Agent of change: Gillian Anderson turns self-help guru
She’s a god in America and a British aristocrat in India and now X-Files star Gillian Anderson is a feminist author, too.
She became a household name in the role of FBI Agent Dana Scully in the groundbreaking sci-fi series The X-Files, which began in 1993 and will soon return for an 11th season; she was emotionally impenetrable as DSI Stella Gibson in three seasons of the British-Irish series The Fall (she was a producer on two seasons).
Now she’s in American Gods, the television series adapted from the contemporary fantasy novel by Neil Gaiman. She plays the god Media and she reportedly shape-shifts into lookalikes of Madonna, David Bowie, Judy Garland and Lucille Ball.
“I’m not particularly a science fiction or mystery fan,” Anderson says of her enigmatic performances. “It’s more about the character and whether I find her interesting enough or different enough from what I’ve done before.”
When asked which actresses she admires, she says she counts Cate Blanchett as “our foremost talent; for many reasons she’s extraordinary”. Presumably, her admiration is partly to do with the fact that the Australian, like Anderson, moves between stage and screen and plays a wide variety of characters. Both have boundless energy. Anderson calls herself “an incredibly opinionated and forceful human being” and admits she struggles to sit still for long.
An avowed feminist, who insisted on being paid the same as co-star David Duchovny on The X-Files, she is interested in playing strong women or women who achieve strength. With journalist Jennifer Nadel, she wrote a self-help book, We: A Manifesto for Women Everywhere.
“I had to do it,” she says. “I was starting to notice how many statistics were out there about women of all ages struggling under the pressure of society to be and to do and to act and to behave. At what point, if we’re all struggling with this same thing, can we not at least agree to do it together? Can we not reach towards one another to have that conversation and see if, in some way, we can work to try to make a difference?”
Her activist nature and her passion for championing the rights of refugees and indigenous people, not to mention her fondness for Indian culture – “I try to practise yoga as much as I can,” she says – meant she was easily persuaded to take a role in historical drama Viceroy’s House, directed by Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham).
Anderson plays Lady Edwina Mountbatten, a socialite who came into her own when she accompanied her husband, Lord Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville from Downton Abbey), as he oversaw the 1947 partition of British India into Hindu-dominated India and Muslim-dominated Pakistan. Lady Mountbatten had an affair – one of many – with Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Lord Mountbatten was equally adulterous.
“I was attracted to the film because I had absolutely no knowledge of that history; it was not addressed in my American high-school studies,” Anderson says. “I certainly had no idea of the level of violence or the hundreds millions of people whose lives were affected by it. I very much fell for Edwina, and the more I researched and studied her depth of focus and commitment to being of service and the impact she ended up having there and elsewhere, the more I liked her.
“What was fascinating to me was how extraordinarily out of their depth they were in this ridiculously opulent house with 500 servants in the middle of what would become one of the greatest atrocities in history. What a heinous situation to be placed in, to try to fix something that was so broken to begin with. But in the film, you see her imploring her husband to make decisions that were challenging for him to make, because he was a puppet and was hired specifically because he was malleable.”
Given what she calls “the politics of fear and division” of the time, she says the situation feels very relevant today. “The film is about our moral responsibility to other human beings and that is certainly at the forefront of a lot of the conversations concerning refugees and immigrants that we are having now. What happens to people when they are fleeing violence and what is our responsibility as other human beings in helping them?”
Could she imagine taking a refugee into her London abode? “The co-writer of the book [her friend Jennifer Nadel] has done that for a few refugees, and there’s an organisation whereby one can have someone for a short period and then they find them proper long-term housing or connect them to relatives so they move on and then somebody else comes in. I’ve been starting that conversation with my 22-year-old daughter who lives in the house – I also have two young boys – and that needs to be a big part of the consideration, where to make the space. But it’s certainly something I am considering.”
Viceroy’s House is in cinemas from May 11; We: A Manifesto for Women Everywhere (HarperCollins) is out now.
This article was first published in the May 13, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.