Since her breakthrough role in long-running sci-fi drama The X-Files in the ’90s, GILLIAN ANDERSON has captivated audiences of both screen and stage – most recently stepping into the shoes of Margaret Thatcher in The Crown. HANNA FLINT meets the actor to talk about the invaluable lessons of 2020, self-growth and why this lady is for turning.
It’s a sunny autumn afternoon in London’s Hyde Park and Gillian Anderson is doing a spot of birdwatching. We’re really here to discuss her latest role in The Crown’s season four, of course, in which she plays the formidable first British female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. But, every so often, the British-American actor becomes mesmerized by the creatures in the Serpentine lake. “Look at what that swan’s doing with its feathers!” she exclaims. “Sorry, but look at what the brown one is doing – it’s making a heart shape.”
Anderson is admittedly no student of ornithology – there’s a struggle to remember the names of some of the birds on view – but she did have a childhood dream of becoming a marine biologist. Now, the idea of even playing one would be a nightmare. “I wouldn’t want to get wet is the truth of the matter,” she says. “It’s definitely got to the point now where there are things I would refuse to do. A friend of mine was potentially going to be in the movie Everest, but I remember thinking at the time, ‘Oh God, imagine what that would entail!’ I’m just not that person.”
So, what kind of person is Anderson? As a much-celebrated actor, she has won several awards for playing Agent Dana Scully in the popular sci-fi series The X-Files, and earned further acclaim in The Fall as detective superintendent Stella Gibson, and then more recently in Sex Education as glamorous sex therapist Jean Milburn.
She’s a proud Londoner, too, having lived in the capital for most of her adult life. And she’s evidently an animal lover, given how many times the conversation has been interjected by a diving cormorant or a swimming Labrador. Privacy is very important to her, and she prefers to keep her family life to herself – although she isn’t afraid to share some funny personal truths. For instance, she turned down an offer to launch her own Sex Education-inspired sex-toy line: “I can’t remember why I said no.” And there was the time, many years ago, when she pitched a video-sharing idea to a woman who helped set up Google and Facebook. It turned out the idea already existed and was about to be launched as YouTube. “That was the last time I shared any bright ideas about tech,” the actor chuckles.
In the cold light of day, Anderson, who is 52 years old and currently makeup-free, looks as radiant as she’s ever been seen on screen during the past 30 years. Anderson cares about her looks (she points out that she had her roots done that morning, ready for some impending filmed press engagements), but is somewhat self-deprecating about how she’s managed to find a loophole in the aging process. “I’ve heard from my mum, my whole life, that my great-grandma Rose had really good skin, but I often fall asleep in my makeup, and whenever I do a photo shoot, everybody always points out that my skin is really dry.”
While the actor is modest about her appearance, she’s confident about the roles she wants to play and, really, who can blame her? “It’s different now than even 10 or 15 years ago,” she says. “[Then] a woman my age, at least in television, would be struggling to find something, but now there seems to be a plethora of rich roles.” With characters like A Streetcar Named Desire’s Blanche DuBois, Margo Channing of All About Eve and now Margaret Thatcher under her belt, she confesses, “It’s hard not to get a little picky.”
She was a top pick of The Crown’s casting director before Peter Morgan, the series’ creator and her partner of four and a half years, suggested her for the role of Thatcher. But once she’d signed on, the couple made a rule not to discuss her performance directly. If she had a question, she would speak to the script or research teams, and if he had a note on her acting, he would talk to the director. “We would create boundaries around it,” she explains. “Somehow, we managed to get through it OK, and it was fun and actually really lovely to do something together.”
Actors arguably need a certain level of empathy to perform a character well, so, as a liberal, one would assume Anderson needed a decent amount to play a divisive figure like Thatcher. But, she believes, her relationship to the late Conservative figure is different to that of people who lived in the UK during her political tenure. “My family moved to the States in 1979, the year she came to power,” she says, “so I don’t feel like my experience of her was anything like it might have been had we stayed and [I had] been around adults who were expressing their opinions. I hadn’t developed any kind of opinion whatsoever. I only heard people’s very strong reactions with regards to her policies when I was an adult, so I did start with a blank slate.”
She filled in the gaps of her knowledge with the help of The Crown’s “forensic” research team, read as much as she could and watched a lot of videos to capture Thatcher’s manner and diction. “She had a voice when talking to [her husband] Denis and she had a voice when she was talking to the Cabinet,” Anderson explains. “She had a voice when she was joking around with the ministers and, when talking at the party conferences, she had a tendency to pitch up a little and be a bit preachy. I wanted to get a balance of all that, an amalgamation, rather than getting too caught up in having different versions of her voice for different scenes.”
The series is more focused on the royal family – with Olivia Colman returning for her second season as Queen Elizabeth II – but Thatcher receives more screen time than past prime ministers. In just the first five episodes, the Conservative leader’s family life and working-class origins are centered, as is her handling of the Falklands War. But Anderson doesn’t think she could have played the role if she had gone into it with political leanings: “If I felt strong opinions about how she parented or how she ran the country, it would definitely have had an impact on how I played different scenes, so I felt, as an actor, it was important to leave all that stuff at the door.”
Anderson does have strong opinions about the current political climate. “I worry about the state of the world,” she admits. “It’s so terrifying, and it just keeps getting worse.”
The upheaval of the past few years has made her “focus more on the things” that she’s most passionate about, and, for decades, that has meant using her voice to draw attention to charitable endeavors in South Africa, as well as campaigning for women’s equality, reproductive health and the abolishment of trafficking, among many other causes. And this year, she’s realized how much more there is to be done in terms of racial inequality: “No matter how much work I do for charities, I don’t think I’d really ever studied or taken full account of the myriad ways that society works against people of color and minorities, how endemic it is and how structurally impossible it is for so many to get beyond a certain place.”
She points to the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement for encouraging her to unlearn false truths about society. “That was the beginning of an education I didn’t even know I needed,” she says, passionately. “I’m learning how brainwashed I feel I [have been] and we are as a society, and how much there is to learn about what needs to systematically change.”
We wander towards the exit of Hyde Park and Anderson trades bird-spotting for people-watching. The actor might be concerned about the current state of the world, but what she’s witnessed and experienced during this tumultuous year has made a lasting impression on her. “I have a tendency to try to close my mind against certain things,” she reflects, thoughtfully. “[But] it is a time to listen.”
The Crown is on Netflix now