Note: The following article contains discussion of sexual misconduct.
One Night spoilers follow.
Months down the line from her Doctor Who regeneration into David Tennant, the first ever female Doctor gets a sweet nod in the first 60th anniversary special, when Tennant flashes his "Grand Master of Knowledge" psychic-paper badge, only to be told it still reads as "Grand Mistress".
But since that spine-tingling moment when her sparkling face exploded into Tennant's, Whittaker has taken a hard turn away from the realm of sonic screwdrivers and Cybermen into the world of serious, gritty dramas.
The latest, One Night on Paramount+, sees Whittaker as Tess, an Australian corporate powerhouse who was sexually assaulted 20 years ago but has no memories of the traumatic night – which we see snapshots of in dark flashback scenes.
That is until her teenage best friend Simone (Nicole Da Silva) publishes a thinly veiled novel about a close friend who was raped, without telling either Tess or the third member of their adolescent trio Hat (Yael Stone).
Once the book starts to get some buzz behind it, and Tess learns how her own story has been retold without her consent, a series of events unfold which dig up the past Tess has fought over the previous decades to bury.
It's a glossy female-centric look at memory and secrets, which has drawn comparisons to the likes of Big Little Lies, and similarly builds to a thunderous conclusion over its six parts – each of which shifts perspectives through the trio affected, something which Whittaker told us drew her to the project.
Tess has built up an armour since that night, both professionally through an accomplished C-suite exterior and very physically through a full-body array of tattoos, which begins to crumble.
The scenic Australian setting shines a spotlight on the ugliness of what happened that night. That backdrop was crucial to Whittaker in another way, as she told Digital Spy how if the drama had been a UK production, she doesn't believe she would have been "first choice" for Tess and might indeed have auditioned for Simone – in part because it doesn't fit neatly in with the characters we recognise her as.
Whittaker told us how she was hit with an immediate "wave of fear" when she read the script for One Night, but went on to explain why she instinctively knew she wanted to play Tess and be part of the show.
The below Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
You've said that if this had been set in Britain, you didn't think you would have been cast in the project. Why is that the case?
I think the thing about Tess that's so fascinating to me, that was the biggest challenge to play, was that actually unlike a lot of the characters I play, she internalises it. So the armour has been built up for 20 years. The protective barrier is there. There's a certain amount of coldness to the people closest to her as well.
As someone completely polar opposite to that, who is really overshare-y, very over-tactile and doesn't know when to shut up, I found that stillness within Tess – it's not an internalised stillness, but it's an exterior protective bubble – fascinating to play, especially when the cracks start to appear.
I felt like that was the biggest challenge because I don't know if these characters were British, if I'd have been on the list of actors for that kind of role. So I'm delighted it was set in Australia.
This has enormously sensitive subject matter. Was that a challenge during the preparation stage or during filming?
I think what fascinated me the most about it when I started to read it was, it could be like a lot of shows that I've read that has the detective investigation around it and that's the point of view. What I found fascinating about this was we shift perspective all the time but it is very much from the inside out, from the people this affected, from the lives that were destroyed by it.
It isn't just Tess whose life is destroyed because of this attack that she survived. That exploration of friendship and relationships and ownership of memory, ownership of who has the right to tell story, I found that absolutely fascinating and completely unique.
It subverts your expectations. There are two episodes specific on your character, but it's the third and the sixth, so we're delayed getting to her story. It reminded us of the book being published, that it's your character's story that's been told by someone else. It mirrors it really nicely.
The thing that meant I was completely in when I started reading it was Tess doesn't appear for a while in the scripts. Then when you do meet her, some of the character descriptions are so subtle. She has tattoos: that is my research in one moment, all done for me by Emily [Ballou]. It's just provided so much insight into who Tess is and was and who she's scared of becoming, in a way.
I think the most apparent thing that it explored as well is that Tess doesn't remember the assault. Unfortunately, there is a lot of impact statements that are very similar to that experience that you can read online. This is set 20 years previous at the same time as it being present day – the way people are treated in that scenario when they raise their voice and say what's happened to them, and how that's met by various people is also a fascinating exploration.
You mentioned the tattoos that your character has. What was your approach to that and was there any thought on what the tattoos would be?
Every single one was a choice by Emma, the writer, and Sheldon [Wade], the makeup designer. It was a very collaborative thing. There was some that were a choice for me. What is brilliant is that it's a journey.
Her body marks different moments and decades and fashions as well. Some of them feel as if they represent an instance of self-loathing. Some are expressions of art, or beauty, some link to other people. Some of them are aged, some of them look fresher than others. Some of them look like I've done them. But every single one is a choice.
It takes hours. I'm also one of the only actors now who doesn't have a tattoo. So most of the time you sit in makeup watching people having their tattoos covered up.
It takes an hour and a half to get them off. It was a lot but it was ace and so detailed and looked incredible. But that is why it's all good and well you've got a great script, which we did have, but what you also need is incredible [technical heads of department].
In the sixth episode, it's revealed that one of the characters was wearing a wiretap during the assault and so recorded the audio of it. What did you make of that development?
I didn't read episode six. So even when I'm was shooting scenes, if my scenes happened beforehand, I only read the scenes and none of the other actors were allowed to tell me anything to do with what happened in episode six.
What was really important to me was to get to it without knowing. I don't stay in character, I'm not method but there are some things that are really helpful. When there then was a scene that I couldn't shoot without the information, I finally read it and pieced it together.
I thought it was extraordinary writing because, weirdly, there are so many victims in it. There's so many lives destroyed by it. I thought Emily's portrayal of that was excellent. That this affected so many people and not necessarily people you would think you would sympathise with.
It's a really visceral scene when your character Tess listens to that audio. Your performance is amazing. As the viewer we can't hear what you're hearing. What did you make of that decision to have it all play out on your face?
I think that's why I love the show because at no point do we see it and we don't hear it, because it's not that show. It's not close-ups of trauma. It's seeing it from how they see it, which is I have no memory of it, and that audio is an improvisation that I listened to.
In the background of that bar where we were shooting was a nursery on the other side, so they chose to keep the audio of the kids playing in the background. When we shot it, I put the earphones in and they did one tracking shot in and then they cut and then we moved on. I had absolutely no idea what I f**king done. It was such a weird thing because we didn't rehearse it. We did it on the take. I've seen it because I watched it, but I genuinely can't quite remember the scene.
At the end of the show, it's left a bit open to interpretation where we leave Tess.
I suppose it is. For me it was that she can live in her skin for the first time. That's how I took it.
One Night is available to stream on Paramount+.
If you've been affected by the issues raised in this story, you can access more information from Rape Crisis England and Wales, who work towards the elimination of all forms of sexual violence and sexual misconduct, on their website or by calling the National Rape Crisis Helpline on 0808 802 9999. Rape Crisis Scotland’s helpline number is 08088 01 03 02.
Readers in the US are encouraged to contact RAINN, or the National Sexual Assault Hotline on 800-656-4673.
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