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Jodie Whittaker on how she reinvented Doctor Who

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Alix Walker
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Jodie Whittaker’s star turn as the first female Doctor Who is the most hotly anticipated television event of the year. The 13th Time Lord tells Stylist how she reinvented a British icon.

Here are a few of the things women were once told they would never do: 1. Work after marriage. (Bans on married women in the workplace were once common practice; Lloyds Bank didn’t abolish theirs until 1949.) 2. Go into space. (In the early Sixties, astronauts had to be military test pilots, a career not available to women.) 3. Play football. (Until 1971, the Football League declared the game “unsuitable for the female body”.) 4. Be Doctor Who. Thankfully, women have proved the doubters wrong on every count. 

On 25 December 2017, Jodie Whittaker became the first female Doctor to step into the Tardis since the show started in 1963. Regardless of whether you’re a fully-fledged Whovian or have never seen the show (doubtful – it has 110 million viewers worldwide), you’ll likely understand the gravity of this casting. This is a show with the kind of fans who consider themselves a ‘family’, who have strong opinions on who their Doctor should be and who really shout about them. It’s a show rooted in tradition in many ways, as innately British as Marmite, builder’s tea and Only Fools And Horses. But it’s also a show that captures children young enough for the hero’s gender to significantly impact how they view the world. Casting a woman was a bold and important move.

“All I’ve ever felt throughout my entire career is love and support from my sisterhood”

It’s a significance that the 36-year-old actor understands. “What an extraordinary thing [to be the first female Doctor],” she exclaims. “Let it be a moment in history, but let it move forward to the extent that it never gets talked about… that’d be ace.” Despite the drama around the announcement, the reaction has been largely positive, helped not least by how loved Whittaker is following her brilliant performance as Beth Latimer in Broadchurch. Today she’s fizzing with excitement at the “honour” of the role and the diverse cast of ‘friends’ – characters who are replacing the Doctor’s traditional companion.

During our interview she talks (in a broad Huddersfield accent) of “luck” frequently – somewhat ironic given she’s the 13th Timelord, a traditionally unlucky number. The luck that saw her cast in Venus, alongside Peter O’Toole during her final year at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 2005. Her luck at working on Broadchurch with Chris Chibnall, who went on to be the executive producer of Doctor Who. How lucky she is to have avoided sexual assault throughout her career (more of which later). 

I don’t think anything about her success is down to luck. I have never met anyone with so much energy, who is so unapologetic about what she wants and how hard she works to get it. She’s full of chat, and interested in every topic from wine to feminism, but guarded when anything remotely personal is hinted at. She brings her mum along to our shoot but has never revealed the name of her three-year-old daughter with her American actor husband Christian Contreras. Even if I wanted to cross the line, I wouldn’t. She’s strong, this northerner who grew up with her parents and brother in Skelmanthorpe, West Yorkshire. I can’t think of a better person to play a modern hero. 

“When we were at school I remember who I was being taught about and it wasn’t women”

Tell me about the audition process for Doctor Who.

It was gruelling in the sense of it being a long process, and hard because of how secretive it was. I found out I had got the part in the third audition and I just burst into tears.

What’s most appealing about the character to you? 

There are no rules. You’re an alien but you’re in a human body, so you can physically be anything. And that’s the thing about this character – it fizzes out to every part of your body in a way I’ve never experienced. You’re moving – either mentally or physically – constantly, so the energy that’s required gives you this massive adrenaline rush. I wanted to play this Doctor like a light going on in a cave for the first time, and the wonder that you find because every encounter is new: the friends, the worlds, the monsters – everything is new. 

Which of the previous Doctors did you speak to about the role?

I was lucky in that I got to speak to David [Tennant, who starred alongside her in Broadchurch], Peter [Capaldi, the 12th Doctor] and Matt [Smith, the 11th Doctor] before I was announced. The [feedback] that was unanimous was that it will be like nothing you have done before and nothing you will do again. That is extraordinary and overwhelming.

“Let’s not limit ourselves to only looking up to people who look like us. That’s the future”

How did you deal with the fan reaction?

There have been compilations of people’s reactions to the reveal, which are bizarre to watch. We live in a very unique time, people upload every moment to the internet so you can see the excitement and, in some instances, the fear people have. But when you see those videos, from all different ages of all different people from all different worlds about a show – and I hadn’t even done it yet – that’s ace because, if they’re accepting me into their family, what we want to do is make that family bigger.

The significance of Doctor Who being a woman is huge. How important does it feel?

It’s a moment that’s incredibly important, but also slightly depressing that it’s 2018. I want to enjoy it. I mean what a thing, for the rest of my life, for that to be me. But this has got to be the end of it being a big surprise. This is hopefully a moment that leads to us realising that we can have female heroes. Gravity [the Oscar-winning film starring Sandra Bullock] made millions and millions of dollars; Wonder Woman made millions and millions of dollars. We should look up to characters regardless of their gender. And I’m playing an alien after all! Let’s not limit ourselves to only looking up to people who look like us. That’s the future we want. And to realise that having different points of view in a situation is interesting and exciting, not terrifying. And mine isn’t that different. I sometimes feel like being a woman is like talking about being an alien.

Do you realise the impact this will have on children who are bombarded with very gendered toys and TV programmes from an early age?

I can’t even begin to talk about [my anger at] that. Every single part of the day can be difficult if you really look at the subliminal messages that are passed through in kids’ TV. When we were at school I remember who I was being taught about and it wasn’t women.

“Now, it’s time for us all to contribute like it was time for us all to listen”     

How important was negotiating equal pay to Peter Capaldi, the most recent Doctor?

It didn’t need to be demanded. This is not the show that would have the moment of revelation that I wasn’t paid the same. I was never going to accept less, I am equal to everyone else and have never thought of myself as anything other than that. I don’t enjoy being thought of as less than for doing the same job, no woman does. But in this particular job I didn’t need to demand it because it was already in place.

But it’s great that you’re talking about what was previously a taboo subject.

That’s new, isn’t it? We have to acknowledge that when something’s talked about, and passionately so, it’s got to be heard. And that’s what excites me about this time that the united voice is finally being listened to. We will look back on this time and be really proud of the united voice and what it can accomplish.

How much have the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements changed the industry?

I have never experienced any sexual assault. Full stop. When I was first asked about this I would say, “I’m really lucky”, and that depresses the sh*t out of me that I consider myself lucky, but I do. I’m one of the lucky ones that it didn’t happen to. In hindsight, have I experienced sexism? I can’t think of any incidences, but I do think about what I have been programmed to accept as normal. What has changed is that everyone – men and women – will be intolerant to things that could have been swept under the carpet before. 

Now, if somebody says that something has happened, there is no way they can be talked out of sharing that with someone higher. Now, it’s time for us all to contribute like it was time for us all to listen. All these brave people have put themselves out there and we’ve got to respect that and honour it.

The pressure for this role is immense, what’s your coping mechanism for stress?

I love wine. With my accent, if I’m in a restaurant, they often give the wine list to someone else and I’m like, “No, no, no, no, no!” I might not sound like a wine connoisseur but I know my wine. My choice depends on what I’m eating. To me it’s got to be paired with food and if it’s pre-food it’ll always be a white or a rosé. I’m really passionate about it. A wine shop is like a book shop for me, I get completely immersed. So, at the end of a very long day, I will always reward myself with a couple of glasses of wine.

You spend huge chunks of your life on set. How important is home to you?

You get used to making wherever you are a mini home. I over-pack so that there is far too much stuff of mine everywhere, I put stuff on walls to make it feel like my own space. Work is hard in the sense of long hours, but I’m not a nurse in A&E. I get coffee brought to me, somebody gets my lunch, I’ve got friends who make me laugh all day, and I play pretend. This job is so extreme, you can sit for hours waiting for something to be set up. 

In that time, you’ve fired off a million WhatsApps, you’ve looked at #braddersbangerz on Instagram [videos of Whittaker’s co-star Bradley Walsh singing in the back of his car], you’ve rung your mate who gets annoyed because, “I can’t answer at 3.15pm on a Tuesday because I’ve got a proper job”, and then suddenly it’s like, “Go, go, go!” and you’ve got to be immediately on it. The main difficulty is realising that, when you get home, people aren’t there to get you sh*t.

How did your childhood in Yorkshire shape you?

I was brought up in a very playful household. I have an older brother and was brought up no different to him. We both did cricket training, we both did football training, we both did squash training. I was unintentionally brought up gender neutral by Mum and Dad. I also had the p*ss ripped out of me, there were absolutely no barriers there so you had to have a sense of humour. 

Also, I was encouraged to be off in my own world. We lived in the countryside, I could go off and play and I was allowed to watch films that didn’t always have the right rating for my age, because they knew I was passionate about it. They didn’t laden me with an importance of academia because I’m not academic. For them, as long as I tried, as long as I asked questions, as long as I wasn’t a bully, they were happy. 

They thought being able to play on a team and play out with a group of mates was as important as being studious, which was progressive without them realising it. I found most classes confusing except for PE and drama and I realised I had a big enough ego to need to be good at something. My careers advisor said: “Only one in 10 actors make it so you probably won’t.” I was so lucky I went home to parents who said: “If you put all your efforts into your back-up plan, you’ll never do the first.”

You’ve talked about luck a lot.

But it is luck. There’s a drive in me but there’s a drive in a million phenomenally talented artists, musicians, actors. There is also the right place and the right time and Venus [her first film] was my right place, right time. It could have cast the year before I graduated, or three years after I’d left when I’d given up acting because I hadn’t had a job. I was given that very golden ticket. I can take credit for the fact that I did a really good performance, but I didn’t cast myself, I wasn’t my agent who signed me and put me up for it. So, I defy anyone to suggest that there aren’t moments for them that were pure luck. 

Your husband is also an actor…

I’m lucky that I get to go home and talk to someone who is in the industry, but that is about as much as you’ll get.

What’s your next ambition?

Now I have put a little chink in my ceiling I feel like the possibilities are endless. I would love to be in a Western. Shows like Godless and Westworld are extraordinary, I love those ensemble casts where every role is meaty and rich. Doctor Who is a huge box ticked for me, but would I want this to be the only time I tick a box? No.

What inspires you?

When people speak up for what they believe in. There have been times when I’ve shied away from having a voice because of fear of how it would be received, so I take inspiration from the people who do speak out.

Gillian Anderson tweeted, “Yes! #breakthemould #13thDoctor”, when you were revealed as the next Doctor. Do you feel any affinity with actors, like Anderson, who have changed the landscape of the sci-fi genre?

I don’t feel an affinity; I look up to them. It’s such a myth about actors – particularly with women – that we don’t get on, that we’re competitive. All I’ve ever felt throughout my entire career is love and support from my sisterhood. If I didn’t get a role I would obviously be personally gutted but delighted to see someone else do it. A perfect example of that is when I auditioned for The Seagull at The Royal Court and I lost out to Carey Mulligan. I went to see it and I thought, ‘That’s why I didn’t get it.’ For most actors it’s just exciting when we see really good shows. And, when those shows have mixed gender and ethnicity, it’s even more exciting. Hopefully that will just become normal. 

Photography: Tom Van Schelven

Fashion: Steph Stevens