SFX chats to the guest star and writer of tomorrow’s brilliant episode
Was there quite a buzz about the script, given that it’s written by Neil Gaiman?
“Yeah! I knew Stardust and Beowulf , but I didn’t know that people were so excited about him in the sci-fi world. I found that out as I was filming. He was on set the first day, which was a little bit nerve-wracking, when you’ve got the writer there and a couple of the producers, and you really want to do a good job! The director pushed me to do a bit of a different performance, so I was nervous about getting the first day right, and then you’ve got Doctor Who Confidential hanging around, so you’ve got someone watching you pick your nose as well as trying to get everything right! But Matt is brilliant, and Richard Clark, the director, was just fantastic with me. The script is one of the best scripts I’ve read in the last four years, I’d say. It’s essentially a children’s television programme, but there’s emotion in it and a beautiful layering. Some of the stuff that I say – I don’t know what it means, the cast haven’t got a clue what it means… And that’s the beauty of it, because they’ll probably find out when they get the scripts for episode 13! But what’s lovely is that I’m listening to Matt, Karen and Arthur trying to figure out what their stuff means. I’m going, ‘Seriously, you don’t know?’ And they’re going, ‘No, haven’t got a clue what that means!’”
So is there a knack to saying it as though you do know what it means?
“My character says lots of things, and she doesn’t really know why she’s saying them. So she’s kind of not making sense to herself, let alone anyone else! She’s like a crazy bag lady person, who is intriguing to the Doctor. This script had a lot of things that were fragmented and disjointed, so it was a lot of effort to keep my mind focused on all that. And also Doctor Who people say lots of things that are really hard to say! There’s nothing like it on our screens. I did Noel Coward last Christmas. Noel Coward likes to put a couple of extra words in sentences, and so do Neil and Steven! How do you get your mouth around that?”
Idris has a very striking look…
“They do dirty my fingers up a lot. I did a scene with Matt where he happened to be looking at my hand. And he kept looking at me and looking at my hand. And then he said ‘Do the make-up people dirty your hands?’ There was dirt around the fingernails, dirt inside… I said, ‘Matt, yes, of course they do!’ And he said, ‘Thank god for that. I kept thinking ‘Why has no one told her…?’ She’s dirty!
Did you get to see the TARDIS?
“Yeah. That was really exciting. I’m a fan of it, obviously, but the child in you just appears out of nowhere. You’re like, ‘It’s the police box! Oh my god! There it is!’ And Matt will go, ‘Yeah, I know. Cool, yeah?’ Like ‘Oh yeah, it’s my car…’ And filming in the TARDIS was brilliant too. All my mates were like, ‘Oh my god, send me pictures!’ And of course I couldn’t take my phone on set, and they just had to make do with pictures of me in my outfit. And they were like, ‘What are you showing us that for?’”
How does Idris get on with the Doctor?
“She bites him.”
Big bite? A chunk?
“Can’t tell you that. Not on the bum. I think they get on alright, apart from the biting.”
How did you get on with the regulars?
“What’s beautiful is that as well as making me feel really at home, the three of them are just so into it, and such good friends as well. I’d met Karen once before, and as well as being beautiful – she’s got this amazing look – she’s really funny, very sweet, and everyone adores her. And she’s got beautiful nails, as well, which obviously I was staring at because mine were such a mess! But I liked Karen in Star Stories before I saw her in Doctor Who . I think she’s a real talent. And when you’ve got looks as well as what she can do… I think life after Doctor Who for her will be amazing.”
Was Doctor Who part of your childhood? Or were you part of the generation that missed out?
“My brother used to chase me around the house with Twiki from Buck Rogers! Sci-fi was never really my thing, but we did have a blow-up Twiki. It was always my dad and my brother’s thing. I think it frightened me a little bit.”
Does Doctor Who demand a particular acting style?
“I’ve been told I was good at shakey-shakey acting. And I didn’t know I was doing shakey-shakey acting. Matt was particularly impressed with my shakey-shakey. He was like, ‘Yeah, man, that’s really good!’ Karen’s really good at windy-windy acting. There’s lots of wind involved in Doctor Who , isn’t there? Lots of things happen and they put a wind machine on you. All the scary stuff is like second nature to them. I think you’ve got to be fearless. If it’s greenscreen and you can’t actually see what you’re acting with, or you’re imagining that you’re being chased, to be fearless is the best thing, because if you do it half-hearted, then it just looks a bit wet.”
Any chance of Idris making a return to Doctor Who ?
“I said to Matt, ‘Can you just keep mentioning that I’d like to come back at some point?’ Who knows? You never know, do you? If there was a chance in the future then yeah, I’d love to. I had a ball.”
(We’ve already posted some stuff from this interview here as well as in the latest issue, but we thought you might like to read the leftovers.)
You grew up watching Doctor Who . But did you read the books, too?
“I had Doctor Who annuals, obviously; I had the Dalek World annual and I had the David Whitaker book, Doctor Who In An Exciting Adventure With The Daleks . And a few years later, probably when I was 11 or 12, I found some hardcover reissues with those original Chris Achilleos covers of The Crusades … And I also had The Making Of Doctor Who , by Hulke and Dicks, which had a bunch of Sea Devils script, and talked about how they made them. So that was all I ever had. There weren’t DVDs, there weren’t videos, and you couldn’t rewatch anything. So the nearest you could come to re-experiencing Doctor Who was the Doctor Who annual, which I could take down and reread whenever I wanted. Or David Whitaker’s Daleks novelisation, which was so incredibly primal and reread so many times for me that when I finally, as an adult, got to watch ‘An Unearthly Child’, I was going, ‘But this is so weird… why aren’t they out in the fog, having a car crash?’ Ian was a scientist, out looking for a job… why was he now a science teacher with Barbara?”
Did you write for Matt Smith having had a chance to see his Doctor, or was it the Doctor that’s always been there in your head?
“Both. I wrote the first draft of the episode before Matt had even auditioned. So I wrote it for a platonic Doctor, trying very hard not to make it David Tennant’s Doctor, because I could write cod-David Tennant dialogue in my head while three-quarters asleep. I thought no, I can’t do that – let me just write for the Doctor. If I can write a line for the Doctor and I can go ‘Tom Baker could say that,’ or ‘Patrick Troughton could say that,’ then I’d be happy. So that was my first draft Doctor. I was meant to be episode 11 of Matt’s first series, but by the time they got to episode 11 they were out of money. I’d asked for a lot, and they had to make the call of, ‘Do we try and do it on the cheap, or do we do something else?’ And, looking back on it, they made the right call. I was hugely disappointed when it happened, but it was still the right call, because they made ‘The Lodger’, which is a great episode, and takes place in a flat. There was a sad email from Steven Moffat, saying they were trying to figure out if they could do my episode, in a flat, in Cardiff. And they decided they couldn’t. Once it had moved, I had an advantage which nobody else writing for that original series had – I’d seen the whole series. I’d watched Matt. So when I’m doing my rewrites I now have the way that Matt speaks and the things that Matt does in my head. Which was great, because some of the time I felt people were writing very well for Matt during that series, and some of the time you’d watch an episode and go, ‘They really aren’t. That’s very, very bland dialogue,’ or, ‘It’s very straight dialogue,’ or occasionally I’d go, ‘That’s very David Tennant dialogue.’ They hadn’t quite got it down yet. And you could tell Matt was creating the part. So I loved the fact that I actually got to do a rewrite, and in writing new dialogue I had Matt in my head, and that made me happy.”
How do you think people will react to “The Doctor’s Wife”?
“I showed my episode to some friends, very, very nervously, having sworn them all to secrecy and having explained to them that if anybody found out I’d shown them it then the BBC would creep out in the night and cut off my testicles. And there’s a bit where Suranne [Jones] is talking, and I looked around at the room, and everybody’s looking at the TV screen, and on half the faces the cheeks were wet, the eyes were big – nobody’s looking away, nobody’s stopping and looking for a tissue or anything. I’m not even sure that they were aware that they were crying, except that they’ve got glistening cheeks… And I’m going ‘This is astonishing.’ She breaks your heart.”