Toast of 2017: Pearl Mackie on telling Bill Potts's story in 'Doctor Who'

Ethan Alter
Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Pearl Mackie and Peter Capaldi in Doctor Who. (Photoshot/Everett Collection)

Peter Capaldi’s third and final season as Doctor Who‘s resident Time Lord was a grand showcase for the Scottish actor, celebrating his tenure in the TARDIS with a number of strong episodes, big emotional moments … and an all-time great companion. Accompanying the Twelfth Doctor on his last batch of adventures is the show’s first openly gay traveling partner, Bill Potts, played by relative newcomer Pearl Mackie. If the 30-year-old theater-trained actress was daunted by the historic nature of her role — or, for that matter, keeping up with Capaldi’s eccentric Gallifreyan — she didn’t show it. From the very first episode, Mackie created a companion who was every bit the Doctor’s equal in terms of brains and bravery, if not necessarily experience with time-and-space jumping.

And departing Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat rewarded his new star with a complete character arc. As much as the Doctor is front and center in the show’s 10th season, viewed another way, this is Bill Potts’s tale: a young woman who begins the season staring down into a puddle and ends it gazing out at the entire galaxy, her new companion — and lover — Heather (Stephanie Hyam) by her side. “It’s the Doctor’s adventure, but you do see her story,” Mackie tells Yahoo Entertainment. “It’s such a great way to explore the season; you can watch it afresh from that angle.”

Not that Bill’s journey is completely over yet: She’ll be part of the upcoming Christmas special, Twice Upon a Time, which premieres Dec. 25 at 9 p.m. on BBC America and features Capaldi’s regeneration into the Thirteenth Doctor, played by Jodie Whittaker. Off-screen, Mackie is writing an exciting new chapter in her own story; she’s currently in rehearsals for a West End production of the classic Harold Pinter play The Birthday Party as part of a star-powered ensemble that includes Toby Jones and Stephen Mangan.

For our Toast of 2017 series, we spoke with Mackie about her first experience acting alongside Peter Capaldi and the Doctor Who fan encounter she’s still thinking about.

How much did the character of Bill change from what you read in the first script to the person we meet onscreen?
As far as I was concerned, she was fully formed when I saw the pages. But if you talk to Steven [Moffat], he’ll say that he had only written the three scenes that I auditioned with! Those were the first scene from Episode 1 where she meets the Doctor, and a scene from the trailer that introduces Bill. For me, she jumped off the page, although Steven says that he got a lot of it from me and what I did in the audition. I guess we fed off each other in that way; there was synergy between what was already created and what I was creating in the audition.

Pearl Mackie as Bill Potts in Doctor Who. (Photo: Simon Ridgway/BBC America)

In terms of the costume and the look of Bill, I was very hands-on with that. Hayley [Nebauer, Doctor Who‘s costume designer], and I worked very closely together to create the look that we wanted, giving her a kind of a youthful dynamic and her own individuality. She’s not a girl next door — that has its own connotations — but she’s a girl that you would see walk past you on the street and go, “I think I know her.” That was really important to me to convey.

What were the characteristics about Bill that jumped out at you right away?
Well, she’s quite cheeky, which I liked. But she’s also intelligent and doesn’t feel the need to brag about it. It’s very much a part of her, and she’s not ashamed to just say things. She has this confidence that I really engaged with; she doesn’t let her life or experiences get the better of her. She also wants to learn more and is very inquisitive.

We see that in the way she challenges the Doctor from their first meeting. That’s a different dynamic from past companions.
Yeah, and that’s the energy that I felt when I first read the script. There’s an irreverence between her and the Doctor, even though there’s also a lot of respect and they grow to be very close by the end of the series. She’d never be like, “I bow to your superior knowledge.” It’s more akin to, “Well, actually I don’t agree with that. What about this?” I think he respects her for that; they both enjoyed the verbal sparring they had. It’s enjoyable to watch that dynamic.

How quickly did you establish that rhythm with Peter Capaldi?
I met him for the first time in my second audition — my callback essentially. Before that, I’d been reading the script on my laptop with the Facetime camera on, responding to a recording I’d made of myself doing a version of Peter Capaldi reading his lines! The real Peter is a much better actor than that — much more dynamic. [Laughing] When I went into the room, I was absolutely terrified because Peter is not only an incredible actor, but he’s also been playing this character for a long time. We read the first scene of Episode 1, this mammoth six-page scene, and I spent most of it standing there just hoping that what I was doing was right or at least interesting.

Then we did the scene where Bill goes into the TARDIS for the first time, and Peter said, “Do you want to stand up?” I went, “What? OK, sure.” In auditions, you’re supposed to sit still and keep your face as still as possible, but if you’re me, your face tends to move of its own accord. Steven enjoyed that and used it a little bit in the first episode when Bill is standing at the window in the Doctor’s office and says, “I see my face all the time. I never liked it; it’s all over the place — it’s always doing expressions when I’m trying to be enigmatic.” But, yeah, I mainly remember standing there aghast at being in a room acting with Peter Capaldi. Luckily, Bill was supposed to be pretty aghast when she walked in the TARDIS, otherwise we may not be having this conversation today! I think we were both responding to each other quite honestly and seemed to work in a very harmonious fashion.

One of the thematic ideas I enjoyed this season was the way that Bill and the Doctor take turns saving each other — sometimes physically and sometimes emotionally. There’s a sense that Bill always has her own power and agency in that way.
Totally. That is kind of Bill’s character, isn’t it? “Great, you’ve saved me, but I’ve also saved you!” It’s not a competition for her or anything, but she’s quite fiercely independent as a young woman, and I think she wants him to know that she’s not a damsel in distress who needs to be rescued. Instead she’s like, “If you do rescue me, that’s really cool. Thank you very much, because I’d rather you didn’t let me die.” But she likes being able to rescue him and other people as well. That’s a very strong part of her.

Matt Lucas, Capaldi, and Mackie in the fifth episode of Doctor Who. (Photo: Simon Ridgway/BBC America)

Did you have any favorite episodes from the season? I was a big fan of the haunted-house one, “Knock Knock.”
I like them all for different reasons, really. They presented their own challenges, and one of the most exciting things about doing Doctor Who is that one minute you’re on a university campus, the next you’re thousands of years in the future, and the next you’re in Victorian London wearing a full costume! Episode 5 [“Oxygen,” where Bill and the Doctor are trapped on a zombie-filled space station] really sticks out for me because of a scene where Bill seems to asphyxiate and is later attacked by the zombie space suits. We filmed both those scenes in one day, and it went from me going through asphyxiation to being electrocuted by a zombie suit 30 or 40 times. It was amazing but also very full-on. I remember thinking, The rest of this episode is going to be much easier than this day has been!

This was the first season that our entire family watched together, and my kids were very affected by Bill’s transformation into a Cyberman in Episode 11…
You say it affected your kids, but you should’ve seen my mum! She was in a right state.

Did you give her any warning that it was coming?
Oh God, no! It was way better not to warn her. She went, ‘Oh my God’ and was in a flood of tears. Then in Episode 12 when Bill says that she wants to stay and fight, she was sobbing there too. I had to tell her to be quiet so we could hear the rest of the episode. [Laughing] Sorry, I interrupted you. Carry on.

I was just going to say that my son wanted me to ask you what it felt like for Bill to not be in her body anymore.
It was pretty epic. It’s quite a weird thing to play your character who essentially still looks like you, but only to people who know her. They didn’t let me get into the Cyberman costume, because I was too small. It didn’t look threatening enough with me inside it! So they got a big 6-foot-4 guy to be in it; he was named Liam and he was very nice and very responsive to the physicality that I would show him. He’d do the movements so it would be true to what it would look like if I was inside the costume. I always felt that Bill was a friendly person, who chose to be positive and upbeat. But the Cyberman body completely prohibits that because it immediately causes people to disengage from her and block her out. They’re terrified of her immediately, and it’s a massive hurdle she can’t really overcome.

Bill becomes the first Cyberman in Episode 11 of Doctor Who. (Photo: Simon Ridgway/BBC America)

Another thing that was quite difficult to navigate was that, as an actor, my arm still looks like my arm to me, but it wouldn’t to other people if that’s not what they see. I read that in the script and thought, Wow, this is not going to go down well, but in a good way. People are going to be really perturbed by this scenario. It was really scary but also brilliant in the way that someone you’ve really grown to care about throughout the whole series actually turns out to be the first Cyberman! That’s kind of what Doctor Who does: it can take you on these journeys, allow you to form these relationships with characters and then watch that ripped away from you.

I do love that Heather gives Bill another chance at life and they end the series together. Have you written their next chapter in your mind?
I haven’t! I think it’s all of time and space, really. The possibilities are endless. Get your son to write a spinoff — it sounds like he’s got some ideas! [Laughing] But I really liked that ending. A lot of it is that she thinks the Doctor is dead, so she’s like “You showed me this amazing universe, and I can’t just go back to living my mundane life.” Then she turns to Heather and goes, “Let’s go have some adventures.” It’s cool and full of hope.

We know from the trailers that Bill appears in the Christmas special. Does that special feel like the end of an era? It’s Peter Capaldi’s last episode and Steven Moffat is leaving the show as well.
It does in a way, but it’s also about new beginnings as well. The great thing about Doctor Who is that it never ends. It only changes and becomes about a different Doctor and their different perspectives and the people they choose to bring with them on their journey. But that episode is really exciting: There’s two Doctors and two TARDISes. In the truest sense, it’s just an amazing Doctor Who adventure.

Are you excited to see Jodie Whittaker be part of Doctor Who‘s next chapter?
Oh, yeah — I think she’s going to be wonderful. She’s an amazing actress, and I can’t wait to see what new ideas she brings to the role. I think it’ll be really exciting.

Is there a dream role or character you’re hoping to play next?
Doctor Who has definitely opened doors to me that wouldn’t necessarily have been opened before. I’d like to play characters with interesting stories that you don’t necessarily hear every day. I’d also like to play someone entirely unhinged! I’ve played a lot of characters that are quite good, so it would be nice to play someone quite bad. [Laughing] I mean that’s very basic, describing people as good and bad. But I think there’s a lot to be explored in what makes people do bad things. Navigating the inner workings of someone who behaves appallingly could be a really interesting challenge.

Heather (Stephanie Hyam) seeks to make a connection with Bill in Doctor Who. (Photo: Simon Ridgway/BBC America)

Having been introduced to the world of Doctor Who fandom this past year, what’s been your most memorable interaction with fans?
There have been so many; Doctor Who fans are very special. Their loyalty is so deep and so entrenched that they don’t want to feel disloyal to a previous companion or Doctor that they’ve liked a lot, but then they always sort of manage to find room for the new ones. For me, there is one encounter that really sticks out — I think it was in Berlin. This young woman came up to me on the verge of tears and said, “Watching Bill be comfortable with her sexuality and proud of being a lesbian enabled me to come out to my family. Without her, I wouldn’t have been able to do it.” That’s a pretty incredible thing to be part of; it’s not something you necessarily set out to do when you’re a kid trying to be an actor. You don’t expect to be able to help someone change their life for the better in that way. I still find it very overwhelming.

It certainly speaks to the importance of representation in these franchises. Thanks to characters like Bill and Wonder Woman, it feels like 2017 has been an important year for new and different female heroines on the small and big screens.
I hope so! I hope it is the shape of things to come. We’ve barely scratched the surface, and we’ve got a long way to go, but it seems like there’s change in the air. And there’s a lot of other stuff that’s happened this year that would sort of indicate that as well. I really hope that we continue to explore women as heroes, people of color as heroes, gay people as heroes, transgender people as heroes, disabled people as heroes. We all rule here, and we’re all fighting our own individual battles every day. We need to tell those stories as well.

Doctor Who: Twice Upon a Time premieres Monday, Dec. 25, at 9 p.m. on BBC America. Season 10 is available to rent or purchase on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and Vudu.

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