TIME FOR CHANGE: AN ACTOR’S PERSPECTIVE – CHRISTOPHER HOGG IN CONVERSATION WITH MANDIP GILL

Mandip Gill with Jodie Whittaker on set of Doctor Who (Picture: BBC Studios/James Pardon)

Ahead of the upcoming University of Westminster CREAM conference ‘TV Londons: Exploring Representations of London on Television’, organised in collaboration with the University of Brighton (28-29 July 2022), we are sharing this interview by CREAM’s Christopher Hogg with actor Mandip Gill, best-known for the role of Yasmin Khan in the recent seasons of Doctor Who.

Whilst research investigating television acting is steadily growing (see, for example: Hewett, 2017; Fife Donaldson and Walters, 2019), there remains relatively little academic work considering the perspectives and processes of television actors themselves. CREAM’s Christopher Hogg has sought to address this lack with his publications and research in the field (most notably Acting in British Television (2017) and Exploring Television Acting (2018)). In Hogg’s most recent work on the monograph Adapting Television Drama: Theory & Industry (2021) he has paid particular attention to minority-ethnic actor perspectives regarding equality, diversity and inclusion in contemporary television drama casting and performance. The following interview signposts the ongoing importance of such research in understanding a significant phase of current industry change.

Call for papers for the ‘TV Londons: Exploring Representations of London on Television’ conference can be found here, and the deadline for submissions is 31 January 2022.

Time for Change: An Actor’s Perspective – Mandip Gill on Casting, Representation and Inclusion in British Television Drama

Mandip Kaur Gill is an actor now best-known for the role of Yasmin Khan in the recent seasons of Doctor Who (BBC, 1963-1969, 2005- ) under showrunner Chris Chibnall. Chibnall’s bold new direction for the show, including the first female regeneration of the Doctor, has generated much debate within critical and fan discourses in recent years. In this interview, Gill gives an actor’s insider perspective on working on Doctor Who today, offering insight into the significance of being cast as Yasmin in relation to her own regionality and heritage. More broadly, Gill reflects on the changing nature of British television drama in relation to questions of representation, equality, diversity and inclusion, from the vantage of a female British-Asian actor from the North of England.

Chris (CH): What led you to a career as an actor? Were there particular characters and stories which inspired you?

Mandip (MG): As a child, my dad encouraged me and my siblings to sing Hindi songs surrounded by disco lights. As I reflect further on this in adulthood, I begin to understand my need to perform came from a need to be heard. I am one of seven children. Ultimately, I didn’t even think about what I would do as I got older – it was a given that I would be an actor. Also, as I got to around eight years old, British TV like The Bill [ITV, 1983-2010], Emmerdale [ITV, 1972- ], Coronation Street [ITV, 1960- ], and Goodness Gracious Me [BBC, 1998-2015] further fuelled my desire to be on TV. For me, a lot of these shows were a mix of escapism and recognition – with Northern voices and characters to relate to. They offered entertainment but also familiarity. I think that combination of escapism whilst also addressing very real, familiar issues – personal, social, or whatever – is what all TV storytelling should be doing, and what Doctor Who does particularly well.

CH: Have you found that your own regionality and ethnicity influence the sorts of TV roles that you are offered?

MG: Before I went to train, I was warned that if I went to a drama school my accent would likely change – but I always saw it as important to keep my accent because it made me different. There were other reasons why I decided to go to a university rather than a drama school but partly it was because I wanted to keep my accent. Most other people at university sounded sort of the same. I was very notably Northern and I didn’t want to sound like everyone else. To this day, it’s still something that’s commented on very often. Perhaps it’s the combination of the strong Northern accent and being Asian that particularly grabs people as being noteworthy or surprising – but it’s a big part of who I am. Throughout my training, I was very aware of my regionality and class and, as it turned out, I was strongly encouraged by my tutors not to supress these aspects. My natural accent has been massively significant in the parts I’m seen for. There can be a tendency to cast actors who sound like me as the struggling working-class victim. I have a responsibility as an actor to challenge those sorts of negative stereotypes by not accepting that work.

Now working with people like Jodie [Whittaker] – who properly owns her Northern accent – I’ve really learnt to embrace it myself. Of course, I want to have versatility and be able to do other accents when required – but I won’t soften my accent unless it’s required by the part. Because regionality is really championed in Doctor Who, that’s further encouraged me just to own it.

My ethnicity is different and I’m not sure why but it could be down to having good agents that throughout my career I’ve always found variety in my work. Generally, I can see positive changes in the casting process for TV. Producers are increasingly open to diversity and deviating away from what is written on the page when it comes to regionality and ethnicity. I think that’s needed. Otherwise, people just look elsewhere for television drama that offers a reflection of themselves – such as to America.

CH: What was the casting process for securing the role of Yasmin in Doctor Who?

MG: I had an initial audition just with the casting director, where we ran sample scenes several times and he gave me direction. The show had been given a fake name – I had a suspicion that it was Doctor Who but the nature of the scenes we ran meant that I couldn’t know for sure. The second audition was around six weeks later with Chris [Chibnall], BBC executives and Jodie [Whittaker]. The real jeopardy at that point was that I knew what it was for by then and I really wanted to be a part of the new direction it was taking. It had been much discussed publicly that Jodie would be the first female Doctor. I’d never done science fiction before. I’d worked on Casualty [BBC, 1986- ] the year before and it was filmed in the same building as Doctor Who. We walked past a door and someone said, ‘Through there is where they film Doctor Who.’ It seemed very exclusive from the outside of that door. I remember thinking, ‘I’ll never be in that anyway.’ It never felt to me like an option for a young Asian girl with a Northern accent to be in something like that. All that changed. And it wasn’t a gradual change. This was an exciting leap for an iconic show and I wanted to be part of that change.

CH: What were your initial thoughts regarding Yasmin and how you would approach the role?

MG: I was very excited about the character, mainly because she was a police officer. The original character brief suggested they were looking for an actor’s own interpretation of the character. It was a very open, unstructured brief. So, I worked on a back story as to why she would be a police officer – not the most common job for a young Asian girl. I know this from my own experience. I thought about becoming a police officer when I was younger. I used to see a lot of things happening around my family newsagents relating to racism that never got sorted out. I thought about joining the police to do something about all those things. Ultimately, I didn’t do that but I gave that story to Yaz. She wanted to help people. There were probably times growing up when she wasn’t able to help her family in the ways she wanted. There were probably situations in which she felt she had no control. For me, it was about her desire to help and her experiences of being helpless growing up. Really, I just gave my reasons to Yaz. Because of the open character brief, there was a lot of opportunity to bring myself to the role.

CH: Did notions of regionality and ethnicity factor in early production discussions? If so, in what ways and with what effect on your performance?

MG: The pre-production for Series 11 started a year before we were on board and the regionality aspects stemmed from Chris’s initial vision. The rest just flowed from that through to scripting to casting to performance. Chris had decided on Sheffield very early on and had a clear idea that he wanted Northerners involved – that was very obvious to me right from casting. It felt very natural for me to come in and just be Northern. I do remember in a meeting once someone mentioning about the show’s reach to the US and tentatively reminding that, as Northern as it is, it still has to be decipherable Northern! I do drop sounds quite a lot when I’m talking normally so I guess in meetings someone might have thought, ‘Wow – she really is Northern!’ When I’m acting it’s different anyway – you’re more aware of these things. But, overall, working on Doctor Who is such a celebration of using your own accent.

I think the Sheffield thing also offered a nice new direction and dynamic for Doctor Who. Whereas Christopher Eccleston was a Northern-sounding Doctor surrounded by Southerners, Jodie has been a Northern-sounding Doctor surrounded by Northerners, with Bradley [Walsh] becoming the odd-one-out Southerner, often in a comedic way!

CH: The focus and tone of some of the episodes – particularly ‘Rosa’ [about Rosa Parks] and ‘Demons of the Punjab’ [about The Partition of India] – are notably different than in the show’s earlier series. Were these differences discussed explicitly with and amongst the cast? If so, in what ways and what were your thoughts on those particular stories?

MG: Script ideas started way before we had been attached to the show. However, these episodes were discussed with us, amongst all the other episodes, in our first meeting with Chris after getting the job. He made us aware that the writing team was diverse and knowledgeable in the themes that these particular episodes explored and he was gauging how we responded, really. Essentially, Chris wanted to reassure us that the right people were on board for developing these stories from the right perspective.

One thing I did clarify with Chris in that initial meeting was that he knew I wasn’t of the same religion as Yaz. Not that it matters, but I wanted to stress where I was coming from regarding the role, and that I would be putting in the necessary research, just as he was reassuring us that the writing team were. So those initial discussions were very much about gauging each other and establishing that everyone was coming at those stories in a thoughtful, informed, responsible way.

The eventual scripts do change a lot over the process of production, however. Also, a lot of questions can be answered there and then on the floor. For instance, the actress who played my grandmother was of Pakistani heritage so I could ask her things like, ‘How would you say that word?’ So, you can work together to check a lot of things and to problem-solve on the floor – and that happens a lot.

CH: Is it important to you to portray characters on TV who you can ‘recognise’ in terms of your own regionality, ethnicity and heritage?

MG: Absolutely. Growing up I watched the cast of Goodness Gracious Me and Bend it like Beckham [dir. Gurinder Chadha, 2002] and really held on to them dearly as they portrayed me and my family to the rest of the world. People need to see themselves on television in that sense. In terms of casting and my own work, what I’d like to see moving forward is character briefs with names like ‘Girl’ and then, once cast, more specific elements relating to ethnicity and so on are added. I don’t want to go audition at the outset for ‘Lauren’ – because from the off that’s just not me. Nobody is going to have named their Asian baby Lauren! I hope I get to the point where I’m consistently auditioning for parts because I’m right in more ways than one. Not ‘Asian Girl’ but ‘Girl’! It does still feel sometimes like people struggle to see past the Asian bit – often because the default at the development or writing stage for roles has been set to ‘Lauren’ from the start. For no good reason. We live in a country that’s far more diverse than that. We can label these things ‘diversity’ or ‘inclusivity’ but more accurately it’s just reality. And I do believe TV storytelling is there not only to facilitate escapism but also to offer everyone a reflection of their lives and experiences. Everyone deserves to see themselves on screen.

TV Londons: Exploring Representations of London on Television
A CREAM, University of Westminster conference, in collaboration with the University of Brighton
July 28th and 29th 2022, Fyvie Hall, 309 Regent St., London W1B 2HT

To submit a paper for the conference: please send abstracts of no more than 500 words, a title for your paper, a 300 word biography (written in the third person) with ‘TV Londons’ in the email subject line to all three organisers listed below. Papers from students studying towards a PhD as well as from established academics are welcome.

Dr Christopher Hogg – C.Hogg@westminster.ac.uk (University of Westminster); Dr Douglas McNaughton – D.Mcnaughton@brighton.ac.uk (University of Brighton); Dr Andrew O’Day – aoday41414@aol.com (Independent Scholar)