Before She Was Doctor Who’s 13th Doctor: Jodie Whittaker
The world really shouldn’t have been surprised when Jodie Whittaker was chosen as the thirteenth incarnation of the Doctor on Doctor Who—the first woman to fill the role. But of course, the world was surprised, and the announcement was followed with a lot of “OMG it’s a woman/It shouldn’t be a woman/Why shouldn’t it be a woman it’s the twenty-first century/Because Doctor Who can’t be a woman, that’s why!” nonsense, most of which I ignored, because I’m in my forties now, and what little tolerance I once had for nonsense is long gone.
But I digress. The main point is that Whittaker’s casting shouldn’t have come as a surprise because Jodie Whittaker is a fantastic actor.
Although many of her star turns have been on British television, one of her earliest breakout performances came in the 2006 movie Venus. Peter O’Toole co-starred as the elderly actor Maurice, who meets Whittaker’s character Jessie when she moves in with his friend, another elderly actor, to help with the housework. She proves to be no help at being helpful, but Maurice is pleased to take her shopping, to art museums, and to call her his “Venus.” Playing Venus as a cross between innocent and crass, as a beautiful woman not yet confident enough to avoid the worst types of men, Whittaker made a character who could easily have become a caricature into a more subtly layered individual.
Watching the movie (and its opening Miramax credit) is a bit uncomfortable now, with its scenes of Maurice buying Jessie jewelry and her allowing him to kiss her shoulders, but it was well-received in 2006 and is still enjoyably quirky, eventually portraying a relationship of growing respect between Jessie and Maurice. It was an audacious beginning to Whittaker’s career.
Other movie roles followed—most notably in the teen-friendly romp St. Trinian’s, which also starred Colin Firth and Rupert Everett, as well as the 2009 bleak Irish comedy Perrier’s Bounty. In the latter, Whittaker played Brenda, neighbor of hapless low-level thief Michael (played by Cillian Murphy), with whom she becomes the target of underworld boss Perrier, when they accidentally kill one of his henchmen. The movie itself is just okay (it was compared at the time to In Bruges, but I can tell you it is no In Bruges), but watching the acting triumvirate of Whittaker, Murphy, and Jim Broadbent (as Michael’s death-obsessed father) is ninety minutes’ worth of fun.
Whittaker played small roles in the television dramas Tess of the D’Urbervilles (2008) and Cranford (2009), as well as a larger one in 2011’s ghost story Marchlands, but fame really started to accrue with her appearance in a first-season episode of Black Mirror, “The Entire History of You.” Black Mirror specializes in uncomfortable storylines, and this episode is no exception: In the near future, everyone wears a “Grain,” which records everything they see, meaning they can play back (or “redo”) their memories. When Whittaker’s character, Ffion, is forced by her husband Liam (Toby Kebbell) to play back her episode of infidelity so that he can watch it, it’s hard to tell for whom that is most horrifying: her, him, or the viewer. This role, in which Whittaker shows heartache and regret, would be good preparation for her next big role.
That role came in the series Broadchurch, a mystery in which eleven-year-old Danny Latimer’s murder took center stage. Although David Tennant and Olivia Colman, playing the detectives investigating the boy’s death, garnered most of the rave acting reviews, Whittaker’s portrayal of Beth Latimer, Danny’s grieving mother, anchored the show. Her turn in season one as a woman trying to deal with her son’s death, and her husband’s later-revealed infidelity, is one of steely understatement. In the next two seasons, that inner strength revealed itself further, as Beth progressed from furious victim to victim’s advocate. It was truly a star-making performance.
Whittaker’s last role before being offered that of the Doctor would prove to be apt foreshadowing: that of a whistle-blowing nurse who’s suspended from practice and who must reinvent herself—after adopting a friend’s identity—as a doctor. Watching Whittaker sink her teeth into the role of Cath Hardacre/Dr. Alison Sutton, displaying both confidence in her ability to out-doctor the doctors and the fear that she might one day catastrophically fail a patient, is nothing less than pure pleasure.
Whittaker has proven she can knock some of the stereotypical women’s roles (youthful muse, wife and mother) out of the park. I can’t wait to see what she’ll do in the iconic role of a character completely outside the bounds of time, space, and now, for the first time ever, gender.
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