sun 21/07/2024

'I were crap at school': Jodie Whittaker, the new Doctor Who | reviews, news & interviews

'I were crap at school': Jodie Whittaker, the new Doctor Who

'I were crap at school': Jodie Whittaker, the new Doctor Who

She made her debut opposite Peter O'Toole, faced down aliens in Peckham, and has Yorkshire vowels as flat as caps

Jodie Whittaker: 'I’m an interviewer’s dream. I don't shut up'

“Jodie is a remarkable young woman. She’s game. She’s a good actress, and she’s willing.” So said Peter O’Toole of the first female Doctor Who.

Jodie Whittaker, born in 1982, is best known for Broadchurch on the small screen and Attack the Block on the big screen. But there’s a lot more to her than those two roles.

At 23 and fresh out of drama school, she starred opposite O’Toole in Venus as a surly teenager from Yorkshire who captivates a withered old actor. The role, written by Hanif Kureishi, allowed her to paint with many colours. Her character Jessie is by turns sullen, unimpressed, disgusted and manipulative until the unusual relationship with a man old enough to be her grandfather laid bare a vulnerable interior. The cast may have been top-heavy with senior citizens, but Whittaker never once looked as if she was punching above her weight. It was the most promising debut by an actress in a British film since Julie Walters in Educating Rita. Jodie Whittaker and Peter O'Toole in Venus“Some part of me at the time wished I’d had the experience in an environment that didn’t matter so much,” she told me on set. “On days off I was going home and saying, ‘I’m shit. Am I too big? Am I doing anything?’ But it’s a great place to start. It might sound a bit cocky, but I was really proud of myself. It’s dangerous where you really tear yourself apart because how do you do the next job?”

The words clattered out in an accent which, but for the odd pragmatic concession to southern ears, remains utterly Huddersfield, with vowels flat as caps. “If I say ‘Jer-deh’, no one can tell what I’m saying,” she explained, “so I have to go ‘Joe-dee’. It’s me London voice.” Not long after she played a young idealist in Gorky’s Enemies at the Almeida when she so completely kicked over the traces of her roots that a film producer was thrown when she met Whittaker afterwards. “She went, ‘Are you taking the piss?’ I’m like, ‘Ner.’ ‘What are you talking like that for?’”

Jodie Whittaker in Antigone at the National TheatreShe has kept an occasional toehold in heavyweight theatre even as her screen career took her to more light-hearted places such as St Trinians. She morphed into a Jewish-American girl in Awake and Sing!, Clifford Odets’s mid-Depression classic, again at the Almeida. Then in National’s Olivier Theatre in 2012 she rivetingly took on the huge challenge of the title role in Antigone (pictured right by Johan Persson), the young woman who gives her brother a proper burial even though she knows it means certain death.

“I were crap at school,” she told me. “This is my education.” Whittaker grew up in the village her parents had before her. Showbiz was not in the family. Her father ran his own business; her mother, once a nanny and a nurse, earned a degree in politics and became a magistrate in the family court. Though not an only child, their daughter “played on my own for hours. I didn’t need anyone. All my dolls and teddy bears had a voice. My bed was a boat, my window was a magic mirror.”

Seeking validation from an audience was a logical step. “If I’d have been good at everything at school,” she reasoned, “I might not have known I was good at acting.” After a year’s backpacking she applied to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. “I obviously had something but I didn’t have a clue. But they saw through all of that and let me in. And I left having improved a lot.”

Jodie Whittaker in The Night WatchShe also left in possession of that year’s gold medal, and was immediately cast in Peter Oswald’s The Storm, the first new play ever written for Shakespeare’s Globe. For her professional entrance she had to walk through the groundlings while draped in seaweed and haul herself up onto the stage. “People didn’t know what was going on. There’s a weird girl with seaweed wrapped round her and I was going, ‘Scuse me, ‘scuse me’.”

Her face, with its green hooded eyes and bruised cheekbones, has become a constant in television and film. Often she's been cast as, in her phrase, “the girl that’s got bloody mascara running down her face because she’s got some trauma in the corner”: memorably so as a single woman who has an illegal abortion in the adaptation of Sarah Water’s wartime romance The Night Watch (pictured above left), or as a wife in a moribund marriage in Abi Morgan's Royal Wedding, set in the Welsh Valleys on the day of Charles and Diana’s nuptials. She was captivating in Broadchurch as Beth Latimer, the mother of the murdered Danny. Adam Sweeting wrote on theartsdesk about the moment she learns of her son’s disappearance: “Her sense of mounting terror was vividly caught in the way she didn't know whether to stand up, sit down, scream or make a phone call.”

Jodie Whittaker in BroadchurchMeanwhile on the big screen, her sidekick-with-the-authentic-Yorkshire-accent opposite Anna Hathaway was the main reason to sit through One Day. Eventually the film leads came. In A Thousand Kisses Deep she played a woman who a young woman who, via time-travel, pieces together the events that led to her own death. In Adult Life Skills she was funny and deeply touching as a 30-year-old woman who can’t make the step into adulthood after the death of her twin.

But it’s her stint being mugged by aliens and wannabe gangstas in Attack the Block (pictured below) that provides a more useful guide to what Whovians can expect from her Doctor. It’s a measure of how far and fast she had travelled as an actress that, having been the youngest and most inexperienced cast member on Venus, the film’s young male actors such as John Boyega respectfully addressed her as “Mrs Whittakar”. “I’m not an art teacher,” she recalls telling them. “Guys, we’re the same age!’Jodie Whittaker in Attack the BlockJoe Cornish’s debut feature found aliens invading a Peckham estate. Whittaker was cast as a nurse who is first mugged by teenagers, then forced to team up with them in the face of a common enemy. “I loved it because on paper she’s not really what you get when you read action films. I was like, ‘Where’s my stilettos?’ No make-up. She has no outlandish talents. She is absolutely brickin' it. She annoys them all. It’s such a realistic character in an unrealistic world.” When she and actor Luke Treadaway saw it in a private screening she high-fived him all the way through.

What even the keenest Whittaker-watchers won’t know about her is that she has funny bones. In conversation her comic timing is impeccable, the self-mockery seductive. And she can talk for Yorkshire. “I’m an interviewer’s dream,” she says. “I don't shut up.” We’re going to be hearing a lot more from Jodie Whittaker.

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters