EXCLUSIVE: GILLIAN ANDERSON ON HER NEW ROLE IN ‘VICEROY’S HOUSE’
The actress also discusses directing, coping with fear and playing powerful women
By Teresa Fitzherbert
28 February 2017
Every interview with Gillian Anderson seems to mention her cool gaze, yet it’s not until I meet the actress that I realise quite how cool a gaze it really is. When she fixes you with those ice-blue eyes – eyes that are so gargantuan and sparkling that it’s as if you are seeing her through a Snapchat filter – it’s almost a relief when she looks away.
This is especially true when I ask her a question about the forthcoming book she has co-authored, which is out next month. “I would rather stick to talking about this film, please,” she tells me firmly, and it’s impossible to disobey that look, so…
This month, the British actress appears in Viceroy’s House, a sweeping costume drama about Lord and Lady Mountbatten, the last Viceroy and Vicereine of India. Brought in to supervise the transfer of power from the British to the Indian government, Dickie Mountbatten, played by Hugh Bonneville, would eventually oversee the county’s disastrous partition into India and Pakistan. Anderson plays his wife, Edwina Mountbatten, who garnered great praise for her work with those affected by the violent repercussions of carving a country in two. She is also known for having an affair with the Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, but this has been tactfully left out.
“I really appreciated her tenacity and how forward-thinking she was that the time,” Anderson says of Edwina. “Her focus was about tolerance and fairness and making sure that people that worked for them felt represented and heard.”
As well as following the Mountbattens’ fanning themselves at starched linen tables and drinking tea with Gandhi, the film focuses on a Romeo and Juliet-style love story between a Hindu footman and a Muslim housemaid. It is essentially an epic tale of upstairs-downstairs with Bonneville playing the Lord Grantham role as well as ever.
Comparatively, Anderson brings more depth to her character as she goes about meeting the hundreds of staff and introducing Indian food to a building that “makes Buckingham Palace look like a bungalow”.
The film doesn’t shy away from placing the blame resolutely with the British over how the political minefield was handled. “I think that it seems quite clear when Dickie Mountbatten was sent to India as a solitary figure, it was a completely insurmountable task for any single human being,” says Anderson. “The whole idea of partition is political and selfish and had nothing to do with the wellbeing of the people at all.”
It is the most ambitious project yet by the director Gurinder Chadha, whose previous works include Bend It Like Beckham and Bride & Prejudice. It is also a subject close to the film-maker’s heart: as Sikhs, her father and his young siblings had to flee from the newly created Pakistan in 1947. One of his sisters, Chadha’s aunt, died of starvation en route. “It was obvious through the filming process that [Chadha] was very passionate about it,” says Anderson. “It was part of her family history.”
Viceroy’s House is another example of the extraordinary versatility of an actress who is equally at home in sci-fi television dramas as she is on-stage. In 2016 alone, Anderson starred in BBC One’s adaptation of War and Peace, a second turn as Blanche DuBois in the critically acclaimed A Streetcar Named Desire when it moved from the Old Vic to New York, and as the sexy detective Stella Gibson in The Fall. Oh, and she returned as Dana Scully in a new series of The X-Files, the part that made her a household name aged just 24.
It’s little wonder that Harper’s Bazaar gave her a Woman of the Year Award in November.
As she perches on a sofa in this Soho hotel room, dressed in cropped black trousers and a cream shirt, the 48-year-old is far from the polished superstar she was in a floor-length dress at the ceremony. Yet the actress is no less luminous. Her trick, she claims, is Laura Mercier tinted moisturiser. “It’s a big part of my life. Every day I’m grateful for it.” She also reveals that her most extreme beauty measure is a regular blow-dry, and that she has “not paid much attention” to fashion month, despite being thrilled to have a woman at the head of Dior.
Anderson is known for standing up for the sisterhood. She has spoken out about how happy she is to have a female Prime Minister and her aforementioned book is a feminist call to arms. We: A Manifesto for Women Everywhere, published on 8 March, is co-written with the journalist and activist Jennifer Nadel and aims to be “an inspiring, empowering and provocative manifesto for change”.
In a previous interview, Anderson said: “It’s a book about facing oneself. It’s about working through things in one’s own life in order to be of better service out in the world. And it’s about the community of women, too: the fact that there is so much competition and judgment and negativity out there, especially on social media, when we should be turning to each other, helping each other to find our voices.”
The actress has often spoken about her own demons. Born in Chicago, she lived in London as a child before moving back to America when she was 11. After struggling to fit in with an English accent she started getting into trouble at school for drinking and vandalism, and was in therapy by 14. She says she is still sometimes “paralysed by her own fear” and is thankful that she has children to get her up in the mornings – she has a 21-year-old daughter, Piper, from her first marriage and two young sons from her second.
Perhaps it is this fear that draws Anderson to the formidable women she so often plays. “I have a tendency towards, not necessarily a type, but definitely very powerful and serious characters,” she tells me. “There are lots of different kinds of woman that I haven’t played yet… on the whole I would like to do more comedy.”
She has also turned her hand to directing, having taken the helm of an episode of The X-Files and, more recently, The Departure, a short film prequel to Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar.
“I would like to [do more directing] but it’s a hard thing to take out the time,” she says. “I’m not really interested in doing an episode of television, more a feature film and that takes a good year and a half out. I am not quite in the place to do that yet.” Should we watch this space? “Hopefully.”