Our guest on this week’s Nerdette is the very first lady doctor.
No! We’re not talking about Merit-Ptah, chief physician of the court of the Egyptian pharaoh back in 2700 B.C. We’re not even talking about British physician Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States back in 1849.
Both of those ladies were not available for an interview.
We’re talking with Jodie Whittaker, the first woman to play the lead role in the long-running, time-travel-based BBC television series Doctor Who. (That means that Whittaker, rather than a doctor of medicine, is a fictional doctor of time.)
Whittaker, who also starred in the critically acclaimed drama Broadchurch, told Nerdette host Greta Johnsen how she got the Doctor Who role, how fans have reacted to her casting, and why she thinks her character’s gender, “more so than probably any other role I’ve ever played, is irrelevant.” Below are highlights.
‘Gender is irrelevant’
Jodie Whittaker: If you’re a fan of Doctor Who, you know that the show celebrates change and inclusivity and regeneration. And being a woman is not the thing that makes me unqualified. It’s being human. Because I’m playing an alien with two hearts from Gallifrey. [Laugher] I’m pretty unqualified.
I appreciate the moment as it stands as this extraordinary thing for me personally as an actor — breaking this mold. I didn’t give myself the job though, so I do need to give [showrunner] Chris Chibnall and all the grown-ups that credit. But for myself, it’s 2018. This should be and will be the norm that the other half of the population play heroic roles. But I think the negativity sometimes — there’s no argument for it with me because I’m playing it.
So watch it or don’t watch it, but I think if you do watch it, you’ll realize gender — more so than probably any other role I’ve ever played — is irrelevant. Because of this outsider. But the brilliant thing about it is that it’s irrelevant for the character but it can often — and in an interesting storytelling way — be relevant sometimes to maybe the time period or the world you enter into because of maybe the perception of women. But it’s always from the outside. It’s never from the inside. The Doctor is the Doctor no matter what body they inhabit.
How she got the role
Whittaker: [Showrunner Chris Chibnall and I] were meeting up for a chat. It was all around the time when the final season of Broadchurch was being released. So our paths were very much crossing continually. And as friends, we were just meeting up and I said, “Oh by the way, when you start doing Doctor Who, please can I be a buddy with a lot of prosthetics. Just come on, write me a really good part.”
And he says, “Oh it’s interesting you brought it up. One of the main reasons me and you are having this coffee today is because I wondered if you wanted to throw your hat in the ring for the audition process.”
And obviously, that in itself was: “Don’t tell anyone.” … OK. But I want to tell everyone! [Laughter] But yeah, he said the Doctor was going to be a woman and it would be an audition process for them but also for me. … It’s extraordinary to have that opportunity to audition for, and then obviously when I got it, I was like, “Oh. OK. Alright. So the hard work really begins now, when I’ve got 17 pages of dialogue a night to panic-learn.”
Why she’s waiting before she watches other seasons of Doctor Who
Whittaker: I didn’t grow up watching it. I mean as a Brit, you’re very aware of it.
Greta Johnsen: It’s osmosis.
Whittaker: Yeah! Your vocabulary is peppered with Doctor Who-isms anyway without ever knowing why.
But obviously becoming an actor, and having friends that were in it, and being friends with a few of the Doctors, I’d seen it but I hadn’t seen it from start to finish as as diehard fan.
But as someone who’s come at it new, it’s incredibly accessible. I feel like I can’t believe I’ve missed so much of it. And now I can’t wait: When I hand on these very wonderful shoes to the next Doctor, I’m going to start from episode one and work my entire way through.
Johnsen: Wow, so you’re going to wait until you’re done with the role?
Whittaker: Yes. I just think for me, what’s been an exciting journey for me has been this wandering through these very wonderful worlds. And particularly in our season, the monsters and all the worlds are new. We’ve got 10 standalone episodes that obviously have a character arc throughout. And we’ve got new friends in it. All of the characters are new.
The wonderful thing about this job is it’s all written down. So all the things, the kind of mythology and the rules, they’re all there to learn.
I just didn’t feel that watching would be the best way in for me. I just think if I were about to play Juliet — I’m probably a bit old for Juliet now — but if I was about to play Juliet, I don’t think I’d go to see the most recent production that was on at the moment of Romeo and Juliet. But you know, there’s enough out there to know that you can immerse yourself in the world without it.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire conversation, which was produced by Justin Bull.