Gillian Anderson is taking lockdown in her stride. “I’m an isolator,” she tells me over a Zoom video from her home in London. “So, it suits me just fine. I’m not quite ready to be released into the big, bad world.”
It might seem an odd admission for an actress who has loomed so large in the public consciousness for more than 25 years since she broke through as Special Agent Dana Scully on the ’90s zeitgeist hit The X-Files, before following it up with a string of highly regarded work on television, in film and in the theater.
And yet, these kinds of contradictions have also loomed large in Anderson’s work of late, most recently in her performance as the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the upcoming fourth season of The Crown. The series wrapped three weeks early in March, when the Coronavirus lockdown began, but Anderson had long since found her footing as the divisive politician, memorably played by Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady.
Did she hesitate at the prospect of grappling with the psyche of a PM many consider tyrannical, with a worldview so far from her own? “No hesitation at all,” she says. “There are a few things in life where, if they come your way, you just know you have to say yes, before the fear says no. But certainly, as we got closer to filming, I almost died. My heart has never beat so fast in all of my life.”
She dove headfirst into research, buoyed by the research team behind The Crown. And then production began with a weighty scene in which Thatcher leads her cabinet of parliament members. She felt the pressure of summoning the character for the first time in such a pivotal moment for Thatcher, and yet the scheduling had been intentional. “It was a scene they were shooting on a stage at the studio, and so they mapped it out that way in the knowledge that, if you suck, you can always come back and shoot it again if you need to. They had already built into the schedule that I would likely be able to fail, and that it wouldn’t be the end of the day. You really feel held. I knew I was going to be all right.”
Thatcher is also a sharp turn from her most recently released work, in the second season of Laurie Nunn’s Netflix treat Sex Education, playing a character who is grappling with her own conflicting ideologies. Indeed, when Anderson first read the part of Jean Milburn, the sex therapist mother to Asa Butterfield’s Otis, who combines her sexually liberal attitudes with a tendency to pick through her son’s nightstand, she couldn’t initially reconcile both sides. “As an actor, I think what you’re looking for are characters that have dimension,” she says. “But, for some reason, when I started reading Jean I was fighting against her complexities.”
In fact, she actively pushed against them. “I kept saying to the director [Ben Taylor], ‘Wait, she’s driving to the school to spy on him? No therapist is going to do that,’” she remembers. “And he nodded, respectfully, and took in my concerns. And nothing changed, because it shouldn’t have done. That was actually the essence of who she was. And the many layers of Jean eventually became the things I enjoyed playing the most.”
It’s a fine analog to explain the success of Sex Education, which rises above the ambitions of its genre—teen sex comedy—to impart real lessons about the complications of finding one’s sexuality, being frank and open in talking about the issues around sex, and grappling with the social pressure not to do either of those things. Anderson is a parent herself, and even now could never dream of engaging in the kind of behavior her character is guilty of. And yet, she confesses, “You do, as a parent, sometimes find yourself doing exactly the things you think you wouldn’t do.”
In the end, it was the larger message of the series that persuaded Anderson to sign up. “It makes it okay to be who you are, however you are,” she says. Sex Education hasn’t hesitated in its exploration of issues like race, gender and sexual identity, safe sex and relationships, and it has succeeded in maintaining its light and accessible tone without resorting to the bawdy, camp humor usually applied to such material. Indeed, Anderson has been warmed by feedback about how helpful the show has been to its core audience—teenagers—as they navigate their own paths through their sexual awakening. “The fact that kids who are questioning their sexuality, or have other questions they’re curious about, can watch it, often with their parents, is beautiful.”
She remembers hearing about a family with even younger kids—12-year-olds, she thinks—watching the show together, and the parents telling the kids they could pause at any point to ask any questions they might have. “Interestingly,” she says, “it wasn’t during any of the sexual or particularly audacious subject matter that they paused. It was mostly about the feelings that came up when characters were being bullied.” In other words, not the innate discovery and acceptance of these characters’ sexuality, but the learned social behaviors that result in the kind of prejudice that causes so much trauma.
Anderson is delighted that her work can teach her such lessons even now, this deep into a long and garlanded career. She won a Golden Globe and an Emmy in 1997 for her turn in The X-Files, and might have been defined by a show that became such a hit had she not sidestepped the last few seasons and returned to the UK, where she had spent much of her early childhood, in 2002. She trod the boards in plays such as Michael Weller’s What the Night is For and Rebecca Gilman’s The Sweetest Swing in Baseball, which turned her into a West End mainstay. And she earned another Golden Globe nomination as Lady Dedlock in the BBC’s starry adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, now considered a definitive adaptation of the story.
Her theatrical career in the UK has built to a crescendo that has made her stage performances some of the hottest tickets in theater. When I tell her that I came to see What the Night is For in 2002, she jokes that I must have been the only one. That most certainly couldn’t have been the case for her 2014 turn as Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, nor for her Margot Channing in Ivo van Hove’s 2019 adaptation of All About Eve, both of which earned her Olivier Award nominations, with the former transferring off-Broadway in 2016.
As lockdown shuttered theaters, the National Theatre Live program, which films West End plays for broadcast in cinemas across the UK, announced it would release its taping of Streetcar for a limited time on streaming, as part of a wider selection from its archive. Anderson reveled in sharing memories of the production on social media, reliving her time with a character who, she admits, has never quite left her.
“Blanche was like no one I’ve ever inhabited before, and she’s certainly in there more than any other character I’ve played,” she says. “I felt, at times, like I almost went too far into her, and it was quite challenging to pull back.”
Watching the play on streaming was eye-opening for Anderson; the definition of the form generally renders it impossible for an actor to watch a play they’re in as an audience member. “I was shocked by how intense I found it, even though, obviously, I was there,” she laughs.
She saw the particular alchemy of all the aspects of the production she missed by performing in the play, which went some way to making sense of how special she found the experience. “There have been a few times, as an audience member, where I’ve been left completely speechless by art, or performance, in various forms of culture. It is a thing in and of itself. It is alchemic, and you can touch it, and feel it. And it is why we do what we do. It’s why we celebrate what we do. It’s why we try and convince people to watch, and to donate, and to keep theaters alive, because it can have such a profound impact on people. I think it can do good in the world. I think it can change people’s lives.”
There was little design to the volte-face that first brought Anderson to the stage after she left The X-Files. Instead, it felt like a natural move. “I was very lucky in that I had an upbringing in the UK, and everything I had seen in terms of how often actors were able to move back and forth between television, film and theater… that just didn’t exist in the States. I think it has only really begun to exist in the past five years or so, where you’ll find A-list actors that will do television, as opposed to keeping it at arm’s length.”
It was just how she always imagined her career would be, in fact. And the way it initially panned out, as the lead star of a network television drama that ran to 24 or 25 episodes each season, was the surprise. “That was the bit I hadn’t planned. The planned bit was that I was going to be able to jump back and forth between mediums and work in America and England, and to be able to choose between doing things where I got paid little to nothing, and then bigger projects that would pay my mortgage.”
The diversity of roles she found in Britain allowed her to find her way back onto the path she’d envisioned, even during an era in which roles for women were not nearly as forthcoming as those for men. “I have been incredibly, incredibly, incredibly lucky,” Anderson punctuates. The landscape is changing. “It’s absolutely shifting for women, and in television that’s been happening for a good while now, over the last 10 or 15 years. That’s the same in Europe and America. Where that is limited is in film, and that’s certainly something that needs to be addressed.”
But diversity goes beyond gender, and Anderson believes the real work lies ahead. “The thing that needs to be addressed more than anything at the moment is actually the degree to which people of color are actively encouraged and allowed through that door,” she insists. “In the way that the #MeToo movement has made extraordinary steps forwards in terms of how women are able to action their futures, I think the same will need to happen in terms of expanding diversity in front of and behind the camera.”
These aren’t idle words, and they are shaped by the experience Anderson has had on Sex Education, which features diverse talent on-screen and off. She has delighted in what that has meant for the telling of stories so frequently absent from television, and how the specific can also reflect on the universal. “I’m not even sure I realized the extent to which it does that until after I’d seen it,” she admits. “You can read so much on a page, and then the minute you start seeing all of the fabulously diverse faces, and really commit to all the different storylines and the diverse dilemmas, you realize how unique and embracing the show actually is.”
She laughs. “I almost feel like I said yes despite myself, and then was very grateful that at least part of me was paying attention at the time.”
The Film That Lit My Fuse is a Deadline video series that aims to provide an antidote to grim headlines about industry uncertainty by swinging the conversation back to the creative ambitions, formative influences and inspirations of some of today’s great screen artists.
Every installment asks the same five questions. Answering them today is the Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning actress Gillian Anderson. She spent the early years of her career in theatre before shooting to international fame in Fox’s sci-fi classic The X-Files as Dana Scully, for which she earned her Hollywood statues.
Since then, Anderson has appeared in films including The Last King of Scotland and become synonymous with countless high-end British dramas, including War & Peace, The Fall and most recently the Netflix hit Sex Education, in which she plays sex therapist Jean Milburn.
The Netflix connection will grow stronger later this year, when she stars as Margaret Thatcher in The Crown. In doing so, Anderson is following in the footsteps of her hero Meryl Streep, who depicted the British prime minister in The Iron Lady. Streep gets more than one mention in Anderson’s The Film That Lit My Fuse, as she credits Out of Africa for helping stir her passion for acting.
Check out the video above.
FILM & TV
BY VOGUE13 JANUARY 2020
As breakout show Sex Education returns, the legendary actress tells Radhika Seth about blocking her children on Instagram, speaking to fans about teenage masturbation and the “menopausal mania” of Dr Jean Milburn
There is a moment in the second series of Netflix’s Sex Education when Gillian Anderson’s character, Jean, sighs a deep resigned sigh as she is lying in bed one morning and spots the messy pile of small change her latest lover, Jakob, has left on her bedside table.
It’s my favourite moment of this uplifting show about the tangled love lives of British secondary school teens that manages to appeal to both parents and adolescents alike. Anderson plays the outrageously inappropriate sex therapist Jean Milburn, a stylish, confident single mother.
“The Crown” Season 3 World Premiere – VIP Arrivals
LONDON, ENGLAND – NOVEMBER 13: Peter Morgan and Gillian Anderson attend “The Crown” season 3 world premiere at The Curzon Mayfair on November 13, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by Dave J Hogan/Getty Images)
We chat to acclaimed actor and activist Gillian Anderson on philanthropy, style and her sophomore collection for Winser London.
Here, Gillian Anderson talks about her work with Women for Women International, how she likes to spend her downtime and collaborating with Winser London on her hotly anticipated second collection.
What was the inspiration behind your second collection?
The primary inspiration was that I had so much fun with the first collection that I knew I wanted to do it again. Rather than reinventing the wheel we decided to put out a couple of different colours in the same cuts of two successful styles and even used the cut of the Boyfriend Jumper for the lips range. Then the question was, if we only do one dress – what is a style that can cross seasons and feel dressy and yet equally casual with a pair of boots and a funky coat? If we only do one blouse, what style is both the antithesis of last season’s Silk Blouse and also matches the personality of the dress? And if I’m to do a trouser, given last season was a Tuxedo Cigarette Pant why not try and create what I wear day in and out through the winter, Mini Bootleg Black Low-Rise Stretch Jeans.
What are your favourite pieces from the new collection, and why?
Oh that’s hard! I do love the Lips sweaters, not least because a percentage of proceeds is being donated to one of my favourite charities for women but also because the quality of the image worked and kept its personality even on a cashmere blend, which is a challenging expectation. The hooded coats are definitely a favourite because they are so versatile and fun.
How would you describe your personal style?
Eek, I’d say simple. I think? On a day-to-day basis I don’t put a lot of effort into what I wear and dress for practicality (with heels though) but if I’m dressing up I do like clean, classic lines and am not likely to go for a pattern – as much as I like patterns they just don’t work on me.
Who inspires you in work, life and style?
Probably my friend Gabriela Hearst. She has an incredible personal style which is reflected in how she dresses. She works so hard on her clothing line and fabrics and manages to balance it effectively with kids and husband and friends and meditation. She’s a force to be reckoned with. If she is a racehorse, I am a miniature pony.
What’s the best piece of advice that you’ve ever received?
Do your very best and let go of the results. That means to show up prepared and committed and positive and present and leave the results to the powers that be. As long as you know you have done your best, nothing else matters. Great if whatever it is works out, and if it doesn’t at least you know you did your best and it simply wasn’t meant for you at this time. Difficult to do in practice at first and easy to get into self-criticism and blame and resentment, but once you get used to truly letting go, it can be one of the biggest gifts you can give yourself.
Tell us more about your work with Women for Women International and how they’re spotlighted in your new collection?
Jennifer Nadel who I co-wrote WE: A Manifesto for Women Everywhere with first brought them to my attention and we encouraged readers of the book to make donations to this wonderful organisation. Since then I have tried to help raise awareness and funds.
Women for Women International helps women in post conflict zones get back on their feet. It teaches them about their rights, teaches them a trade so they can become self-sufficient, teaches them about personal hygiene and how to take care of themselves and encourages them to be active in their communities. They really honour the women they work with and stay in contact with them for years afterwards – personally visiting the women on the ground on a regular basis and making sure the programs are running effectively. It’s just a wonderful organization.
One of the fundraising projects I did was to partner with RedBubble to make a T-shirt with an image of my lips that had been presented to me by a fan. Other fans started buying the t-shirts knowing all our RedBubble profits were going to Women for Women. I then decided to take it one step further in this Winser London collection with a cashmere blend sweater where the image was worked into the weave in three great colours.
Finally, what do you like to do to relax?
Watch documentaries. Heaven.
Gillian Anderson attends a luncheon hosted by Roland Mouret in celebration of Women Filmmakers at the Corinthia Hotel London on May 1, 2019 in London, England.
Thursday 11 April 2019
2019 has turned out to be quite the year for Gillian Anderson. Naturally, the American-in-London has had plenty of “moments” already in her 25-year career, from The X Files to The Fall. But with the twin wins of Sex Education on Netflix and All About Eve in the West End, she has traversed media old and new, and turned out two of her career’s most talked about performances (and it’s only April). As Margot Channing in the latter, in bias cut carmine silk and MGM wig, she is mesmerising, filmed in closeup eight shows a week and then projected above the stage at the Noel Coward theatre, in Ivo van Hove’s cult re-working of the film classic. Today, this multi-layered portrayal of stardom on the slide will be screened in cinemas around the country as part of National Theatre Live. Fresh from her red carpet splash in Armani Prive at the Olivier awards last Sunday, Anderson took a moment to speak to Vogue about the culture and curios that have informed her life on the stage and beyond.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. It follows the lives of four college friends through to middle age as they carve out their professional lives in New York. The novel is about friendship, love, trauma, abuse, addiction, fatherly love. It’s a profoundly heart-breaking read but the characters are so well drawn and one cares about them so much it becomes almost an addictive read – as if peeking through fingers – and despite being haunted after every sitting. I read the book when it first came out in 2015. And then saw Ivo Van Hove’s four hour stage production of it in Amsterdam (in Dutch!) It’s so rare that a book impacts on a cellular level and this one definitely did in both incarnations
I, Daniel Blake – a film Ken Loach came out of retirement to make. It won the Palme d’or in Cannes in 2016 and the BAFTA in 2017. It’s about a widower in Newcastle who after suffering a heart attack is deemed unfit for work by his doctor but not by a work capability assessment, and despite his many attempts to find work he is denied employment allowance and is forced to sell off his belongings for food. It’s ultimately about how the welfare system failed him by perpetually humiliating him instead of rewarding a man proud to have paid his dues to society. A very, very moving film in classic Ken Loach social realism style. Really makes you think and want to act to change a stuck system
Well, the song that PJ Harvey has written for me to sing in All About Eve is just beautiful. It sounds like something that would fit in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. She wrote one for [my co-star] Lily James to sing too and both will soon be released in an album with proper accompaniment. PJ, aside from being a very talented musician, is just an all-around cool chick and it was a great privilege to not only sing the song eight times a week for what will be over three months but record it with her in her fantastic studio.
I find that I’m gone from London so much for work in this period that I can’t leave because of the play, and with people coming through town to see it, I’ve been making the most of what is at my doorstep. The Arbus at the Hayward, the Bonnard at Tate Modern and the Dior show at the V&A, or taking my kids to the skate park under the Westway and the food stalls adjacent, have been some recent trips. Or the Olympic Velodrome biking trails and Anish Kapoors’ “slide”. Exmouth Market, Columbia Road Market – this city just keeps giving.
It’s more a saying, but I guess it leads to advice. That “youth is wasted on the young” said by either Oscar Wilde of George Bernhard Shaw. I wish that someone had stopped me in my early twenties and told me very seriously to pay attention; to make the absolute most of every moment; to take care of myself in body and mind so that I could live my potential. Choice is the biggest privilege anyone has. There are so many people in the world who do not have the freedom of choice. So if you have it, for even a fleeting moment, seize it with all your might.
All About Eve will be broadcast to cinemas as part of National Theatre Live on April 11.
By EMILY ZEMLERAPR 02, 2019 | 10:50 AM | LONDON
Early on in the London stage production of “All About Eve,” Gillian Anderson’s Margo Channing removes her stage makeup in a bright dressing room mirror. As she swipes away the layers, Anderson’s face is projected in close-up on massive video screens, which magnify the actual lines and dark circles under her eyes.
It’s a moment of realization for the audience: This is no straightforward production. This is a story about seeing the truth in ourselves.
“A couple people have said, ‘You’re so brave,’ ” said Anderson, sitting in her basement dressing room at the Noel Coward Theatre. “So much of what we see of people these days is Photoshopped and filtered, so the fact that I’m allowing the audience to see all the nooks and crannies of my face is unusual. And I hadn’t thought about that until someone said it. I didn’t feel brave in doing it, at all.”
Anderson arrived at the role of Margo, the aging theater diva faced with a diminishing career and a potential rival in her young assistant, Eve Harrington (Lily James), by happenstance. Anderson’s boyfriend, writer Peter Morgan (“The Crown,” “Frost/Nixon”), had suggested she look into whether the 1950 Bette Davis-Anne Baxter film had ever been translated to the stage when she discovered theater director Ivo van Hove was already adaptating Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s screenplay.
“I was trying to find out what his plans were for how he was going to cast it,” Anderson recalled. “Then I found out that Cate Blanchett was doing it, and so I slowly backed into the shadows and thought, ‘Man, do I want to see that.’ ”
Blanchett, it would turn out, had a scheduling conflict. Anderson signed on, and her thoughtful performance has earned her a lead actress nomination for the Olivier Awards on Sunday.
The recognition comes despite the fact that the cast, which includes Monica Dolan and Julian Ovenden, had just four weeks to rehearse. Actors were instructed to arrive off-book on Day 1. There was almost no discussion of the text, so Anderson slowly worked out Margo’s mindset and motivations along the way, well into previews in early February. Part of the challenge was working with a camera crew that filmed the stage action live to be projected on the aforementioned video screens. (Van Hove did something similar in last year’s adaptation of “Network.”)
“I wasn’t nervous about the cameras, but what was very clear when we started out was that none of us quite knew what it was that we had,” Anderson said. “I know that’s always slightly the case because one’s never in the audience looking back, but for some reason with this I think we didn’t quite know how it fit together, or whether it all fit together, or what it was that we had until we’d been doing it properly for a while. And then something seeped in and we understood it.”
This version of “All About Eve” has vintage and contemporary touches. The set and lighting design, created by Van Hove’s longtime collaborator (and partner) Jan Versweyveld, reflect a span from the 1950s to today, as do the glamorous costumes. The story, very much a product of its time, needed to resonate with a modern audience, a sentiment that was essential to Anderson as she considered Margo.
“The film is known as being an iconic feminist tale, and yet in the film Margo very much is beholden to men,” the actress said. “She has a speech where she says women are not women unless they have men. From the very beginning, it was important for me to open that conversation up.
“The way I ended up making it work was having her speak from her own experience. Not saying ‘women’ but saying ‘I’ — she’s talking specifically about her boyfriend Bill and how, up until that point, she has chosen her career as her focus and love. She realizing how much she suddenly values him and the relationship, and that she is more of who she is with him in her life. That’s still an OK thing to own and to accept and to embrace.”
She added, thinking back, “It did make a difference, because all women have different experiences. Some women are not validated by men or interested in men, and some women don’t identify as womanly. It felt like it was making it more relatable.”
“All About Eve” is often seen as a story of female rivals, but in Van Hove’s production it’s more about the way in which people see and are seen, an idea that’s reinforced by the video screens and mirrors. Anderson plays Margo as an excitable, out-of-touch celebrity and also as a woman sincerely grappling with her identity. If her career is coming to an end, what then is her currency?
“It does feel particularly topical,” Anderson said. “The fact that it is such a female-led story is important today. Or at least, there’s more of a desire to see female-led stories and listen to female characters, so it’s fallen at the right time.”
Women reach a point, Anderson said, where they wonder: What have I done with my life? Where has it all gone, and what’s next?
The Olivier nomination is Anderson’s third, following nods in the same category for “A Street Car Named Desire” in 2015 and “A Doll’s House” in 2010. The latest nomination came only a few weeks into the play’s run, which surprised the actress given that she was still perfecting her performance. “With ‘Streetcar’ I felt like I showed up already having known who she was for 30 years of my life because it was something I’d wanted to do for so long,” Anderson said with a laugh. “But with this it took me longer to figure her out.”
“All About Eve” debuted a few weeks after Anderson’s Netflix series “Sex Education,” which has generated an overwhelmingly positive response. She was drawn to the role of Jean Milburn, a sex therapist whose son has some sexual issues of his own, primarily because it was funny and would allow her to showcase a lighter side of herself. It’s a vibe she’s maintained on social media since the show premiered, and Anderson posts a “yoni of the day” on Twitter in celebration of female sexuality.
“I don’t often get offered comedies,” she said. “I laughed out loud many, many times over reading the scripts. A good fifth of the episodes we did on [‘The X-Files’] were comedy episodes. So I feel like I’ve shown that I can. But yet people just don’t think about me that way. That stuff just doesn’t come my way, so I exacerbate it by then choosing things like ‘The Fall,’ which is not comedic at all. Hopefully something like this will change that and there will be more of a range.”
Once “All About Eve” wraps May 11, Anderson will take a few weeks off before shooting the second season of “Sex Education.” She has a few other projects lined up that may or may not include “The Crown” — a casting rumor that is “not official,” according to Anderson — all of which keep her home in the U.K.
In the meantime “All About Eve” will be broadcast in movie theaters around the world by National Theatre Live on April 11, with occasional encore performances after that. Ask Anderson about prospects of the play transferring to New York or elsewhere, and she’ll say she isn’t ready to think about that. She’s still working through Margo, finding new ways of playing her every night. Sometimes the performance feels good, sometimes it feels like her best effort yet, and sometimes it just feels weird. And that’s fine. In a few months, Anderson will look back and she’ll see yet another reflection of herself.
“I feel like I don’t necessarily figure my characters out until after I’ve played them,” she said with a shrug. “It’s almost like my version of them informs me who they are rather than me knowing.”
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‘All About Eve’
What: National Theatre Live will present the London production broadcast to select movie theaters starting April 11, with encores presented occasionally into July. Check the website for specific dates.
Where: Southern California theaters include James Bridges at UCLA, Irvine Barclay in Irvine, Reading Cinemas at Cal Oaks Plaza in Murrieta, Tristone Palm Desert 10, and Angelika Film Center Carmel Mountain and Reading Cinemas Town Square in San Diego
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