Jodie Whittaker: ‘Someone asked “are you playing Doctor Who as a girl or a boy?” I said, “I’m just playing it”’

Hands up who gave a little squeal when one of Britain's best-loved actresses landed the biggest job on TV? Marie Claire's Editor in Chief Trish Halpin meets Jodie Whittaker to find out how she's settling into life as the 13th Doctor Who

Hands up who gave a little squeal when one of Britain's best-loved actresses landed the biggest job on TV? Marie Claire's Editor in Chief Trish Halpin meets Jodie Whittaker to find out how she's settling into life as the 13th Doctor Who

Five years ago, to celebrate Marie Claire's 25th birthday, I commissioned a piece called Icons on Icons, in which we paired remarkable women from the worlds of fashion, film, TV and theatre with up-and-coming stars - the next generation of icons. And one of these was a 31-year-old Jodie Whittaker, who at the time was captivating the nation as Beth Latimer in the most talked-about show of 2012, Broadchurch.

Now, having made history by landing the starring role in Doctor Who, it feels serendipitous to have Whittaker grace our 30th birthday cover.

‘I loved that photo shoot,’ she recalls in her broad Yorkshire accent when we meet at the sprawling Wiltshire location for today’s cover shoot. Despite the day turning into one of the hottest of summer’s heatwave, her energy is infectious and she never wilts for a moment.

A lot has happened since Whittaker last appeared in Marie Claire. Aside from the small matter of becoming a household name overnight when she was announced as the 13th Doctor, she now has a three-year-old daughter with her husband, screenwriter and actor Christian Contreras.

When lunchtime arrives, we retreat to a cool sitting room in the glorious manor house, and I get the chance to find out more…

Trish Halpin: It’s a year since you were announced as the new Doctor. How has life changed?

Jodie Whittaker: I’ve moved to Wales, which is a big change after working and living in London for 15 years. I’ve never been on a job this long – it’s a nine-month shoot, which is wonderfully gruelling. We’re still in the midst of it so I’m in a whirlwind and yet to venture out as the Doctor. I’m at this blessed stage where I still have some normality; it’s like being in a bubble until the season airs.

TH: You’ve got a gift of a role to play with…

JW: I feel like I’ve been handed this amazing world and they’ve let me be like a kid in a toy shop and go off with it. Doctor Who wasn’t something that was on TV in my house when I was growing up, so I thought I’d have to cane it before the first audition and watch every single episode. Thankfully, Chris [Chibnall, the producer] said, ‘I don’t want you to. I want you to come in with fresh eyes and bring what you would do in this environment.’

Jodie Whittaker

Image by Simon Emmett

TH: That must have taken the pressure off. You had worked with Chris before, as he created Broadchurch

JW: In hindsight, Broadchurch was a game-changer because I met Chris. He wouldn’t necessarily have associated me with the right energy for this character otherwise. It’s a good job I wasn’t an arsehole! That’s the advice I’d give to a young actress; be a good person, have good banter and just appreciate that everyone is working as hard as you. There is no status, so don’t give yourself status you don’t need.

TH: You’re the first woman to land the role in Doctor Who’s 50-year history, which, let’s face it, is a big deal. I loved the video that went viral of a little girl shrieking with joy when she realised the Doctor was going to be female. How did that make you feel?

JW: I loved that, too! I also knew that there would be a huge amount of people it would be a shock for. But this job celebrates change more than any other role – you have a physical regeneration, so casting [a woman] supports that story and doesn’t go against the rules of the show in any way. I’m playing a Time Lord who’s essentially an alien and inhabits different bodies and this one is female. The best thing for me though is that, for the first time in my life, I am not playing a stereotypical woman because as much as I approach everything as an actor, I am continually labelled by the female version of that character.

Image by Simon Emmett
(Image credit: simon emmett photography LTD.)

TH: That’s a really interesting point. Can you give me an example?

JW: When I was doing press for Broadchurch I noticed the male actors would be asked, ‘What is it like playing that character?’ I’d get, ‘What is it like playing a mother?’ But the male characters were never referred to as ‘a father’. There was always a terminology that was gender-specific. I recently had someone ask me, ‘Are you playing it [the Doctor] as a girl or a boy?’ I replied, ‘I’m just playing it.’ This is the most freeing role because there are no rules.

TH: What do you think it will mean for other female actors, scriptwriters and directors?

JW: We’re starting to realise that women aren’t a genre – you know, ‘it’s a genre piece because it’s got women in it’. I did a film [Adult Life Skills] with one of my best friends, [BAFTA-nominated director] Rachel Tunnard, and a lot of the leads in it were women. It was described as a ‘female film’ but we were like, ‘Wow! OK, well, to us it’s a film.’

TH: I’ve heard Doctor Who will have more female-inspired narratives this time around. Is it true that the Rosa Parks bus will make an appearance?

Image by Simon Emmett

JW: All of that is top secret. I don’t think you’re supposed to know about that!

TH: You have never shied away from emotionally complex roles – last year playing a woman married to a brain-damaged boxer in Journeyman opposite Paddy Considine. How does your approach to the Time Lord differ?

JW: That may be what [Doctor Who] fans were nervous of – they’ve only seen me be serious or heavy in energy and that isn’t necessarily the mercurial doctor. When you play troubled people, it pushes you beyond your emotional boundaries and there’s an exhaustion because you’ve sat in this heaviness. But with this role, I’m continually running about and jumping and playing, so I bound off into the weekend like a maniac. I’m like, ‘Come on, I’m awake!’ I’m probably an absolute pain in the arse. There’s a weird euphoria and that’s why it’s been so much fun. I’ve never laughed so much in my life, every day. I adore the companions [Bradley Walsh, Mandip Gill and Tosin Cole]. I’m blessed to be given three people I now consider family members to go on this journey with.

TH: Being a role model to young people is one of the biggest responsibilities of this job. How are you feeling about that?

JW: I hope that as I could be your next-door neighbour – I’m not physically someone who could do extraordinary things – I won’t seem like an unattainable hero to kids. This is someone who loves science, who’s hopeful and who doesn’t look a particular way.

TH: And that’s reflected in the costume.

Image by Simon Emmett

JW: There isn’t a sense of, ‘it’s a girl’s costume’ or ‘it’s a boy’s costume’, they’re just clothes. I wanted the costume – the braces, T-shirt, trousers and boots – to serve the energy and personality of my Doctor. I was also like, ‘Cut my hair off, let’s do something mad’, but Chris wanted the hair I auditioned with. All I could think was that it wasn’t very practical and would be in my face all the time.

TH: Who are your own role models; who inspires you the most?

JW: I find Michelle Obama incredibly inspiring. I’m like a sponge to anything she does. She’s articulate, empowering and completely accessible. And my mum. She’s one of those women you can only dream of being like; one of the most selfless people I have ever met. I am not! I bring that up a lot: ‘Why am I not more like you?’ I also have a lot of girlfriends I’ve had since I was little. Inspiration doesn’t just come from people who were given a platform and a voice, but from the women who are around you through shit and shine.

TH: Are there any actors you particularly admire?

JW: I’ve always looked up to Laura Linney; her career is extraordinary. In every role she plays, I believe her. I also feel excited about the generation of actresses who are leading the way and taking on this sisterhood, like Rebecca Hall, Ruth Negga and my companion Mandip Gill. We have voices and we don’t have to pretend we don’t, which is really exciting. I think the entire cast of Derry Girls has been a game-changer for comedy. Oh, and Meryl Streep – you can’t answer this question without saying that!

Image by Simon Emmett
(Image credit: simon emmett photography LTD.)

TH: Finally, where will you be when your first episode airs?

JW: Somewhere far away, so I don’t watch it in the same time zone. I’ll be turning my phone off and hoping for the best!

Doctor Who starts on BBC One in October