How Pearl Mackie got the Doctor Who gig

Morgan Jeffery
Photo credit: BBC

From Digital Spy

If Doctor Who's new companion Bill Potts is even half as engaging as the actress who plays her, then fans of the BBC's stalwart sci-fi series are in for a real treat.

Pearl Mackie is four weeks shy of completing an epic 10-month shoot when she jumps on the phone to speak to Digital Spy, but remains full of infectious energy – she's funny, down-to-earth and very likeable.

It's been almost a year since Mackie was unveiled to the public as the Doctor's new best friend, Bill Potts, but before all that came a casting process that involved much secrecy, code-names, outfit anxiety and Peter Capaldi's imaginary levers.

"First of all, my agent called and told me I'd got an audition for something called Mean Town," she recalls. "Then I got a call back a little while later – 'Oh, actually, Mean Town is an anagram of Woman Ten – it's to be the next Doctor Who companion, in the 10th series...'

"I was like, 'Right, OK... so I'm never gonna get that!'"

Photo credit: BBC

Her first audition was with Doctor Who's long-serving casting director Andy Pryor – the man who's cast every companion from Billie Piper onwards. It went well, she thought, but a week later and Mackie hadn't heard back.

"I thought I probably didn't get the job – after about a week, in the world of telly auditions, if you haven't heard, you probably haven't got it. So, of course, after a week and a half, my agent called to tell me I'd got a recall for Doctor Who...

"Although actually, we still had to call it Mean Town on the phone in case anyone was listening! In case anyone had bugged my phone!"

Her second test for the part of Bill was a more high-profile affair – she'd be meeting Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat and producer Brian Minchin... and playing out a scene with the actual Doctor.

"My agent said, 'They really liked your first audition, they liked the energy that you had, you should wear something similar' – so I wore exactly the same thing!" Mackie laughs. "I'm like, 'I can't think around that, that's it, that's the look, I'll stick to that!'

Photo credit: BBC Pictures

"So I walk into the foyer of the Soho Hotel, where they were doing the auditions, and I'm there in bright yellow trainers, and a baggy black T-shirt, and my hair out in my massive afro... and I was like, 'It's a bit nice in here, innit?'"

Pearl "buried" her nerves as she sat down to meet Moffat, Minchin and Peter Capaldi – playing out the first scene from Bill's debut episode. "Then, for the next scene, Peter was like, 'D'you want to stand up?'

"It was the scene where Bill first goes into the TARDIS... so Peter ran around, pressing imaginary buttons and pulling imaginary levers – 'cause obviously he knew where everything is!

"I'm just standing in the middle of the room, mouth open, thinking, 'Oh my God, this is mad!' – but luckily that's kind of what Bill's supposed to be doing in the scene anyway. Otherwise it may have been a very different story..."

Whatever she did, it worked. Mackie landed the part and, two months later, had her casting announced in the most public way possible. She'd shot a special teaser scene with Capaldi – an introduction to Bill – which was broadcast on BBC One during 2016's FA Cup semi-final, with millions watching.

"Until then, I'd just been avoiding most of my friends, basically, because I'm not very good at lying to them. They'd all be like, 'Where've you been?' and I'd be like, 'Just working... I don't know... leave me alone!'

"That night, I got some friends round to my house, with the promise of 'some excitement to follow' – we watched it and it comes up, 'Introducing Pearl Mackie as Bill'... and everybody screamed!

"Then loads of my friends who'd been watching texted me, 'Bruv, I just seen you, like, on the TV in the middle of the football – what's going on?' – more people came over and it turned into a bit of a party. My phone was going mad all night. I was kind of grateful when my battery died!"

Since that night, Mackie's travelled across time and space. She's gone to Mars and back. She's met Ice Warriors, Cybermen... and David Suchet.

Photo credit: Matthew Horwood / Getty Images

"I can't believe it's been nine months and we've nearly finished the series," she sighs. "It kind of feels like I haven't ever done anything else. It feel like Doctor Who is my life. But also it feels like I just started the other day.

"I'm a bit like, I'm not ready to…" she pauses. "I'm not ready yet, I'm not ready to finish the series! But on the other hand, I do want everyone to see it, I am really excited for the launch and for people to see what we've been doing for all this time!"

After our conversation with Pearl, we suspect that her Bill Potts will end up charming both your average telly watcher and the notoriously hard-to-please Whovian hardcore.

"People will always have their favourite Doctor and their favourite companion, you're not going to be that to everyone," she concludes. "I'm not expecting to be everyone's favourite companion, at all. But if I'm, like, two people's favourite companion... that'd be cool!"

Doctor Who returns to BBC One on Saturday (April 15) at 7.20pm on BBC One.

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