Mandip Gill: ‘Me and Jodie Whittaker are so touchy-feely’

Back in 2011, Mandip Gill was an aspiring actor who had dabbled in theatre and was struggling to break into TV. Down on her luck, she took a notebook and drew a picture of a cheque for £5,000. A few weeks later, she was offered a part on Hollyoaks. She’s convinced she managed to manifest her breakthrough role on Channel 4’s teen soap. “In my head, the only way I was getting paid was from acting,” she confides as we sit down by the Thames in Canary Wharf, London, gleaming skyscrapers everywhere. She still has that notebook, now crammed with other goals, each one ticked off.

One of those was to play a police officer, which she managed in 2018 – though not in the way you might have expected. As Yasmin Khan, probationary officer from Sheffield and one of the faithful companions in Doctor Who, she has battled giant spiders, Cybermen and Daleks alongside Jodie Whittaker’s Time Lord. That’s all going to end later this year in an autumn special that will celebrate 100 years of the BBC. Gill will be leaving, too, when Whittaker finally bows out. “It’s been the best experience,” she says. “I had the time of my life.”

It’s a mild spring evening, but Gill is dressed in a black hoodie, black flared trousers and a furry black and brown coat that looks like a cosy draughts board. She is makeup free, a gold stud in her nose. The 34-year-old actor, who was born in Leeds to a Sikh family, has an infectious warmth that draws you in like a hug. She is fun and feisty, chatting a mile a minute, racing to get her thoughts out.

We’re meeting a few days before Doctor Who’s Easter special airs. In Legend of the Sea Devils, the Doctor finally tells a lovestruck Yaz that she reciprocates her feelings, although things are left up in the air for Thasmin (as fans have nicknamed the couple). It’s the first time the Doctor has been involved in a same-sex romance. “I’m happy with where it heads,” says Gill of their flirty heart-to-heart. “It got there naturally. It’s beautiful and full of authenticity.”

As the outgoing companion and the troubled tearaway Phoebe McQueen on Hollyoaks, Gill has made a name for herself playing characters who are gutsy and independent. Yaz has been a brave, determined and loyal sidekick, while fearless Phoebe overcame homelessness, lashed out at bullies and escaped from human traffickers before she was tragically murdered by the notorious Gloved Hand Killer. The actor has also showed off her range as a young widow in ITV medical drama The Good Karma Hospital and as a pregnant refugee in the gritty British drama The Flood.

Her latest role is the lead in a new production of 2:22 A Ghost Story. She plays Jenny, a sleep-deprived new mother, who is convinced the house she has bought with her husband (Harry Potter’s Tom Felton in his West End debut) is haunted. It’s the fourth day of rehearsals for Danny Robins’s supernatural thriller. Director Matthew Dunster asked the cast to do circuit training in the morning, a rather novel way of limbering them up to perform.

‘I don’t know how Doctor Who can be politically correct – because it’s just correct'

Gill will be taking over from the singer Lily Allen and I’m a Celebrity … winner and author Giovanna Fletcher, who played Jenny in previous runs of the show. “It’s scary because you will naturally get compared with them,” Gill says. While her predecessors are mothers in real life, she is not. “I don’t have kids, so I’m really having to dig deep to find out what that would feel like.

“Jenny is so different from what I’ve been playing on Doctor Who. I feel like I needed to start choosing characters that were closer to my actual age. I’d been playing kids or [women in their] young 20s for a long time. She felt really mature, complicated and interesting.”

Gill grew up on a council estate, where her parents owned a newsagent. “It was hard. There were very few Asian people. We all had to work in the shop. You’re very exposed when you’re doing something like that.” Her mother and father had to deal with “altercations all the time”. Witnessing that on a regular basis shaped her. “I stand up for myself,” she says firmly.

Evidence of a love of performing came early. Her father would film her and her siblings when they were kids, dancing and singing Hindi songs. Gill cackles remembering a comedy show she did as a three-year-old. “I was so annoying!” When she was six, she dressed up as Scary Spice and announced to her family: “I’m gonna be on telly.”

When Gill auditioned for Doctor Who, she wasn’t initially told what show it was for. All she knew was there was lots of sci-fi jargon required. “I was like, OK, they’re either doing a new show or it’s Doctor Who. I never thought I’d do something like that. It almost felt like it was a step above me.”

In the years since Gill got the role, Whittaker has become one of her best mates – though nothing more. “A long time ago, me and Jodie were holding hands, and that started a little bit of a rumour,” she says. “We’re so touchy-feely as friends. As me and Jodie have found each other, our characters are at the same time.”

Since Whittaker took over as the first ever female Doctor in 2018, the series has faced accusations of being too “politically correct”. Gill was cast alongside Tosin Cole, who played Ryan Sinclair, meaning the Doctor had both Asian and Black companions. The revamped show also featured storylines about Rosa Parks and the partition of India, prompting outraged viewers to complain on Twitter using the hashtag #notmydoctor.

“I don’t really know how we can be politically correct,” Gill argues, “because it’s just correct. There are Asian and Black people living in Sheffield. We’re not something that [showrunner Chris Chibnall] created.”

Gill has seen how important it is for the show to be as inclusive as possible. For the past few months, young fans have been approaching her to share how they’ve come out to their parents after seeing Yaz struggling with her sexuality.

“I’ve welled up so many times,” she says. “I’m like, a television programme helped you. It’s really important to see yourself being represented. People need to learn about other communities, races, religions.” Gill watched the BBC’s British Asian sketch show Goodness Gracious Me and comedy film East Is East as a child. “We held on to them dearly because we were seeing ourselves and our families.”

Gill takes pride in the record-breaking success of Bridgerton’s second series, which focuses on the love lives of two Indian sisters, played by Simone Ashley and Charithra Chandran. The actors “are doing so much in changing the stereotypes of south Asians. There’s been an emphasis on them being dark-skinned girls – that’s a massive gear shift that needed to happen … I still have conversations where I’m like: ‘I never had a chance as a brown woman,’” she sighs.

Those doubts aside, Gill is excited about moving on to the next stage of her career, after wrapping filming on her final Doctor Who episodes in October. Before she left, she also shot Suspicion, an Apple TV+ thriller starring Uma Thurman that was released earlier this year. “It was eye-opening because I’d had this really easy time on Doctor Who. Not saying [Suspicion] wasn’t fun, but they had a shorter time to create something. I was like, arggghh,” she screeches. “It was scary.”

It hasn’t been plain sailing since she left the BBC show, she points out. “I’ve had a few months of nos: it’s not worked out or I haven’t resonated with a project.” It’s an experience that she is all too familiar with after her time on Hollyoaks came to an end in 2015. It took her a year and a half before she landed the part in Doctor Who. “Learning that quite early on in my career was handy for me, because now I’m just like, that’s the way it goes. No matter what you’ve been on, you still have to work really hard.”

After 2:22 – A Ghost Story finishes its run, she’ll be back auditioning, ready to embrace whatever the universe has in store for her. Gill has plenty of new goals that she’s trying to manifest. “I would like to do a Marvel film. I’d like to challenge myself and put on all these amazing costumes and work on epic sets. But what I’d really like to do is work on independent films made with grit and heart.” Time to start scribbling in that notebook.

2:22 – A Ghost Story is at the Criterion theatre, London, from 7 May to 4 September.