Gillian Anderson first burst into the public’s consciousness 28 years ago with The X-Files. On Chris Carter’s groundbreaking sci-fi drama for Fox, she played FBI special agent Dana Scully, a young woman with a medical degree and a graduate degree in physics who, with her partner, David Duchovny’s agent Fox Mulder, investigates unsolved cases of paranormal phenomena. Her Scully — whom The New York Times described as “one of the coolest, most competent professional women ever portrayed on television” — enlivened an initial run of nine seasons, two movie spinoffs and two more recent seasons, and she picked up an Emmy, a Golden Globe Award and two SAG Awards along the way. In between, she also shined in indie films like The House of Mirth and The Last King of Scotland and on TV programs including Bleak House, Great Expectations, The Fall, Hannibal, American Gods and Sex Education. But never has she received more glowing notices than for her portrayal of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on the fourth season of the Netflix drama series The Crown, for which she already has won a Golden Globe Award, a SAG Award and a Critics Choice Award, and for which she is nominated for and heavily favored to win the outstanding supporting actress in a drama series Emmy on Sept. 19.
Anderson recently guested on THR’s Awards Chatter podcast and discussed the conflicted feelings she has when she thinks back to her years on The X-Files; why, after the show’s success, she fled Hollywood and screen acting for a number of years then subsequently returned to both; and what it means to her, after so many ups and downs in the business, to receive universal acclaim for her work on The Crown.
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You can listen to the episode here. Highlights — lightly edited for clarity/brevity — appear lower on the page.
Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Lorne Michaels, Meryl Streep, George Clooney, Barbra Streisand, Robert De Niro, Angelina Jolie, Eddie Murphy, Gal Gadot, Warren Beatty, Jennifer Lawrence, Snoop Dogg, Julia Roberts, Stephen Colbert, Reese Witherspoon, Aaron Sorkin, Margot Robbie, Ryan Reynolds, Nicole Kidman, Denzel Washington, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Matthew McConaughey, Kate Winslet, Jimmy Kimmel, Natalie Portman, Kevin Hart, Jennifer Lopez, Elton John, Judi Dench, Quincy Jones, Jane Fonda, Tom Hanks, Michelle Pfeiffer, Justin Timberlake, Elisabeth Moss, RuPaul, Cate Blanchett, Jimmy Fallon, Renee Zellweger, Michael Moore, Emilia Clarke, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Helen Mirren, Tyler Perry, Sally Field, Spike Lee, Lady Gaga, J.J. Abrams, Emma Stone, Al Pacino, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Jerry Seinfeld, Dolly Parton, Will Smith, Kerry Washington, Sacha Baron Cohen, Carol Burnett, Norman Lear, Keira Knightley, David Letterman, Sophia Loren, Hugh Jackman, Melissa McCarthy, Ken Burns, Jodie Foster, Conan O’Brien, Amy Adams, Ben Affleck, Zendaya, Will Ferrell, Glenn Close, Michael B. Jordan, Jessica Chastain, Jay Leno, Saoirse Ronan, Billy Porter, Brie Larson, Kevin Feige and Tina Fey.
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Where were you born and raised, and what did your folks do for a living?
I was born in Chicago and raised between the U.K. and Michigan. We moved to the U.K. when I was 2. My dad went to the London Film School — he later made industrial films in Michigan — and my mom got a job with Lloyds Bank.
What put you on to acting? I believe that as a teen, you did a lot of acting out.
A lot of that had to do with feeling so out of place in Michigan, having come from London. As far as acting, I must have been influenced in some way by the fact that I visited my dad at the film school. He made a short film that I was in for the film school at one point. Then I auditioned when I was in Michigan for community theater productions, and it was after actually getting cast in one that I then had the experience of feeling what it was like to properly act.
After participating in a National Theatre-affiliated program at Cornell and attending drama school at DePaul in Chicago, you moved to New York because an agent there had told you he wanted to represent you?
Had that agent not said, “Come to New York and we’ll represent you,” I have to imagine I probably would have gone there or gone to L.A. anyway.
At that time, you were vehemently opposed to going to Los Angeles. Why?
So much of my focus was toward doing theater, even though I also wanted to do film, that I definitely wanted to start in New York.
In New York, Mary-Louise Parker dropped out of a play at the Manhattan Theater Club, you auditioned, got the part, won a Theater World Award and lots of acclaim — but were still having to waitress to make ends meet. Was this what forced you to reconsider your position about L.A.?
It wasn’t so much that. It was because I met a guy. I had gone up to the Long Wharf and done another British production and met a fellow actor. I was basically just going out to Los Angeles to stay with him for a couple of weeks, but I ended up selling my return ticket and moved in with him.
There’s not much theater in L.A., so at that point you decided to begin pursuing auditions for films or, God forbid, TV?
Yes, “God forbid, TV” — certainly in those days! I was very elitist and only wanted to audition for film, and that just wasn’t happening. I was auditioning, but I wasn’t being cast. Then, at some point, I went for a TV audition, for Class of ’96, and got it, and that was literally my only experience when I got the audition for The X-Files.
You were just 24. As I understand it, you won over X-Files creator Chris Carter right away, but the network had a different idea of what they wanted?
David was cast, and then it was about casting the girl. I went in to network. I was told that they liked me, but they weren’t sure. The next time I got called back, they’d also flown in Jill Hennessy and Cynthia Nixon from New York. But, as they say, the rest is history.
What do you think explains the fact that the show was such a phenomenon?
There were so many things that went into it. I do think that at the top of the list would be the dynamic between the two of us [Duchovny and her]. That was strong, and the writers made it even stronger — at the end of every scene, we were to look into each other’s eyes and all that kind of stuff. There was just the juxtaposition between Scully’s nerdy, obsessive, scientific mind and Mulder’s cool-dude kind of underground brainiac chic. They were just very good juxtaposed characters, and then there was the chemistry.
It’s easy to forget what a trailblazer that show was. Without it, we’d probably not have had Lost or Heroes or any of the shows about supernatural things that followed.
There was nothing even remotely like it anywhere. Also, in terms of young women, the female population was finally seeing a woman that they could identify with on television who wasn’t 6-foot-2 and who was pretty darn serious about the things that she believed in and was incredibly smart. Scully presented an attractive way to be intelligent.
How did you, as a person in your mid-20s, acclimate to suddenly being very famous?
We certainly had problems with that when we headed down to L.A. [later in the show’s run], but for the most part, we could just live our lives up in Vancouver [where it shot for the first few seasons]. Our hours were such that I wasn’t reading anything; I didn’t look at the tabloids, I didn’t know the degree to how we were impacting the world at that point — it was only when magazines would come to do interviews and they’d talk about how popular the show was. I would be like, “Really?”
You became pregnant during the first season and had your first child during the second. I don’t get the sense that was very warmly received by all of your collaborators, and I understand that it was a stressful enough time that you’d have panic attacks every day.
I think that the mixture of the surprise, the mixture of the pregnancy, the mixture of the reaction from the studio, the mixture of the hormones that were suddenly there and the hours that we were doing — my system was just on overload. Then that overload continued for a while because I was struggling in my new marriage, and then we were going through a divorce. There was a good period of time where I was definitely in survival mode.
We now live in an age when some Emmy-winning shows comprise just six episodes. You guys were doing 20 to 25 for nine straight years, which required being in production for three-quarters of the year.
It’s unsustainable, it really is. Only the young can do it. I’m working with Kiefer Sutherland at the moment, and of course he did 24 and had that same kind of schedule. It’s interesting talking to people who had that experience back in the day. But, yes, it’s actually nice to do between eight and 12.
You’ve described getting a part in Terence Davies’ film The House of Mirth during a hiatus late in the show’s run as a big deal for you. Was that because it was a vote of confidence in your abilities apart from Scully?
It was a vote of confidence, and also, I was familiar with this quite obscure director — I had seen some of his films and really been moved by a couple of them — and the fact that he was asking for me to audition even was a really big deal for me. Back then, you had Merchant-Ivory films and other period films, and I really wanted to have an opportunity to be part of that world.
After the initial X-Files run of nine seasons ended, when the advisable career move might have been to strike while the iron was hot in L.A., you moved to London and did theater. Why?
First and foremost, I wanted to do something that was the complete antithesis of a hit TV show. I wasn’t sure if I could be on a TV set again. It was intense for almost a decade. That’s the equivalent of doing six films a year. Also, I had always wanted to have a life back in London — it was such a big part of my formative years — and that was the first opportunity that I had to realize that dream. Even before The X-Files was done, I bought a house in London.
You resumed screen acting after about five years, most notably in Bleak House — for which you received best actress BAFTA and Golden Globe noms — in The Last King of Scotland and in Great Expectations.
Up until recently, I’ve been adamant not to ever be away from my kids for more than three weeks at a time. I’ve been a pain in the ass to cast because at the beginning, I’m like, “OK, I’m only your girl if I can shoot during these periods of time because if I can’t come back and see my kids, then you’ve got the wrong person.”
In the past few years, you’ve been on an amazing run — as a detective on The Fall, as Dr. Lecter’s psychiatrist on Hannibal, as Anna on War & Peace — and you revisited Scully twice.
Completely unbeknownst to me, there was a sense that the second group of episodes were potentially going to be the beginning of a new series. It’s possible that they were just hoping that if it went well… I remember doing press for it and talking about it as being the end, and both the press and the people around me looking at me like, “What are you talking about?” This is the end — like, this is the end, the end.
In the past two years, you’ve basically become the face of Netflix with Sex Education, on which you play a sex therapist whose own son is discovering sex himself, and, of course, The Crown. Let’s start with Sex Education…
I’ve been looking, as you might imagine, to do comedy for some time, but it was initially a no. I was a bit worried that it was too broad and too on the nose — which of course is what it’s all about, but I hadn’t gotten that right up front. It took my partner [Peter Morgan] to say, “Hang on a second.” He convinced me that I needed to seriously reconsider, and boy, am I glad I did.
He, of course, is also behind The Crown. When the idea was first broached that you might play Thatcher, were you immediately confident that you could?
Even after the idea was broached for Thatcher, there were still a couple more hurdles that needed to happen — timing and schedule and did anybody else agree with me, other than Peter, that I might be able to do it. Also, just in terms of what it could have done to our relationship at the time — I think we were both scared about that. It’s always a challenge for people working together. I did think I could do it, but I can’t tell you why. It’s a weird thing except something inside of me recognized that it was attainable.
You have said that one of the things Peter told you that was most helpful was, “It’s really important that you maintain an element of yourself. We cast you for a reason.” What did you interpret that to mean? Like, what should you not lose of yourself beneath the hair and makeup and padding and all of that?
I sometimes have a tendency to lose the bigger picture and to just get really specific in terms of all the other elements, and I think that, for whatever reason, that opened something up to me, it kind of let the steam out of the pressure cooker a bit. [Thatcher] had a twinkle in her eye, she knew how to grab people. Not that I have that, but it allowed me to allow a tiny bit of mischievousness into it. It would be really easy to get too closed and too serious.
Did you know in the moment, while you were on set playing this character, that something special was going on, or did you have to hear that from others or watch it for yourself to have that click?
It really is only when people are responding that I kind of take my hands away from my eyes and my fingers out of my ears. It’s so hard to know. Doing House of Mirth, I put my blood, sweat and tears into something, and then there was a review that came out that literally made me want to quit. I thought, “I need to quit.” Interestingly, the same thing happened this time around — there’s a British writer who did almost the same thing and made it personal, made it really personal. I didn’t read any reviews, save two, and it happened to be the second one that I opened. It is interesting how different a response I had.
For the fourth season of The X-Files, you became the first person to ever win an Emmy, a SAG Award and a Golden Globe Award for the same performance in the same season. This season, you’ve already won the SAG Award, the Golden Globe Award and the Critics Choice Award. Is it particularly validating, after all of the various ups and downs that we’ve discussed, to be back in this sort of a situation?
You’re actually making me really emotional. It’s interesting because there are performances along the way where one gets a bit flummoxed about why one’s not nominated, like for The Fall — no nominations for anybody, director, writer, actors. That confused me. At those moments, you think, “What’s the barometer?” I remember at the time feeling the same with Great Expectations, which got very little attention from people, and now Sex Education. All you can do is keep showing up and following your heart, and doing it for yourself — and sometimes doing it to keep the roof over your children’s heads — and try and make good, sound, ethical and hopefully profound choices. But at the end of the day, if you’re doing it for you, and you’re confident and proud of what you put into it and how you’ve shown up for it and for yourself and for your fellow actors and artists, then it doesn’t really matter what the reaction is — except to say, it feels really great when there is this kind of attention for something. It does make me really emotional because there were a lot of years in between that X-Files season and today — a couple of decades, maybe — and I am even more grateful, as overwhelmed and feeling very blessed to be in this place in my dotage.