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Gillian Anderson interview: Robot Overlords, sci-fi, Ghibli

Interview Simon Brew 23 Mar 2015

With Robot Overlords out in cinemas this week, Gillian Anderson chats to us about family movies, sci-fi, and her love of Studio Ghibli.

Robot Overlords is the new film from director Jon Wright, who previously gave the world Tormented, and the terrific Grabbers. It’s a throwback of sorts to the kind of movies we got for families in the 1980s, and his impressive cast is anchored by Gillian Anderson and Sir Ben Kingsley. We got to speak to Gillian Anderson ahead of the film’s release. And having established that there’s no fresh news on the X-Files reboot that had been chatted about earlier in the year, here’s how things went.

Here’s a nice way to start: I enjoyed this!

[Laughs]

I figure it best to start with honesty! I tend to watch films like Robot Overlords through the eyes of my 11-year old son. What I took from him was firstly, he really liked it, and secondly, he was unnerved by it. It’s why I show him so many films from the 80s aimed at families, they’ve got a few more rough edges to them.

Yeah, they do don’t they!

So was that the appeal of something like that to you? That it doesn’t play a softly-softly approach, and instead walks a delicate line well?

It is a delicate line. I showed my boys, who are younger than yours! But I knew what to expect. There’s one scene really where we all had to jump up and cover our eyes, but then there is an unnerving feel to the whole film. Which can’t really be accounted for necessarily on a script. You don’t necessarily know that’s going to translate, or what the feel is.

But I enjoyed it too. They screened it for me recently before I did press, and… not that I was surprised, but it’s very different. Both boys, one’s six and one’s eight, my six year old in particular absolutely loved it. He thinks it’s the best thing that he’s ever seen!

I don’t think it’s so much the single moment per se that did it for us, rather that it was the tone.

Yes, yes! It’s the tone of the whole thing, that they’re all on an adventure together. He’s not going to have any frame of reference, but there’s this dystopian feel. The way that it’s shot, and the community that’s set up, you see into the lives of these kids, and this strange lateral imprisoned world they live in between the houses. It really sets up that situation really well.

The feel of it is it’s past and it’s future. It feels 50s and it feels way into our future at the same time. A lot of films attempt to create something timeless – not too future, but that’s reminiscent of things that are recognisable in the past – and they really manage to do it. I was really impressed with that.

I love Jon Wright’s previous film, Grabbers, an awful lot.

Yep, yep. Me too.

What I find as a parent, frustrating over recent years is that if I want to watch a family film with human beings in it, I go and watch animation. If it’s a live action film aimed at a family audience, more often than not it feels like the human beings are treated as props. I think what Robot Overlords does is treat human beings as human beings. Was that embedded from the start, and was that what you were looking for?

Yes and no. I’m a fan of sci-fi. And I’m a fan of sci-fi in films, rather than other mediums for it. My character is a relatively well-rounded mum. She’s obviously got depth. She’s a good mum, and we get to see her have some emotions about being stuck in this horrendous world for years at a time. And fitting grief around that. It’s not a character I’ve had an opportunity to really play before. I have a tendency to play people’s bosses and quite hard characters!

I’m not a hard person. I’m a mum of three, and most of my time I spend on the floor making LEGO. You get a sense with this character that she knows she’s a good mother, and I wanted to explore that. The softer side of me, and a character that was different. But also talking to Jon and what his vision for this was, the fact that this felt like an old fashioned family adventure with a sci-fi twist. That really appealed to me. And I felt that if it was done well – and I’m very pleased that it was – then it could appeal to my kid.

Obviously, you’ve got four young leads in the film, who work together extremely well. I understand that Jon Wright brought them in early for rehearsals together. Were you a part of that, or were they sparking already when you came onto the film?

No I didn’t. But I was so impressed with them, having done quite a lot of sci-fi in my life before and having to pretend, I thought Callan did such a good job with that. But also, it was within the realm of reality. It felt like the way that they were reacting to scenarios was how one would.

In a similar way to Chronicle. What struck me about that film was that the kids seemed to be reacting to those situations for the first time, as they would if they were the real characters. There was just something about it that felt more realistic. And I feel as though Robot Overlords had a bit of that too.

It sounds really twee, but it felt like spending time with humans.

Yeah, yeah. I like human beings too. Especially at this time when so much of what we end up seeing in the sci-fi realm is so CGI, and there’s not much room for real proper relationships between human beings there. There might be relationships between two human beings, but not more. [Film spoiler bits redacted]

I’ve interviewed a few young actors, and it seems to be a terrifying world that they’re stepping into now, given the sheer level of scrutiny they’re exposed to from day one. But what kind of advice are they asking you for? And what were you asking when you were in their shoes?

Well I started older than them, at 24. It was a lot of joking around with this group. I’m not sure we ever got into any serious conversation. I think that once somebody of that age gets to be a lead in a feature, I think there’s the assumption that that’s it now. Now they’ve arrived, there’s nothing more to learn. It’s usually the ones who ask questions are the ones who are still in school. Who are thinking about going to drama school, who are wanting to know the best way to do things. My experience of younger actors in a film is that it’s possibly just a matter of having enough armour, and enough ego, to be able to show up and be there. That dissolves any more questions I think. We never used to have that level of scrutiny.

I think the movie press does bear some responsibility there. I remember talking to Will Poulter about when he walked down the red carpet at the We’re The Millers premiere…

… that script was so good, I have to say! I really wanted to be involved in that film! That script was sooo funny!

I remember him talking about walking down the carpet, and he was, what, 20ish at the time. He had his family with him, and journalists were asking him if he was a virgin.

[Gasps] Oh my god!

The way he dealt with it was incredible. I’m just not sure why he had to.

No. I’m with you on that. The ones where it’s always been successful with young actors making the transition is when they’ve got a very, very grounded homelife, and their education is still pressed upon them first and foremost. That was certainly the case with the Harry Potter kids. Their continued education was built in and mandatory. Just to balance what was important.

Can I briefly ask you about Studio Ghibli. Ghibli is very special to us. When my daughter was very young, and I sat down to watch films with her, I watched some of the Ghibli movies, and she got so much richness out of them. You’ve obviously been involved with the English voicing work on a couple of Ghibli films. How do you feel about their work, and that its output is now winding down?

Well, anytime Miyazaki retires I always feel huge sadness. I introduced my daughter to Totoro when it first came out, and it was such a huge part of her childhood. She’s still got all the VHSes. She’s 20 now, and her brothers are not allowed near them. She too got what works of art they are. There is something so spiritual and emotional and deep, and almost original Grimms fairy tale about them. They’re extraordinary. I don’t want to believe that Ghibli is winding down. It feels like it’s so important. That it’s an important chapter in cultural history. I really hope that it doesn’t wind down for good. Ever.

Is your own plan now to tell more of your own stories? You said when A Vision Of Fire, your novel, was released, that you’d designed the central character as one you’d like to take to the screen? Where are you with that?

People who read it keep wanting to turn it into something television-related. And that may be eventually where I end up with it. It won’t be something I’m acting in. I specifically got involved to create a character that we could see on the big screen. A real human being. And I haven’t given up yet. The book is now with a producer I have a great deal of respect for. I don’t know how long the journey will be with it!

We’ve talked about this on the site before since it was put to us, the misnomer of the phrase ‘strong female characters’. And it’s that if the person in question isn’t a female bodybuilder or something, they shouldn’t be described as ‘strong female character’. It’s become a bit of a lazy shorthand, that women on screen can be defined either by strength or emotion, but never both. Do you have a particular view on that, and is it reflected in some of the roles that you’re offered?

I think it’s really clear in a script, I find, where the woman fits in terms of that trajectory. I was asked recently to be on a panel at a Comic-Con that I was attending about that. About having that conversation. That it’s become not necessarily an insult, but a placating descriptive to use for a woman. It’s a lazy term in a sense. Isn’t it better at this juncture to find other words that are more accurate and applicable? I think we need to stand to be a bit more conscious about how we describe a woman in literature or film who brings more to the table than two dimensional characterisations.

And with that, our time was up. Gillian Anderson, thank you very much!

Robot Overlords is out in UK cinemas on March 27th

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