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London-born actress Freema Agyeman was making steady inroads into British television when she got her big break with a relatively minor role in the current revival of Doctor Who, playing a character who is brainwashed and later killed by the evil android Cybermen. Her performance impressed the show's producers enough that they brought her back the next year as the new primary co-star to David Tennant's Doctor—this time playing her deceased character's cousin, the plucky doctor-in-training Martha Jones. Though Martha was replaced this year by a new companion played by Catherine Tate, she's returning for a short story arc and the series finale, as well as a three-episode stint on the spin-off Torchwood, with the potential for a more permanent return. Agyeman recently spoke with The A.V. Club about creating her character, avoiding spoilers, and the dangers of typecasting.
The A.V. Club: Did you want to be an actress when you were a child?
Freema Agyeman: No, I didn't at all, actually. Nobody in my family is in the business, and none of my friends were. I went to a very academic school that actually—when I got to the point of wanting to pursue acting, they just had no idea how to do that, because all of their contacts were very academic. I was very much into science when I was young—I wanted to be a marine biologist, then I wanted to be a doctor, and then something else, I was always changing. Acting didn't come up until much later, probably about 16 or 17. I thought, "Oh, I quite like this."
AVC: How did you get your start in acting?
FA: I went to University after my A levels and did a degree in performing arts. It was only when I got there that I realized there were stage schools out there, and you had your union and your contacts and The Spotlight and this whole world of the acting industry that I had no idea about. So when I graduated, I took a year out and just thought really hard about whether it was something I knew enough about, and whether it was the career I could dedicate the rest of my wacky life to. [Laughs.] And then after a year, I just thought, "You can't overthink these things, and ultimately, I really enjoy doing it." That's all that matters, really. And I haven't done too badly, so I would strongly say to people that there's no right and wrong way of achieving it. I think that it would be different for everybody, and I'm glad that just the want to do it was enough for me. But I've been lucky as well, I must say.
AVC: The story is that when you auditioned for the role of Martha Jones, you thought it was just going to be a one-shot appearance in Torchwood, not as the Doctor's companion.
FA: I was told it was for a regular in Torchwood, but every time I went to the audition, they never had a script, and that was obviously because it was never for that in the first place. I was always auditioning for the companion, which I didn't know. When I got to the audition, they asked me to read [the part of Rose Tyler] from episode one of series one, which was called Rose. The second time, [they asked me] to read for the part of Gwen Cooper, who Eve Myles plays in Torchwood, again saying "We haven't got any scripts for your part." I didn't blink at all; there was no way to think it's all a ruse. Then just before the screen test, they said, "Well, we've been sort of sussing you out for the companion." So yeah, I didn't know the whole way. I'm glad I didn't, because it was such a life-changing thing that I probably would have overthought it and blew it if I had enough time to think about it.
AVC: Was that before you were cast in "Army Of Ghosts"?
FA: It was after. It was actually the Cybermen episode that got me to be seen. I was really proud of [the roles I'd played] up until then. I was doing some children's theater and some outdoor plays, and then one episode of a series over here on the telly, and then two episodes of another series. So it was developing nicely, and then [Doctor Who] came actually out of nowhere. If I hadn't had that first part [in "Army Of Ghosts"], I don't know if my experience would have been enough to get me in the door to be seen.
AVC: Were you a fan of Doctor Who as a child?
FA: I watched the show, but it wasn't prevalent throughout my childhood, because by that time, it had come off the air. I caught it just at the end when Sylvester McCoy was the Doctor, and then it was gone. I certainly knew of it—everybody in Britain knew of it, and that's why when word spread that the remake was coming out, there was so much excitement, and it was a really high-profile deal.
AVC: It's a lot different in America, where the show has always had more of a cult success.
FA: Whether people watch Doctor Who or not over here, everybody knows about it. It's a British icon, it's so part of the nation.
AVC: So you certainly didn't come into the show not knowing what it was about.
FA: I didn't know absolutely everything there was to know. David Tennant is a massive fan, and grew up dreaming he would be the Doctor one day. So I did feel, when I first got the job, "Right, now I've got to do loads of research into absolutely everything Doctor Who." But that's not possible to do in a short space of time. So my knowledge has been growing and developing as I've been doing it, and that's been fine. That's been appreciated by the fans, and the executives never expect me to be brushed up on absolutely everything.
AVC: When you were cast as Martha, you were coming onto a show that's had dozens of co-stars and 10 lead actors over the years. Did you have any worries about making yourself stand out in such a large crowd?
FA: No, quite the opposite. I found a lot of comfort in the fact that 30-odd people have been companions before me. I think that when there are so many people contributing so many things to the show, all you can do is make it your own. You can't try to emulate anyone, because who would you pick? The companions are very much the everyman, and the audience watches the story through their eyes, so they could be the person next door. And everybody's different. There was great comfort in the fact that when I started, when people were asking if I was nervous, it was easy for me to think "I've got to make it my own, and whether that stands out or not, it's fine. There's been so many people over the years who've done it their own way, and that's all I can do." I was just humbled and happy that the character went down well. We'd all sort of think, "All right, how would Martha be in this situation and that situation?" because she was brand new. None of us knew, and we were all developing her together. I had a lot of input at that stage, and it was so exciting that I wasn't nervous in the slightest. I didn't want it to be marred by nerves and apprehension, I just wanted to grab it and run with it, and I'm glad I did, because I look back and smile rather than looking back and thinking, "Oh, how did I do that?"
AVC: How much input did you have into creating the character?
FA: You have as much input as you want. What I noticed throughout the series is, the scripts would start to sound like the way I speak—you know, they were written in the way I talk, and that came over time, with the writers getting more familiar with my representation of Martha Jones. When I was filming the first episode, the director would say, "How do you think she would react to that?" It was just all there in front of me to give as input as I wanted, and at that stage, I was saying, "Ooo, I'm not sure, because I don't know her." But by the middle of the series, I knew exactly how she would behave and who she was, and I was very readily giving my input. [Executive producer] Russell [T. Davies] was always available at the end of the phone to talk about anything, and run something by. He's never said to me, "No, I disagree."
AVC: Did you feel it was necessary to distance the way you played Martha from the way Billie Piper played the previous companion, Rose?
FA: I think that when Russell created the brief [for the character], he did that stage for me. As they say, you can't compare apples and pears. Martha's a very different person than Rose: She's older, more independent, more academic—you know, training to be a doctor. She lived alone, [but] she had this big family around her, and even though she wasn't the eldest child, she was the one they turned to for advice, because she had this wise head on young shoulders. She was more challenging of the Doctor because of it, so all of those aspects made her very different from Rose. So instantly I was different, and it was being consciously done. I then, after that point, created her as my instinct dictated. When we had the launch of the show, the first time the press saw it, one of the questions I was being asked was, "Can you see the similarities between Martha and Rose?" And there are always going to be some aspects that are similar, because firstly, you have to be a go-getter. You can't be a wallflower, you can't be quiet and shy. You've got to be a bit gung-ho to want to travel through space and time and explore, so automatically, you get similarity there. But on every other front, she just naturally became different.
AVC: In the current series of Doctor Who, and in your recent Torchwood appearances, Martha's character has become more self-assured and capable of meeting alien menaces on her own, without the Doctor's help. Does that parallel your experience as an actress in your second year on the show?
FA: Yeah, yeah. I wouldn't say that I suddenly felt any more involved than I had before. The acceptance from the crew and the executive producers and the cast, David and everyone, I felt it from the very beginning. I felt supported and accepted—it's not something I noticed growing over time, it was always there, established at a very early point. Which is what is so beautiful about the experience, and maybe what made me feel not so nervous. I never felt overwhelmed or out there on my own. I just felt part of the family from day one.
AVC: How much do you know in advance about the arc plots in the series? Are you only given information on your own role, or do they tell you, for example, "The Master's coming back this year"?
FA: I very quickly became of the mind that ignorance is bliss. There's so many secrets involved in the show that as much as you don't want spoilers, there are so many people that will absolutely do everything to get them out of you. So I very quickly thought "The less I know, the less I can put my foot in it." I could call Russell and say "Please, can I have an overview of the arc," but it's not something I felt the need to do. I found it quite exciting to receive the scripts episode by episode and see it unfold. I mean, personally, they did have a meeting with me to discuss the arc of my character, six or seven months after we started. The shoot goes on for nine months, so I knew about this series and my Torchwood involvement—and now, yes, further things that don't involve me, in the overall machine of the show. As much as you want to know is available for you to know, but I never tried, really.
AVC: Shows like Heroes actually have statements printed on the scripts warning people not to let information leak to the public. Is there a lot of pressure to keep things secret on Doctor Who?
FA: Exactly, which is why I prefer to know less. When I received the script for the finale of this series, I had a great big round of press coming up, so I made the conscious decision to not read the script before I went into those meetings. So every time somebody asked me "What's the story? Who's coming back?" I genuinely didn't know. When you have the readthroughs and there are other guest actors in, the execs often say, you know, "We remind you not to disclose anything." But once you've been in it a while, it's a given that you don't say anything at all. I often send Russell texts before meetings like, "Is that out there already? Is that okay to confirm?" Because I just want to be really clear on what I can and can't say. I don't want to ruin anything for anybody. And when you get your script, as well, it's got your name watermarked on every page, so if that gets into the wrong hands, they know whose it is. They do take security measures, but at the same time, there's a lot of trust within the Doctor Who family that we all honor and respect.
AVC: Joining the cast of a science-fiction series with such a cult audience can be kind of a double-edged sword, in that once you're cast as Martha, you're Martha for life, with whatever effect that may have on your future career options. How do you feel about that?
FA: At the moment, I feel pretty much fine, because Martha is the biggest thing I've done in terms of a high-profile part. I'm quite fine with the children calling me Martha down the street. People do see me as her, but that doesn't bother me in the slightest. And in the realm of Doctor Who and Torchwood, I do get to explore different genres within each episode. It's sci-fi, but one week you'll find it very dramatically and emotionally based, no aliens whatsoever, and it's all emotional believability. And the next time, you're flying off through space. So there's enough range for me to not be worried about what I'm doing at the moment. I'm fully aware that Doctor Who will always, always be part of my life, and that's not something I would run away from in the slightest. I wear it with pride, definitely.