“It has been quite a journey”: Jodie Whittaker reflects on her experience post-Doctor Who and embracing her more serious roles.
In 2021, Jodie Whittaker mentioned that she was thinking about exploring comedy as an acting genre. Prior to her role as the Doctor in Doctor Who, she had taken on numerous characters that were on the verge of experiencing trauma. This included a nurse blowing the whistle in Trust Me, a mother grieving in Broadchurch, and a wife dealing with a jealous husband in Black Mirror. Our conversation took place two years ago, shortly after she had finished filming her final scenes as the Doctor. Although Doctor Who offered a diverse range of elements, she had yet to tackle pure comedy. Perhaps it was time for her to venture into something new.
In 2023, Whittaker has returned to television screens starring as Orla in Time. Orla is a mother of three who has been imprisoned for tampering with electricity, and her life begins to unravel in the system. She will also be seen as Tess in the Australian drama, One Night, which explores themes of sexual assault, memory, and trauma. After watching both series consecutively, it is safe to say that they are not lighthearted. Whittaker jokes, “I definitely took my own advice on that one.”
Whittaker is currently situated in her residence in London, comfortably seated on her “scruffy sofa” with short bleached hair concealed under a beanie. She is known for being an enthusiastic and talkative individual. When asked a question, she tends to go off on tangents, sharing anecdotes about people-watching, hugging, her close friends from her hometown, her experiences during lockdown, and her fondness for following rules. Eventually, she will provide an answer. At one point during the conversation, she even recalls a detail from 20 minutes ago, showcasing her exceptional memory. She frequently mentions how fortunate she is. While some actors may casually claim luck as a part of their profession, Whittaker genuinely expresses her excitement for having the opportunity to work in a field she adores, mainly because it allows her to spend time with a variety of individuals, which she thoroughly enjoys. She happily confesses that being sociable is her ideal situation.
The 13th Doctor’s prolonged goodbye was spread out over nine months, giving the illusion that she had never left. However, Whittaker did take a break to start a family (she is married and has two children, but prefers to keep her personal life private). “I spent a year at home, being lazy, while it appeared that I was saving the universe,” she explains. During the filming of her final scenes for Doctor Who, she was actually in the early stages of pregnancy, although no one was aware of it at the time. On the Graham Norton show, she claimed to be drinking water because she was feeling fragile after the wrap party, but in reality, “I was experiencing morning sickness all day long.”
During a short period, she held the title of being the first-ever pregnant Doctor. She also proudly stated that she was the first Doctor to have two hearts, a well-known characteristic of the Doctor who is an alien. She recalls telling a child at Comic-Con that she was “method” for the first time, despite facing criticism from some who believed a woman could not play an alien. This was the first time the Doctor had two hearts, proving her critics wrong.
After taking a break for maternity leave, Doctor Who’s widespread popularity led to Jodie Whittaker being offered roles instead of having to audition for them. Wanting to work as part of a group and have a manageable schedule due to her new baby and school-aged child, Whittaker sought out the opportunity to join an ensemble cast. She had been away for a significant amount of time filming Doctor Who in Cardiff, which she enjoyed but also meant living apart from her family. Wanting to prioritize practicality, Whittaker was drawn to the script for One Night.
One Night is an Australian drama, with a largely Australian cast, shot in Sydney and around New South Wales. Moving the whole family to the other side of the world for five months was as far from practical as it was possible to get. But Whittaker read the script “in the weeds of the night, and at 2am, I got to the end of it, and thought, I need to play this role. What can we do?”
Whittaker, also known as Tess, is a successful businesswoman who has recently come back to her small seaside hometown near Sydney after living in London for two decades. She left the town due to a traumatic event, which resurfaces when her childhood friend Simone writes a novel that appears to be based on a friend who was raped. As is typical in small towns, secrets are difficult to keep hidden and Tess is forced to confront a past that she has no recollection of, relying on the fragmented memories of those who were there. The intricate plot builds up to a heartbreaking ending, and Whittaker and the rest of the cast had to deliver powerful performances.
She explains that it offered a very unique perspective for her. While we are familiar with shows that revolve around trauma and sexual assault, they often take an outsider’s viewpoint and focus on solving the issue. However, this show delves into the internal struggle and survival of one event for multiple individuals. It also highlights the strong bonds of friendship and the complexities of teenage relationships. She shares, “My closest friends have been by my side through thick and thin since childhood. We’re fortunate to have not gone through such a traumatic experience, but I was impressed with how well the writer captured those types of relationships.”
She completed her assignments. “When playing a role, there are times when you desire all the answers for someone and want to understand how and why. What does it feel like when a major event in your life doesn’t have a memory attached to it? Unfortunately, this is the reality for many people.” She read statements from victims and made sure she was prepared. “I am one of the fortunate ones who hasn’t experienced [sexual assault]. However, in our extended circle, we are not completely removed from it.” She admits to feeling more nervous than usual about discussing her work. “I am incredibly proud of it and I hope people appreciate it. I don’t want to disappoint anyone, because one controversial sentence could ruin everything,” she explains. With Doctor Who, she was anxious that someone would mention an episode she hadn’t seen and she would have to improvise. This situation was quite different.
If it were a British show, she doesn’t think she would have been asked to play the cool, closed Tess at all. “In real life, I’m super over-tactile, a massive over-sharer, and completely chaotic. Tess contains everything, is physically and emotionally at arm’s length, and gives nothing away. How the fuck am I going to do that?”
She was required to perform an Australian accent, which she initially believed she would excel at due to her overconfidence. However, when attempting a comedic, exaggerated Yorkshire accent, she realized it was more challenging than expected. While she had heard Australian accents on television, the country has a vast range of dialects that proved difficult for her to master. She acknowledges that there may be mistakes in her accent, but attributes it to having lived in England for 20 years.
She has starred in numerous dramas with intense emotional storylines in the past. Can she leave that behind when she goes home? “Between scenes, I am fully immersed in my character,” she explains, gesturing to herself. She may come across as outgoing and energetic, but when she goes home, she feels like a different person. However, during her time on Doctor Who, she started to realize that she may have been carrying her character’s emotions with her. “I was bouncing around for three and a half years, living my best life and feeling like I was 10 years old again.” But during her role in Broadchurch, where she played a grieving mother for five months, she began to understand that the emotions from her character can stay with her even after filming ends. “I am grateful for my luck and know that this is not a real experience for me. Although I have some personal experiences related to grief, I am not the actual mother in the story. However, spending five months in that intense emotional state has taught me that it can linger with you.”
She completed filming for One Night in Australia, took a five-day break, and immediately started working on Time. “It can be quite hectic. I’m probably a difficult person to live with during that time.” The initial season of Jimmy McGovern’s prison drama received numerous awards (this time co-written with Helen Black). Upon getting the job, there was curiosity about the personalities of Stephen Graham and Sean Bean. “Unfortunately, they’re not in a women’s prison,” she teases, apologizing for the let-down.
At home, there were also inquiries. My child asked me if I was portraying a hero or a villain, as the setting was in a prison. I appreciate the simplicity of that question. Of course, I responded in a more sophisticated manner, but as an adult, what I found intriguing about Time was our challenge of labels. Although she is hesitant to label it as a political show, she acknowledges that politics cannot be removed from it. In my opinion, when telling stories in real time, politics is inevitably involved. Once again, she has thoroughly researched the topic. Specifically for Orla, the strain on the system is evident. We constantly read about it in the media. The decision to imprison someone for six months, even though they pose no threat to society, and the cost of thousands of pounds… They may only serve three months, but in that short time, their life is completely disrupted.
Orla hails from Huddersfield, while Whittaker was raised in Skelmanthorpe, a nearby village. During her first appearance on the Graham Norton Show, she shared the reason why locals were nicknamed “shats” (short for “shatterers”) in the presence of Lady Gaga, Ryan Gosling, and Bradley Cooper, who looked bewildered. She fondly recalls the night, despite the initial awkwardness. Interestingly, she didn’t require any dialect training for her role in Time. Her co-star Bella Ramsey was unaware of her northern accent and assumed she spoke in received pronunciation. Whittaker acknowledges that her accent is often a topic of discussion, although it has become less of a focal point since her time on Doctor Who. However, she is not bothered by it and takes pride in her accent. She even admits to toning it down for certain roles, such as Orla, after living in London for 20 years.
Whittaker had a strong desire to pursue acting from a young age. Did it always feel attainable? “Yes, because I was fortunate enough to be raised in a household that didn’t dismiss dreams as mere fantasies,” she explains. Luck played a role once again. “I’ve done ample research, portrayed various characters, and read numerous scripts to understand that I was brought up in a loving household. Not everyone is dealt the same hand.”
When she was fifteen, her parents took her to the Alhambra in Bradford so she could watch every film available. However, her careers advisor at school discouraged her from pursuing acting as a profession, but her parents were outraged when she told them what had been said. She considers herself lucky to have parents who were supportive and understanding. She acknowledges that she was never cut out to be a lawyer, saying, “It’s not like I could have been a CEO instead.” She laughs as she explains that acting is her true skillset and that she is not particularly academic. She also admits to having a big ego and struggling in most subjects except for a few.
She has been working all year. Recently, she was papped shooting a new Jack Thorne drama for Netflix, but when I mention it, she uncharacteristically clams up: she can’t talk about it yet, in solidarity with the ongoing actors’ strikes in the US. She doesn’t know what she’s doing after that. Doctor Who mapped out her life for four years, so now, she quite likes not knowing. Besides, she doesn’t want to jinx anything. She knocks on wood, just in case.
Whittaker has a fondness for rules, which is why she enjoys studying different accents. She appreciates the structure and guidelines that come with it. She compares it to choreography and is dedicated to following the rules. She also has a couple of personal rules: staying present and avoiding being unkind or inadequate. These are definitely admirable principles to abide by.
Jo Jones, an editor in the fashion industry, collaborated with hair and makeup artist Nohelia Reyes who used products from Lisa Eldridge and the Dyson Supersonic hairdryer. Sam Deaman assisted with styling, while Nick Graham and Carissa Harrod served as photography assistants. The shoot took place at Mernier Venues.
The film One Night will only be accessible on Paramount+ starting November 24th.