Even by the standards of a show whose central character travels through time and space in a craft disguised as a ‘50s era British police phone box, 2012 has been an interesting year for Doctor Who, the BBC sci-fi series that stars Matt Smith.
Back in March, executive producer Steven Moffat announced that the Doctor’s new assistant (or “companion”) would be played by Jenna-Louise Coleman and that the British actress was set to make her debut in this year’s special Christmas episode, which BBC America is screening on Dec. 25 at 9 p.m. So Who fans were taken by surprise when, this September, Coleman appeared in “Asylum of the Daleks,” the first episode of the current season of Doctor Who, which also starred the Time Lord’s now (dearly) departed companions Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill).
More bewildering still, Coleman didn’t seem to be playing the role of the Doctor’s new companion — whose name we now know to be Clara — but rather a character named Oswin Oswald who had been converted into one of the dreaded Daleks and who seemingly died at the end of the show.
In the new issue of ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY, Coleman talks, exclusively, about keeping her role in “Asylum of the Daleks” a secret and when fans might get some answers with regards to the Oswin/Clara conundrum. Below, the actress, whose previous credits include the Julian Fellowes-penned Titanic miniseries, ruminates further on these subjects — as well as discussing the forthcoming Doctor Who Christmas show and revealing where Karen Gillan recommends you should eat next time you’re in, uh, Cardiff.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You surprised pretty much everyone with your appearance in “Asylum of the Daleks.” Who did you tell about that ahead of time? Were you allowed to tell your family?
JENNA-LOUISE COLEMAN: Yeah, my family knew. But I was convinced it wasn’t going to be kept [a secret]. I thought maybe at least we could keep the ending a secret, with the Dalek. It’s just great. There’s not much TV these days where you really get that element of surprise. There are so many spoilers all the time. I was really shocked that it didn’t leak and so was Steven. We were all really pleased and proud about that.
The role of the Doctor’s companion is so important to the show and such a plum part for an actress. What was the audition process like?
Well, I had my first audition with Andy Pryor, the casting director. Then they brought me back to read with Matt before Christmas and then I had another session with Matt after Christmas. So it was three all together — but it was lovely, actually. [Eventually] I think there were six people there — producers, casting directors, and everybody — and they actually left the room and left me and Matt to it. I’ve never had that in an audition before. They let us play about and made the scene our own and then they all came in to watch.
How did you find out the role was yours?
My agent phoned me up about two days later saying I’d got the part. I was in [British department store] Marks & Spencer. I couldn’t carry on shopping. I had an avocado that I had to put down and just went for a walk.
I’m still kind of digesting everything. The Doctor Who Experience (a permanent, Who-themed exhibition) has just opened in Cardiff and I look out my window and see it and it’s so huge. I came out to L.A. not long after I got the part and so many people out there were talking about it. It’s still becoming real to me in a way.
I believe Matt Smith had never seen an episode of Doctor Who when he auditioned. Were you a fan? It wasn’t actually on TV when you were growing up.
Well, we missed it! We missed it! And then when it came back in 2005 I was, like, 18. I was aware of it but I kind of missed it. I didn’t really know anything going into the audition room, which was kind of nice. I didn’t know what Matt was going to throw at me because I wasn’t used to it. Obviously I was aware of him but it was kind of new too me.
And then I didn’t watch too much of Karen and Matt’s stuff on purpose because it’s such a rhythmic thing, the dynamic, that I don’t want to pick up on anything. I kind of want to research it and watch every single episode, but my character, I’m just a girl who’s going into this not knowing anything and has to experience it front on. So that’s what I need to do as well, I think. And that’s what Steven’s very keen for me to do.
My grandma is a huge fan. My auntie was over from Australia when I got the part and she used to hide behind the sofa from the Daleks. My family — it was kind of like every single generation [except me]. It was quite strange, though — as soon as I started auditioning, when you actually look, Doctor Who really is everywhere. I turned up at the BBC for my audition and I was eating my lunch and I looked up and there’s a life-size cutout of Matt just staring at me.
I was recently talking to someone on a plane and, after I mentioned that I was writing about Doctor Who, they not not only declared themselves to be a fan but then explained at some length why Christopher Eccleston was the best ever Doctor.
Yeah. It’s the magic of it, isn’t it? It’s generational and universal. My friend’s little brother, who’s only like 7, is a massive fan. He’s got his own little TARDIS in his room. I see little kids dressed up as [the Doctor] and then my grandma is the most excited person in the world as well. I don’t think there’s many shows that have it, that cross so many generations.
Next: The problem of playing a Dalek