Jodie Whittaker (Sunday Times Magazine, March 18, 2018)
When I meet Jodie Whittaker she is dressed entirely in black. A black knit rib top, black skinny jeans, black ankle boots – flat, no nonsense. We’re sitting in the library of the Charlotte Street Hotel which is all cluttery cosy with tapestried couches. She couldn’t be more at odds with the surroundings. Her hair is in a variation of a blonde bob, her make-up understated. Down to earth Yorkshire woman. There is a firmness to her. You don’t mess with her. There’s a strange kind of deep seated confidence and strength and that’s something that she brings to the roles she plays. There’s very little of the vamp in her, but with her huge eyes and voluptuous lips there’s a trace of a woman who can do anything. Including take on the role of the first female Doctor Who and in the film Journeyman play the wife of a boxer who becomes brain damaged.
In Broadchurch her character was labelled the most terrorised woman on British TV (her son was murdered by a family friend), but she was never tragic, never a victim.
This is the kind of spirit that permeates her character in Journeyman. At the beginning we see a loving relationship with an important sexual connection and then we watch as her husband can no longer control himself and doesn’t understand what sex is anymore. She deals with it, or at least her character does in a strangely fearless way.
Someone has bought us teeny weeny little muffins on a chintzy plate. It feels like I’m taking a panther to tea in a dolls house. Not because she’s large – she’s actually tiny – and not because she’s fierce. She’s actually warm but she takes no prisoners and has a huge presence and I’m sure her home is not decorated in chintz. She is struggling with her newfound Doctor Who fame – people coming up to her in the supermarket and asking for selfies. Even as the most terrorised woman on TV she was never recognised – a tribute to her chameleon abilities and her decision to take boundaries seriously. She has taken on this new fame gamely – as long as it isn’t too invasive. She’s more than willing to make someone’s day. In fact, she does a little video message for my friend Rob – a lifelong Doctor Who fan. He almost cries when he gets it. She knew he would. That is the kind of emotion Doctor Who evokes in people. She is hugely empathic to its fans. She knows she’s taken on something that comes with heritage. She knows that the supermarket will never be the same but there are certain things she doesn’t want to share. She’ll talk about her husband, actor/writer Christian Contreras and talk about the fact that she’s a mother but she will not say what sex her child is.
She is rather a contradiction. The more we talk, the more I see the contradiction – she’s warm and friendly, open with her opinions, yet barriers are so indelibly drawn there’s absolutely no crossing them.
She sounds as if she’s never left Yorkshire although she’s lived in London since drama school. She’s now 35 and she’s spent a lot of time in Los Angeles. “Not for work,” she shudders. “Just because my husband is American and he often works over there. So we’ll go for 8 weeks at a time. To me 8 weeks is a long time. That’s one of the things I love about this job. It means you can travel to different places and learn how they can become incredibly familiar quite quickly. I find it’s a certain mindset. If you’re used to having to just land somewhere and get to know it quickly you just immerse yourself in it and Google the best places. I’m good at being somewhere new. I’ve already done that with so many places in the UK.”
Broadchurch was shot in Bridport and she did three series. Journeyman was shot mostly in Sheffield and Doctor Who in Cardiff. She filmed her first episode for Doctor Who in October 2017 – a small but integral part in the Christmas special where the previous Doctor played by Peter Capaldi regenerated into Whittaker’s 13th Doctor.
It’s interesting to think of the concept of a female Doctor Who, not because having a vision and uber-knowledge are necessarily male criteria but because there are not so many superhero female role models. She’s certainly no cat woman. She doesn’t play her as an ultra-female but she’s not exactly non-binary either. It’s an interesting mix. An 8month shoot for the entire series means she won’t be taking breaks to shoot another movie. “Basically, because I’m in every scene.”
She found the time to do Journeyman in gaps between her other work. Although she’s the female lead she’s not in every scene. “I was in it a lot. I’m not very good at doing two things at once.”
Is that because she’s all or nothing? “Yes but also because when I learn my lines I really need time. I think if I did try to double up stuff I’d be all over the place. Some people are amazing at it.” I tell her I wouldn’t be very good at it either. I’m not very good at writing more than one piece at a time. I get brain freeze. “I would never spend time writing anything if I didn’t have to. I’m someone that failed their GCSE’s.”
We have a long discussion about the word ‘mardy’ which is a northern word. It means grumpy. She says sometimes she is mardy and she has to remind herself, “What would 10- year old me do? They wouldn’t complain that it was freezing or whatever. They’d be a pig in shit, so stop moaning. I’m not a big complainer. If I’m annoyed I’m annoyed and people will know where they stand. If I’m upset I’ll be crying and if I’m happy I’m proper happy. I don’t have a filter or a poker face. But strangely I can do it with work. If you need me to be somebody I’m not I can manage that.”
She laughs, a proper laugh. Maybe she doesn’t want to work in her personal life. She just wants to relax. Playing all these emotionally wrought women must take its toll. Referring to her character Emma in Journeyman’s strength “it’s not like me. It’s quite a graceful strength, an elegant strength.” We dissect her character and wonder how she could have endured. Journeyman is a boxing movie but not of the Rocky kind. It’s not triumph over tragedy. It’s a journey to survive. It’s about a boxing champion (Paddy Considine) going in for one last fight which he wins and also loses because he becomes brain damaged and he has to learn to live all over again. How to walk, how to talk, how to have sex again, how to have relationships with his friends, his wife, his child.
“We shot it pretty much in sequence and I think that helped. We did a lot of it on first take.” Considine not only plays Matty the boxer. It is also his directorial debut.
“It’s hard when you’re with someone who is a phenomenal actor and he’s got great banter. We would be there having a lot of laughter in between takes. No one was in character the whole time. It wasn’t method. That’s not how he or I work.”
The film is not an obvious tearjerker but emotional it is. Be prepared to cry. There’s a very subtle manipulation of our emotions but much of it is about normalcy. “That makes it harder cinematically but there are so many scenes that are very affecting.” There are many twists and turns and shocks, emotional and otherwise and a beautiful Nick Cave song that forms the basis of the soundtrack. “What was brand new for me was being directed by someone who was in a scene with me and who had written it before. I would say when it’s my close up will you be there or behind the monitor? He was there. I was a bit worried about it. It sounds daft but actors don’t give other actors notes. It’s a respect thing so I thought it would be weird having another actor saying ‘don’t do it like that’, but he doesn’t direct like that so it was fine.”
A lot of the themes were even by Whittaker’s standard “harrowing.” Of certain scenes she says, “I found it excruciating.”
Although it is not based on a real-life boxing legend story, Considine is an ardent boxing fan. “It comes from having that passion. And while we were shooting this it actually happened to a boxer.”
Three years ago, Will Smith’s Concussion examined head injuries in American football players and that was based on a true story. The British story is “about what happens to a family when this kind of injury happens. She was much stronger than I could be. I am instinctive in my acting and when someone tells you soften it, it will come over in a much stronger and more contained way. There’s a guilt and a rawness and even though it’s about something bigger it’s also about relationships. My favourite stories are all about the relationship. Even if it’s on an epic scale like Arrival it’s about relationships.”
Whittaker’s work is often about the minutiae that damages us. She is always onscreen very accessible, very human and now she is in the world of science fiction, the world of Doctor Who. I’ve no doubt she is perfect at finding the human side of the Doctor.
Part of Doctor Who’s appeal is that it has always managed to be ordinary as well as extraordinary and it knows the issues that move us, past, present and future. She reminds me how she was moved by the film Avalanche, particularly by the family dynamics. The father runs away. His animal instinct is to run.
“You think please don’t be a f***er. Please be a good person.” Would she run or stay to protect her kid? “Ha!” she says, accusingly. “I agree that I’ve got one kid. That’s as much as you’ll get out of me about that. I’m just really funny about it. I want their life to be private for as long as that’s maintainable.”
There’s a millisecond of a pause and she continues “But would I do flight or fight? I hope I’m a fighter. You don’t know though, do you?”
At the end of last year she did a BBC series Trust Me about a nurse who takes a job as a doctor. Sinner or saviour? She likes that. “Also morally dubious. I like playing characters that are not sugar coated.” Again, it’s about survival. “I am lucky though that no one’s had one idea of me and held on to that and thought this is all I can do. I’ve got a strong accent, I’m very obvious in my personality type but I want people to believe I can do anything.”
Her first film after drama school was Venus with Peter O’Toole. She was 24 years old. “I spent an entire press junket trying to convince people that the director hadn’t found me at a bus stop having a fight with a mate. He found me via my agent. I left drama school early because I got a part in Mark Rylance’s last season at The Globe. I finished The Globe in September and started Venus in October. I was lucky and also, I had a mindset that was naïve but helpful. The mindset was this acting lark is fun isn’t it rather than the mindset filled with trauma and rejection.”
She puts this down to her parents. “I was brought up in a household where you were celebrated for what you could do and you were never shamed for the things you struggled with. There was no part of my upbringing that suggested I needed to focus and get a proper job. There was no telling me what I wanted to do was ridiculous or unrealistic. Also, from a young age me and my brother were told if you don’t know something just ask so I’ve never been embarrassed about not knowing anything. I find gaining knowledge wonderful but I don’t mind not knowing something. I just ask.”
She grew up not knowing any actors. There was no family tradition so you wonder where this brilliant creature came from. She just seems to have landed in herself from a different Universe. Maybe that’s what she and the first female Doctor have in common.
“No acting in the family, nothing, just the love of film.” (She grew up in the 80’s where cinemas were very accessible. “I was far too young to watch Jaws but I did, I loved being exposed to Spielberg and cinematic adventure.”
Her father ran a small business and her mother was stay at home but as soon as Whittaker was old enough she went back to work as a teaching assistant at a school for children with behavioural problems. She had been a nanny, a paediatric nurse, always worked with children…
She cites Some Like It Hot as an inspirational movie growing up. “I must have watched Some Like It Hot like 500 times when I was young.” Did she want to be Marilyn Monroe? As I ask the question but I feel I already know the answer. Monroe is way too obvious, way too vulnerable, way too girlie. “I think I wanted to be Jack Lemon, you know I liked the journey of that character. It was phenomenal.
And here we learn what is extraordinary about Whittaker – she is probably the only woman who could watch that movie and identify with the man who dressed up as a woman.
“Do you remember Bottom – the TV series with Rik Mayall? I watched every episode of that growing up. And quite a few people have said I remind them of that character.” Meaning she is the joker, the tomboy, the person who can make the magic?
“If I hadn’t been an actor I would have loved to be involved in a team sport. I have never wanted to direct because I don’t have a vision. I have never wanted to be a writer because I don’t want to be in a room by myself. I don’t know the answers or the bigger picture but I don’t mind someone saying ‘That doesn’t work, why don’t you do it this way?’
I like being part of a team. Growing up I played squash, hockey, rounders, not netball because I couldn’t cope with standing still. I like watching teams on the Olympics, everyone is individual but it only works because they are all in something together. I love relationships with other actors and directors. Doctor Who is very collaborative, it is a very exciting job.”
She had a code name with her family and with her agent before her Doctor Who announcement. It’s always top secret and this time even more so. “It was The Clooney. Because to me and my husband George is an iconic guy. And we thought, what’s a really famous iconic name? It was just fitting.” And although it felt overwhelming she also took comfort in that she was part of a team, a team that existed before she was even born. “It’s wonderful and overwhelming and I absolutely love it. As a family we didn’t watch it except at other people’s houses. But I was much more aware of it when it came back with Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant and Matt Smith.
Who was her favourite? “David of course, because I know him (her co-star in Broadchurch). I think he was amazing. But there is no right or wrong, there are no rules.”
What does it feel like to be the first woman Doctor? “It feels completely overwhelming; as a feminist, as a woman, as an actor, as a human, as someone who wants to continually push themselves and challenge themselves, and not be boxed in by what you’re told you can and can’t be.” I want to tell the fans not to be scared by my gender because this is a really exciting time and Doctor Who represents everything that’s exciting about change. The fans have lived through so many changes, and this is only a new, different one, not a fearful one.”
Does she play the role as a woman or simply a being from another planet who doesn’t really have a gender? “That is a difficult question because I am a woman, I don’t ever play being a woman, I wouldn’t know how to play being a woman. Just like a man wouldn’t know how to play being a man. It’s me, but I am not bringing gender to my choices. I am bringing character to my choices. I don’t mind not knowing.”
Often the Doctor becomes very close to his female companion and there’s a semi-romance. Is her companion male or female? “I’ve got three companions, two boys and a girl. Bradley Walsh, Tosip Cole and Mandip Gill. Everyone is a different age.” But is there a romance? “I am only a few weeks in so I don’t know the answers to quite a lot of questions yet.”
Is she signed on for one or more series? “I am not allowed to answer that.” (Again, this is traditionally surrounded in secrecy). As female empowerment came into the news there have been a lot of questions surrounding her pay. And the BBC gender pay gap has recently been uber criticised. The question is, is she paid the same as her predecessor Timelords? Fortunately, she was able to achieve the same pay as Peter Capaldi. “It’s an incredibly important time and equal pay is a notion that should be supported – and it’s a bit of a shock that it’s a surprise to everyone that it should be supported.”
She’s already lost her anonymity and she’s so far only been a cameo in one episode. Just before Christmas a picture of her Doctor Who costume was released. It’s quite clever. It acknowledges the heritage of previous Doctors but it is its own entity – a T shirt with a rainbow stripe echoes the multi coloured scarves of previous Doctors. Petrol coloured trousers with braces and multiple earrings that are stars and planets. Days after its release social media endlessly pondered their meaning. Did she feel daunted by it? “No,” she beams. “I went to the audition excited but I always come into the room with the attitude I sound like this, I look like this but believe me, I can do it.
She tells me about the Journeyman audition. “I didn’t know Paddy (Considine) before we did this. I wasn’t nervous but I really wanted to get the job and I knew every other actor reading wanted it. I also know I am not a ‘name’ so I would probably be able to raise £2.50 in financing, so I went in thinking this was a long shot.”
Clearly, she is a name but maybe she just means she’s not a Hollywood A Lister that can attract millions in financing? “Well I am sure I bring a certain amount of finances, I’ve got skills…I would do anything if there was a script that excited me or there was a person I wanted to work with. I have done the low budget really tough, gruelling shoots where you are huddled around a candle trying to keep warm and I would 100% do that always if I loved the script. I think on the British Indie film level.” Does that mean she doesn’t see herself as a Hollywood A Lister of the future? “It doesn’t mean if you say yes to one thing you say no to another.”
She’s certainly not put off Hollywood because of the current post Weinstein revelations. Has she ever been pressured in auditions to do something unpleasant or unscripted with the attitude ‘if you don’t do this another woman will and that woman will get the part?’ “It hasn’t happened to me but I am lucky,” she says seriously.
The Doctor Who auditions were brutal in a different way because they went on for such a long period of time.
“And I was going, ‘Please, please tell me, please.’ I had three meetings and a self-take and then they needed more scenes so I had to take another self-take and then a final meeting.” Most auditions, even for landmark roles are a much swifter process. She tells me that the Broadchurch audition happened when she was in a dress rehearsal for the play Antigone. She was an hour late! “Antigone itself is quite demanding. I did my scenes like I had got nothing left to give and they were like ‘Perfect.’ So, it just shows you never know.”
Broadchurch became a crime series that was much loved and much emulated and she was known for the woman who seemed to suffer like no other. After she left drama school she was cast in The Storm at The Globe with Mark Rylance and her first film Venus was with Peter O’Toole. She’s used to a landmark victory. “I think I have been really lucky. Doctor Who definitely puts me on a level where if I go into a meeting I probably don’t have to say what I have been doing for the last few months.” She grimaces. She has worked hard at being the most unrecognisable recognised British star. It’s been an interesting equation. Hard to balance but she got it down.
“People have been absolutely lovely so far. The other week in Cardiff I could see this little lad plucking up the courage to talk to me so I made it easier. “You all right mate?” So, I know it made his morning. I’m actually fine with that. People are lovely but I am very private. It’s hard to be private but it is possible as long as you stick to certain things. I still get on the tube and I will continue to get on the tube but I might wear a hat.” She laughs. Her rules for what’s private are interesting. She doesn’t consider talking about her husband as private.
“I have been with my husband for a really long time. He is a screenwriter and an actor, he is Googleable. I just think it’s easier for people to believe in me on the screen if they don’t know that much about me.”
She and her husband have been together since drama school. Does she consider this relationship as something that doesn’t really define her? She laughs warmly but doesn’t commit to a yes or no.
“A lot of this is on my Wikipedia page but my birthday is wrong on it. It’s June 17, same day as Arthur Darvill (he played Reverend Paul Coates in Broadchurch) and we are exactly the same age. We were on set at Broadchurch and he was in the guardian birthday’s list and I was like, ‘I can’t believe it! Where am I?”
Somehow, I don’t think she will be missed off that list this year. “I love talking about work, politics, opinions, cinema but if you know too much about them it makes it difficult to watch them. I know it makes me seem rude, which I don’t mean to be, it makes me seem a bit of a knobhead…That’s the way it is.” She laughs – a deep, gurgling laugh. “My mates get to know the real me, my family, but not everybody.”
She stretches out on the little couch. “I missed London when I was filming in Cardiff. When people say, ‘Where is home?’ I say London. If you had asked me when I was fifteen I would have said Huddersfield. I am obviously from Yorkshire but I married to an American and I live in London. A few years ago, I remember getting on the tube. Huddersfield were playing, I think it was an FA cup semi-final and all of these people got on at Finsbury Park and I had my town scarf on and they were like, ‘Come on darling,’ and showed me how to use an Oyster card.”
She is, indeed a contradiction. Warm and friendly, likes to have a laugh but also impenetrable. She never even posts anything on Instagram or Twitter. “I don’t want to know what people think about me… sometimes when I am really passionate I would love to throw my voice but perhaps I am too argumentative and I will say something immediately offensive. The problem with Twitter is we all think our opinions are facts. I have never been able to face Facebook. I am in touch with all of my mates. I see them. I don’t have to see them on the internet.”
This must mean she missed all of the social media posts about the Doctor Who announcement including the one “Who needs a Tardis full of bras?’” We laugh at this. “Well, I’ve missed that good stuff. Who does need a Tardis full of bras? I wonder which person we could find to say, ‘See, what I really need today is a Tardis full of bras.’
Journeyman opens March 30