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In an otherwise bleak year, Netflix gifted its nearly 200 million subscribers with two vastly different reminders of Gillian Anderson’s talent. The first came early, with Anderson’s turn as a sex-therapist mom on the second season of the celebrated U.K. comedy series Sex Education; the second arrived at the year’s end, with the X-Files star portraying former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the Emmy-winning royal drama The Crown. For the actress, now 52, keeping the two straight wasn’t always easy.
Let’s start with The Crown. Take me back to when this part was first mentioned to you. What was going through your head at the time?
Pete [Morgan, the series’ creator] and I were just sitting around one day, and I think he asked me, just out of the blue, whether I thought it was something that I could do. And under usual circumstances, with anything in life, you kind of scan your sense of intuition, and I thought, “Actually, that makes sense to me. I don’t know a huge amount about her, but I feel like I get her on a level and it would be fun — a huge stretch but fun.”
When you say you felt like you get her, what does that mean to you?
I’m not sure if I can necessarily put it into words, it’s just that I felt like I could do her — I felt like I understood where we met and that it wouldn’t be too difficult of a stretch. There’ve been times when I have said yes to roles where I’ve thought, “Mmm, OK, I’m not entirely sure I should have been cast,” but I’ve said yes because I want to be in this film or whatever and it’s proven that I probably shouldn’t have. (Laughs.) With me, I just get it or I don’t; I don’t often have to be convinced too hard — and if I do need to be convinced, it’s because it’s not necessarily for me.
Her physicality is such a huge piece of getting Thatcher right. What was the most challenging piece of that process for you?
I almost feel like the physicality is the easy bit because that’s just technical. What was the most disconcerting was wanting to make sure that the voice was right because you can have the silhouette and the mannerisms, but if the voice isn’t there, the audience is going to go, “Ehhhh.” And if the voice is there, it doesn’t matter whether you have the rest. I did an interview [recently], and they asked for me to read something as Thatcher but with my hair and whatever it was that I was wearing and [it’s like] she’s suddenly in the room.
I suspect it’s a tricky navigation, attempting to inhabit this woman without it seeming like you’re simply impersonating her?
Pete had said early on that it was important that it wasn’t mimicry and that there was an element of me that was still in there and that I shouldn’t be afraid to allow an aspect of me to still exist. I think that somehow allowed me to relax into it a little bit. Sometimes if it’s forced, it can sound pretend or like it’s not in you — that it’s on top of you, that you’re putting it on.
Which part of the process came most naturally or was the most enjoyable for you?
The doing of it, the scenes with other actors, and getting to work with Stephen Boxer, who plays Dennis [Margaret’s husband] so brilliantly. The dynamic between them was just fun, especially plonking them in the middle of a situation like Balmoral. Also, the cooking scenes — having had the footage of her doing stuff in the kitchen at Number 10 [the prime minister’s residence] and knowing how much she enjoyed cooking and cooking for her Cabinet. So it was getting to actively do things that you know the character would have done.
Watching Margaret Thatcher, the U.K.’s first female prime minister, in the kitchen cooking for her all-male Cabinet threw some audience members. Did you struggle at all making sense of who she was?
There has been a lot written about the fact that she was not a feminist. She had a very complex relationship with that term and where she fit into it. And yet, that is exactly who she was. Despite the fact that she was the first woman prime minister of the U.K. and had the power that she did and was a self-made woman, she had the expectation that all women should be able to do exactly what she did — she expected everyone to be able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. So that’s all part of who she was and the complexity of the character, and one doesn’t have to agree with it or admire it or even necessarily like it in order to play her truthfully. And in fact, it’s even better, I have found, to put my opinions about someone, whether it’s about their personality or about their politics, to the side before taking them on.
What has been the most meaningful or even surprising feedback that you’ve received thus far?
I was surprised that so many people liked the audience scenes [with the queen]. Not that I didn’t enjoy filming them — I did, and it’s always wonderful to work with Olivia [Colman, who plays Queen Elizabeth II], but they were really challenging to shoot, challenging to memorize, challenging to perform in, challenging to make different from one to the next. They were shot in clumps over two or three days, so all the audience scenes for the first block were in one clump, which is … hell. (Laughs.)
You wrapped and then, shortly after, returned to Sex Education, where you play a sex-therapist mom. Describe that transition.
Obviously they are completely different characters on every level. Part of it was going back and working again after lockdown, which had more impact on my experience of playing her again than the fact that I had played Thatcher beforehand. But every once in a while I did have to say, “Actually, can I have another take because that sounded a bit too Mrs. T? She snuck in there.” (Laughs.) But it’s such a fun, light atmosphere, and she is so much fun to play. It’s funny, you’d imagine that it’s a laugh a minute because it’s a comedy and it’s so broad, but at the same time we deal with some quite serious stuff.
Quite serious, yes.
There’s a lot of depth and, for [my character] Jean, particularly this season, with her being pregnant and the issues with Otis [Asa Butterfield]. So it’s always fun to go back.
Am I right that when you got the pilot initially, you threw the script in the trash?
Yeaaaah, I did. (Laughs.) It was right before the Easter weekend or something. I’d been offered it, and I’d started to read it and I was like, “Mmmm.” So it did actually take some convincing. And I’m not quite sure why I didn’t get it at first, but once I got it, it was so clear that it was a gift.
So, what’s next for you?
Fortunately, there’s some great stuff coming my way now because of these fabulous series. Exactly the kind of stuff that I want to be doing. I’m such a cinephile, and I don’t feel like I have done as many features as I imagined I would. I keep saying yes to television, which is amazing because it’s the golden age and everything, but it’s also really nice to be focusing more on features at the moment and developing other stuff. And now it’s more about just doing a wider range — I have played a lot of agents. I’ve played a lot of MI5, MI7, MI6, FBI … (Laughs.)
In the past, you’ve been vocal about the fact that juicier roles haven’t been available for women in film the way they increasingly are in TV, but it sounds like that’s changing?
I still think that the industry could use some work in that arena, but I’m in a lucky place at the moment and there’s some juicy stuff floating around.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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