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February 2018 / People / by Liz Skone James

Exclusive Interview with Pearl Mackie

Pearls of Wisdom

Fresh from playing Doctor Who’s companion, Pearl Mackie is appearing on stage in The Birthday Party. We caught up between rehearsals to chat fans, first days and fitting out her first home.

A few days ago, Pearl Mackie tells me, while she was out in Brixton, a young fan chased her down the road. Even though her stint as Doctor Who’s companion Bill is now over, being recognised is inevitable. You don’t get to appear on “one of the biggest shows in the country, potentially in the world,” she explains, without becoming something of a household name.

But it’s something the actress is still getting used to. “It is sometimes glorious, and sometimes, when I don’t have enough make-up on, it is a bit disconcerting,” she confirms. “This girl was so breathless. She didn’t have her phone or a piece of paper, and I didn’t have anything either, so we went into a shoe shop and they gave her a bit of paper and I signed it for her. It was so nice to be able to do that.”

They got chatting about what Pearl was doing there, and she explained, to the teenager’s delight, that she had grown up locally. “Hopefully she went away from that thinking that she could do what I did too. And that’s a nice thing to be able to pass on to her, as a young black teenager, to know that I was just like her,” she grins.

People watcher

Pearl can’t be too judgmental about being looked at on the street because she admits to being something of a people watcher herself. “I have always been fascinated by other people. I’ll walk down the road and look at people, and think: I wonder what it’s like to be them. We are all given a very different set of opportunities and circumstances, and within those constraints we are trying to carve out our lives in the best way we can.”

It is this fascination with the lives of others that led her to acting: “It’s fantastic. You get to pretend to be somebody else! And as I’ve got older, I’ve realised that it can also be an incredible way to bring light to issues, and stories, that aren’t necessarily told that much. It allows people to understand things on a more personal level,” she explains.

Pearl Mackie

 

The Birthday Party

Pearl’s story of the moment is Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party. Ian Rickson’s production at The Harold Pinter Theatre opened on the 9 January, on the 60th anniversary of the play’s first performance, with a cast including Toby Jones, Stephen Mangan and Zoë Wanamaker. Speaking of meeting her colleagues for the first time, Pearl says: “It is quite an all-star cast, so I was very nervous to meet these really well respected, and loved and talented actors. But everyone was so lovely, such a dream.”

For an actor, that feeling of apprehension around starting a new job never really goes away, Pearl tells me. “It’s like the first day of school all over again,” she explains. “You’re like, oh God, I don’t know anyone, and am I actually good at my job? And apparently that never goes away, no matter how experienced you are.”

An irresistible part

Of course, early reviews indicate that Pearl has nothing to worry about. She plays the part of Lulu, a friend of the couple who own the B&B where the action is set. It was, she says, an irresistible part. “It’s a wonderful piece of theatre; Pinter was a genius. And the director, Ian Rickson, is fantastic. I’ve been a fan of his for years. And he is such a lovely man, very engaging and passionate. He commands attention, but in a way that you want to give it to him.”

Add to that the fact that the play is being staged in the West End, and Pearl is pretty made up about the job. “It is really amazing to be playing a part like that in my hometown!” she tells me. “I had always wanted to do a play in the West End. And there is something quite romantic about doing a play in the winter, shivering at the stage door in the dark…”

Stage or screen?

A graduate of Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, Pearl had worked largely in theatre (with credits including The Crucible; The Comedy of Errors; and a long stint in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) when she landed the part of Bill in Doctor Who. Does she prefer stage or screen? Neither, she is quick to assure me, going on to explain that: “Part of the joy of being an actor is that you get to experience these different mediums, and tell different stories in different ways. I would hate to limit myself to just one of those ways. If I am lucky enough to have a career that sees me working across all of them then that would be amazing.”

Pearl Mackie

 

Doctor Who

And in terms of those opportunities, it is clear that her stint on what is arguably the world’s most popular sci-fi show will open doors that might otherwise have remained shut to Pearl. “That’s inevitable,” she tells me. “People don’t necessarily want to take chances on somebody who is unknown. Everybody knows Doctor Who – it’s a great way of saying, ‘hey, this is what I can do’. My work on the show is a visual record in a massive arena that will last forever. No matter how ambitious you are, when you graduate from drama school you don’t think that you are going to go on to be the companion on Doctor Who. I mean, I didn’t, anyway!”

Things are certainly working out very nicely for Pearl, but I wonder what she might have done if the acting jobs hadn’t been forthcoming? “Ha, what a thought. I don’t know,” she ponders, giving the question some consideration. “I am quite visual; I get quite excited by houses and furniture and things like that… some kind of interior design would’ve been right up my street,” she concludes. “It’s similar to acting I suppose, in that the way that you present things can help to create an atmosphere. You can make people feel certain things by putting things together in a specific way.”

Moving on

It’s an answer that has quite possibly been inspired by a very imminent house move. “I’m nearly about to exchange on my own London home, so fingers crossed that all goes through,” she reveals, excitedly. “If it does, I have got quite a bit of decorating to do. That will be exciting. I’m not sure how easy it will be to do while I am appearing in the play, but I’m not complaining. Things could be a lot more difficult than dealing with those two things,” she laughs.

Decorating and birthday parties aside, I wonder what’s next for Pearl? “I’m just focusing on the play for now, and we’ll see what happens afterwards,” she explains. “Lulu is very different to Bill. I like doing different stuff and telling different people’s stories, so hopefully whatever comes up next will be very different again.”

London life

After a long run of rehearsals and performances, some downtime would probably be most welcome, and Pearl never says no to time off in her hometown. “I love all the backstreets of Soho. Looking at the old buildings and popping into shops and getting a cup of coffee and just meandering around really. Finding new little places – I always enjoy that,” she tells me. “And walking across Waterloo Bridge – it is one of my favourite bridges and it just makes me feel really happy. I don’t know why, probably because the view of London from there is just the best. And I like going to the lidos, and sitting in parks. I mean you can’t do that now, it’s just really cold and unpleasant, and you’ve got the wet hair… Just yuck.”

With over two months left of The Birthday Party’s run, the chances are the weather will be perking up nicely, ready for a dip when Pearl finishes. That’s if she gets a chance before moving on to the next big role. What, or who, that might be remains to be seen, but it’s guaranteed to be exciting. The Birthday Party runs at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 14 April (thebirthdayparty.london)

Photography Jake walters,
Stylist Kara Kyne,
Hair Jay Zhang,
Make-up Amanda Grossman