Michelle Gomez interview: Comedy, Doctor Who

We interview Michelle Gomez about slapstick, stand-up, Steven Moffat, playing Doctor Who's Missy, and her new web series...

Michelle Gomez, seen last year as Doctor Who’s havoc-causing, murderous Missy, has a memorable history of bananas TV roles behind her. There’s been Green Wing’s Sue White, Bad Education’s Pickwell, and more recently Psychobitches’ meth-head Mary Queen Of Scots and projectile-vomiting Margaret Thatcher.

If you were to make a Venn diagram depicting the crossover between deeply funny and fundamentally unhinged TV characters, you’d likely end up with  just a .gif of Gomez, gnashing her teeth and riding a camel.

In new web series Heather’s American Medicine, she takes on another comic persona, that of a straight-talking online agony aunt doling out highly questionable advice to America’s troubled citizens.

We caught up with Gomez, whose take on The Master is confirmed to be returning to Doctor Who this year, over email to chat comedy, slapstick, Steven Moffat, and her continuing campaign for Missy to meet the Queen of England…

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Before we first saw you on TV in The Book Group, you were headed for a career in serious, literary plays. Was it really Annie Griffin who first picked up on your potential for comedy?

It was. She saw me in a production of Abandonment by Kate Atkinson at The Traverse Theatre directed by John Tiffany. God love him. He cast me as a ghost up the back of the stage. There I was floating around in Victorian garb trying to be all sombre. I was taking myself and it all very seriously, so it was a surprise to hear it was more Ha Ha Hee Hee and less beard strokey. 

Slapstick has often been a trademark of your TV characters. Rosie Cavaliero said your performances on Feel The Force reminded her of Buster Keaton, and you’ve cited Marti Caine as an influence. Do you feel that kind of clowning comedy garners the respect it deserves now? From the public, or from other actors?

I gave up trying to garner respect a long time ago now. I just do what I do and if i need to fall down whilst doing it then so be it. Although I tend to do mostly upright acting these days, all that falling about has taken its toll on the knees. 

What appealed to you about the web series format for Heather’s American Medicine

Freedom of speech mainly. We live in an increasingly restricted world when it comes to expressing oneself. So we wanted to create a fearless character that’s always teetering on the brink of political incorrectness.  

In the past web series have acted a bit like Radio 4 Comedy by being a stepping stone to a TV series (e.g. Amy Poehler-produced Broad City went from web to TV recently). They can stand alone too, though?

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Yes they can and this is what we hope for Heather, but it was really just a first pass, she needs a little work. 

Was Heather a collaboration, or your own creation?

It was a collaboration with the very talented Jesse Cleverly. He takes credit for the writing. I threw some rough ideas down on paper and he created all the scripts. 

Are there other Michelle Gomez characters, like Heather, waiting in the wings for their own vehicle?

We have big plans for Heather so all my energy is focused on her right now, she has a long way to go. 

How about your Psychobitches characters? Are they created between the actors and Jeremy Dyson, or performed from his script? Can you come to him and say “I really want to do Thatcher”, for instance? Whose idea was it to play Mary Queen Of Scots as a methadone addict?

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Jeremy Dyson is another one of those incredible brains that delivers these incredible characters. All I had to do was pop on a wig and say it. My favorites by far were Mary Queen of Scots and Thatcher. I loved getting the chance to play with that dichotomy; a working class Scot (me) playing the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Mary Queen of Scots as wee meth head. Brilliant fun. None of this was my doing, I am a mere puppet for the words. A conduit. A mouthpiece? You get it. I’m an actor and nothing without the script. 

You once said in an interview that you didn’t want to “disappear down the coal mine marked ‘bonkers female characters’”. Is that more or less likely now that Missy is so well-known?

Did I? I def don’t want to fall down a coal mine that would be very dull and dark. Mark me as you will. Bonkers is fine by me if it brings home the bacon and I get to have fun whilst doing it. This whole business we are in is ludicrous but there are some days that are still magical, after all these years, decades, centuries, people still love a good story. So I get to do the bonkers bit. Lucky me. 

Have you noticed a difference in the parts you’re going up for now, in the months after Doctor Who aired? Are you being seen for more family-friendly roles?

Not exactly. Check out The Brink on HBO coming out here June 21st.

Looking back now, what does Green Wing mean to you career-wise?

That was my breakout moment I guess. When I finally got to do what I wanted. I’m not cut out for kitchen sink dramas although i’d give it a go if asked.

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Green Wing was known for having a lot of room for improvisation. Did you ever improvise anything as Sue White that they wouldn’t or couldn’t use?

That show was ground breaking because there wasn’t anything they wouldn’t use. Fearless pioneers!!!

Do you have any plans to return to stand-up? The 10-minute clip of you filmed at the Comedy Store is very funny, though perhaps not suitable for younger Doctor Who fans…

There will be no returning because there was no arriving in the first place. That was the only stand up I have ever done. That one night. I’d always wanted to try it, but I didn’t expect to still be talking about it today. Someone filmed it and put it on You tube and now I’m a stand up? Not. I gave it a go.

Steven Moffat said about Missy that “you still vaguely side with her when she kills harmless, likeable, defenceless people”, which is the mark of a classic screen villain. How do you walk that fine line in the performance?

It’s mostly in the writing and partly in the delivery. Every good psychopath has to believe what they are doing is for the greater good I guess. 

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You’ve said, “I don’t think we should have too much public exposure of the Master” in terms of Comic-Con appearances and the like. Is that something you stand by?

The Master is like theatrical saffron, you just need a light sprinkling here and there. Everyones so over exposed these days. Who cares what I had for breakfast??!! That said, she would absolutely turn up to meet the Queen. Let’s start the Missy meet Queenie campaign. A few years back I was invited to meet the Queen, but it was at Balmoral at the time someone drove their car into the front of Glasgow airport. All Scottish airports were closed down that weekend so I couldn’t get up. I’m still gutted. But maybe it was Missy that was meant to meet her and not me.  

How closely did you monitor the online guessing game with regards Missy? Any favourite theories?

I don’t monitor it that closely, some of it gets through to me. I do like the idea that Mary Poppins is the most evil woman in the universe. That tickles me. 

Peter Capaldi tried lots of different looks for his Doctor before settling on the buttoned-up shirt. How much input did you have into things like Missy’s ‘Scary Poppins’ costume? Were there alternatives before that one was settled on?

No I didn’t get a choice, and I’m glad I didn’t because it works so well. I will say this though, wouldn’t it be nice for Missy to bust out that corset?!

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Steven Moffat said he wrote the part around you. You emailed him asking for a villainess role after having to turn down a different role in series 8. Was it an instant yes when the second offer came?

Are you kidding me?! When my agent rang to tell me the news, she told me to sit down first. It’s not lost on me how huge it is to change gender for The Master. It’s a huge honour and one I intend to savor every minute of. For a lady of my advancing years it’s a huge gift to be given such a kick ass role. Next we’ll have a female President. Well if the UK can do it why not the US.

You once described Steven Moffat’s writing on Doctor Who as having a “casual cruelty” as well as wit and humour. Were you thinking of anything in particular when you said that?

When Missy just blasts people with no remorse but asks them to “say something nice” first, it’s outrageous. But we love it!!! So naughty.

Michelle Gomez, thank you very much!

Find out more about Heather’s American Medicine and Wildseed Comedy, here.

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