Interview

Doctor Who star Pearl Mackie on her Grenfell play: ‘I think this might be the most important job I ever do’

The actor talks to Nicole Vassell about playing the chair of the Grenfell survivors’ collective, the impact of queer roles and her quarter-life breakdown

Tuesday 18 July 2023 06:36 BST
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<p>Pearl Mackie: ‘The play’s not dramatised in a way that is glitzy or glamorous, at all... it’s honest’ </p>

Pearl Mackie: ‘The play’s not dramatised in a way that is glitzy or glamorous, at all... it’s honest’

Pearl Mackie is reluctant to say the name of her dream role. Especially while she’s in the dressing room of a theatre, anyway. “I don’t know if anyone is superstitious in this building, but I certainly am!” she laughs, her grin bright and beaming through the computer screen. “I’d like to play Lady M one day, but I can’t say more than that.” The Brixton-born actor is at the National Theatre, so mentions of Shakespeare’s Scottish play are, as old thespian lore goes, forbidden. But before she ever has a chance to take on Lady Macbeth, Mackie must first complete a project that she admits could be the most important work she’ll ever do.

The 36-year-old former Doctor Who star is in the new play, Grenfell: in the words of survivors by South African novelist and playwright Gillian Slovo. A verbatim piece, it tells the stories of the people of Grenfell Tower before, during and after the brutal tower block blaze in west London on 14 June 2017 that claimed 72 lives and injured at least 70. Despite residents’ repeated warnings about the safety of the building, no action was taken. Then, the 24-storey tower caught aflame in the middle of the night, completely destroying hundreds of homes and changing a community for ever.

Despite widespread outrage, there have been no effective consequences for those responsible. As explained by former resident Edward Daffarn, there hasn’t been “a single clink of handcuffs” in the six years that have followed, and the community has campaigned tirelessly to see justice served.

Slovo began having conversations with the survivors and bereaved members of the Grenfell community mere weeks after the disaster, documenting their anger and heartbreak. This production has been a long time coming, and for Mackie, it’s a crucial way to bring the story back into the public eye. “It’s about the fire, but it’s also about all of the events that led up to it,” Mackie says of the play. “The story is about the community that existed, and that was lost in the disaster. It’s about all of the failures on the part of the government, of local councils, that led to this.”

In the play, Mackie portrays Natasha Elcock, the chair of Grenfell United, a collective of the bereaved and survivors of the fire. “I’ve never played a real person before, so that already comes with so much weight, and import,” Mackie says. But in playing someone who has experienced something so traumatic, Mackie feels an extra sense of responsibility to tell the story effectively. Taking on an aspect of Grenfell United’s struggle is, to her, a duty.

“I feel like it’s our job as a company, as the National Theatre, as Londoners, as British citizens, as people of the world, to take on that battle, and to be like, this is something that shouldn’t have ever happened, and should never happen again. This is something that people need to be culpable for, and take responsibility for.”

This isn’t the first time that this story has provided the inspiration for a stage show. Writer Richard Norton-Taylor and director Nicolas Kent continued their streak of tribunal-based plays with Grenfell: Value Engineering (2021) and its 2023 follow-up, Grenfell: System Failure. Not everyone has been impressed. Nabil Choucair, who lost his mother, sister, brother-in-law and three nieces in the fire, told The Guardian in April: “Our identity is being stolen. They don’t listen to us – and now they want to do a play? A series? Who asked for this?” Though Slovo’s play intends to highlight the ills that contributed to the tragedy, Mackie knows that there are some who will view it with scepticism, or fear it as people making light of a story that has still seen no justice served.

“I think it’d be unrealistic not to think that people would have issues with it, without knowing the nature of the piece,” she reasons, giving a slight shrug. “I think if it wasn’t the survivors’ actual words, I would have taken issue with that, myself. The play’s not dramatised in a way that is glitzy or glamorous, at all. It’s not something flashy, magical, with actors dancing around on stage, illustrating this story. It’s honest. It’s literally ‘Grenfell in the words of survivors’. It couldn’t be anything but that.”

Pearl Mackie: ‘I still get people who tell me that without Bill, they wouldn’t have been able to come out to their families or friends’

Though Mackie considers herself someone who is socially aware, this is the first time in her career that she has engaged with political topics so acutely. People know her best for playing Bill Potts in Doctor Who in 2017. The final companion of Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor, Bill is a cherished part of the Whoniverse and notable to many for being the Doctor’s first openly queer companion. After revealing that she was bisexual in 2020, and then getting engaged to her girlfriend Kam Chhokar in January 2022, Mackie became even more lauded as a queer icon of the show. Now, with Ncuti Gatwa set to take on the mantle of the Doctor at the end of this year, and trans actor Yasmin Finney also joining the cast, the show is entering an era of greater inclusion. Mackie looks back at her time as Bill with immense pride.

“When Bill was announced, it was quite a big deal for a lot of people,” she says. “I still get people who tell me that without Bill, they wouldn’t have been able to come out to their families or friends.” She notes that it’s very easy when spending time “with lots of people open to queerness, or forcefully left-wing and open-minded” to believe that one shares “the general viewpoint” – “It’s really easy to forget that the world doesn’t always reflect that.” Doctor Who is not a topic we stay with for long, though; her publicist soon jumps in to request that we discuss more recent projects.

It’s easy to look at my path and be like, ‘Wow, she just came out of nowhere.’ I certainly know that it wasn’t overnight

Since her time in the Tardis, Mackie’s career has been steady and diverse. She played a detective in the ITV mini-series The Long Call (2021), starred in the TV adaptation of Henry Fielding’s 1749 novel Tom Jones earlier this year, and had a supporting role in Netflix political thriller series The Diplomat. Mackie has also brought her skills back to the theatre, as well as performing on radio and narrating audiobooks. It’s the kind of career she’d always seen for herself after graduating from Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in 2010. But before landing Doctor Who at 29, Mackie had grafted for years, juggling call centre jobs in the day while spending the evenings “rehearsing a play for £30 a week”.

“At 25, I was living back at home at my mum’s, in my old childhood bedroom, and had a mini quarter-life breakdown,” she admits. “‘I haven’t achieved anything!’ And then actually, I feel like the checklist of all the things I had to achieve was something that was holding me back. I stopped playing the comparison game, and just focused on myself. It’s easy to look at my path and be like, ‘Wow, she just came out of nowhere.’ I certainly know that it wasn’t overnight; it took a lot, and it took a lot of hard work.”

After six weeks of intense rehearsal, Mackie is on the cusp of showing Grenfell to a wider audience – and, most importantly, the community that provided the words that she and the ensemble cast will perform. And then, after a month’s run, they’ll be done – but that’s not something that Mackie can bear thinking about yet.

“I don’t think I’m very good at goodbyes,” she says. “Not in the way that I’m some weird hoarder, but I think every project that’s really important to me always stays in my heart. I think this might be the most important job I ever do.” Mackie pauses. “I don’t think it’s gonna leave me, and I don’t want it to. It’s too important for that.”

‘Grenfell: in the words of survivors’ is at the National Theatre until 26 August 2023

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