Rachel Talalay Interview: Doctor Who, CW Superheroes, and “Kicking the Glass Ceiling”

We talked to director Rachel Talalay about the end of a Doctor Who era, and what comes next.

Rachel Talalay is one of the most exciting directors working in TV tonight — on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. The Canadian-based American director has helmed episodes of Sherlock, The Flash, Supergirl, and Legends of Tomorrow, but we have seen her pop up the most often behind the camera on Doctor Who.

Talalay has been the director for the two-part finales of Doctor Who Season 8, Season 9, and Season 10. She will be returning for what will be Peter Capaldi and Steven Moffat’s final episode (at least for now): the 2017 Christmas special.

We talked to Talalay, a long-time Whovian herself, about her Doctor Who legacy, the differences between directing on The CW vs. on Doctor Who, and her excitement about Jodie Whittaker as the next Doctor.

What is it about Doctor Who that has made you want to come back to direct so many times?

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Talk to any kid dressed in a bow tie, fez, duster, velvet jacket, or pointing a sonic screwdriver, ready to take on the universe. That’s the lure of the Doctor. For 53 years and 5M more.

Can you talk about the differences between directing an episode of Doctor Who vs. directing an episode of The Flash or Supergirl? It seems like you might have more creative freedom in the former.

I very much enjoy and appreciate the CW shows (I’ve done Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow and The Flash) but they are not like Doctor Who mini-films. The whole process is so different, I work on a CW episode for about 20 days. On Doctor Who, I am involved for months through the final broadcast show.

Doctor Who creates a new world every episode, be it comedy, horror, past or future. The CW shows strive for some consistency through the episodes. Doctor Who excels in variety. As a director, the variety makes returning more exciting.

I have tried to give each episode a different style that worked with the script. For instance, the Doctor Who episode “Heaven Sent” was Citizen Kane meets German Expressionism.

In Harry Potter, “the Wand chooses the Wizard;” in Doctor Who, the “words and worlds choose the style.”

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Jumping off of that, you have directed some of the most important episodes of the Capaldi-era of Doctor Who. Episodes that were not only visually-impressive, but helped inform larger Doctor Who mythology — i.e. the workings of the confession dial or the genesis of the Cybermen.

Can you talk about what it’s been like to make such meaningful contributions to the 50+-year history of Doctor Who, a show of which you yourself are a fan. How do you hope Doctor Who fans will remember your contribution to the Capaldi era?

Epic. I’m making Doctor Who — those are shiver-y words.

I can’t really talk about how I will be remembered, I want to do a great job and make inspiring episodes.

Michelle Gomez reminisced during our roundtable interview at Comic Con about you, Peter, and her all starting in Doctor Who on the same run. What was it like to be able to follow through on the Doctor/Missy, a relationship that you helped form, in “The Doctor Falls” and “World Enough and Time”?

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Gomez and I created a bond on S8, so it was delightful to get back with her and finish her (if indeed she really is done, which is never a fait accompli in Doctor Who mythology).

I adored working with both Masters as unpredictable mirrors of each other in Season 10. I delighted in their complexity, humor and even cruelty.

Gomez is just brilliant, she always has her unique spin on the work. We have a shorthand, which includes her raising her hand, which means ‘let me do it again because I know what it needs.’ And then she hits every beat that I was going to speak to her about. But if I want her to try other things, she will and that will blow my mind as well. That’s awe.

She and Peter love to experiment and to challenge each other. Every version is magnificent but completely different. I add a few thoughts, but it’s mostly them. With actors this brilliant, I try to give them the space to do their best work and let the sparks ignite.

Going off of that, I know you can’t speak too specifically about the Christmas special, but what has it meant to be able to direct Peter in his final appearance as Doctor Who? He mentioned that he asked you to come back for his final episode. Was there every any doubt in your mind that you would?

It seems like it would be a no-brainer, but it wasn’t. Now I’m going to get personal…

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The doubt was because of the time commitment and my family. I have children and continuing meant another 3+ months away from home, “mothering-by-skype.”

I sometimes Facetime them on set so they can say hey to the people they know, see new locations, feel involved while thousands of miles away. And they will speak to me from school and walk me around the class or the doctor’s office. Here, modern technology is a life-saver, but it’s not the same as a hug.

We had a family pow-wow. I read out the emails Steven and Peter wrote me when they knew I was equivocating — flattering, persuasive and also hilarious. Part of the notes had to do with the importance of this episode to both them.

And so it became a no-brainer.

What is it about Peter as the Doctor that you think so many people respond to?

The finest of acting mixed with the rock star and the comic. Utter commitment. Never boring, never predictable, always magnificent. You can’t keep your eyes off him. No matter how brilliant everyone around him is, he is still the center of your attention.

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His peerless speeches, proclaiming kindness and good. And carrying that out into the real world. So many acts of charity outside.

His ability to joke and make you cry in the same breath. Now that’s a choking hazard.

He is The Doctor. Always.

Again, I don’t know if you can say anything about this, but can you speak generally about what it was like — both as a professional and as a longtime Doctor Who fan — to briefly direct Jodie Whittaker as the first female Doctor in the Christmas Special?

I can’t answer this question specifically right now. But here are my thoughts in general.

Any time the Doctor regenerates, there are questions: “will I like the new one?” and “how will they compare?” Even though this is the nature of Doctor Who, change is uncertainty. Kids tend to worry about change.

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But I am so excited. Jodie IS The New Doctor. Thrilling. The next chapter.

And I just can’t wait to see how she and Chris Chibnall evolve Season 11.

This isn’t only the end of Peter’s run, but it is the end of Steven’s run as showrunner. Can you talk about what you have admired — as a fan and/or as a collaborator — about his Doctor Who run?

Steven is a genius. You hear that a lot, but you need to experience it too.

I was so in awe, I was tongue-tied around him for the first three episodes I worked with him.

How many gorgeous quotations from how many brilliant episodes can I quote? I love the “Fear is a SuperPower” speech. The “Zygon War” Speech. “Never trust a hug, it’s just a way to hide your face.’ “In tears, there’s hope.” “I thought there’d be stars.” “Do not put the Pope in my bedroom!“ “Can you just hurry up or I’ll hit you with my shoe.” “What’s that face? Are you thinking? Stop it, you’re a man. It looks weird,” and on and on. I sound better when I am quoting him.

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Steven’s writing — human and humane — understanding of the world, of kindness, mixed with unexpected twists and insane creativity (a 400-mile spaceship escaping from a black hole as an excuse to make time run at different speed?! I’m there.)

And Steven won’t give out pages until he’s toiled and sweat and pounded the computer. I imagine a man ranting in his room, screaming his own lines, crumpling and throwing page after page at a Weeping Angel sculpture, head in hands, drink in hands, (go no further with that train of thought, Talalay) laughing maniacally, then pressing the ‘send’ button as the next idea fulminates.

I may have an overactive imagination. He has made me a better director. Thank you, Steven.

When I talked to Pearl, she gushed about your communication skills and your collaborative nature. Do you think these qualities are somewhat unique in the directing world? Why do you value these skills as part of your directorial style?

I don’t even like the word “Director” because that implies that I am telling the actor what to do and that seems anti-creative and not safe for them. I’m like a chief creative officer, trying to support their best work.

Every actor is different. I don’t have a set style that the actor must fit into. I feel it’s my job to find what the actor needs and work to that. I think I surprised Pearl by my inclusivity. I relish the dialogue it creates.

By approaching direction as a question, I am inviting the actor to think through the role at that point and see if there is another color or texture or idea. I will be quite specific with directions if I need to be, but the caliber of actors on Doctor Who, it’s much more about painting with soft strokes.

You recently tweeted: “US TV doesn’t understand the power that a monologue with brilliant writing and acting can ignite.” What are other differences you see between British and America TV as someone who has worked in both?

That was in reference to BBC AMERICA’s Queers, written by Mark Gatiss, which is a series of talking-heads monologues (in the vein of Alan Bennett). I was expecting some Twitterati to slam me with a list of monologues that have been on U.S. TV, but that didn’t happen. It’s the appreciation of writing and acting that doesn’t require fancy eye candy to be utterly compelling.

There are a lot of discussions about diversity in front of the camera, but fewer about diversity behind the camera. Why do you think that is? As someone who is in the industry, do you see it getting any better?

This is a major topic and one for an entire article.

There is quite a lot of dialogue behind the scenes, but the statistics don’t show improvement at the moment. Hollywood is so entrenched in a white male culture.

Dialogue isn’t action. What has tended to happen is a series of initiatives that include ’training programs’ and ’shadowing’. These mostly end up diverting attention from the need for actual hiring.

It’s particularly hard for women crew members. Name a female composer. I can’t. I can name a few cinematographers, but that’s because I’ve been looking. Location Sound Mixer? I can go location scouting and be the only woman on the bus.

And it does matter. Diverse voices matter and need to be heard. Equal Opportunity.

Related to that, Matt Lucas said during our roundtable interview at Comic Con that you should be directing Star Wars, something you have expressed interest in before. What kinds of feature films would you like to be directing, if given the chance?

Matt knows I want to do a mega-action film. I love Fury Road. And Force Awakens. I want to be able to do what I do on Who — but on 70mm with major stunts and visual effects and an explosive Dolby atmos soundtrack.

People think it should be easier for me because I do so much for so little in the Whoniverse. But nothing is easy. I still have to work to get meetings on these types of movies and have yet to make it up the rungs of the ladder.

I keep kicking the glass ceiling.

Past that, are there kinds of projects — either in the film world or TV world or somewhere else — you haven’t yet had a chance to do that you would like to try next?

Great stories and writing that also invite visual storytelling.

Matt Lucas also mentioned you two happen to be related! How did you figure out you were related? 

Matt and I first worked together on Wind in the Willows in 2007 but didn’t learn we were related until right after the shoot when my aunt mentioned her cousin’s great nephew was playing Toad in it. My brain exploded. We’ve kept in touch over a lot of things and it was a wonderful treat to work together again on Doctor Who. We’ve stayed close. He is a brilliant person. Hilarious too.

Interested in what Peter Capaldi, Steven Moffat, and the rest of the Doctor Who gang have to say about Rachel Talalay? Read our feature on Rachel Talalay’s influence on Doctor Who.

Read and download the full Den of Geek SDCC Special Edition magazine here!