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Doctor Who star Sacha Dhawan on embracing the chaos and finding the humanity of the Master
From the moment he dropped the Agent O facade and revealed his true nature as the Master, we've been massive fans of Sacha Dhawan. Bringing a reckless intensity to the role, with an undercurrent of torture and betrayal, this was not Dhawan's first TARDIS rodeo. He played Waris Hussein, the first director of the very first Doctor Who serial "An Unearthly Child," in the television film An Adventure in Space and Time, the behind-the-scenes story of the series' beginnings. Hussein was British-Indian — like Dhawan — and just 24 when he helped create history.
As the first person of color to play the Master, Dhawan has made history himself in an already historic season. SYFY FANGRRLS spoke to Dhawan about this week's episode and next week's finale, and finding emotion in the chaos of this iconic villain.
Spoilers for the first part of the two-part Doctor Who season finale, "Ascension of the Cybermen."
Last night we only got a moment with the Master, but it was a really big moment. The Master keeps talking about how everything the Doctor knows is a lie, that Gallifrey betrayed them. Is there anything you could tell us about what that means?
I'd absolutely love to, but I'm sworn to secrecy. I can say is that as you correctly mentioned, that statement is going to evolve into a lot of answers, finally. As with Doctor Who, answers also lead to more questions, but all I can say is that it is game-changing and you are going to see a different side to the Master that you've not seen before, and you're going to see a different side to the Doctor as well. It's chaotic and action-packed, but it's also incredibly emotional as well. That's what I'm really excited for those fans to see.
The relationship between the Doctor and the Master has always been so complicated. It's been all over the map, from murderous to flirty, but ultimately they have this intense, powerful bond. How did you and Jodie decide that you would play that together?
You know what? It's amazing actually because we didn't have loads of discussions. We just kind of threw ourselves into it and it just worked. I think that's credit to Chris Chibnall and Matt Strevens bringing us together on this. And I guess it just felt really easy.
What's so great about Jodie is she just lets you do your thing. I was very keen on making the Master — yeah, he's fun and chaotic, but I wanted to really explore making him quite dark and unpredictable, and she let me do that. She let me be unpredictable. So that's why we didn't really have too many conversations. I think she embraced the fact that she didn't necessarily want to know what I was doing and save it till we called action. You'll see some of those reactions are pretty genuine and real in the last episode.
How did you decide you would approach this role? Because it's a massive part of sci-fi culture, and I think that the character could be considered just pure evil and chaos, but there's so much more to the Master.
My first thought when I got the part, I was like, "I can't do this, there's too much history here. Why have they asked me? I'm not going to be able to do it. I should actually just call Chris and say, 'Try and find another dude for the job.'" But then once I calmed down a little bit, I started watching little bits of previous incarnations from Michelle Gomez and John Simm and then I just stopped. I thought, "I've got to stop doing this and approach it like I would with any other role." I had a conversation with Chris. I sent him a tape of me doing my incarnation and then we had a conversation and that's when it became really exciting. Chris in a way gave me the blessing that really what I needed was to make it my own.
That's when I was really keen on really focusing on the relationship with the Doctor and that relationship is really in essence why the Master behaves the way that he does. Once I hooked onto that, yeah, it's fun playing in the chaotic, but really the heart of the Master is someone who is tortured and is stooped in history and emotion, and that's what I really wanted to bring to surface. By doing that, I think the audience, as much as they hate him, will also sympathize with him and feel for him. I don't think we've really seen that before.
Yeah, that was really beautiful, that scene with you and Jodie on the Eiffel Tower, and there was such pain in him talking about Gallifrey.
It is. One of the things I really liked about that Master, he almost puts on a front all the time and he buries himself in different personalities, almost different people. You saw him as a Nazi, you saw him in the Victorian period, and then when you see him in the end of Episode 2 when he comes back as a hologram, you start to uncover someone who's actually quite tortured and broken. And again, you start to understand why that is.You seem like you're having a lot of fun playing this character. I know we talked about the pain and the torture, but there's that amazing moment where you shift in "Spyfall" and go from this timid tech guy to completely unhinged. How did you find that line?
The reveal, I was so excited to play. I was nervous as well — you're not sure if people are going to like it. That was the first time Jodie and the cast and crew had actually seen me as the Master and how I was going to do it and they were like, "Wow, okay. This guy's crazy." One of the conversations I had with Chris early on is the idea of chaos theory and I never wanted to feel like the Master was just being chaotic for the sake of it. There was actually a very specific method in his madness and there was always a reason behind the chaos. Because I felt to myself, if I was in the Master's shoes, by creating chaos it throws people off their guard a little bit and they get to make decisions that they never thought they were going to make.
What I also loved about it is, in really crazy messed up ways, that the Master gets off on it as well. He's already lost quite a lot, so he's not afraid of putting himself on the front line and being absolutely fearless and almost relishing in the chaos, that in a way made him much more terrifying because, basically, he's not afraid of dying.
That's so interesting because what I've noticed in the way that Jodie plays the Doctor, there is a hopefulness and an optimism to her iteration of the Doctor in ways that we haven't always seen before. Whereas the Master, it seems like your iteration is hopeless and like, "OK, let's let the world burn." It's very much two sides of the same coin.
Yeah, exactly. Exactly. He's like, "Well, if I'm going to go down, I'm going to take everyone with me." Especially in Episode 1, he put a bomb on the plane that he was onboard of and relishing in it. But you're seeing someone that's pretty terrifying and unhinged and it's a real joy to play, I won't lie.
Obviously you're the first person of color to play the Master and you're doing so opposite in the first female Doctor in a season with the first Black Doctor. Was that significance daunting or is there something comforting about there no longer being firsts?
I felt immensely proud actually and honored. I want to let you know hen I got the role, as much as there were doubts about me about whether or not I could play the role and that was my own kind of insecurities, I felt immensely proud that it was me, the first-ever British Indian actor to be playing the role, that it had not been done before.
That's one of the things I really respect and admire about Doctor Who, is that they're always thinking out of the box with the characters they write and the actor they employ to portray them. They're always challenging the stereotypes and peoples' way of thinking. And I've really loved that and I'm immensely proud to be part of it.
Did you grow up a Doctor Who fan?
In all honesty, I'd watched bits of it, but I wasn't an avid watcher of the show. I think I became much more involved in the universe when I did Adventure in Space and Time because I really got to learn about not just the stories but how the story originated and the politics around it. The first director of Doctor Who was gay, in his twenties, and Indian. That's something I never knew and a lot of people don't really talk about that. He was working alongside a young female producer [Verity Lambert] and so once I understood the origins of that story, it made me appreciate why Doctor Who is so, so special — not just in front of the camera but also behind the camera as well. So since then, I've been yes, a real avid fan.
Yeah, that probably helps you approach the role with that impartial nature where you didn't have a ton of background or having watched other people play the character.
That's exactly it. It frees you up a little bit because I think if I knew too much, I'd end up either mimicking previous performances or getting bogged down the history. I think I'd end up putting way too much pressure on myself. I think the only thing I needed was the Chris and Mark to say, "Make it your own and don't worry too much about what's been done before. You just focus on this season and really go for it." Nothing ever felt wrong. It pushed me to be even more unpredictable and more dangerous.
The second part of Doctor Who's season finale, "The Timeless Children," airs Sunday, March 1.