Jenna Coleman: The Doctor's companion

By Robert Smith

There is a new Doctor Who in the TARDIS, but the companion remains the same. Jenna Coleman talked to Robert Smith about taking the massively popular TV show through its 51st year, and how her relationship with the Doctor is back in unknown territory.

Jenna Coleman as Clara in 'Doctor Who'.
Jenna Coleman as Clara in 'Doctor Who'.

How were the first few days filming with Peter Capaldi?

I was really excited, but it's always the thing of figuring out how it is that they work, and how it is that they like to work. And I also wanted to make sure I did everything I could to make Peter feel like he could try anything - a totally open relationship where he could do anything. Throw some balls up in the air and see what lands.

And that's a lot of the stuff we talked about, because I wanted him to feel at home as soon as possible, and in ownership of it as soon as possible. I think it's a very weird show in the sense that Peter joined by literally walking onto the TARDIS and meeting Matt, swapping watches and then the scene carries on and Matt's gone and now suddenly it's exactly the same scene and it's Peter.

So I think Peter didn't need any advice. He's brilliant and he was always going to come in and be his own Doctor and make his own mark and change the show, which is exactly what he has done. So I think my part was to just make it as easy as possible for him to do that.

There is a whole new tone with the new Doctor, even if it was mainly the same crew behind the cameras. Did it feel different on set?

The format was very different, especially with the individual scenes. We tried this new thing where the scenes were a lot longer, and let things really play out. So there is a restaurant scene, and I don't think we've ever done a scene in Doctor Who where we've sat down having a chat. In Doctor Who you're always running down corridors and trying to have a conversation whilst on the run or whilst something is in front of you or behind you. So to actually do that was quite new.

I think the show has always been confident like that. But I think it was very much about trying a new pace and a new tone, and that's what it felt like. Matt's style was more rocking and rolling a bit more, I think. But this year feels fiercer I think. It's more of a ferocity about it.

Cult British director Ben Wheatley was at the helm for the the first two episodes. Did he have much to do with that new tone?

I love the sense of dread and the danger he brings to it. Things like when Clara gets locked in the restaurant and the Doctor walks off. And then you're like who is this guy, and that's a real shocker and that is something we experiment with throughout the series.

So with this relationship, the Doctor is not an easy man to get on with, he's not an easy man to be around. And there is doubt, even with this great history they have.

You've now been playing Clara for the past two years. Are you feeling more comfortable in the role?

It's become something else. Because in the first series with Matt, there was always this secret in the middle of them, and the enigma that kinda prevented them from just being the Doctor and his companion. There was always something else going on. More second guessing.

In a way, once that was solved, it was really nice to move on somewhere else, and just explore the friendship, I think, rather than the suspicion.

And now it's getting to know this Doctor, all over again. It's weird, it's kind of the degree of starting again, and it is a very different thing. A lot of people ask me to compare Matt and Peter and you can't. It's just different. It's a different dynamic. It feels like we're making a new show.

But within that, you've got so much history, so they're deeply bound to one another, but there is just this element of 'Hello, I'm the Doctor, nice to meet you" and "Hello, I'm Clara, okay, this is really weird because we're best friends, but let's get to know each other all over again."

Peter has it a little easier in that he's only being compared to eleven other Doctors, but you're being judged by the standard of dozens of the Doctor's other companions. Is there any pressure from that?

It's difficult, isn't it? When I first got the job, I didn't go back and look at Karen's stuff. I just didn't want to pick up on anything at all, and it seemed to work in the audition. And that was quite good in a way, because I couldn't be watching the people who got me here and think 'Oh God, they're so brilliant'.

Since getting the first series under my belt I've gone back and watched them all since Christopher Eccleston, and Billie and Catherine Tate as well. During Day of the Doctor me and Billie would go and get Nandos together, and we had Billie and John Hurt and David, and it was really nice to have them, because normally it's just you and the Doctor. So it was kind of nice to have an ensemble around, with the three Doctors. I loved doing scenes with those three, I was just in my element.

If you could go back and give yourself some advice when you were starting on the show two years ago, what would you say?

I'd just say, enjoy the adventure. It's the only way to do it. You know it's only going to be this year, and how many years of your life, and then you're going to be "once upon a time, in my youth", but it's just a kind of a lottery ticket of a job.

Because it has such an amazing impact and generates so much joy. And that's what's really nice. I don't think there are many TV shows that have that reaction and instil so much joy and enthusiasm and commitment, with fans travelling and dressing up. And it's really incredible that a TV show that started in 1963 can internationally, universally, still touch so many people 50 years later.

What's your own favourite Doctor Who story?

I've always got a soft spot for the Snowmen, just because it's that fairy tale thing about it, with the TARDIS on a cloud and the spiral staircase. And I think it's special because it's Clara meeting the Doctor, even it isn't the Clara as he know her now, and having the first adventure and getting to know him. I really liked that episode.

The Day of The Doctor - the 50th anniversary special - was recently voted the best episode of the show ever. Were you tempted to maybe bow out then and go out on a high?

Oh goodness me, no. The Day of the Doctor was very much about the show and celebrating fifty years of the show and having three Doctors to work off. At that point the whole 'impossible girl' mystery had just been solved and then it was obviously Matt's leaving episode, and it just felt like there was a long way to go and a lot to explore with Clara. There was definitely more to tell.

Doctor Who has a long history as a boy's show, but has built up a huge female audience in the past 10 years. Do you feel like a role model to young female fans?

I love the amount of teenage girls that I see dressed up as Clara, because that's something that really surprised me. Because you think of teenage girls, science fiction is not the sort of thing you'd think they would be into, but I've been really blown away by the amount of girls I meet who are really into it.

It's a privilege. It's not really me, it's the character. The Doctor is the hero and she is the heroine, and she can be a bit flawed. But getting someone off the street, that's what makes the show so accessible.

So you still love playing Clara?

I love it. I love getting up and going to work. It really is an amazing, amazing job and there are so many amazing stories to tell.

- NZ Herald

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