With news of Peter Capaldi leaving the Doctor Who universe at the end of this current season, it was easy to forget that with someone halfway out those TARDIS doors, a wonderful newbie was just getting her timey-wimey footing: That honor goes to the Doctor’s newest, openly gay companion, Bill Potts, portrayed by television up-and-comer Pearl Mackie. (Indeed, she only had one other TV credit to her name before landing the iconic role.) While Bill’s arrival into the Doctor’s life was shrouded in great secrecy, in the season premiere — which aired this evening on BBC America — we’re given some background about her very normal life as a college cafeteria worker, where she manages to get the Doctor’s attention by attending his lectures despite not being a student. And soon enough, she’s the pupil to his teacher. “I don’t care who’s dying. Never, ever be late,” he explains to her about their new relationship. “I’m very particular about time.” Earlier this week, we spoke to Mackie about her “crazy” audition, why Bill makes such a natural companion, and the simple joys of running around the universe in flat shoes.
The casting of Doctor Who is one of the most top-secret ones in all of television, so I’d love to know what the process was like for you to land this role. From the first casting notification to officially being offered the gig, walk me through it all.
I was doing a play at the time, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and my agent called and was like, Hey, are you gonna stay in theater for another year? And I was like, No, probably not. So she was like, Great, because you just got an availability check for a project called “Mean Town.” I don’t know what is it yet but I’ll find out more information and let you know. And then she called me back shortly thereafter and was like, Wow, okay, so it turns out “Mean Town” is an anagram of “woman ten,” which is the tenth companion in Doctor Who, so that’s what it is essentially and what you would be auditioning for. So I’m like, Whaaaaaaat?! This is crazy, okay! I, of course, was very excited but never thought I would get this job. It’ll be a nice day out of auditioning and getting that big experience.
So I got some scripts … I got sent a bit of the first scene from episode one with a few edits, and the scene that we filmed ended up being used in the trailer. And then the scene where Bill goes into the TARDIS for the first time. I read through them all and was like, Oh, I actually kind of know this girl, you know? I understand her. As far as I was concerned, she was fully formed already and she jumped off the page. So now I’m thinking, Oh man, there’s still no chance of me getting the job, but at least I can do a good audition. I spent hours practicing the audition with my laptop and using the camera on my laptop so I could get a bit of an idea of what I was doing on-camera. I didn’t have very much television experience. I had done two episodes of another TV program and a very short cameo in an indie film. So I was like, let me practice as much as I can! I went to the first casting, and it was very straightforward. I was reading to the camera with the main casting director, Andy Pryor, and his assistant, and that was only a few minutes. I didn’t hear anything for a few weeks, so I was like, ah, that’s a shame. But my agent calls a few days after that and said, They really liked what you did. They want you to come and read again at the Soho Hotel in London and you’ll meet Steven Moffat and you’re going to be reading with Peter Capaldi.
I was nearly on the floor! This is insane! I had a bit of time to prepare for that and read through everything. I was sent some more scenes as well, so there was some more shift through. I spent a lot more time with my laptop and this app called LineLearner which allows you to read another person’s lines as well, so the app reads it back to you. I did that with a little bit of a Scottish accent, so it sounded like Peter Capaldi. [Laughs.] So I went to the audition, and I walk into this posh Soho Hotel in ripped jeans and a baggy T-shirt and bright yellow trainers and my big Afro. Everyone was in very nice Banana Republic clothing and were clearly meant to be in the Soho Hotel, and I was sticking out like a sore thumb. Eventually I went up to the room and it was one of the nicest hotel rooms I’ve ever been in. I was like, Whaaaaaaat?! This is nice, man! They all laughed and were very kind and generous from what they’d seen from my previous audition. I just tried to do it a bit like that. I sat down and read the first scene of episode one. Peter and I read it sitting down, and I had to stop myself from … you know that thing Joey does in Friends when he’s working with that really famous actor on that war film and he’s like, Ah, yeahhhhh, yeahhhh, that’s really good, oh God, I’ve got to act, I’ve got to act! I had to stop myself from doing that. It was freakin’ Peter Capaldi sitting in front of me, and he’s brilliant!
We read the scene sitting down a couple of times, and then Peter says to me, Do you want to stand up? And I was like, Uh, okay! In my head I was panicking because I didn’t practice this and didn’t know what to do. I didn’t practice standing with my laptop, how am I going to pull this off?! We’re doing the scene where Bill first goes into the TARDIS, and Peter’s mucking about inside it. I was just fawning with my mouth open, but thankfully Bill has supposed to be doing that in the scene anyway or else I probably wouldn’t have been talking to you right now. It was a crazy process, and then my agent called after about a week and said that I got the job. After the initial shock and amazement and joy of getting the job I did have to call her back and be like, Are you actually sure? You’re not making it up? I’ve imagined this moment many, many times in my life.
I hope you appropriately marked the occasion with a massive celebration.
Oh, yes indeed, don’t worry, I can confirm I did some major celebrating.
When we first meet Bill, the Doctor said that she sparked his interest because when “most people don’t understand something, they frown. You smile.” What else do you think he saw in Bill that made her so distinguishable from the other humans around him?
I love that quote. She’s very inquisitive and she’s absolutely like a sponge for knowledge. It’s her own initiative to sneak into his lectures because she hasn’t had the education previous to going to this college, and she’s always wanted to go to a university but has never been financially able to. I think some of that tenacity strikes him about her. Like you just said: Smiling when you don’t know something is a very individual quality, as is the ability to acknowledge that you don’t know something but also to be excited enough by it to not be discouraged by that fact that you don’t know something.
How does Bill’s arrival change the tone of the show since last season? Between her job as a cafeteria worker and growing up with a foster mom, she’s the first companion in a while who’s “regular” and doesn’t seem to have a complicated backstory.
That in itself is a massive change from the previous few series, for sure. She’s really normal. She’s a girl you might bump into walking down the road. She’s got some wonderful individual qualities, but she’s definitely a normal human being who’s open to this magical world of all of space and time via the TARDIS. In a way, the freshness of that and the excitement of being able to watch someone going to the TARDIS for the first time, and to discover more and more about the Doctor in the process, brings a real fresh energy to the series.
Viewers can realistically see themselves more in Bill’s position then with Clara or Amy, absolutely.
Yeah, exactly! You discover that someone that you knew had a TARDIS that’s the gateway to all of space and time. What do you do next? That’s what happens to Bill.
You’ll be playing the first openly gay companion in Who’s history. Was it always written that Bill would be gay when you auditioned, or was it developed after you signed on and workshopped the character a little more?
The first time I read for the part … the scene with the big monologue Bill has right at the very beginning of the first scene of the episode, she’s talking about a boy, and she says that there was this boy she was really attracted to, but then she gave him loads of chips and he got really fat. [Laughs.] That was initially written about a boy and not a girl. And Steven realized that there was something that just didn’t work about it. One night he was like, Oh, she’s a girl, of course, that makes so much more sense. That’s all it came from, that was the only adjustment, and that’s how it happened, really. I think it’s great. It’s very important to represent people from all walks of life. It’s something that we need more of and not something that we should be applauded for.
What would you say was your “a-ha” moment after you got the role, when you realized just how large the scope of Who’s influence is?
There was one big moment I remember on set when we were filming episode three, which is set during the Regency period in London on the frozen River Thames. I remember walking onto the filming area and there was a massive set built that was bigger than anything I’d ever seen before. Seriously. I walked on and looked around and was completely overwhelmed with the sheer scale of the show, the intricacies, and the work that had gone into it. It made me feel really humbled by being in such a phenomenally powerful show. I know that’s not specifically what you asked, but that was the moment for me when I was like, Wow, this is a big thing.
What do you think was harder adapting to on set: working with green screens or running all the time?
That’s a tough one. I think I’ll have to go with the green screen. It was definitely a new marvel for me as an actor. Curious Incident was quite a physical stage show, so I was thankfully in decent shape when we starting filming. All of the green-screen stuff was pretty mad because essentially you’re acting opposite nothing or acting opposite a tennis ball on top of a nightstand. That was crazy, and then you have to imagine this monster roaring viciously or arching its back or trying to bite you or other stuff like that. That was a very big adjustment. I haven’t seen any of those episodes, actually, so I hope they look all right!
I’m glad you’re in sensible shoes the whole time. Those running scenes would’ve been hell with heels.
Oh my god, trust me, I’m thanking myself for that, too. And the costume designer! On the very first day I was definitely like, let’s wear flats, or else I’ll be aching all over the place.
Have you sought out the advice from previous companions, or, contrarily, have any of them contacted you?
Jenna [Coleman] sent me a bunch of flowers and a card during my first week, which was really lovely. The card had some basic advice, like where to get nice food in Cardiff. [Laughs.] And that I should practice my superhero run to some comedy theme music, which was some tongue-in-cheek advice. But that kind of thing, really. Peter also spoke to me privately and was like, This whole show can be such a big beast, but if you get caught up in these external bits of the show, remember that you’re here because you’re a really good actress, and remember that we’re here to make the show first and foremost. Here’s my number and feel free to call me at any time. Which I thought was very nice.
What would your superhero-on-the-run song be?
“Break Free” would probably be good, wouldn’t it?
This interview has been edited and condensed.