Jenna Coleman - Doctors, Queens and Dreamboys
Jenna Coleman is the actress of the moment – in demand, in the papers and about to burst back onto our screens in a brand new series of Doctor Who.
Treading the boards since she was 19, she bagged her first TV role before even auditioning for drama school, and hasn’t looked back since with leading roles in Emmerdale and Doctor Who, plus a Hollywood superhero film to boot.
With a brand new TV project playing the 18-year-old Queen Victoria about to go into production, I grabbed her during a rare break from work to chat about new skills, Matt Smith’s funny walk and why if Jenna has her way HRH Queen Victoria may well be a paragliding monarch…
Doctor Who is a bit of a British institution isn’t it? Has playing Clara totally changed your life?
Yes, in ways you wouldn’t expect. My personal life has changed, but it’s what you end up doing on a day-to-day basis that’s really different. The imaginative nature of the storytelling becomes your reality – green screens, running away from monsters and being put on wires and hung upside down. I’ve kind of entered an alternative universe, every time I come back to London I’m hit by reality!
So how did you get started as an actress?
I did loads of plays at school, and started to dance when I was really young – but I gave that up when I was about 16 as I realised I wanted to act. I was involved with a theatre company, and we used to travel up to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and put on loads of plays and perform as much as we could.
Did you have a plan B?
When I was younger I thought I might like to be a casting director because I love to read and imagine who would be good playing each role. Plus I’d get to watch loads of films and theatre and use it as research. I think now as a plan B I’d like to do something that you can be commissioned to do – like a painter, photographer or writer. Something you can do in your own space and time. Although I don’t know if I can paint really – I’ve never really tried…
You’re not going to have time for a while, but you should try painting, you might discover you have a hidden talent.
Yeah – I should buy an easel and a brush and start off with stick people. I’ve just bought a camera and I’m going to do some courses for that.
Is it true you were snapped up for a TV role before you went to drama school?
I got offered a job as I was auditioning, so I never actually went. When I finished the job I re-applied at RADA and LAMDA but then I got other jobs. I thought if I went to drama school for three years there would be certain parts in my younger repertoire that I’d never get to play, so I decided to just role with it instead.
So does that mean you’ve escaped all the weird and wonderful drama school warm up routines and rituals?
Oh no, I did them all at auditions. I remember one where I had to be an octopus. And one where you had to do these lines, as if you were a tree, but then you had to play someone whose dog had just died. I guess they were exercises supposed to stop you being self-conscious and see how you apply your imagination.
I once had to express the colour blue through the medium of mime – not easily done. It makes your octopus sound quite sensible…
Ha – yes!
So you’ve worked with two Doctors – Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi – how different are their Time Lord management styles?
It’s funny really – I’d love to see them together as actors because they are both surreal and inventive and have a real fierceness. What I love about them is that they’ll take the scene a certain way, but not be afraid to abandon it and go in a completely different direction just for the hell of it. It makes the work really spontaneous and it makes you a better actor. But saying that, their Doctors are completely different – Matt is like a tornado who dances round the room, whereas Peter makes the room come to him. Peter has something mythical about him – you could believe he’s 2000 years old – no offence Peter!
Tell me one thing about Peter Capaldi I don’t know?
He used to be in a punk band called The Dreamboys - he can sing and play guitar. He also went to art school and is a really good drawer.
And Matt Smith?
He’s got a hilarious walk like he’s imitating a horse - you can spot him a mile off.
Clara gets stuck into the action – but was it irritating to be a side kick rather than the one in charge?
The writing makes it feel like The Doctor and Clara are very much a team – it’s a partnership. And Peter never made me feel like I was just a support – he enabled me all the time – and gave me confidence. I mean don’t get me wrong, I’d love my own tardis… Peter and I are such an unlikely pairing, but it really works, and I love that. We’re both on the same wavelength and have the same sense of humour and get each other totally.
Think we’ll ever see a female Doctor Who?
The casting’s always unexpected – casting Peter after Matt was about going in a different direction so who knows. I know Peter’s going to be around for a while longer but I’m sure it could happen – I don’t see why not.
Heck – why not a transgender Doctor Who – he could travel through time, space and gender!
That’s the thing most people forget – The Doctor is actually an alien! Someone was asking me about the age difference between me and Peter, but he’s gone from being technically 1800 to 2000 years old so our human age gap is nothing!
The show has lots of monsters - did it give you nightmares?
Not really, but you’re always running away from something or towards something so you feel a bit like you’re on a treadmill. Once I go to bed I’m out like a light, I’ve never slept better than I have working on the show.
You are used to time travel, but if you could only wear fashion from one era which one would it be and why?
The 1940s going into the 1950s I think. I did a drama set in the 1940s and we wore gorgeous shirts, and bits of fur and berets. I love the shapes and styles.
Your next project is all over the papers – you’re going to be leaving Doctor Who to play Queen Victoria. That’s a pretty big step up in rank from companion to the Queen of England. Are you daunted or excited?
I’ve never actually played a real person before – my characters have always been fictional. Queen Victoria was loved by so many people and has such a big legacy. I’m just going to try to tell the story of her life which is fascinating. She wrote over a million words in her own hand so I’m reading that to capture her voice. I’m going to visit the palace, and see her bedroom and the dresses she wore, and I’m reading the history of her family. It’s just amazing seeing this 90 year old woman in the 1800s sat in parliament with all these men. I’m in very early stages of prep of the moment – I’m learning to ride a horse and play the piano! She was a talented artist too and could draw really well.
Wow – all those new skills to add to your CV! You should say that to get into character you need some art lessons, and that can fulfil your painting ambition!
Great idea, I could ask for everything that’s on my bucket list – you know – I just really feel Queen Victoria would have wanted to paraglide. If you can just arrange that..!
Yeah – put it on your rider! You’ve obviously done your royal research, but there was a bit of a media frenzy recently with sightings of you hanging out with Prince Harry, was that part of your homework too?
No, just co-incidence – he’s just my friend.
Fair enough. If you were Queen for the day, what would kind of laws would we see suddenly pop up?
Oh, so much to choose from. Three day weekends for everyone, and maybe getting everyone out on bikes.
Like Boris Bikes but Jenna Bikes?
Who’s influenced you most in your life so far?
My parents – I talk to them every day and have learnt most things from them. I’ve always loved Sofia Coppola too – she’s witty, and intelligent and graceful.
Are you a morning jogger or a late night dancer?
Neither currently – but attempting to be a morning jogger.
Full fat milk, skimmed or soya?
Almond – I’m a maverick.
You used to be Head Girl at your school – would you say you are a rule follower or a rule breaker?
It depends on my instincts – generally I’m more of a rule follower, unless it’s against my instinct in which case I’ll stick to my guns – I can be stubborn. And I think if you generally follow the rules you have to break them sometimes otherwise life would be a bit dull.
You come from Blackpool originally – can anything ever live up to living by the sea?
I come from a place that was the pleasure beach, the bright lights and illuminations. My best friend’s parents owned a rock factory and we used to hang out and play amongst the crates of candy. It was a colourful place to grow up.
Yes – in fact Tim Burton’s just shot a film there.
So TV, film and theatre – you’ve done all three successfully – but which is your first love?
That’s really hard - they all are in different ways. I love the photography in film; in television you get to invest more – 10 hours to develop a character in a series; and theatre - there’s nothing like that live experience.
Do you ever watch yourself back on TV?
I know I should. I find it hard with Doctor Who because I feel like I’m more myself in the character, but with programmes like Death Comes To Pemberley where I’m further away from myself I find that a lot easier. You’ve just got to try not to be neurotic, and learn and watch other people instead and you’ll be alright!
Is there a quote or ethos you live by?
You can’t control what happens in your life but you can control what your reaction is to the things that happen. Realising that is a really powerful thing - it’s about what it is to be human and your power through your choices.
Jenna will next be seen in Doctor Who, Saturday 26th September on BBC One.
Interview by Bethany Minelle
Photography Yakub Merchant