Mandip Gill takes to the stage

Photo credit: courtesy
Photo credit: courtesy

It’s 9.30pm and Mandip Gill is in her pyjamas. “I tried to hide it,” she shrugs, pulling a hastily affixed jumper aside so I can clearly see her PJs. “But what’s the point?”

I tell her, given the time of the Zoom, that I am also in mine. “Oh fantastic,” she laughs. “We're in it together!”

Gill is tired, but in good spirits. The lateness of the call is due to her exhaustive rehearsal schedule for her new play 2:22: A Ghost Story, the critically -acclaimed production by Danny Robbins which returned to the stage this summer at the Criterion Theatre. The inaugural runs of the supernatural thriller secured three Olivier nominations and won three What’s On Stage Awards – including a win for Lily Allen in her West End debut.

This run will see Gill – best known for her standout roles as Phoebe in Hollyoaks and Yasmin in the BBC’s cult show Dr Who – make her very own West End debut in the same role of Jenny, a woman convinced that her home is haunted. “I wasn’t necessarily looking for a theatre job, I just knew I was looking for something different,” she says. “I didn’t want to just play the same characters that I had been playing.”

You get the impression that 2:22: A Ghost Story has come about during a career crossroads for Gill. While her success on the small screen has nonetheless been expansive, there is a palpable hunger in her for roles that are more creatively challenging than she has experienced so far. She credits her agent with sending her an embarrassment of riches among which 2:22 stood out.

“I just thought, there's so much for me to do, there's so much for me to get my teeth into; I'd have to research so much about this character and I get to interact on a level that I've probably never done before,” she says, so clearly in the first flushes of romance with the production. The experience so far has already shifted her view on what roles she wants to take on moving forward. “I don’t think I've ever played someone so full before,” she says. “I think it's honestly made me realise you have to be really interested in your character. From now on I need to be heading towards characters that I'm interested in to this degree, which have something to explore. And, you know, they don't have to always be relatable to me, but they have to be relatable to someone…”

Gill informs me of her “terrible” attention span which, incidentally, extends to her spare time as much as her professional life. It has therefore been a pleasant surprise to her that the repetitive nature of theatre has exhilarated, rather than wearied, her. “I've actually shocked myself that I'm not bored,” she laughs. “I always try to learn something new, my attention span is so short. I'm like, 'Oh, I think I'm a knitter'. And then I'll do it. I just can't stick to it. And then I think I’ll do calligraphy and drop it. I was starting to think my hobby was maybe trying to find my hobbies!”

While the thrill of 2:22 has been a game-changer for Gill, she is nevertheless equally effusive in her praise for her previous roles. In particular, her part in Dr Who, during its seminal seasons with the first ever female Doctor, played by Jodi Whittaker. “I am so grateful for that experience. Honestly, most of the time it didn’t feel like work because it was so much fun,” she beams. “I also was constantly aware of how exciting it was to be a part of the first female doctor, to be one of the first South Asian characters, let alone companion to the doctor. Also, I’m an action figure! How mad is that? I know it’s a show where for years to come I will still have people coming up to me and talking about it. It has such a fan base.”

Gill’s casting, along with Whittaker’s, attracted its fair share of depressingly predictable trolling. She rolls her eyes at the memory; “There were a lot of people saying, you know, 'it's political correctness gone mad', but we didn't really pay that much attention to it,” she shrugs. “I actually don't really know what the answer to that is; it's not really an argument to me, so we sort of didn't even engage with it.”

Our conversation naturally moves on to the subject of representation of South Asian characters on screen, and both of us immediately express regret that it is even an issue to be raised. “All you can hope is that in another 10 years’ time, it's not really a conversation, because I don't think it still should be,” she says. “When I was seven, eight years old, I knew that there weren't that many of us on screen, and now I'm 34 it shouldn't really still be a conversation. But, sadly, it is.”

However, she counts the recent success of Bridgerton’s second season as an example of excellent progress on this front and sees the increased normalising of inclusive casts as the way forward. “I think part of change is also actors saying I don't want my character to say that or behave like that,” she explains. “I don't go around as me saying, 'Oh, I like ice cream, because I'm brown'. Not everything about a character will be determined by their race. It’s lazy to assume so.”

“But that is why the arts – TV, the stage and film – are so important,” she continues. “I always say that TV, aside from entertaining people, is also there to teach people. One of those is exposure to all different kinds of people – and them not acting in a stereotypical way, but just being themselves. That’s how we embrace each other.”

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