By Amit Roy
SO, WHAT next for Mandip Gill?
She is the Sikh origin actress who created quite a stir when she was cast as Doctor Who’s helper, Yasmin Khan, in 2017, alongside a black actor, Tosin Cole, as Ryan Sinclair, and Bradley Walsh as Graham O’Brien.
The biggest fuss, of course, was over the choice of Jodie Whittaker as the first woman to be cast as Doctor Who in the 13th reincarnation of the Time Lord.
Some traditionalists were not convinced this was a good idea, and nor did they approve of the Doctor having an Asian and a black assistant. “A lot of people said that ‘we feel it’s too politically correct and is forcing it down our throat,’” Mandip remembers. “The BBC really supported us. It’s a reflection of reality – these people exist if you opened your eyes, you go to school with people of colour, we are representing society, that’s what we are doing.”
But after two series, the idea of a woman Doctor Who no longer seems so outrageous – Mandip describes Whittaker as “an amazing actress, she is very intelligent”. It also seems “Yaz” and Ryan have come to be accepted by British viewers as part of the family.
At Eastern Eye’s Acta (Arts Culture Theatre Awards) ceremony on June 21 last year, Mandip couldn’t come to collect the ‘People’s Choice Award’, voted for by members of the public, because she was working, but she later dropped into the newspaper’s offices in south London to collect her prize.
She accepts that after having been in two series of Doctor Who, she gets invited for auditions for new roles much more readily. “There has been advancement (in work for Asians in acting), but there’s a long way to go,” she remarks. “We are at a place where I still get seen just for Asian characters. But I could be seen for so many other parts. That’s where we need to head.”
“A lot of my best friends are actresses who go up for the same auditions,” she says. “You go into a room and the faces are the ones you have seen last week and the week before. A lot of us are going for a very few parts. The circle is very small. You go for coffee afterwards. I don’t see them as competition. If one of us is winning, we are all winning.”
Mandip comes across as someone whose head has not been turned by getting such a high-profile role. She admits she was star struck working with Stephen Fry and Sir Lenny Henry in the last series.
She insists her own life “hasn’t changed dramatically – I don’t go down the street and loads of people recognise me. They say I look different on screen. A lot of people say, ‘Is it her?’ They are not sure. What has changed are the opportunities that it brings me, the types of auditions I get. I will be with Jodie and they will go, ‘Oh my God, it’s her.’”
For the past couple of seasons, Mandip had to be away from home for over nine months in the year, based mostly in Cardiff, where the Doctor Who studios are based.
“Me, Brad and Tosin are so close – we spend 12-13 hours together. And we travel together. We have been to South Africa, we filmed in Spain, at weekends we come back to London, we will see each other, go to the cinema or go for a walk. Us four (with Whittaker) is a core group.”
Mandip reveals when she is home, “I work in my dad’s shop.”
Her mother and father, Balbir and Surjit, run a newsagent’s in Leeds where Mandip Kaur Gill was born on January 5, 1988. Her parents arrived from the Punjab in India in their early teens with their parents. Mandip is the youngest of six sisters – the older ones are Baljit, Sukhjit, Rajvinder, Sukhvinder and Sharanjit. But the youngest in the family is her brother Karambir.
She thinks her father got her into acting “without realising it”. When she and her brother were small children, he would get out his video camera and ask them to dance and sing such Hindi film songs as Pardesi, Pardesi from the 1996 Aamir Khan and Karisma Kapoor starrer, Raja Hindustani.
In the offices of Eastern Eye, Mandip laughs and gives a little rendition of Pardesi, Pardesi. She recalls: “We had a video shop inside our newsagent’s.”
She did a three-year degree course in acting at the University of Central Lancaster based in Preston where she learnt “acting techniques – how you cry on cue, how you laugh”. At 22, she was cast as Phoebe McQueen in the Channel 4 soap opera Hollyoaks.
Mandip is now fully aware of the global appeal of Doctor Who. “It is watched by millions. People send me stuff from Canada and China and India – it is watched in so many countries. On social media, I get personal feedback from India – it is probably nice (for them) to see somebody who looks like them in a genre they would not expect to see me in.”
Two historical Doctor Who episodes have meant a great deal to Mandip. One featured Rosa Parks, the black American woman who refused to give up her seat in the “coloured section” of a bus to a white passenger, after the whites-only section was filled on December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama. The other – Demons of the Punjab – was about the Partition of India. “I knew about the Partition because of my (Sikh) upbringing – I didn’t know too much about the Rosa Parks story,” says Mandip. “That affects me, but we were never taught that at school. TV has a place where it is meant to educate as well as entertain people. And that’s what Doctor Who does really well.”