When Jodie Whittaker watched TV shows as she was growing up, the people saving the day didn’t look like her. They were “white guys, running around, doing really cool stuff”, while the women on screen were so often on the sidelines, helping the heroic moment happen.
But now, aged 36, the star, who grew up in the village of Skelmanthorpe near Huddersfield, is taking centre stage – the first woman to play The Doctor, in BBC One’s famed Doctor Who.
“It’s 2018, women are not a genre, we are just the other half of the population, so to see us doing things shouldn’t be such a surprise,” suggests Whittaker when we meet at the studios in Cardiff, while she’s on a break from filming.
“But I know it is, because I watch TV and film and we are often less active in things. Or we’re the emotional point of view of a story line, rather than the active one.”
She continues avidly: “There’s lots of different actors in this show rather than different sexes, we’re all just actors. And that’s what we feel like this show represents.
“It’s a moment and I’m a part of it and I’m proud of it. But I can’t wait for it not to be a moment as well, so that someone going to drama school at 18 doesn’t need to think, ‘There aren’t any jobs for me’.”
The gender of the person controlling the Tardis isn’t the only thing different about this series of Doctor Who, which returned to our screens in 2005 with Christopher Eccleston in the lead role (it had last aired in 1989 before that).
There’s an all-new supporting cast, with Bradley Walsh, Mandip Gill and Tosin Cole playing The Doctor’s companions.
It’s moving from Saturday nights to a brand new slot on Sunday evenings, while new showrunner Chris Chibnall, of Broadchurch fame (which Whittaker also memorably starred in) – promises it’s bigger and bolder than ever before.
So how were Whittaker’s nerves when she first arrived on set?
“It’s always terrifying to do your first ever take,” confides the energetic star, whose previous TV roles include the lead in BBC hit Trust Me, costume drama Tess Of The D’Urbervilles and an episode of Netflix’s Black Mirror.
“My first ever take on Broadchurch was a tracking wide, that ended up in tracking close-ups of being told, in our sitting room, that Danny Latimer had been killed.
“That is an amazing learning experience for any actor to be put through, to be thrown in. When it’s something as harrowing as that, you can’t pre-empt it, so it happens and has to take you by surprise as much as it can do as an actor, because it isn’t real.”
With Doctor Who, Whittaker adds, the sense of responsibility she feels to be honest and truthful was “weighted with 55 years of history”.
“So there’s the natural nerves you have of doing any job you’re passionate about... Cut to the responsibility of those shoes to fill and I’d be absolutely lying if I said I didn’t feel it,” she elaborates. “But once you’ve done your first set-up of the first scene and you move on from the first set-up and it’s tattooed on film forever, you are like, ‘It’s not that bad’.”
Whittaker, who is married to American actor Christian Contreras, is chatting away while still in costume – a blue striped top over long white sleeves, turquoise trousers and brown braces. It’s a look, she says, in which she had loads of input – in fact, between auditions, she was already sending Chibnall photos of inspiration.
“At that point, it was more trying to woo Chris into giving me the part,” she quips.
One image she found showed a “woman, walking with purpose” wearing boots, short trousers, braces and a T-shirt, and with unkempt hair.
“It didn’t lend itself to a man’s outfit, or a woman’s outfit, it was a feeling, and that’s what I wanted to help create – more of a feeling than a costume,” she explains.
However, once she bagged the role of the 13th incarnation of the Doctor, she was careful not to make too many decisions about how she would play it.
“No point me thinking, ‘I’m going to be this kind of Doctor’ too much before I started shooting, because I had no idea what it was like to work with these guys, no idea what it was like to have any of the energy of the guest stars,” she suggests.
“It was best to be open, and I think that plays into the Doctor I wanted to play, that open-heartedness and chaos within an ability to find a stillness in the tiniest details.”
A moment later, she reflects on what she’s just said with a smile: “That’s really convoluted!”
It’s clear from Whittaker’s fast-paced responses, and visible nervousness as she bites her nails while her co-stars talk, that she’s overwhelmingly excited by the turn her career has taken.
Specific details about what we can expect from this series have been kept very hush-hush.
What we do know is the first episode follows a mysterious woman, unable to remember her own name, falling from the night sky and landing in a South Yorkshire city where strange events are taking place. A recent premiere of the episode was held in Sheffield, where the cast and crew filmed earlier this year.
She told the BBC at the premiere that playing the Doctor with her own accent was a natural choice.
“The thing that was really important to Chris in the audition was that I used my own voice. If someone was coming in and putting on an accent it would have very much identified the role as being a person from Yorkshire. But to me, the way I speak is my accent and it is more about engaging in the character from a core level rather than putting on filters.
“It never felt wrong to use my own voice but I don’t think the character is a Yorkshire character. No one noticed in the Tardis!”
While Whittaker is determined not to give any spoilers away, she does let on what themes she thinks are important this series. “Friendship and loyalty and survival,” she notes. “All things that are very human, interlaced with things that are very far from human and familiar. It’s a very inclusive world.
“When I watch TV and film, I want to feel engrossed and excited, particularly in this world and genre. Doctor Who in itself is its own genre. I suppose you want it to feel like a rollercoaster ride!”
And while she knows millions of long-time viewers have been waiting impatiently for the show’s much-talked-about return, she’s also keen to pick up new fans along the way.
“Brad is a Whovian, but for me, Tosin and Mandip, we’re very much new to it, so that can be terrifying when you are auditioning for it.
“We want to engage with the eight-year-olds and the 80-year-olds, whether they’re into Doctor Who or not, because we’re saying, ‘You don’t need to know everything, but I bet you’ll enjoy it’.”
Doctor Who returns to BBC One on Sunday October 7.