Traveling without the TARDIS: The Post-‘Doctor Who’ Life of Caitlin Blackwood

Early November in Orlando, Florida, is predictably sunny and warm enough for some hotel guests to jump into the pool or attempt a tan. Instead of slathering on sunscreen to protect her fair Scottish complexion, however, actor Caitlin Blackwood mostly stays indoors. As a guest of Hurricane Who, a fan convention for the BBC series Doctor Who, she answers questions during hour-long on-stage interviews, poses with fans during photo ops, signs autographs, and chats with visitors at her dealers’ room table, which showcases an action figure made in her likeness as well as the jewelry she and her family make and the t-shirts designed by her brother. Her career often seems to be a family endeavor, and although she works alone on stage or before a camera, she knows she’s backed by a strong support network. Hurricane Who is Blackwood’s fourth US convention in 2012, but the work is offset by perks like visiting Orlando attractions before she heads home for more auditions.

Doctor Who fans might feel as if they have been the ones traveling to the future in the TARDIS. Between her first convention in California in February and the most recent in Florida, Blackwood has literally grown up. Meeting a much taller young woman who discusses her enjoyment of ballet classes and plans to further develop an acting career can be a shock to audiences who still think of Caitlin as Amelia Pond, the little girl who helped introduce Matt Smith as the venerable series’ next Doctor during the first episode helmed by showrunner Steven Moffat. Blackwood describes Amelia as “a feisty wee girl, but she knows how to deal with the Doctor. She’s got a lot of courage.” Blackwood’s first episode was broadcast nearly three years ago, back in a time when she expected only to play Amelia once and then return home to Inverness. At the time she was very much a “wee girl” herself.

In the intervening years, she earned a recurring role in the series and the distinction of playing a younger version of one of the Doctor’s companions in the most episodes (four, plus a cameo in grown-up Amy’s finalé). Blackwood’s performances also bookended the character’s story: Caitlin introduced the character, who assists the newly regenerated Doctor after he crash lands in her backyard, in “The Eleventh Hour”. (For non-Who fans — Is there really such a thing? — the Doctor can be “reborn” as a new version of the continuing character when a different actor takes the role. Across the nearly 50 years of Doctor Who, Smith is the eleventh actor in the role.) At the conclusion of Amy’s story arc with “The Angels Take Manhattan”, Blackwood’s image is the last audiences see of the character. Caitlin’s/Amelia’s lovely, hopeful smile as the episode’s concluding shot is a fitting way to close this companion’s chapter in the Who saga.

Blackwood’s mother Linda, who accompanies Caitlin on trips across the pond as Pond, admitted she became teary upon seeing her daughter’s cameo in the finalé. The actor, however, told a funny story about this episode. Her aunt, mother of actor Karen Gillan, who played adult Amy in the series, insisted that Caitlin had a role in “The Angels Take Manhattan”. Caitlin and her mother were equally adamant that they had not traveled to Cardiff’s BBC Wales studios, much less to New York, for filming. When the family gathered to watch the episode, everyone but Karen’s mother was surprised to see Caitlin on screen in the episode’s final moments. “’I told you so,’” Blackwood gleefully re-enacted her aunt’s response.

Such stories reflect the close familial relationships that support both Blackwood and her cousin Gillan in their careers. In fact, if not for Gillan, Blackwood would not have chosen acting as a profession. When the first Doctor Who episode to star Smith and Gillan began production, casting required a young actor who could conceivably grow up to be Karen-as-Amy. Thinking of her young cousin who looked remarkably like she had as a child, Gillan suggested Blackwood as a possibility for the role. After a flurry of photographs and messages had been exchanged, Blackwood traveled to Edinburgh to audition. In true family style, she was not alone. Accompanied by a large contingent of relatives, Blackwood read for the role, one so secret that she was not told the character’s real name. After more auditions, Blackwood had to wait to learn whether she would become Amelia.

She easily recalls the call that would change her and her family’s lives. Just home after shopping, Linda Blackwood answered the phone, but from her responses (“Yes,” “I see”), Caitlin had no idea what was going on. She soon suspected she might not have gotten the role. When Linda told her that she would, in fact, be on the series, Caitlin remembers “I was so excited.” As is often the case when the Blackwoods and Gillans (who live across the street from each other) share good news, a family celebration was in order.

But then came even more waiting before filming began, which was difficult for the new actor. “I wanted to get started right away,” Caitlin explained. Once on set, she and Smith filmed what was to become one of the most memorable scenes to date in the Moffat era of Who: “fish fingers and custard.” In this scene, the “new” Doctor attempts to discover what he likes or dislikes. Amelia offers him a variety of foods, many which he unceremoniously spits out, but fish fingers (fish sticks to Americans) and custard become a winning combination—at least on screen.

Not so much for Smith, noted Blackwood. Because this was her first role, she understandably made a few mistakes, which required the scene to be repeated. With a glint in her eye belying her usually sweet demeanor, Blackwood confessed to her fans that she might have enjoyed seeing Smith eat the weird concoction a wee bit too much—and caused a few more takes than absolutely necessary. One suspects that Blackwood’s story of pranking Smith grows a bit with the retelling, but it’s an excellent anecdote that fans asked to hear more than once during the convention.

Despite mother-daughter teasing away from the crowds or the humorous insights shared about filming, Linda and Caitlin Blackwood take the acting profession seriously. They also are testament that being a child actor can be a pleasant educational experience, not only for the actor and her family but for everyone who works with a young performer. Caitlin and Linda look out for each other and seem very much a team. When her mother lost her voice early in the convention, Caitlin quickly brought her throat spray and lozenges.

Linda wants her daughter to enjoy and appreciate the opportunities Doctor Who has brought her but still is amazed at how quickly their lives have changed. Their extended family supports both Caitlin’s and Karen’s acting endeavors, but there is no family drama behind the scenes or the proverbial stage mother pushing her child into the spotlight. As a result, Caitlin is increasingly savvy about television and film production, but she also takes a youthful enjoyment in the novelty of lounging by the pool in November (not a good idea back home this time of year) or checking out Wonderworks on the day before the convention.

Only a few years ago the 12-year-old had never acted and was a typical schoolgirl. Her recurring role in Doctor Who not only provided her with a career direction but automatically introduced her to international audiences. (Doctor Who is BBC Worldwide’s top television export and is the number one iTunes-downloaded series in the US.) In the next five years, Blackwood would “like to be doing movies, I think, and more modeling. I may wait a little while for that, though.” She also has done “a little bit of theater work back in Inverness. I liked being on stage.”

Her approach to acting has become more refined in light of her recent experiences, but she is often praised as being a natural actor. “When I was younger, I always liked playing games where I was someone different. Acting is just like that, being someone different for a while.” She has grown accustomed to the audition process: “They give me a script to do. I have to practice that. When we first met my agent, she said it’s really good to write down what you think this character is like, like ‘I think Amelia’s brave,’ and so that’s how I prepare for an audition now.” She feels ready to tackle “whatever comes up next” in her career. Nevertheless, having strangers approach her for a photo or an autograph still seems “really strange. Sometimes it can be overwhelming as well,” Blackwood adds, “but I do enjoy it. I get to meet a lot of nice people.”

Upon receiving her first “callback” notice a few years ago, she phoned her cousin to ask what that meant. Today there’s no question exactly what that means or why casting agents want to see her. Those who meet her, at fan conventions or auditions, know that Caitlin Blackwood will be invited to play new characters on screen for years to come.

Photo of Caitlin Blackwood by Lynette Porter