The eight-part Doctor Who spin-off series Class, airing on BBC America, follows four ordinary but very diverse Coal Hill Academy students, who find themselves drawn together in an unlikely alliance to secretly battle alien threats that have broken through the walls of space and time. As if navigating high school and teenage life wasn’t bad enough, Charlie (Greg Austin), April (Sophie Hopkins), Ram (Fady Elsayed) and Tanya (Vivian Oparah) have been given the great responsibility by The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), and under the watchful eye of their Physics teacher Miss Quill (Katherine Kelly), to guard the world against the evil creatures who want to take it over.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, the absolutely delightful Vivian Oparah, who is very new to the world of acting, talked about how she got cast in Class, why she identified with her character, the excitement of being a part of the Doctor Who universe, working with Peter Capaldi, how the cast’s real-life relationships mirror their character dynamics, that she’d love to see where the story might go in possible future seasons, what being a part of a TV series has taught her about acting, and the type of projects she’d like to do in the future.
Collider: How did you come to be a part of Class? Was there a whole audition process that you had to go through for the role?
VIVIAN OPARAH: Yeah. I didn’t have an agent and I didn’t even have headshots, at the time. I did a two-week summer course at the National Youth Theatre, and I saw an audition for Class. At the end of January 2016, they called and said, “Did you want to come in for that Doctor Who spin-off?” And then, I had two more auditions, and that’s when I got the role and I flipped out.
Were you aware that it’s not typically that easy?
OPARAH: No! Everyone I talk to is like, “You don’t understand how lucky you are!” All my friends are like, “That’s so typical of you.” But for me, it sounds really corny and crazy, but I just think that if you’re going with your gut, your instinct and your heart, you’ll always find the way to what you want to do in life. It was quite hard because I chose to take a gap year and not go to [university], and I was regretting that a bit and thought I was wasting my time. But I decided to just do it and figure out what I wanted to do ‘cause I could always go to drama school. And then, I got the job.
What was it about this TV series, in particular, and this story and character that made you want to be a part of it? Was it just the fact that you have that Doctor Who association, or was there something about this specific story?
OPARAH: Freema Agyeman, who played Martha in one of the previous Doctor Who’s, went to my church when I was a kid. When I was doing my Holy communion, she was on her acting come up. I looked up to her so much when she was on Doctor Who. I wasn’t too much of a Doctor Who fan, but I was a fan of her and of the David Tennant series she was in. I wanted to say that I literally directly followed in her footsteps. Also, when I saw the character description for Tanya, in particular, it motivated me because she reminded me of me when I was 14. I used to hang out with people who were a little bit older than me. Because I was a bit smart, intellectually, I thought I knew about everything in the world, but as you experience more, you become more humble and grounded.
Taking on your first TV series must be a bit nerve-wracking, but this TV series is a Doctor Who spin-off and Peter Capaldi is in your first episode. Did that make it all more reassuring, or were you more nervous about living up to that?
OPARAH: It was a bit of both. Doctor Who is the fandom baby. The fans look after it, so you don’t want to do a shit job or anything. But at the same time, because Class is such its own show and it can stand alone, the show has meant a lot to my friends who aren’t into sci-fi or Doctor Who, as well. People have told me that the themes and storylines for the individual characters have struck a chord with them, so much. So, you’re trying to please the Doctor Who fans, but you’re also trying to please a wider audience and tell other stories, too.
What was it like to actually get to work with Peter Capaldi?
OPARAH: Oh, my god, he is so nice! I literally have nothing to say other than he’s the nicest guy. Obviously, with this being my first job and then hearing that such a big name was going to be in the episode, I was like, “Oh, my god!” You anticipate a person at his level of work to just keep to himself and do the work, and then go off. But, he was properly taking time to interact with each of us individually and encourage each of us. He talked to us about ourselves and our lives. He would always come over and make an effort to speak to us. We were sort of frightened, but he would come over and break that barrier. Just to see him work with a script, and not be afraid to try stuff and make mistakes, and then to see the greater things that came out of the mistakes he made, was a huge thing for me. I was so nervous to make any mistakes, but to see someone comfortably make mistakes, and then to see something great come out of that, was a master class for me. I was wide-eyed.
One of the most important things to making this show work is the relationship dynamics between your characters, and that seems like it came very naturally for you guys. It seems crazy that you guys didn’t meet until the first rehearsal you had for this show, so did that just come very quickly for you guys?
OPARAH: Yeah. A lot of people ask us if we had a compatibility test because of how well we all get along. I just think that us, in real life, reflect the dynamic of the characters. We’re all people from completely different walks of life. I’d have never come across Greg [Austin], who I completely love. I think it just worked because we’re all so different. Me and Fady [Elsayed] are both from London. I think we get a bit too much credit for our relationship. Fady is like my brother, so what you see on screen is a lot like me and Fady. I look out for him, and he always looks out for me. He helped me out confidence wise because he’s been in a few things before. Everything you see is genuine connections, and connections that have been worked on. It’s just amazing.
It seems difficult enough to navigate life in high school, but these teenagers have to deal with all of that while also trying to save the world. How do they keep focused on what they’ve been tasked to do and still get their homework done?
OPARAH: That is sort of like teenaged life, anyway. It’s just on a grander scale, being bombarded with situations that they’d rather not be in or that they’re not fully equipped to deal with because they’re young. They just have a resilience to keep trying to find ways to deal with them or to get out of them. There’s never time to stop and think, “Why did that happen?!” But, Tanya is fine. She can juggle many things at once.
There are such beautiful family dynamics on this show. What was it like to be able to balance fighting aliens and creatures, but also have quiet moments between Tanya and her mother?
OPARAH: I think it’s important because you never really get to see what goes on at home. I think it really adds depth to a character when you get to see the bit behind closed doors. A lot of shows that have teens, you see them at school, but you never really see how that impacts their life at home, and it really does have a huge impact. I’m glad we got to explore that. It’s nice to see the public and private personality of a character. When you’re at home with a parent, that’s who you really are, so I think it’s nice we got to explore that.