Gillian Anderson: A Woman of Character

Nearly 30 years after breaking out on “The X-Files,” the actor is still finding ways to surprise us—and herself

“Growing up in front of millions of people, and the intensity of nine years of being on a series—what actually happened was not what would necessarily normally follow,” Gillian Anderson says of ending her time on the prime-time must-watch series “The X-Files.” And while she ultimately did use her breakout screen role at age 25 to build a lasting career in the arts, she says her experience at the time with stardom and the loss of privacy made her question what to do next when the series’ first run wrapped in 2002.

“What actually happened was [that] I didn’t know if I ever wanted to step foot on set again,” she continues. “The first thing that I wanted to do was theater.” And so she picked up and left Los Angeles for London and made it happen. 

“Had that not been my state of mind, I probably would’ve hired a publicist who would’ve been pushing me out there in Los Angeles as me, separate from [Dana] Scully,” Anderson says in hindsight of her role as the beloved FBI agent. Instead, she was performing on the West End just a few months after arriving, in productions of “What the Night Is For” and “The Sweetest Swing in Baseball” that carried her through 2004. In another world where she had succumbed to that uniquely Hollywood “use it or lose it” pressure, she says, “I would’ve had a version of my career that would have been very, very different than the career that I’ve had. I definitely wouldn’t have been in ‘Bleak House’ or ‘Great Expectations.’ It had a big impact on the choices that I made, because I was burnt out.”

Anderson’s story is proof that burnout doesn’t always mean the end of something. In fact, it sometimes can be the beginning of something burning anew, a gift that helped her strengthen her craft while continuing to challenge herself. 

“I think there have certainly been stepping stones along the way where either the things that have come to me or the things that I’ve chosen have gotten harder and harder,” she says with a laugh. 

“Thatcher is such a complex and divisive individual. You get used to digging your teeth into characters like that, and it does shift your perception of what a ‘stretch’ is or what a ‘challenge’ is.”

The latest such effort is why the SAG Award, Golden Globe, and Emmy winner is calling in by Zoom from her home in London on a mid-January evening. We’re discussing her acclaimed portrayal of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on “The Crown” Season 4, a performance that once again has her in the awards conversation, with SAG and Golden Globe nominations. It’s her latest career move that only became possible because all those years ago, she homed in on exactly what she wanted as a performer. 

Despite her consistent work across mediums in the U.K. and U.S. in the years since Scully (among them runs on “Hannibal,” “The Fall,” and “American Gods”),  it was playing Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire,” first on the West End in 2014 and then again Off-Broadway in 2016, that signaled Anderson’s entry into what could be considered a new era for her in terms of character choices. 

“Once you get an opportunity to play a character like that, or experience Tennessee Williams’ writing, in terms of theater, where do you go after Blanche?” she muses. Onscreen, that has translated into playing characters like Jean Milburn, a sex therapist on Netflix’s titillating hit “Sex Education,” a role she initially turned down, and now the U.K.’s first female Prime Minster, a role she wouldn’t have thought of playing were it not for the suggestion from series creator Peter Morgan.

“I’ve been blessed with the opportunity [to play] some incredibly complex women in the last few years, so it’s hard to top that,” Anderson says, adding, “Not that you necessarily have to ‘top’ anything, but even sometimes to match them. I mean, Thatcher is such a complex and divisive individual. You get used to digging your teeth into characters like that, and it does shift your perception of what a ‘stretch’ is or what a ‘challenge’ is.”

Anderson prepared for a year to play Thatcher, poring over research, recordings, and videos. She then did the cosmetic work of disappearing into the hair, makeup, and costumes with specific mannerisms, a deliberate style of walking, and, of course, an unforgettable voice. “The stakes were particularly high for a show like ‘The Crown,’ but also for a character that so many people have a vested interest in either liking or disliking,” she acknowledges.

Those familiar with the ambitious drama that chronicles the personal and political events that take place under the reign of Queen Elizabeth II know that while the prime minister of the time is always an important character, they are not at the center of the show.

“It’s an easier life to live to not dwell on what one didn’t get and should have got. If you go in doing the best you can, then you’ve got something to feel good about, and sometimes feeling good about that can be enough.”

(It is, after all, called “The Crown.”) Season 4 covers Thatcher’s time in office from the late 1970s through 1990. The audience gets a glimpse into the home and work life of the new head of government, but the focus is really on the contrast between the newly elected Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth in her third and fourth decades on the throne, as played by Olivia Colman. This meant that Anderson’s research into Thatcher’s larger “offscreen” life served as the backstory and development for what we ultimately see onscreen.

“There was definitely a point where I was looking through the six of 10 episodes I was in as Thatcher, and it started to dawn on me that so many of the things that I was studying about her journey as prime minister would be best suited for a biopic. They were not addressed at all in the stories that were being told, which is totally fine, because that will all inform who a character is,” she says of her process. “My job is to ask: To what degree can you, as an actor, react to situations based on the fact that, even though you haven’t seen them onscreen, they still would have been there as part of her history? That becomes how one can choose to work on the scenes that you do see.” 

Anderson found the process of getting into the skin of a prominent historical figure not dissimilar to the one she has employed for fictional people. “The thing about historical characters is that it’s all mapped out for you, so you don’t have to do any of the work of trying to figure out who the parents were and how they would react and all that,” Anderson explains. “It is not unlike a Tennessee Williams play, where there is so much layering and depth and so many things referenced in the present about the past. Even though we don’t learn about it until later, the character has to be carrying it when she comes in the door. They’re different ways into essentially the same thing.” 

In this way, “The Crown,” “Sex Education,” and others have all been a continuation of Anderson’s acting education. Born in Chicago and raised between London and Grand Rapids, Michigan, Anderson attended the Theatre School at DePaul University before moving between New York City, L.A., and now London, where she resides with her children. While she carries her training with her, these days, her education continues by way of projects that don’t seem like an obvious fit—ones that challenge her and make her better. “I tend to say yes to things and then think about it,” she admits. “I jump first, because if it’s something that I think I can do, I don’t want to talk myself out of it by thinking about it too much.”

That mindset will continue to influence her career going forward. “There are things that, pre-Thatcher, I might have said yes to that, post-Thatcher, I wouldn’t,” she says. “I might even pursue things I normally wouldn’t, because I wouldn’t think in a million years that they would imagine I could.”

So, just as the question arose after Blanche DuBois, Anderson is again asking: Where to go from here? In a literal sense, she is preparing to leave the week after our conversation for a shoot in Prague. But in a general one, she’s been using her time in quarantine to read the influx of scripts that have come her way since “The Crown” Season 4 premiered in November 2020. There is still plenty of territory she wants to explore. 

“I do feel like there are a lot of things I haven’t had an opportunity to do yet, and some of that is in the realm of film, specifically. I’m a bit of a cinephile, so I really would love for that to be a big part of this next period, and I’m focusing quite a lot on that.” 

For someone who at one point had burnout-induced doubts about ever returning to the screen, Anderson has found a way to keep working while avoiding arriving back at that place. “One needs perseverance in this business,” she stresses. 

The method for that perseverance is specific to each individual, but one way Anderson suggests moving forward as an actor is universal: “Find a way to not take anything personally. If taking it personally means that it’s a valuable lesson and it’s helpful in order to say, ‘Do better next time,’ or, ‘Work harder next time,’ it’s OK. But don’t beat oneself up,” she advises. “Go in prepared, and feel like you’ve done everything that you could do, even if that means that you only had half an hour, but you worked your ass off. If you feel like you went in there and you did the best that you could do, then the result is none of your business, and it’s certainly out of your hands. If it’s meant for you, it will be yours. And if it is not meant for you, it won’t be.” 

It’s easy to say that as someone who’s had successes like Anderson’s, but even she had her fair share of struggles before landing “The X-Files.” She waited tables and shuffled between auditions. Her agents even came close to dropping her. 

“There was a production I was auditioning for, and I got really, really close to getting it. Apparently, the producer called my agents and said, ‘You can’t drop her.’ He saw something in me even though I didn’t get the job, and he convinced them to keep me on. Two or three months later is when I got the ‘X-Files’ script.” 

But looking back, especially on difficult times like that, she insists, will never make you content; the only way is forward. “It’s an easier life to live to not dwell on what one didn’t get and should have got. If you go in doing the best you can, then you’ve got something to feel good about, and sometimes feeling good about that can be enough.” 

This story originally appeared in the Feb. 25 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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Photographed by Liz Collins

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