USA TODAY-British actress Jodie Whittaker was hardly a familiar face, at least not until recently.
“Being recognized on the street was maybe (like), ‘Oh I think I know who that is,’ or being kind of looked at in a quizzical fashion, ‘Did we go to school together?’” Whittaker says.
But after the BBC anointed her as the first woman ever to step into the iconic lead role on “Doctor Who” in July 2017, that all changed.
“It’s strange to have someone know exactly who you are and at what point they’re going to be seeing you play this role,” she says, just two days before her first full episode as the Doctor in BBC America’s season premiere (1:45 p.m. EDT/10:45 a.m. PDT, and 8 EDT/PDT).
Jodie Whittaker stars as the newest “Doctor Who” in the BBC’s storied franchise — and the first woman doctor. Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY
“It’s a wonderful thing, but (it) can be quite overwhelming at times to know that no matter how many Doctors there will be, I’ll still be one. It’s a job for life in a way that no other is.”
Despite all the trappings, baggage and pressure that comes with the role, Whittaker is remarkably chill about her big debut.
“I wanted to approach it like I approached any job,” she says. “I think this is one of the first times I’ve been able to bring what is my in-between-scenes personality, which is a very different thing. I talk a lot and I jump from subject to subject and I love the physical energy required of this role, and it bleeds into life.”
She added that playing the Doctor can help actors discover things about themselves. “You can find yourself playing the Doctor,” she says.
Whittaker and new “Doctor Who” head writer and executive producer Chris Chibnall caught up with USA TODAY to talk inclusion, monsters and whether the Doctor can actually remember that she’s a woman.
Jodie Whittaker in action as the Doctor on “Doctor Who.” BBC Studios 2018
Question: Your casting meant a lot to me. How has it been over the last year hearing from fans? Is it overwhelming?
Jodie Whittaker: It’s been incredibly exciting knowing we’ve got a huge fan base before we’ve put in an ounce of work. It’s all over the world, and the response being mostly euphoric was excellent. … And now, being able to share all this hard work with all the fans and potentially new fans, it’s a long time coming and we’re really, really excited by it.
Q: The casting was announced just a few months before the #MeToo movement kicked off. Does the new era we’re living in change your perception of the significance of the role?
Whittaker: During the year it felt as if this was a timely moment. … The thing about it is it goes with the package, it starts a conversation.
Jodie Whittaker visits USA TODAY’s New York Bureau. Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY
Q: The Doctor often travels to the past. How will you deal with the her going to historically sexist eras? Will that change how the Doctor is perceived as she travels?
Chris Chibnall: Yes, we will go into historical eras. When we get to the third episode you’ll see us in–
Whittaker: You’re not allowed to say that!
Chibnall: I can’t remember what I’m allowed to say at this point! … When we go into history we will be obviously dramatizing the appropriate reactions to the Doctor in that time, so it’s not going to be ignored.
Whittaker: No it’s not. … There’s a conversation around it, as (there) should be. (But) the gender quickly becomes irrelevant, because the Doctor is the Doctor. But what is great is other people’s or other worlds’ reactions to that, reminders that it would be relevant at certain moments. But it certainly isn’t every scene. It’s not for me and you walking through life, so it certainly shouldn’t be for the Doctor.
Chibnall: If this doesn’t sound a strange response to that, it’s also a great opportunity for unexpected humor. How the Doctor reacts to people reacting to her differently when she’s in historical periods. … Often the Doctor forgets that she’s a woman. So there are points where people are responding to her and she goes, “Oh, OK. I’ve got to get used to that.”
More: Jodie Whittaker is glorious as the first female Doctor in full ‘Doctor Who’ trailer
It’s been awhile since the Doctor has had three companions (played by Mandip Gill, Tosin Cole and Bradley Walsh). Why did you make that call?
Chibnall: Well I always wanted a gang of people in the TARDIS, I love that, and also what’s interesting to me in the show is how you explore different personalities, different relationships, different (emotions) across the course of a series. … And I just felt like the show hadn’t done that for a long time. Plus it’s sort of going back to the very, very, very original DNA of ‘Doctor Who,’ which had three (companions) in the TARDIS, and I wondered what would be like if you applied that to 2018.
I knew that I wanted it to be a really diverse group, I wanted it to be as inclusive of everybody in the world as possible. I want every viewer to feel like they’ve got access points and somebody they can relate to or somebody like them or somebody they know. And I think I wanted a good age range as well. You just start to put it together a bit like a jigsaw puzzle.
This season we’re getting all new monsters for the Doctor to face, as opposed to other seasons that have brought back classic villains like the Daleks. Why is that?
Chibnall: One of the great joys of “Doctor Who” is new monsters. There is a whole universe out there of creatures and villains and monsters that we haven’t seen yet. I wanted Jodie’s Doctor, and the generation of viewers who will watch and the generation of viewers who will join with Jodie and this gang, to have their own monsters with some surprises in there. And (I wanted) the antagonists in every story to resonate with the world now, the world we live in now in small ways or big ways. And I wanted to show the range of what we could do, really. I also think it keeps up mystery. Lots of “Doctor Who” storytelling is about what is the monster and what do they want and what are they doing and how do we stop them, and this felt like a really good time to do it.
Not to say we won’t do it in the future, because I am as big a fan of the show as anyone. So it’s really tempting to go, “Ooh let’s go and bring back the Kraals,” or something, but there’s also new things to explore. (It’s) the biggest toy box in television.
What part of being the Doctor that you were most excited about?
Whittaker: The freedom of expression. With the Doctor, there’s no etiquette constraints, there’s no social expectations because she’s an outsider continually, but (someone) who is always passionately learning and never abusing her hindsight to judge.