Doctor Who’s Impossible Girl

Published August 19, 2014

ABOVE: JENNA COLEMAN AS CLARA OSWALD ON DOCTOR WHO. PHOTO COURTESY OF RAY BURMISTON AND BBC/BBC WORLDWIDE

When the BBC revived the popular television program Doctor Who back in 2005, it quickly transcended its campy history and became an international pop-culture phenomenon. Originally premiered in 1963, the British sci-fi show chronicles the action-packed adventures of The Doctor, a “Time Lord” from the planet Gallifrey who journeys throughout all of time and space. The Doctor’s time machine, a blue British police box, is affectionately known as the Time And Relative Dimension In Space (“TARDIS”). Almost always, The Doctor travels with a human companion, and together they fight villains (most notably, the robotic and tank-like Daleks), aid the people of Earth during their times of need (which is often), and partake in fun adventures together. More than often, the companion is a young woman. As of last year, Blackpool-raised, 28-year-old British actress Jenna Coleman has played that coveted role.

Coleman’s ascent to stardom didn’t come easy, though. Following her acting debut and three-year tenure in the long-running British soap opera Emmerdale and a short stint in the television drama Waterloo Road, Coleman packed up and relocated to Los Angeles to try her luck in America. In 2011, she turned up in a blink-and-you-missed-it role in Captain America: The First Avenger as Connie, a sweet girl with a 1940s transatlantic twang. Albeit brief, this exposure was exactly what she needed. Flash-forward (or, rather, re-materialize in the TARDIS) a year later, and with a little perseverance and luck, she landed one of the most iconic roles in the sci-fi universe.

As Clara Oswald, Coleman is a fierce, fast-talking and headstrong companion whose no-nonsense and flirty demeanor has earned her massive praise in the Who-niverse. Originally labeled as “The Impossible Girl” in her first story-arc (by showing up at different places in the universe, at different time periods, as completely different yet somehow connected people), Clara became a contented schoolteacher by day and a trusty time-traveling companion by night. This season, however, she’ll be introduced to a newly “regenerated” Twelfth Doctor portrayed by Scottish actor Peter Capaldi, taking the reigns from the bow-tie-loving fan favorite Matt Smith. What will ensue is a darker and more contemplative season—a far cry from Smith’s signature goofy portrayal—with a timeworn protagonist (Capaldi is starting the show at the age of 56, noticeably older than the previous Doctors during the show’s revival). Clara, devastated by the loss of the Eleventh Doctor, her Doctor, at the end of last season’s exhilarating Christmas special, isn’t exactly sure she knows who this man is anymore.

We spoke with the charming and slightly jet-lagged actress last week at the Bryant Park Hotel in Manhattan.

DEVON IVIE: When did you first realize that you wanted to act?

JENNA COLEMAN: I don’t think I ever “realized.” I used to dance a lot when I was younger. When I was 14, I moved to a different school and they had a theater company there. So we use to put on plays, but kind of operated outside of the school, like a touring theater company. We use to go up to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and the company was only about six or seven years old, so we’d do these small plays and “get in” and “get out” type of things, like you pop and travel around together, like on holidays and stuff. It’s always something that I did. And I didn’t want to stop doing it. I auditioned for drama school and then, luckily, I got my first job. There was never really a particular moment, more like moments of “I love this,” or scripts that you read, or films that you watch, or plays that you see, that make you want to keep doing it.

IVIE: Did you look up to any actors as inspiration during that development period in your youth?

COLEMAN: When I first auditioned for drama school I went down to London the night before, and I remember going to see a play. I actually went to see this actress that I knew in it, called Helen McCrory. I’ve never seen anybody on stage like her. She was absolutely electrifying. I’ve never seen anybody so full of basically every single thing… it was a Shakespeare play, and ever since then I’ve watched all of her performances on stage. She’s doing Medea at the moment at the National Theatre. There are certain performances and certain actresses… Emma Thompson I think is just delightful. Ruth Wilson too, who’s a young actress, I saw her in A Streetcar Named Desire [at the Donmar Warehouse] not long ago. Marion Cotillard as well. Her performances are so beautiful and intelligent.

IVIE: Your first acting role was in Emmerdale. We don’t have it in America, but we have some similar programs.

COLEMAN: [laughs] Like Days of Our Lives.

IVIE: Exactly. How did you like the soap opera life?

COLEMAN: It was my first job! What I did love about it was that it was a really great ensemble. I had my onscreen family as well; it’s a very different kind of job, because the turnover is massive. We get through 12 episodes in two weeks, and then on Doctor Who we film one episode in two and a half weeks. As a first job it was great, just for the sheer pace and also working with a lot of people.

IVIE: And then you went to Los Angeles for audition season. How was the L.A. audition culture compared to, say, the UK’s audition culture?

COLEMAN: What I found was the audition process in L.A. was a lot more open. It was easier to get in the room. You’d go in for certain things that you were never going to get, or you’d never be right for. I just feel that minds were a bit more open to seeing, doing, and trying something different. For me, leaving the soap opera made it a lot easier in L.A. to get meetings. It’s a bigger pool; I had three months of reading so much material and playing around. I had loads of acting coaches and I had loads of outfits in my car. We’d be driving from audition to audition, and I’d be going in with my American accent with my country outfit, and then I’d drive from Santa Monica over to Burbank and show my Australian tapes. On to the next audition! [laughs] Just getting through so much material, and reading and auditioning, after being in a show for three years was really, really good. An exercise, I suppose. I got to drive from L.A. to San Francisco, did the Pacific Coast Highway, listening to Tracy Chapman in the car. It was great! Going down to Venice Beach, we met loads of new people. It tended to be a congregation of Brits doing pilot season as well.

IVIE: Last year, you were in Death Comes to Pemberley, a mini-series period drama inspired by the works of Jane Austen. How did you like the change of pace and playing Lydia Wickham?

COLEMAN: I loved it. I play a lot closer to myself in Doctor Who, so getting a break, not only just changing a period and language, but the character is absolutely ludicrous and hysterical. She’s an absolute little force of nature. I remember in my audition, I looked at the script, and I was like, “How far do you want me to go?” [laughs] She’s a total drama queen and also a really ugly character who’s totally flawed in so many ways. I got to be selfish and self-obsessed—hideous, really. The writer, Juliette Towhidi, was really clever because she added some scenes after we spoke and after I got the part. She said, “I’m going to write some scenes that aren’t in the book,” which basically make you understand why the character is so awful and why she lives and behaves as she does. I felt it was really well rounded, the way the writing was. And running around in those costumes as well, I had such a ball. Matthew Rhys was [Fitzwilliam] Darcy, and Matthew Goode was [George] Wickham. Going into this ensemble cast and getting to just be horrible.

IVIE: I feel that, in a way, doing an Edwardian period drama is kind of a “rite of passage” for British actors, something that American actors can never fully experience. Do you also feel that way?

COLEMAN: Not necessarily. I really like them because I like playing the social convention.  If you’re in a period drama, there’s always something dancing underneath the surface as a human—but then you always have to conform to the social conventions around you, and those two things get to be juxtaposed against each other. You’re being human, but you’re trapped within the social convention of the time.

IVIE: Seguing into Doctor Who, you didn’t watch the show before you auditioned. How did you find yourself preparing for the role?

COLEMAN: When the brief came through, I knew it was a “Doctor Who companion.” But the character description was actually very much like “Mary Poppins” originally. Clara’s very, very bossy and tells the Doctor where to go and what to do, and whacks him with an umbrella and stuff. My agent said, “Look, you’re going to jump through a lot of hurdles. It’s going to be a long process with lots of meetings.” Then I got to read with Matt [Smith]. At that point I really was like, “Okay, I really, really want this.” It feels likes you’re alive; it feels like you’re juggling.

IVIE: Was there a particular moment that you experienced when you realized, “Wow, this show is a really big deal and it’s going to change my life?”

COLEMAN: When you’re in the middle of it, when you’re filming every day in Cardiff, you’re quite sheltered as to how far-reaching it really is. Then there are moments like when we did the 50th Anniversary episode, and there were loads of celebrations looking back over the 50 years at all of the Doctors and companions. We did Doctor Who at the Proms with all of the music—stuff like that you realize it’s not just a job. It isn’t a television show; it’s much more special. There’s a culture to it.

IVIE: What would you like your legacy in Doctor Who to be?

COLEMAN: Oh wow. It’s so funny because I’m still working at it—I’m still there. I don’t think it’s something you’re in control of. The only thing that it’s about is when you get on set, just totally being in the moment and running with it. All you can do is focus on the script in front of you, turn up on set, and just be bold and brave. It’ll be whatever it’s going to be. I guess you wanted a really punchy, poignant answer. I love “The Impossible Girl” stuff. I think I like the title. [laughs] And “Soufflé Girl.” That’s what people call me on the street a lot. I like these catchy things that Steven [Moffat, executive producer and head writer] comes up with.

IVIE: What do you like to do on and off sets to pass the time?

COLEMAN: We do loads of things on the set in-between scenes. We have a game called “Soundmen Can’t Draw.” Everyone on our sound-team does this. They play this music, and they all have to draw pictures and then we have to judge them. And we just do ridiculous accents and voices to entertain each other. For me personally, to be honest, for these last eight months the show has been totally and utterly life consuming. When you’re in Doctor Who you’re in Doctor Who. There just isn’t much time. It’s going to be interesting now that we finished the season. I just bought a piano.

IVIE: How very Lydia Wickham of you.

COLEMAN: [laughs] Yeah, yeah. We’ll see where that takes me.

DOCTOR WHO PREMIERES SATURDAY, AUGUST 23 ON BBC AMERICA.