When Peter Capaldi returned for his third and final series of Doctor Who last year, he was accompanied by an all-new companion: Bill Potts. A woman of colour, Bill was bold, curious, funny, and the first-ever openly gay companion in Doctor Who’s 54-year history. Bill was a popular hit with both fans and the general audience, and the actress who played her – Brixton-born Pearl Mackie – is travelling to Australia this week to meet the fans at Supanova in Melbourne and Gold Coast, along with fellow Who stars Capaldi and John Barrowman.
At the time of her casting in the series, Mackie was performing in the cast of the West End play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. How, precisely, does someone make the jump from the London theatre to one of the biggest family television dramas in the world?
“I got a call from my agent,” says Mackie, speaking over the telephone from London. “She asked if I was definitely finishing work on Curious Incident because I’d been asked to audition for a BBC drama called Mean Town. It was going to start shooting right when I was supposed to finish the play. A week or two after that she called back to say it was actually to play the new companion in Doctor Who. It was only later I found out that Mean Town was an anagram of ‘woman ten’. I went along thinking there was no chance I’d get it, but it’d be a fun thing to do anyway. Steven Moffat had written three scenes with Bill, and I did those. I didn’t hear anything – and in television they usually tell you pretty fast – so I assumed I didn’t get it. Then they called me about two-and-a-half weeks later and asked me to come in a second time.”
The second audition was held in a London hotel room, in an attempt to prevent it from being leaked to the entertainment press. Mackie performed with Peter Capaldi, with producers Steven Moffat and Brian Minchin in attendance. “On the last piece I was asked if we could do one standing. That’s really unusual – usually you’d sit down and try to keep your head as still as possible for the camera. We did the scene where Bill first enters the TARDIS; Peter was running around the room like crazy shouting out his lines, and I was just standing gaping at him. Thankfully that’s what Bill was supposed to be doing too, so I guess it worked!
“The real Peter’s voice is so much better than the version I’d recorded myself in Facetime so that I could rehearse the audition pieces,” she jokes.
When time came to reveal Mackie to the TV audience and the press, it was via the highest-profile companion launch ever. “The announcement was so big,” says Mackie. “I don’t think they had done it that way before, with a special teaser trailer that aired during an FA Cup semi-final – which is a massive thing over here in the UK.” With such a widely seen launch – and then a full 12-episode season months later – Mackie was suddenly a public celebrity. “It’s weird,” she admits, “You get a lot of people staring at you on the street because they recognise you but can’t quite place where you’re from.”
Acting in an expensive and effects-heavy drama brought fresh challenges: “Working with a green screen was new to me. There was a scene in the third episode, “Thin Ice”, where Peter and I were dressed up in these Victorian diving suits at the bottom of the Thames with a giant monster. There was just a mark on the wall where we had to look and pretend the monster was there, and a guy holding a pole with a hat hanging off the end so we could grab it.” The inventiveness of the production crew impressed Mackie tremendously. “Everybody who works on the show was so clever,”she adds.
One surprising wrinkle in playing Bill Potts was how much Mackie’s own performance style and personality shaped the character. “When I was cast,” she says, “All that had been written of Bill were those three short audition pieces.”
Even Bill’s sexuality developed organically after Mackie had been cast. “I know Steven was writing the script to the first episode, and there’s a speech Bill gives about a girl she fancies on the lunch line and how she gives her free chips – that speech was originally about a man, but Steven felt it wasn’t quite working. Then he decided to change the man to a woman and everything just seemed to fall together.”
Viewers last saw Bill escaping the TARDIS in a flash of light with the shape-shifting alien Heather. In a world where every single element of Doctor Who is covered by non-disclosure agreements and a veil of secrecy, it seemed pointless to ask if there was any chance of Bill returning for Season 11 in October. Instead we ask Mackie to reflect on what she hoped was the character’s legacy; how would she like to see Bill remembered? “Hopefully she’ll be remembered as somebody smart and a bit brave,” she says. “Someone who’s willing the call the Doctor out when he needs it. I like to think she’s still out there with Heather, having a laugh.”
Pearl Mackie, Peter Capaldi and John Barrowman will be appearing at Supanova in Melbourne this weekend (20-22 April) and the Gold Coast next weekend (27-29 April). For info and tickets, head to the official site.