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.”