Pearl Mackie: ‘People might not know I’ve done lots of theatre before, Doctor Who was the anomaly for me’
Pearl Mackie, who played the first openly gay Doctor Who companion, will be returning to theatre in Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party. She tells Tom Wicker why she’s not just that girl off the telly
Pearl Mackie smiles as she muses on returning to the theatre for the first time after a life-changing role on television. “It’s been ages since I’ve done this”, she says. And she returns for a role that has a significantly higher profile than anything she did before her turn on the small screen. Call it the Doctor Who effect.
Mackie is back in theatre in a major West End revival with an all-star cast after playing Bill Potts, the most recent companion to Peter Capaldi’s time-travelling hero in BBC television series Doctor Who.
With Bill soon to be behind her, Mackie is deep in rehearsals for a new production of The Birthday Party, one of Harold Pinter’s best-known plays.
It follows the inhabitants of a dilapidated seaside boarding house whose lives are disrupted by the arrival of two enigmatic strangers, in what this revival calls “Pinter’s landmark play about the absurd terrors of the everyday”. Mackie plays Lulu, a young woman caught up in the seemingly innocent party that quickly disintegrates into a nightmare.
While initially receiving a mixed response from critics on its debut in 1958, it was the work that prompted Sunday Times critic Harold Hobson to declare the playwright had “the most original, disturbing and arresting talent in theatrical London”.
When we meet, Mackie, director Ian Rickson and a cast including Toby Jones, Zoe Wanamaker and Stephen Mangan have been getting to grips with their characters.
There’s a lot to dissect in The Birthday Party. Its ambiguity and its “brilliant weirdness” attracted Mackie. “So much that gets said is then said again in a very different way. So we’ve been going through it, trying to pin it down,” she says. “For Lulu, there’s very little background.”
This has meant zeroing in on what Lulu does and how she talks. In Doctor Who, Mackie ensured Bill was a believable person, even while facing off against Cybermen. It’s as important to her now to make Lulu just as real. “I need her to not just exist to show how potentially dangerous the male characters can be,” she says.
As well as getting to work with a talented cast, Mackie is enjoying collaborating with Rickson, a seasoned pro when it comes to Pinter. He previously directed Betrayal in 2011 and Old Times two years later in the West End. “And he knew Pinter”, Mackie adds. “He got to understand the way his brain worked, which is always a plus.”
Rickson is “very engaged and intuitive”, the actor says, “and responsive to what, as an actor, you say or offer up. Often, he’ll say: ‘We can’t figure it out just by talking about it, so let’s do an improvisation’.”
One week in, and Rickson’s openness to improvisation, “to getting up and playing games and answering questions about characters” has enabled the cast to warm up and get to know each other, says Mackie. “The first day of rehearsals can be terrifying, but I feel we’ve built the foundations of the company.”
This approach to rehearsals is different to television, she says. Mackie relished episode read-throughs for Doctor Who “as performances in themselves, with [showrunner] Steven Moffat reading out the stage directions in a very dramatic tone,” she smiles. “But, essentially, that was the only time we would get an episode from beginning to end,” she says. Once filming starts, Mackie continues, “it’s broken up, so it’s up to you.”
She’s full of praise for Doctor Who’s directors – “we did a lot more rehearsing than I ever thought we would” – but some of her exploration of Bill’s character had, inevitably, to be done on her own time.
Disappearing into someone else’s life is why Mackie wanted to act from an early age. She was always fascinated by what the people around her might be thinking or doing. “I was that weird kid who would stare at you as you were walking past”, she laughs.
Q&A: Pearl Mackie
What was your first non-acting job? Usher at the Old Vic, London.
What was your first professional theatre job? Ma Kelly Goes to the Games, community centres, London (2011).
What’s your next job? The Birthday Party, Harold Pinter Theatre, London.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? However easy it is for you to develop your skills as an actor, there are other jobs you will have to do, so make sure you’re good at them. Don’t get fired from them, like I did. Knowing how to pour a good pint is very useful.
Who or what was your biggest influence? So many people. I could never narrow it down. My mum and lots of other strong people I know.
What’s your best advice for auditions? If you have the time, learn your lines inside out. Make sure you know it so well you don’t need to read it, because it’s so much more interesting to act with someone. And practise. I recorded myself for my Doctor Who audition on the FaceTime app on my laptop over and over again. Make sure you’re open to different interpretations and to direction, because that’s what people often look for in auditions – someone they can work with.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have done? Maybe some kind of interior design job. Though I’d probably just be really sad. I’d be annoying my family.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? In Curious Incident, I would do five tuck jumps every time before I went on stage. I did it to galvanise myself. The entire show was like a marathon. The music would play just before the doors opened and it was: one, two, three, four, five, go!
Mackie’s grandfather, Philip Mackie, wrote the screenplay for the Quentin Crisp biopic The Naked Civil Servant, starring John Hurt. “He always said to his daughters, ‘Don’t be an actress unless you can’t think of anything else to do. And if you can, go and do that – it’s going to be a lot easier’,” she says.
But Mackie never wanted to do anything else. “Acting is a great way to explore other people’s lives and to tell stories that aren’t necessarily told,” she continues. This was highlighted by Bill, a mixed-race character and Doctor Who’s first openly gay main companion. She quickly became a role model for fans of the show.
“It’s definitely something I’m aware of,” says Mackie. Initially, though, after growing up in multicultural Brixton, in a “very liberal, open-minded family”, and then filming Doctor Who “in a little bubble”, it didn’t fully dawn on her how much of an effect Bill would have.
Starring in Doctor Who has sent Mackie’s profile into the stratosphere – as she acknowledges. “I’m incredibly lucky,” she says. “It’s a massive break, which kind of vaults over 10 years.”
But while Mackie might light-heartedly say she feels she has “cheated a bit” in now being able to embark on a star-filled West End production, she has done the legwork. As a jobbing actor “I’ve probably spent more of my career out of work than in it,” she says.
About five years ago she was writing to casting directors just to get people in to see her work. “People might not know that I’ve done lots of theatre before,” she says, reflecting on her casting in The Birthday Party. “So, they’re like, ‘Oh, right, that girl from Doctor Who. She only got that because she’s done TV stuff.’ Actually, that was the anomaly for me.”
When Mackie got the part of Bill, she was in an ensemble role in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, “essentially the first big show I did,” she says.
From two years at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, to acting at HighTide Festival and in Off-West End theatres including the Park and the Finborough, Mackie has consistently challenged herself.
In 2014’s Obama-ology at the Finborough Theatre, Mackie played an illiterate young woman who crosses paths with a privileged Harvard graduate before Obama’s first election win. The relationship changes both of them.
Mackie wanted the role as soon as she read the script. “She was a standout because she was cripplingly introverted,” she laughs. “I don’t tend to get parts like that. They’re usually mouthy and quite cheeky.”
If Doctor Who fame has given Mackie anything, it’s the freedom to pursue interesting roles. While the accompanying exposure is “quite scary”, it’s enabling her “just to focus on the job, which is cool”.
And while Mackie’s time as Bill is ending, “I don’t think it’s something that ever leaves you,” she says, fondly. “No one else will ever be her. She was my character. And she’s been important to people. Hopefully, that will last.”
CV: Pearl Mackie
Born: London, 1987
Training: Foundation degree in professional acting – Bristol Old Vic
Landmark productions: Theatre: Home, the Last Refuge, London (2012), Obama-ology, Finborough Theatre, London (2014), The Birthday Party, Harold Pinter Theatre, London (2018). TV: Doctor Who, BBC (2017)
Agents: Kirk Whelan-Foran (United Agents), Nigel Meiojas and Logan Eisenberg (United Talent Agency)
The Birthday Party is at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London from January 9-April 14