Contains no spoilers if you've kept up with the promotional pictures and trailers, but if you want to go in to The Time Of The Doctor cold, come back on Boxing Day...
We cherry-picked a few salient quotes from our extended chat with the wonderful Orla Brady (Fringe, Mistresses, Sinbad) here, but below is everything we could fit into half an hour about Doctor Who.
The screen and stage actress tells us about filming Matt Smith's farewell episode, how perfect Peter Capaldi is as the Doctor, and how Brady, a recent convert to sci-fi, swotted up on Who lore in order to fully understand the role of Tasha Lem in The Time Of The Doctor...
There’s exactly a fortnight to go until The Time of the Doctor’s on TV. We’re very excited about that…
I know, I’m more excited than I thought I would be.
It’s funny. I did my first sci-fi show with Fringe, three or four years ago, and I had to be kind of persuaded to do it, my agent really talked me around, because I was saying I don’t get the whole sci-fi thing. And then I went up to Vancouver and I just adored it. I really got into it. It was one of those road to Damascus moments when I went away a normal person and came back all geeky [laughing].
So it’s going to be all sci-fi all the time from you now then?
There was a lovely piece that was written recently in The Guardian by Neil Gaiman and he was talking about how important reading was essentially, and libraries and books.
I read that, it was wonderful.
Wasn’t it a beautiful piece? He was talking about China encouraging science-fiction suddenly because if children imagine, and imagine what doesn’t exist now but could exist in the future, it expands the imagination and creativity. To have a young mind fantasize about 'what if we could teleport ourselves off to a different planet?'. There are things that were once imagined that are now in existence, so I’m very taken with that notion, I thought it was very beautifully put by him.
You're a recent convert to sci-fi then?
I watched the 50th anniversary episode, for example and of course, that was in the morning here, it was Saturday morning, a friend came up and we did that morning thing of getting mugs of tea and sitting there, and every so often my husband would just come in and shake his head and just go, ‘What’s happened to my wife?’ [laughing].
What did you make of the 50th then, in your pyjamas with a cup of tea?
I thought it was lovely. It was great. The moment there was a sort of cheer in the room with us – I mean, all of it was good - but when you saw Peter Capaldi’s eyes. Peter Capaldi’s eyes was a very good moment. Because he is now present in our consciousness as the Doctor, it feels that he already has existed as the Doctor. We know him already, do you know what I’m saying?
Exactly, yes. There’s an old Doctor feel to him isn’t there?
Previous Doctor you mean?
Yes, previous Doctor, not old! A Hartnell-y, Pertwee-y sense.
I have a huge vested interest in not saying 'old', because we’re practically the same age! [Laughing].
I was a bit unaware of the Doctor Who phenomenon until I was asked to do this, I didn’t quite twig that it was such a big show. I knew it was really, really beloved and popular in England, I didn’t realise it had made a leap to being an American phenomenon that played out in other countries.
When I heard the announcement about Peter Capaldi, I remember thinking, ‘oh yes’, that sort of recognition rather than being in any way surprised. A bit like when you meet someone you fall in love with, you go ‘of course’, you’re not surprised, you just think ‘oh of course, that’s how the jigsaw fits together, that’s how it was supposed to be’. It seemed completely inevitable, rather than just an interesting casting choice.
Where were you when you learned it was going to be Capaldi?
I was shooting in Belgium and I was alone and I put the TV on in the hotel room to BBC One, just to have chatty voices in the background, and I was walking by from the shower getting ready for something, and I heard somebody saying ‘he’ll be coming in a minute’ and I thought ‘what’s going on?’ and it was the announcement show. So I saw him walk out and thought, ‘Oh, very good’.
When were you made the offer for the Christmas episode?
That was ages later. The announcement was in the summer wasn’t it? August. I was sitting in my dressing room I suppose about six weeks later and I got this lovely message saying they’ve called and asked if you’d like to do Doctor Who and I just said, ‘I don’t have time to read this, of course I’ll do it’ [laughing]. I had spoken to a friend of mine, Sarah Parish, who played a big red spider…
The Empress of the Racnoss!
So I thought, I’ll probably be something like that, a big red spider, or a Cyborg’s bottom – you never know what you’re going to be, it could be something completely potty – so I just thought whatever it is, I’ll do it. So I just said, I’ll read it later, but absolutely I’ll do it, and my agent was saying, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to read it?’ and I was saying ‘I will read it of course, but it’s not like there’s going to be anything offensive. It’s Doctor Who, and I love it.
As it turns out, you’re not a big red spider, you’re in a very glamorous dress and looking quite Blade Runner-ish with your make-up.
That was a reference actually. That was the director’s idea, Jamie [Payne]. We did make-up tests at the beginning and he looked at them and said I wanted a touch of Alien, and I think he referenced Ridley Scott, that idea of human, but with a twist. And there is a twist, it’s as Steven Moffat said, she’s a descendant of humans, there’s a grandmother or a great-grandmother who was from elsewhere, a touch of something else in her. He wanted that slightly not quite human, three-quarters human thing, hence that Blade Runner reference, so he asked for that and listen, they know their world so well, Howard Burden the costume designers, they all know what they want and have a very good vision of it.
So I literally pitched up in Cardiff and they said, ‘this is what we’re thinking of putting you in, and I said ‘that looks great to me’. It was one of those completely easy, lovely things where you just arrive, get into it and think ‘that all matches what I expected’ and you just toddle on and do it. I don’t mean that it’s easy to do, I just mean that I only had my job to do.
You were in safe hands?
Very safe hands. Their vision of it was so clear, and Jamie knew what he wanted the character to feel like and look like, and I was very happy to be guided by him.
For someone then, who presumably hadn’t watched every single episode of Doctor Who ever…
I feel like I have now!
Because there was mythology that I didn’t understand, because it’s not something I watched. When I was offered it, I hadn’t seen it since I was young, since it was first around when we were kids, so I felt it behoved me to sit and make sure I understood everything about the world of the show and the feel of the show, and also literally the mythology because there were things that Tasha Lem has to understand and be.
So how did you go about getting up to speed?
I asked the script editor to recommend what he thought I should watch, I’m happy to watch as much as you like, and he gave me [laughing] truly a stack of DVDs from my feet up to my shoulder and said ‘these are the five or six you have to watch, if you really want to know the mythology’. So I watched all those and that was great, because I thought ‘these are fantastic’ so I literally worked my way through them. It was very rainy in Cardiff and I just stayed in and had this Who-fest, where I watched Christopher’s and David’s and Matt’s of course, a lot of Matt’s, because I was catching up on particular story strands.
Those would be the Trenzalore story strands?
We’re not after any spoilers here. I understand you can’t talk about character or story, and we want it all to stay a nice surprise. You could tell us about that, actually. What’s the secret-keeping like on Doctor Who? Have you had a sniper trained on you from the minute you received the script?
I believe I do. Nobody has said it to me, but there is this slight sense you have that there’s a sort of force that has been trained at some sort of training base personally by Steven Moffat, and if anybody Tweets out anything or says the wrong thing, that you’ll suddenly fall down and nobody will know why, and you’ll be stunned until after the episode goes out and you’ll wake up and not remember anything, because they’re too nice to kill you.
A sci-fi solution…
No-one ever says it to you, nobody ever says, ‘now listen, you mustn’t…’ but I do find myself being cautious. Normally I would tell everybody the entire story of what I’m doing but I really truly find myself, even with friends, even with my Godson, when they ask what I’m doing, going ‘nothing’. You have to be cagey.
To be honest with you, I really understand why they’re doing it. With other things I think, 'oh who cares?' I remember being sent a script to audition for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, the Fincher version, and you were only sent the scene, and you weren’t allowed to know anything about it and I was thinking, but this is preposterous. A) They’ve made the movie before, and B) It’s a book! Come on lads, wake up!
With this though, it really would be a shame for there to be spoilers. I know in the past that papers once or twice have spoiled and told too much about a movie, and you go into it knowing something that would have been great not to know. I hate people spoiling things and I don’t want ever to be that person who lessens the surprise and the enjoyment.
You had the honor of filming on Matt Smith’s very last episode, what was the atmosphere like?
Two things. One, it was very chatty and friendly and Matt and Jenna are so welcoming and lovely and I can’t say enough good things about them, so we sat around and had chats and all that sort of thing, but I was also kind of trying to walk away and leave them alone a bit because I was very conscious that it had to be a bit sad for them. It was their last couple of weeks together and they’re doing little fist-bumps before scenes and having chats. I know what it’s like to end a series and think ‘aw, that’s a shame. That’s a period of my life, and we won’t be going into work in this way every day, even if you’re still in touch afterwards’ So I was conscious of that.
The other thing that has to be said is that there was no sense of sitting back and taking it easy, or not concentrating on scenes. Matt’s one of the most focussed people I’ve ever worked with. If I didn’t know, and somebody had told me that it was his first week in the job and he’s really concentrating to make sure his character’s dead right, I would have believed them, even though it’s several years since he started. He works hard, he looks at every scene hard, he’s trying to get the most out of it. There’s no sitting back or feeling of ‘yeah, I know what I’m doing here’. He’s still exploring, still trying to find the Doctor.
He’ll be greatly missed, even though we’re all so eager to welcome Peter Capaldi.
He will be greatly missed, of course he’ll be greatly missed, and I’m sure people said that about David before him. Every Doctor makes their own mark and he’ll be greatly missed in one sense but you can be in love with more than one person, can’t you? And I think we’ll be in love with Peter Capaldi because he’s completely different and an absolutely fantastic actor, and very funny. He’s got a darkness and he’s got a stature if you like, a quality that can be quite fearsome, but he also brings a levity to things. He’ll just be a different Doctor.
Can you talk a little bit about Jamie Payne’s approach to the episode as the director? We were really impressed with Hide, his previous Who episode. Did you see that?
Yes I did, I did.
What kind of approach did he have? How did he work with you? Was there much chance for rehearsal?
There wasn’t a lot of rehearsal. It’s a rare luxury that you get rehearsal time in TV, because of the budgets and the pace. I had to miss the read-through because I’d just finished up a long job in France and really had to get home for a week or two before I started Doctor Who, so I just had to arrive and rock up on the set and start, which is very normal. You have some discussions about the character, of course, but pretty much you’re refining it on the day.
What’s lovely about Jamie is that he gives his notes and has his conversations in private, so I’ve no idea how he worked with Matt and Jenna, which is great, because you shouldn’t know in a way. I like things being private with directors. How he worked with me was that he was very trusting of what I was doing. He simply said, you were offered this because it was the right casting, I’ll watch you, I’ll guide you, don’t worry about it, and there was one scene I remember that was quite hard for various reasons, it was the end of the day and we were trying to get a scene in and there was a slight feeling of ‘oh God, are we getting it?’ and we did a first rehearsal of it and afterwards I remember saying that I hadn’t quite found it and settled in and he said no, no, no, ‘you find your way, it’s alright’, he was very calm, he knew we would find it. He didn’t look and say ‘that’s not quite it’ and start panicking and giving you notes. It was a very calm experience working with him and he’s very much in love with Doctor Who as a series and his enthusiasm for it showed as well as the fact that he’s very fond of actors, I think he loves watching actors. He loves being a director. He’s good at his job in that he loves it.
Go back to when you first received the script for the episode, because sometimes, even hardcore Who fans find Steven Moffat’s brilliantly complex stories a bit confusing, the interweaving of storylines. Did you feel completely lost or did it make sense?
Yes and no. On the one hand, there was a lot of mythology, because remember there are story strands that are being wrapped up in this, so there were specific things relating to… words that Who fans would have heard but I certainly hadn’t, because as you know I hadn’t watched it then, so obviously, that element of it I thought ‘I have no idea what she’s saying there, or why she’s saying it’ but I could see what it was, that it was story strands. The main thing is he wrote a character that was [laughs] very clear, and that made me laugh out loud several times - on my own, which is always strangely embarrassing.
I think the writing on Doctor Who is extraordinary and I think it plays out in the playing of it, which hopefully we’ve achieved what the writing intends to do, which is that you’re kind of moving through different types and styles of acting if you like, within one scene you can be broad slapstick, and certainly Matt brings that to it, that Tommy Cooper-esque physical character, so you can be in that, but then in the end of the scene, you’re saying goodbye to somebody and you know that in space and time these characters won’t meet again, and there has to be a kind of heart to that. It all has to be present. It’s certainly not silly seventies slapstick with nothing behind it, you have to be really really on your toes on that set.
You said you laughed out loud at the script, can we expect to be laughing at your character then?
Not my character. It was Matt’s interaction with a certain other character who I’m trying not to name [laughing]. There were other conversation strands that the Doctor and somebody else have that made me laugh out loud. There were a couple of moments between Tasha and the Doctor that made me laugh out loud, but she’s not a particularly funny character and in truth – and this is completely understandable – some things had to be shaved back because there’s only so much time on Christmas Day, there’s only an hour, and essential story has to be told, so some of the funnier moments, when we got to actually shooting, they had been trimmed away, which I was sad about, because selfishly, you always want as much character as possible, but equally I could see quite properly that this episode is firmly about wrapping up the Doctor’s story, so everything else that isn’t that is up for grabs in terms of cuts.
There are some wonderful villains recurring in the episode that presumably you worked with? The Silence, the Daleks, the Cybermen we’ve seen pictures of…
Am I allowed to say this? It’s not spoilers to say that the number are these three?
It’s in the public realm from promo pictures and the trailer released this afternoon.
You can see those three monsters?
Yes, and the Weeping Angels, Madame Kovorian, River Song, all of that is out there.
Okay, okay. Fantastic. Again, because you’re in and out and shooting rotating with other people, it’s not that I was on set with all of them in the different scenes, but it was lovely seeing these iconic creatures from your childhood wandering around having a fag [laughing]. I did have a scene with one of the above, and [laughing] I’m slightly not being serious but I slightly am, it’s one of those scenes where I thought, well obviously I found these particular monsters very scary when I was a child but I’ll just go on now and they’ll look all tinny and silly, but [laughing] when I did stand in front of them I did think ‘ooh, I’m slightly scared and nervous’, suddenly you have a moment of being thrown back to being six and moving away from the TV. But I’m not saying which one.
We’ve only two weeks to wait and we can find out for ourselves.
I’m sure everybody says this but Doctor Who is part of the little humming background of our lives and our childhoods. Even though we didn’t get the BBC in Ireland and I saw Doctor Who very rarely as a child, but it is part of that background reference in the same way Monty Python was. There are things we all understand. If I say to someone, 'you’re behaving like a Dalek', they know what I mean, even if you’ve never seen it.
Have you seen the episode in full yet?
No. It’s driving me crazy, I haven’t. Truthfully, I haven’t asked. Normally, especially before you do any interviews you like to see it to refresh what you’ve done and see how it’s turned out. For this, I didn’t ask, because I’m kind of aware that they need to be so secretive around these things, and I trust them. I trust Jamie. The first time I’ll see it will be at the screening in London, it’s a family screening and I’ll see it at that.
Obviously the episode is Matt’s farewell, which is necessarily going to be emotional, but is it also a Christmas Special, by which I mean, is it also festive?
Yes, the funny thing is, and this is what I admire very much in the writing. Several of the writers of the series have managed to weave things together, there’s a very strong spirit of Christmas in this woven together with an element of dread, ending, and what looks like a death. That’s coming up. It has been predicted – you stop me if I’m spoiling, because I don’t really know how people talk about those things - it has been predicted that this is a death, an ending, and it’s coming down the line pretty rapidly, so there is that element, but also, woven through that dark element is a very beautiful Christmas spirit.
Orla Brady, thank you very much!
The Time Of The Doctor airs on Christmas Day at 7.30pm on BBC One and 9 PM on BBC America.