Landing the main role in a celebrated TV show is, for many actors, the thing that dreams are made of. Which acting newcomer in their right mind wouldn’t want to secure a job that spans multiple seasons, generates awards and makes you a household name almost overnight? None, to be honest. But with every long-standing role with a mass audience, actors run the risk of being typecast in that singular performance. They become so instantly recognisable as that figure that viewers sometimes fail to see them as anything else, regardless of their acting prowess.
You could argue that this was the risk that a 25-year-old Gillian Anderson took when she accepted the role of Scully in The X-Files, a critically acclaimed instant hit that spanned 11 seasons, two standalone films and two spin-offs. At its peak, it attracted 29 million viewers in the US for an episode broadcast in 1997 and becameone of the most popular shows on TV during the 90s. So when the curtain fell on the sci-fi classic back in 2002, would anyone be able to accept Anderson as anything other than Scully? A quick scroll down her IMDb page will answer that question!
Since The X-Files, she has played a detective determined to find a killer of women in The Fall, offered her spin on Dickens’ Lady Honoria Dedlock in Bleak House and mastered Lily Bart in an adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. There was that portrayal of Blanche in the Young Vic’s A Streetcar Named Desire (which some might consider her real tour de force – at least for now) and her comedic turn as sex therapist Dr Jean Milburn in Sex Education. More recently, she dared to play the divisive Margaret Thatcher in the fourth series of The Crown, a figure who is so steeped in iconography that it requires a master of their art to fully succeed in playing her.
I connect with Anderson via Zoom in late June. She’s sitting in her London compound, which is where she has spent most of the last year, given the UK’s lockdown restrictions. I wonder how it’s been to be locked at home during one of the most successful years of her career… “It’s been mixed, honestly. First and foremost I feel very grateful that myself and my family have outdoor space, which has been a saviour in a way. It has been amazing but bizarre to be accepting awards in hotel rooms in other countries, but I’d rather be in that situation than not accepting the awards! I was celebrating with sushi at four in the morning after the Globes.” She laughs.
“[The response to The Crown] has been amazing. There have been plenty of times either with a show or a film where one has high hopes for how it is going to come out and you’re disappointed, but there was a certain point along the way when I had thrown myself into it to such a degree that I felt even if it didn’t go over that well, I had done the best that I could do. I mean, had it not gone the way that it has gone, maybe I would have something different to say!”
Having successfully mastered Thatcher, she will soon step into the shoes of another iconic figure, Eleanor Roosevelt, for the forthcoming anthology series The First Lady, which also stars Viola Davis as Michelle Obama and Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford. Preparation for the role has already begun when we speak, with Anderson combing through books, videos and audio clips in order to fully embody Roosevelt, hoping to gain the same level of acclaim that she received for her role as Thatcher. “I’m taking a leaf with Eleanor, as I did with Margaret [Thatcher], which was reading many books at one time and listening to an autobiography. I’m listening to Eleanor’s speeches too. I’ve watched a lot of footage of her but I’m not at the point of watching for the purpose of figuring out her mannerisms yet. There’s a point in my diary where that is going to start!” she tells me.
Much like Roosevelt, Anderson has spent her career dedicating her time to philanthropic projects, whether it’s hosting charity events or offering her name to causes that are close to her heart. She also recently teamed up with Winser London for a capsule collection of pieces featuring a representation of her lips, with a percentage of sales being donated to Women for Women International, a non-profit organisation that provides support for female survivors of war. Anderson’s philanthropic side is something that stems back to her younger years, when her brother was diagnosed with neurofibromatosis (an illness that causes tumours to grow along nerve endings) and her mother put “all of her energy into educating herself about it and started a support group for people with the disease”. Once Anderson started to have a public platform, her mother asked her to become a patron.
“I don’t know whether the importance of that work entirely struck me at that time. I’m quite a private person, so I often struggle with the public aspect of being an activist, and the need to get one’s voice out there and above the parapet. I have a complex relationship with that dynamic, so that has had an impact on how much I throw myself at things,” she says. “[I keep] my private life and my political musings to myself. My activism is public, sometimes private, but mostly public, and I’m OK to shout out about that kind of stuff, but everything else is mine.” From September, Anderson is back on screen as sex therapist Milburn for the third series of Netflix’s Sex Education, a role that allows her to help people in a different way. Given the comedy aspect of the role, playing Milburn is a breath of fresh air for Anderson. “What’s so refreshing about playing Jean is how left field her personality is while she’s at the same time, headstrong, independent, professional. She’s a multifaceted character and yet it’s a comedy so I get to be funny! Up until now, I haven’t exactly been people’s first choice for that.”
The show has been groundbreaking in so many ways. It tackles serious subjects like sexually transmitted diseases, sexual assault, infidelity, abortion and homophobia, but does so in a light-hearted way that doesn’t alienate the audience. It’s educational while still being entertaining, and has been lauded by critics and viewers alike. But for Anderson, accepting the role of a sex therapist for a show aimed at teenagers didn’t come without initial apprehension. “I was nervous before taking this job, given the age of my two boys, and also, I guess, nervous for my twentysomething daughter, being sensitive to her having a mother who was so freely part of this conversation. At the same time, the way these conversations are handled on the show is really careful and mindful and researched, and so I feel proud to be a part of something that is handling it so well. Even if there may have been times when my kids have been embarrassed, perhaps because of the fact that the courgette video is out there in the same way that it was in the series, I feel it’s an important enough conversation for me to be actively involved in and therefore overrides my fear. I can have conversations with them about how important it is and some of these conversations help to settle their concerns.”
"My activism is public, sometimes private, but mostly public, and I’m OK to shout out about that kind of stuff, but everything else is mine."
I suggest that perhaps schools should start using screenings of Sex Education in actual sex education classes, since some of the topics in the show wouldn’t necessarily be part of the curriculum, and it seems that, actually, in other countries, adolescents are already using it as their go-to for information and education. “When Asa [Butterfield] and I first started to do international press, there was a Polish journalist in front of us who basically said, ‘We do not have sex education in schools. This show is our sex education,’ and that was before it had even been released. Asa and I looked at each other, like, ‘Oh my God, we’ve got a bigger responsibility than we had originally realised.’”
With that in mind, I’m imagining that Anderson’s social media accounts are regularly flooded with messages from teens around the world asking her for advice onsexual-health matters. Her Twitter bio does describe her as a “shag specialist”, after all. “Not through DMs. Unless I’m missing something. I do have someone who goes through the stuff before I see it, so it’s possible I don’t know about it. Including the, shall we say, dick pics that I apparently get sent,” she says with an animated laugh. “So I don’t have Instagram on my phone, but sometimes I’ll be alerted to the fact that there has been a slew of dick pics… People are shocking!”
When she’s not worrying about having her messages flooded with penises, Anderson is looking ahead to the next chapter in her career, showing that despite her roaring success so far, she has no plans to slow down. “There are a few things I’m actively involved with putting together that will hopefully give me an opportunity while I’m still at it, to do as many different types of projects in as many different mediums as possible. Bouncing back and forth between features, TV and stage is my favourite place to live.”
Sex Education season three debuts 17 September on Netflix. This interview is taken from our Taking Back Control issue. Order your copy here.