The Time Traveling Actor

As Clara Oswald on the beloved British sci-fi series Doctor Who, actor Jenna Coleman filled many roles: curious adventurer, schoolteacher, formidable companion to an alien (The Doctor), space detective, young woman in love, and universe-defender. The satisfyingly absurd world of Who is grounded in the sincerity of its actors, and over the course of three series, the show’s 50th anniversary, and two incarnations of The Doctor (Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi, respectively), it was apparent that Coleman understood just that. Balancing the serious and comic, at times questioning The Doctor and at others following him without reservation, she served as the viewer’s point of entry into an engaging, unpredictable story. While fans watched her final episode as Clara air earlier this month, Coleman’s exit from Who had been in the works for a year prior to her wrapping filming in August.

“It definitely felt like her time was up,” she says of her character. “And that kind of ended up being what the story was as well. You had to let go and move forward… It felt like a natural end. It made sense, and it made sense in a story sense. I was willing to stay in order to tell a good story.”

Now, after four years of acting training by intergalactic time travel, the Blackpool-born actor’s return to earthbound roles in 2016 is all the more compelling. The 29-year-old’s upcoming projects include Me Before You, Thea Sharrock‘s much-anticipated adaptation of the Jojo Moyes novel starring Emilia Clarke and Sam Claflin (Coleman plays Clarke’s younger sister, Katrina), and the ITV series Victoria, in which Coleman plays Queen Victoria. Coleman seems uniquely suited to play the British queen, as the role contains a tension between the surreal and the banal that is quite familiar to Who. “Playing between girl and queen is really interesting,” she says. “There’s a marriage between her just being a normal, 18-year-old girl and having those impulses, and at the same time being queen and having such a clear sense of duty and faith. She knows what her duty is and happens to be queen, but at the same time she’s an 18-year-old girl who likes balls and dances.”

We spoke to Coleman over the phone just after she wrapped filming Victoria for the holidays. Like many of her fans, she’ll be watching Doctor Who‘s Christmas Special, although she won’t appear on screen. “I’ll be sitting with my family watching,” she tells us. “No doubt.”

HALEY WEISS: Has it been emotional to watch your final Doctor Who episodes air?

JENNA COLEMAN: It’s really weird. I went around to Peter [Capaldi]’s house with Steven [Moffat, the show’s writer], Brian [Minchin] our producer, and Mark Gatiss. We all watched [my final episode] together. It’s just great fun and the best thing about Doctor Who is that the storytelling is so epic and huge, and so whimsical and romantic. I always find that even though it’s sci-fi, it’s a fairytale as well. It was lovely to watch it all together, but the goodbye had been in the works for so long. To have it done on screen now, and to no longer have those working relationships that have been a part of my life for four years is quite strange but also exhilarating. It’s been a mad and weird and wonderful part of my life for the last four years, but it feels like the next chapter, in a way, which is great.

WEISS: What will you miss most about playing Clara?

COLEMAN: I’ll mainly miss Peter. [laughs] It’s so rare that you get a show that is effectively a two-hander—it’s you two, all day, every day. Also every day is different, there’s no day that’s the same. Every two weeks you change episodes, you have a different cast, and you go to a different planet. You get to do weird stunts upside down, you play off a green screen, and then suddenly do a really domestic, emotional scene. As an actor, you can go anywhere. There’s not really a limit in that show where you’re stuck to a genre because it’s so changeable and dynamic. It’s that storytelling that I’ll miss the most and Peter, because we spent the best part of two and a half years together. But the show will move forward, as it does, and become something else, which is what makes it so special.

WEISS: How do you think the show changed you as an actor?

COLEMAN: I don’t know the answer to that yet. To be honest, I think it’s the people that you work with who change you the most. I think working with Peter has made me…not be scared of a right and a wrong—trying to do as many options as possible for the edit, exploring as much as possible and throwing ideas in the air and seeing where it takes you.

WEISS: What was your first acting role?

COLEMAN: I did something when I was 10, actually. I did a professional musical. I had to go and sing happy birthday to myself, which was a tough part.  I got to leave school early and do the show. It went across the summer for about eight weeks or something like that. That was my first part, and I think that’s probably when I realized that I loved it and it’s what I wanted to do. Then I carried on with my studies and did loads of plays, and then I was 19 when I got my first proper job on a show called Emmerdale where I played the vicar’s niece gone bad. That’s how it all started.

WEISS: Did you enjoy school or were you eager to get out and start working?

COLEMAN: I loved school, I really did. In fact, I’m just back in London for the first time in ages and caught up, quite luckily, with loads of my schoolmates who live in London. We had all moved down together but we all do completely different things. I was really lucky for the friends that I had and loved every minute of it. I don’t think I was a geek, but I loved the studies and we had a really good theater company at our school. We went to the Fringe Festival every year, put on plays together, and traveled around the country with these little companies we set up.

WEISS: So you moved to London when you did Emmerdale?

COLEMAN: I moved to London after my first job. I lived in Leeds for a couple of years and then moved straight down to London when I was probably 22 and tried to go to drama school. I auditioned for drama school again and then I ended up getting another job. I kind of rolled from job to job, skipping drama school.

WEISS: Do you have any interest in going to drama school now?

COLEMAN: I’d love to; I feel that it’s something that I’ve missed. I really want to do a play again. I’ve kind of gone from TV series to TV series or project to project, and I’ve wanted to get back in a rehearsal room. I feel like there’s that exploration process, in a way, that you get in phases on jobs but I do wish I had that time [at school]. I realized when I was about 24 if I was to go until I was 27 that there would be a playing age that I’d miss of parts that I wanted to do, and things seemed to be headed my way. I wish that I had it, but I suppose I’ve had it in spurts on jobs, really.

WEISS: What did you think of Jojo Moyes’ book Me Before You?

COLEMAN: I thought it was heartbreaking. I think Jojo’s book is beautiful. I’ve just been given After You, the sequel, to read. It’s one of those films where it’s about the chemistry between the two [main characters]. It’s a romantic story but set in such a reality that it can never be, it can’t be, but yet that doesn’t make it any less charming. It’s the reality of these two people that should be together but they’re in these unimaginable circumstances, which makes for a really interesting but ultimately tragic story but it’s something that’s still full of hope at the end, which is quite a unique combination.

WEISS: Katrina Clark, your character in Me Before You, is very independent in some ways, but very reliant upon Louisa and her family in others. What was your sense of her as a character?

COLEMAN: My auntie, actually, I kept thinking about my auntie a lot. She’s somebody who knows who she is—she really knows who she is—but she’s kind of annoying in a way. [laughs] She’s one of those people who will always tell you the truth even when you don’t want to hear it. She’s the voice of reason,  but often when you’re not ready to hear that voice of reason, but she’s like a rock. She’ll be there, she’s stubborn, she knows her own mind, and she’s really strong. And as sisters, I think [Katrina and Louisa are] an interesting pair because they’re complete opposites. They’re totally different; it’s a bit of a love-hate relationship, in a way. If they weren’t sisters they would probably never be friends at all but there’s such a sense of loyalty between them. They have a special sisterly spark but they’re complete opposites.

WEISS: Does it feel different to not only be playing a new character as Queen Victoria in Victoria, but also a historical figure?

COLEMAN: Yeah, it does. I’ve never played anybody real before. I played fictional characters like Lydia Wickham [in Death Comes to Pemberley] but never anybody who really existed, so that is quite a different feeling. I’ve been over to Kensington Palace and stood in the room where she was born and stood in the room where she held her first Privy Council meeting as queen. You can read her diary firsthand, what she wrote and how she felt on the day she was coronated, on the day she was married, even having arguments with her mother and more domestic things. The resource of material is fascinating, and she had fascinating relationships and such a unique life. She became queen when she was 18 years old and it wasn’t that long ago either. It’s a really remarkable story.

WEISS: Do you find that at some point in doing all of that research, you have to separate yourself from the knowledge you’ve gained and just take on the character?

COLEMAN: Absolutely. That’s the thing about prep, is that it’s a joy to have it there and you can spend all this time prepping, but ultimately you have to look at your script and turn up on the day. It’s embedded in there somewhere but you have to forget it all and play the scene because we are storytelling. There’s a lot of historical events we’re being very true to but you have to do your version of, I think. I’ve been watching a lot, like Emily Blunt in Queen Victoria and Judi Dench in Mrs Brown, so there’s an essence of an idea that you can get from what you read but ultimately, I think you have to be true to the script that you’re given. It’s a real joy to have the research around it but you definitely have to leave it behind and just play the scenes.

WEISS: What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned about Queen Victoria?

COLEMAN: In her diaries she writes in capitals a lot. It’s quite interesting and quite telling. If there’s something she really enjoyed or wanted to emphasize, she’ll write in capitals. It shows just how impulsive she was, and how guileless. And she’s very open. These diaries that we’re reading have been censored by her daughter, but she talks about her wedding night with Albert, she talks about waking up at 4 AM on the day she was being coronated and being able to hear the crowds outside and hear what the people were saying. It’s amazing how frank she is and how contradictory she is; she’s extremely passionate and a romantic and very young in lots of ways, yet she’s completely practical and quite stubborn and wise as well. She’s this strange mixed bag of all of these qualities. She was obsessed with the theater, ballet, and the melodrama in opera. She used to sketch. The most interesting thing I’ve seen is that she used to watercolor, she was an artist, and there’s her sketchbook where you can see what she draws, like a scene she’s seen in an opera or she met some gypsies once and she draws the gypsies and their families. That’s probably the most telling thing, her drawings. She draws herself in a couple of self-portraits as well. Looking at her sketches probably gives you the best insight into her temperament, her mind, and what was occupying her, what she sees. Her sketches have probably told me the most.

WEISS: It’s amazing that you’re able to get such a sense of her internal life.

COLEMAN: I know, it’s incredible, it really is. I think so many people see Victoria as the lady in black who was widowed at 42 and looks quite stern. When you think of Victoria, you think of Victoria in her 60s and a lot of people don’t really know the story of the 18-year-old who was full of enthusiasm and passion for life and the arts.

For more from our 16 Faces of 2016, click here.