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Gillian Anderson, who plays Eleanor Roosevelt on the Showtime series “The First Lady,” Joanna on “The Great” and Dr. Jean Milburn on “Sex Education,” really vibes with female characters who forge their own paths — and there’s good reason for that: Even when she was a small child, “telling Gillian what she could and couldn’t do” was impossible, she recalls her mother saying. In this episode of “The Envelope,” Anderson dishes on the importance of Roosevelt’s loving relationship with journalist Lorena Hickok, why “Sex Education” initially didn’t click with her, and the long legacy of “The X-Files.”
Mark Olsen: Yvonne, when you think of cool who do you think of?
Yvonne Villarreal: Oh, man. I feel like I want to be edgy and say Che Diaz from the “Sex and the City” revival. But I won’t do that to us. I’m just going to say the cast of “Euphoria.” What about you, Mark?
Olsen: Well, when I think of cool, I always think of people who’ve just been out there doing their own thing. And today’s guest has been going her own way for decades from “The X-Files,” which shot her to fame in the ‘90s to her recent work on the Showtime series, “The First Lady.” Gillian Anderson has seemed like such a free, independent person who won’t let anyone dictate what her career or her life should look like. “The First Lady,” which was directed by Susanne Bier, is structured so it moves between the lives of Eleanor Roosevelt, played by Gillian alongside Betty Ford, played by Michelle Pfeiffer and Michelle Obama played by Viola Davis. You see how the role of the first lady has evolved over the years.
[Clip from “The First Lady”: ELEANOR: Oh, I see. I’m good enough to get him here, but not good enough to keep going. LOUIS: You have your own schedule to worry about your own duties. ELEANOR: Well, good. So he’s finally decided on my job in the administration? LOUIS: Yes, first lady. ELEANOR: That’s not a job, Louis. That’s my circumstance.]
Olsen: There definitely is a lot of the more things change, the more they stay the same vibes to it as they all face the challenges of being underestimated, overlooked and not listened to.
Villarreal: Ah, yes, the joys of being a woman.
Olsen: It really was one of the best things about the conversation with Gillian. As someone who’s been pretty famous for quite a while now, she really has a great perspective on the evolution of what it’s been like to be a woman in Hollywood, including the way the media treated women from the ‘90s to today.
Villarreal: Yeah, you know, I have to say, Dana Scully was one of my earliest TV role models. And I remember that Gillian really developed a voice and advocated for herself over the pay discrepancy between her and her X-Files co-star, David Duchovny, back then and yet again with the revival in 2016. And I, I have to think that Eleanor Roosevelt would have approved of that.
Olsen: But Gillian is def not living in the past. I mean, she’s recently reached this just really incredible new moment in her career. She won an Emmy for playing Margaret Thatcher on “The Crown.” She appeared on “Sex Education,” which she said surprised even her and most recently had a just hilarious turn on “The Great,” all while continuing to have an ongoing stage career as well. So let’s get to our conversation. Welcome to the show. Thanks for joining us.
Gillian Anderson: Thank you for having me.
Olsen: And now, with regards to “The First Lady,” tell me a little bit what your first thoughts were just when you heard about the role of Eleanor Roosevelt and the premise of the show?
Anderson: Well, I think when I first heard about it, I heard about it in terms of somebody else having been cast. And I remember thinking, on the one hand, what a great idea that is. And then when that person was unable to do it and they came to me, I thought, that doesn’t make any sense to me, because Eleanor was almost 6 foot tall and I’m 5-foot-3. And surely I need to tell them this and they will think twice about casting me. But I had a conversation with Susanne Bier and it seemed that there’s not much that one can talk Susanne Bier out of if she has her mind set on something. And that was certainly the case, and I’m very pleased that I said yes.
Olsen: I know. Was there anything done to, like, cheat your height in the production?
Anderson: No, because I was so concerned about it. I did speak to them about ramps and whatnot, and it was just really an untenable situation. I know that people have done it before, but there are so many situations and outdoor situations and that and the other. And so we basically had me in higher heels than she might. I mean, she didn’t really wear heels. She wore very low-heeled shoes. And we tried to put me in square heels. That didn’t look entirely outlandish for a woman who never wore them, just at least to get me even remotely close to the height of most of the rest of the actors that I was working with, let alone to tower over them, which is what she did most of the time. So I had to completely let go of my self-consciousness about it.
Olsen: And now the structure of the show is three first ladies, Eleanor Roosevelt, who you play, Betty Ford and Michelle Obama, with totally separate storylines. But did you come to see a way in which they are united to you? What brings those three women together?
Anderson: I did. I mean, when we were shooting it, I was not privy to the other storylines. I mean, I don’t know about the other actors, but I didn’t see the other scripts. And so I just trusted that there was a through line and that there was somebody in charge of piecing it all together and making it make sense. And I guess what I came to learn as I saw the final product and did ADR and etc. was, you know, one of the biggest through lines, the most obvious through line is about these women finding a place for themselves in a role that, at least before Eleanor didn’t it didn’t pre-exist. She really properly carved out a space for herself and for women going forward who would find themselves in that position.
[Clip from “The First Lady”: ELEANOR: Soothing is one thing. It’s another to lead a country in its darkest hour. FDR: Well, you were instrumental in helping crafting my message. So, I’m grateful for you. ELEANOR: We make a good team. FDR: Yes we do.]
Anderson: In the series, you see Betty Ford and Michelle Obama. They still have to find their own voice and their own ways of making a mark and feeling like they had purpose and that they could make a difference both in the role and outside of the role.
Olsen: Well, as Eleanor says of being first lady, that’s not a job. That’s my circumstance. And one of the things that really comes through in the show is how instrumental she was in defining what a modern first lady can be simply by, as you’re saying, the fact that each first lady has to find what the role is going to be for herself.
Anderson: Yeah. Yeah, precisely.
Olsen: And then how did you prepare to play the role of Eleanor Roosevelt? Was it similar to how, for example, you prepared to play Margaret Thatcher on “The Crown”?
Anderson: Yeah, very similar. I started at the beginning of their lives and it’s actually quite remarkable how much a childhood influences and is reflected in how one is as an adult. And it’s fascinating and acutely studying two seemingly very powerful effective women, that being Thatcher and Eleanor Roosevelt, to see the degree to which even later in life, even in their 50s, 60s, you know, they are still influenced by influences of their childhoods, in how they are in the world, in how they approach their work.
Olsen: Is there an example of something that you feel that you learned about Eleanor Roosevelt’s childhood that you were able to bring forward into her adult life? What was something that you feel like you you learned about her?
Anderson: Well, you know, she had an incredibly unhappy childhood. She had a very challenging relationship with her mother, who told her from a very young age that she was ugly and that she wasn’t going to make it as a spouse in the way that maybe other women would. And so, therefore, our mother was going to insist that she focus on her studies so that at least she had that to offer. And then both her mother and her father died within two years of each other when she was 8 and 10. And her father wasn’t around very much, but he was her everything. He was her beloved and he died at, I think, 34. And her mother died first. She was sent away when her father died to live with her grandmother, who was very strict and had her working with the help in the house. And it wasn’t really until she was sent away to London, actually, to a school that was run by a French woman, a lesbian French woman called Madame Souvestre, who basically educated young, bright female minds and encouraged them and taught them how to find their own voices and to speak up for themselves and to debate and to think critically. And her childhood and the sorrow of her childhood, she also lost a younger brother traumatically. And there was just a lot of loneliness and sorrow and low self-esteem that she battled with for the rest of her life. And she battled with depression and what she referred to as her Griselda moods. And then it was 13 years, I think after she was married to Franklin, her beloved husband, she found out that he was having an affair with her secretary. And that really was a big turning point for her because she was absolutely devastated. You know, I think so much of that life experience contributed to her compassion for the disenfranchised and for areas of the population that despite the fact that she grew up as a Roosevelt and had a voice as a Roosevelt and was listened to as a Roosevelt, despite the fact that she was a woman, she really paved a way to be of service to those that were less fortunate than her.
Olsen: I mean, one thing that comes through in the show is that people are often telling Eleanor and the other first ladies to sort of like stay in their place. That they, you know, there’s an idea of what they should be like and what they should be doing. Whenever they sort of go outside their lane a little bit, people get very upset with them. And I’m wondering how that sort of resonated for you and if that’s something that you feel you’ve encountered in your own career, that people have an idea of what they think you should be doing, the kind of roles you should be taking, and how you sort of grapple with that.
Anderson: You know, I don’t think I’ve ever stayed in my lane figuratively and literally. I remember being in a therapy session with my mom and just kind of working through some stuff. And the question coming up about why did you let this happen for Gillian at age 8 or whatever it was. Her response was there was never, ever telling Gillian what she could and couldn’t do. She was going to do what she was going to do. But, you know, fair enough I think that’s certainly true now. It was true then, you know, despite growing up in a certain degree of poverty, I have led a privileged life. You know, I haven’t had those experiences in that way. You know, those hurdles that way, either we were able to get, you know, loans for school. We were able to able to get into a decent high school. I was able to, you know, all that. And in terms of career, if I had done what other people said, I probably wouldn’t have ended up in the UK, probably wouldn’t have started doing theater right off the bat of doing “The X-Files” and probably would have gotten a publicist and, you know, all those things. So, sometimes it’s OK and one can still succeed even if you don’t toe the party line.
Olsen: And now one more thing about Eleanor Roosevelt. Over the decades, there’s been a lot of debate among historians about the exact nature of Eleanor’s relationship with the journalist Lorena Hickok played on the show by Lily Rabe. And the show isn’t explicit exactly, but it makes it very clear that they’re more than just friends. And I’m curious for you how you felt about sort of the, you know, maybe how you and Lily sort of define that relationship for yourselves and whether to you there was any ambiguity there or how that kind of relationship resonated to you.
Anderson: I would say that is pretty explicit, given the fact that they made out and slept together. That’s pretty explicit in terms of the nature of their relationship. There is a book that exists that is their love letters to each other. And it is understood that Hickok had destroyed the most provocative of them after they were no longer in a relationship. And so those didn’t end up getting into the book. And so I think everyone felt that it was pretty safe, accurate territory to depict women who were, you know, really, really longtime companions, both in friendship and in love and in romantic love.
[Clip from “The First Lady”: ELEANOR: I’ve been decorating. HICK: This desk is gorgeous. ELEANOR: I thought you would like it. All of this is for you, Hick. HICK: Thank you.]
Anderson: But the thing about Eleanor is that Lorena wasn’t the only person that she had a clear relationship with. And, you know, there’s a lot of speculation about her relationship with her bodyguard Earl Miller, who she spent many, many, many hours and hours and hours with and riding into the hills and going on holidays and trips together. And I think there was a deep love and companionship whether or not it was intimate. I’m not sure if anybody knows. You know, she just, she pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable then and what is still acceptable today in terms of romantic love and companionship. And so I think what the show does is it celebrates it actually in a really beautiful, sweet, touching way, as you see these two women completely taken with each other. And on the one hand, you know, having to hide it. On the other hand, with Eleanor being in the, you know, most important house in the land, moving her into the bedroom next to hers, as you know, that’s completely audacious. And so, you know, I think she was unbelievably bold. And, you know, as it happens, a lot of her friends who were activists and politicos were also gay women and her friendships with them started before she may have even identified as being gay herself. What were she ever to do that out loud.
Olsen: Eleanor Roosevelt isn’t the first biopic or true-life role you’ve played. You’ve done a good handful. What draws you to these roles?
Anderson: Well, I think I’ve got one other one on my slate that’s in development, but I think I might pause on that for a while. I don’t really want to be the go-to actress for that, necessarily. I think it’s just the particular women that I’ve been asked to play, primarily. I think that really interests me. And so it’s really a matter of just, you know, one job at a time making those decisions. But I do enjoy it. The pressure and the expectation obviously is going to be greater but all you can do is show up and do the best that you can do. And then you have to let go of what people’s reactions are. And if there happens to be another extraordinary opportunity, again, I might say yes, but I might take a break from it for a while and play some some psychopaths.
Olsen: Because your role playing Joanna, the mother of Catherine the Great on “The Great,” both is just so fun but also so different from these other sort of real life roles that you play. There’s an element of camp to that show, and also they take a lot of liberties with the historical record. What was playing that role like in relationship to these other real life roles you’ve had?
Anderson: Well, it doesn’t really compare in a way because of the liberty and also because there’s not all that much material to be found about her. And there certainly isn’t any video to study or audio to listen to. And yet, at the same time, there are other details that, of course, one has to fill in all the blanks. And so then it just becomes trying to fit into the mood of the show and not feel like you stand out in any way. And to just kind of have fun with Elle and Nicholas and make the most of the fabulous dialogue and the fabulous costumes.
[Clip from “The Great”: CATHERINE: Also, you noticed, I’m pregnant! JOANNA: Oh, I’d hoped that’s what it was. Russians can be *quite fat.* I’d almost feared you’d turned native.]
Olsen: Your career now? I mean, it stretches back to when you were on “The X-Files,” but it seems like the last maybe five years or so, you’ve hit this kind of whole new gear that you’ve had your role as Eleanor Roosevelt, your role in “Sex Education.” You won an Emmy playing Margaret Thatcher, and you even were nominated for an Olivier Award for your work on stage on “All About Eve.” What does this moment meant to you? Does it feel to you like something sort of happened or changed in the last few years for you?
Anderson: Um, yes. It was a bit further back than that. I think it was in, I remember it was 2016, which was just a bit further back than five years. And because in that year I was getting to play Blanche. The same year that I was in “A Streetcar Named Desire” and in the same year that I was getting to play this character that I play, there was a series I did called “The Fall,” which was on BBC over here and also Netflix eventually over here in the States. And I loved playing her so much. And I remember thinking, if I die this year, I’ll be happy. The fact that I get to play these two completely different and completely extraordinary women for completely different reasons to play, you know, one an absolute hot mess and the other one, everything supposedly completely under control and a real force for feminism. I felt if it all ends now, either for me or in my career, I’ve done what I’ve come out here to do. And since then, I’ve been as lucky with various gigs and my favorite thing is to get to move between theater and film and television. And I’m a very lucky girl to have these opportunities.
Olsen: Is that something you feel like you’ve strived for? I mean, in a way is it surprising to feel like you have, I mean, this would now be your second or third sort of like big moment in your career. And I’m just — are you surprised to sort of get this new, you know, moment in your career like this?
Anderson: What’s interesting is that because I feel like there are certain things that I haven’t had a chance to do yet, that keeps me hungry in a way, or it keeps me reaching for the ultimate goal kind of thing. And so I think when that happens, I will be you know, I will be probably shocked, shocked and surprised. And even though it’s, you know, been a lifelong dream, etc., I think that would be a moment where I’ll be speechless. In the meantime, it really, as much as anything, just feels like it’s putting one foot in front of the other and being grateful.
Olsen: I don’t want to jinx it, but what is it that you feel you have left to do?
Anderson: [Laughs] There’s so much. There’s so much.
Olsen: Well, one thing I want to be sure to ask you about is your role on “Sex Education,” which is a show that has a real fan base. And I think people really have responded to your role in particular. It’s exciting to see a character of a woman in, you know, her middle age who really has this rich personal life and then her sex life can be a part of that. What has that role meant to you and in particular, the way that fans and audiences have responded to the show?
Anderson: Yeah, well, I couldn’t have guessed that. I think when I was cast, you know, I really couldn’t have guessed that the response for the show as a whole and also particularly for Jane, was going to be as strong as it has been. And again, I feel like, you know, she completely came to me out of the blue and I didn’t quite get it at first. I didn’t quite get the show. I didn’t quite get how a therapist who was a well-respected professional therapist could be so morally ambiguous in her personal life and with her son. And once I got it and it was almost even once the audience got it and embraced it, once I got to see that, oh, I almost felt like I saw it through their eyes. It was like, “Oh, that’s what this is. That’s what this is going to be. Oh, my God, I’m so lucky that I’m on it.” You know, I kind of felt like it was one of those. You know, since then, it’s just been a delight. I love working with Asa. He’s who I work with the most and with Mikael, who plays who plays Yakob and is now the father of my child. Which is a whole — we haven’t even begun to address that whole storyline yet because that comes up in the next season and I haven’t read anything yet, so I have no idea whose child that actually is. And so I think it probably has influenced a bit some of the other stuff that has been coming my way.
Olsen: So you mentioned not quite getting it at first. What do you think you initially did not get about “Sex Education” that maybe has now clicked for you?
Anderson: Well, I was a bit and I’m only saying this because I was proved wrong. I wouldn’t be talking about that in this way if I wasn’t proved wrong. I was worried that it was too broad, that the comedy was too on the nose, that it was, you know, all the things that. And then I suddenly realized I’m not the demographic.
Olsen: Right [Laughs].
Anderson: And even though I’m not the demographic, there are a lot of people who are my age who really, really respond to it. It really has kind of smashed through all of the demographics. And I watch documentaries. Mm hmm. And that’s pretty much all I watch. And so to go from documentaries about the Iraq war, to go to watching “Sex Education,” it’s ... that’s a big leap. That’s a big leap. And so, ah, it took me a while.
Olsen: Hmm. And now I hope you might. I have to ask you one, something just about “The X-Files.” The show has such a following still all these years later. And I’m just curious what you kind of make of that and what what do you think it is that audiences both, you know, longtime fans and people who are still newly discovering the show, what do you think they’re taking from it? Like what to you is the reason for the show’s longevity?
Anderson: I mean, that’s amazing to hear. I mean, I know that, you know, die-hard fans who have been with us from the beginning would still consider themselves fans. I still have people saying to me, you know, I grew up loving, you know, “The X-Files” and etc. There was a period of time when I was doing Comic-Cons where I suddenly realized that there was a whole lot of people my age or older who would come up and say, “This is my son. I introduced him to X-Files just a couple years ago because he’s, you know, now 13 years old and he’s a big fan now and I’m so glad. Can you take a picture with us?” or something. And so, you know, people who were die-hard fans introducing their their kids, their offspring, you know, almost like a rites of passage. And then there’s a whole slew of kids who are finding it, you know, in their own right. And also, I swear conspiracy theories are not weakening. They’re getting stronger and stronger all the time, and particularly government conspiracy theories or related to government and the dynamic between Mulder and Scully and the frisson between them. It holds up, you know, it really does. It’s quite a ... it’s a rare thing to see when it’s quite that pronounced and enjoyable and stretched out over such a long period of time.
Olsen: Yeah. You know, I feel what really ties together so many of your roles is that you seem to always be playing women who are very modern and progressive in their moment, and many of them are even kind of ahead of their time, living life on their own terms. And I’m wondering, do you feel like you’re specifically drawn to that kind of a character? And do you even feel like that’s a sort of a reflection of who you are?
Anderson: Oh, that’s interesting, you know. I’ve never actually looked at it in that way before. That’s very interesting. I mean, I’m used to hearing from interviewers, you know, you always play strong women, but you’re right to zero in on that aspect of it. That’s true. That’s true. And it actually goes back to your previous question. When I you know, when we were talking about staying within the lines, these women are not, you know, a lot of these women don’t stay within the designated lines. And I have no doubt because it’s me who’s doing the choosing. That must have something to do with why it’s me that’s playing them.
Olsen: Gillian, thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been such a pleasure talking to you.
Anderson: Thank you for having me. I really enjoyed that. Thank you.