as the Doctor. We have a joke about it, Jodie and me, where she’s like, “Don’t run faster than me” and I’m like, “But I’m a police officer… I’m gonna stand just a bit in front of you!”
How would you describe Yas and the Doctor’s relationship?
Jodie and me get on so well. Our relationship didn’t need to develop like on some shows that I’ve done, where you need to go in the green room and figure out how you’re going to play at being friends: that chemistry was already there. So I think the relationship that you see between Yas and the Doctor is Mandip and Jodie. Because underneath, underlying the story, is just us two, doing this journey together.
Obviously you can’t give me spoilers, but I already know there won’t be any Daleks or Cybermen or classic villains this time around. With that in mind, how do you feel they’re going to add that ‘fear factor’ to the show?
Doctor Who is meant to be scary, but it shouldn’t be that the only thing you’re scared of is the Daleks and Cybermen. We need to top that, evolve it, and what you’ve seen so far is just the tip of the iceberg. All the baddies to come are that scary and the quality of them is brilliant.
The show seems to focus a lot more on the emotional build-up this time around…
I think that’s what intrigued me most about the series. Chris just has this natural ability to write really truthful characters that are really complex. These are ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances and anyone can relate to them.
With Yas, are there any little details that you hope people will pick up on as you go on throughout the series?
Her connection to her family, because that’s so like me. Also, because Yas is a police officer, people might think that hardly anything scares or affects her – but she is still young, and emotional, and quite sensitive. So I hope people don’t go, “Oh, why’s she crying at X, Y and Z?” and are more like, “Oh my god, she’s genuinely just seen an alien and she’s petrified.”
Also, she’s only a young police officer. In fact, it’s a younger and more diverse cast than any Doctor Who series to date. What impact do you hope that this will have on people watching at home?
I can’t make people feel a certain way, but I hope we create characters that are a true reflection of society. TV is a form of escapism, so the people watching it have to be able to see themselves in it, and there has to be a place where they can go, “That’s me, that is.” They need to see someone who looks like them playing a doctor, or a vet, or an astronaut, or whatever, to show them that they can be anything.
Particularly for little girls watching at home.
Yeah. I just think it’s just so strange that it’s 2018 and now there’s still an uproar about the Doctor being a woman. People have female figures that they look up to in their life anyway, you know, so this is no different.
I know that Americans have been complaining a little about the show because they don’t understand the regional accents…
We were made aware that could be an issue from the beginning, but how I justified it was like, “You’ve got Scary Spice in the States, and she’s way more Northern than we are. So if you can understand her, which you completely do ‘cause she gets that X Factor job again and again, you can definitely understand us!”
Has a casting director ever told you to play down where you’re from?
Not in Doctor Who, absolutely not: we were all for making it Northern, and that’s why it’s based in Sheffield. But I have been told that I was too Northern in a show – a Northern drama, actually – and I was told that I needed to tone down my accent because a character with a well-paid job wouldn’t want to marry me.
Jeez, I mean… if that’s ever the case, don’t marry that person anyway!
For years and years, I’ve had an issue with being really Northern. I never had it before when I was in college, but then I got to auditioning in London and they all wanted me to be neutral. I actually started taking voice classes, because I had a problem with my own accent. That’s why I’m so lucky that I got Doctor Who.
I’m glad you got his role then, because you should definitely have the chance to keep your own voice.
Yeah, now I can do what I want. But I’d love to do what Jodie Comer does on Killing Eve and change my accent all the time. That, to me, is just amazing.
She can just flip between Russian, French, Italian…
And she’s proper Scouse! So, after this ,I’d love to get a role in which I do have to change my accent – that would be good.
You must have felt like such a celebrity at San Diego Comic Con, right?
That whole place is just mad, but it wasn’t as overwhelming as I thought, and I guess that’s because the spotlight was on Jodie and Chris. We had security clearing a path for us all, and I was like, “You don’t need that for me because no one knows who I am. I’ll just walk through!” But I think it will be really exciting to go next year and see people hopefully cosplaying as Yas.
How would you want that to look?
I see it as two space buns and a leather jacket, a jumper and some boots. I just love a space bun! I went to my auditions with them in, actually. I just thought, “Well, she’s a police officer, so it’s going to be up. But let me just add a little bit of quirky character and go a bit sci-fi.”
What would you say to anyone out there who hasn’t seen Doctor Who?
It’s relevant. It’s bold. It’s really exciting to watch – not even just the story, but the way it’s filmed is just epic. It tackles subjects that I find really interesting: true stories, too. Actually, I think people my age will be quite alarmed, actually, because they will learn things that they probably should’ve been taught in school. It’s really truthful.
You’ve mentioned that you used to see certain roles as being unattainable to you – did Doctor Who used to be one of those?
Absolutely. I’d done Casualty a year before, and was walking down the corridor to the canteen, and the runner just pointed at a door and said, “Oh, we don’t go in there – that’s Doctor Who.” So, I headed into the canteen and, in my head, I remember thinking, “I’ll never go in that door, ‘cause that’s not a show that I’ll ever be on”.
You’ve smashed that door down now, though. You’re in here.
I don’t even need to go to the canteen anymore, I just go into the studio and have lunch brought to me!
Doctor Who airs on Sundays at 6.55pm on BBC One in the UK, and at 8pm on Sundays on BBC America in the US.
Images: BBC One