The programme was called Mean Town. Pearl Mackie hadn’t heard of it before, but had been asked by her agent if she might be available. Since leaving drama school five years earlier she’d mostly performed at fringe theatres, but a lengthy spell in the West End production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time suggested that she was ready to move on to the next stage in her career. Mean Time, she would soon learn, was an anagram of “Woman Ten”, which was itself a codename for Bill Potts, the name of the eponymous Time Lord’s next companion in the tenth series of Doctor Who.
Pearl was to become well-acquainted with elaborate acts of subterfuge; few television programmes invite as much speculation as Doctor Who, a genuine national institution over fifty years into its run. Suddenly the word “unknown” was being attached to every description of her in the press, and she was sequestered in Cardiff for ten months to film the series. When we meet she is only weeks from the end of her marathon shoot, exhausted but palpably excited. “I just can’t wait for people to meet Bill,” she says, meaning it, “She’s the kind of person I’d want to be friends with. I think she’s awesome, but I’m probably biased because she’s me.”
More than most programmes, people are hungry to find out what’s going on in Doctor Who. What’s it like to work on something for almost a year under intense scrutiny?
Everyone wants to know about it. Friends keep asking me what’s happening, begging me to send them pictures. It can be difficult when you come home from work and you’ve had an amazing day, filming something really cool, and you want to tell someone but you can’t. I’ve gotten very good at discussing the show in non-specific terms, so I can explain without giving anything away. I just hate spoilers. My cousin used to tell me the ends of movies all the time. Five minutes into the film she’d say, “Oh I’ve seen this, he dies”. I’ve just started watching it! Now what do I do – should I carry on watching, knowing that this poor man is going to die? It ruins the experience.
How far in advance did you learn what would be happening?
We get the scripts episode by episode, which has actually been great. It’s something I’ve never experienced before: when you’re in a play you know the whole story from beginning to end, but one of the best things about this job is that I don’t know what’s going to happen next. As a real person I don’t know what’s going to happen to me tomorrow, so it’s interesting to have the same thing with a character, to gradually build on her over time. Very occasionally though there’s something you read and you think, ah, I didn’t know about that, if I had I would have put it in earlier!
Did you feel any pressure about joining such a well-established show?
I’d watched a few episodes, bits and bobs, but Doctor Who was never a massive part of my life. I’m 29 so I didn’t grow up with it. The show came back when I was about 16, and pretty much the only thing I watched back then was The O.C., in bed on Sundays. When I got the job I said, “okay, give me the back catalogue, let me watch it all”, but they told me no. Bill doesn’t know anything about that world, so they liked the idea that I was discovering it all at the same time as her. Also, it’s hard as an actor to watch a brilliant performance and not subconsciously take a little bit from it. If I watched any of the previous companions, who are all fantastic actresses, I’d struggle to not emulate some parts of their performances within my own, especially as they’d be in similar situations. I thought maybe it’s best not to do that for now, and when I’m finished I can binge-watch the whole thing.
You’re from South London, so is it helpful to film away from home?
It really is. I’m mainly able to head back at weekends but I do get homesick sometimes. It’s useful though because during the week I can put my head down and work hard, which I need because I have to be up at twenty past five every morning. At night I get in and have a bath, eat dinner, learn my lines and go to bed, so it’s handy to not be distracted by my mates wanting to go out for food, or they’re doing something and want me to join them. Even swinging by for an hour would be scary. “I’ve got to get back, it’s past my bedtime!” I’ve become Cinderella.
Was it an adjustment to act in an effects-heavy TV programme after mostly working on stage?
There’s a myth that you have to act smaller for camera. You can be quieter as you don’t have to project to the back of the auditorium, but there’s definitely room for subtlety on stage and broad emotional work on screen. The way my performance has changed regarding the technical aspects is that I didn’t really know what I was doing before! Peter Capaldi has been very helpful with that. He’s so experienced, it’s fascinating seeing the difference in his work: his performance looks great in real life but then you see it on screen and it’s phenomenal. I’ve learned to use camera angles – how to hit marks and tailor my acting to the frame they’re using. If it’s a close-up then you don’t want to do stuff that’s too big because it’s distracting. By the end of the first block, six weeks in, I’d probably done more consecutive hours of filming than lots of my friends who’ve been doing television episodes for years. I feel like I’ve learned my craft in front of the camera. But I haven’t seen it yet, so don’t take my word for it.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Six. Portrait by Liz Seabrook.