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Gillian Anderson on wiping off the makeup and getting real in ‘All About Eve’

Gillian Anderson in her Olivier Award-nominated turn as Margo Channing in director Ivo van Hove’s adaptation of “All About Eve” in London.
(Jan Versweyveld)

Early on in the London stage production of “All About Eve,” Gillian Anderson’s Margo Channing removes her stage makeup in a bright dressing room mirror. As she swipes away the layers, Anderson’s face is projected in close-up on massive video screens, which magnify the actual lines and dark circles under her eyes.

It’s a moment of realization for the audience: This is no straightforward production. This is a story about seeing the truth in ourselves.

“A couple people have said, ‘You’re so brave,’ ” said Anderson, sitting in her basement dressing room at the Noel Coward Theatre. “So much of what we see of people these days is Photoshopped and filtered, so the fact that I’m allowing the audience to see all the nooks and crannies of my face is unusual. And I hadn’t thought about that until someone said it. I didn’t feel brave in doing it, at all.”

Anderson arrived at the role of Margo, the aging theater diva faced with a diminishing career and a potential rival in her young assistant, Eve Harrington (Lily James), by happenstance. Anderson’s boyfriend, writer Peter Morgan (“The Crown,” “Frost/Nixon”), had suggested she look into whether the 1950 Bette Davis-Anne Baxter film had ever been translated to the stage when she discovered theater director Ivo van Hove was already adaptating Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s screenplay.

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“I was trying to find out what his plans were for how he was going to cast it,” Anderson recalled. “Then I found out that Cate Blanchett was doing it, and so I slowly backed into the shadows and thought, ‘Man, do I want to see that.’ ”

Blanchett, it would turn out, had a scheduling conflict. Anderson signed on, and her thoughtful performance has earned her a lead actress nomination for the Olivier Awards on Sunday.

The recognition comes despite the fact that the cast, which includes Monica Dolan and Julian Ovenden, had just four weeks to rehearse. Actors were instructed to arrive off-book on Day 1. There was almost no discussion of the text, so Anderson slowly worked out Margo’s mindset and motivations along the way, well into previews in early February. Part of the challenge was working with a camera crew that filmed the stage action live to be projected on the aforementioned video screens. (Van Hove did something similar in last year’s adaptation of “Network.”)

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“I wasn’t nervous about the cameras, but what was very clear when we started out was that none of us quite knew what it was that we had,” Anderson said. “I know that’s always slightly the case because one’s never in the audience looking back, but for some reason with this I think we didn’t quite know how it fit together, or whether it all fit together, or what it was that we had until we’d been doing it properly for a while. And then something seeped in and we understood it.”

Gillian Anderson with Julian Ovenden in “All About Eve” in London.
(Jan Versweyveld)

This version of “All About Eve” has vintage and contemporary touches. The set and lighting design, created by Van Hove’s longtime collaborator (and partner) Jan Versweyveld, reflect a span from the 1950s to today, as do the glamorous costumes. The story, very much a product of its time, needed to resonate with a modern audience, a sentiment that was essential to Anderson as she considered Margo.

“The film is known as being an iconic feminist tale, and yet in the film Margo very much is beholden to men,” the actress said. “She has a speech where she says women are not women unless they have men. From the very beginning, it was important for me to open that conversation up.

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“The way I ended up making it work was having her speak from her own experience. Not saying ‘women’ but saying ‘I’ — she’s talking specifically about her boyfriend Bill and how, up until that point, she has chosen her career as her focus and love. She realizing how much she suddenly values him and the relationship, and that she is more of who she is with him in her life. That’s still an OK thing to own and to accept and to embrace.”

She added, thinking back, “It did make a difference, because all women have different experiences. Some women are not validated by men or interested in men, and some women don’t identify as womanly. It felt like it was making it more relatable.”

“All About Eve” is often seen as a story of female rivals, but in Van Hove’s production it’s more about the way in which people see and are seen, an idea that’s reinforced by the video screens and mirrors. Anderson plays Margo as an excitable, out-of-touch celebrity and also as a woman sincerely grappling with her identity. If her career is coming to an end, what then is her currency?

“It does feel particularly topical,” Anderson said. “The fact that it is such a female-led story is important today. Or at least, there’s more of a desire to see female-led stories and listen to female characters, so it’s fallen at the right time.”

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Women reach a point, Anderson said, where they wonder: What have I done with my life? Where has it all gone, and what’s next?

“With this it took me longer to figure her out,” Gillian Anderson said of her character, Margo Channing.
(Perou)

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The Olivier nomination is Anderson’s third, following nods in the same category for “A Street Car Named Desire” in 2015 and “A Doll’s House” in 2010. The latest nomination came only a few weeks into the play’s run, which surprised the actress given that she was still perfecting her performance. “With ‘Streetcar’ I felt like I showed up already having known who she was for 30 years of my life because it was something I’d wanted to do for so long,” Anderson said with a laugh. “But with this it took me longer to figure her out.”

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“All About Eve” debuted a few weeks after Anderson’s Netflix series “Sex Education,” which has generated an overwhelmingly positive response. She was drawn to the role of Jean Milburn, a sex therapist whose son has some sexual issues of his own, primarily because it was funny and would allow her to showcase a lighter side of herself. It’s a vibe she’s maintained on social media since the show premiered, and Anderson posts a “yoni of the day” on Twitter in celebration of female sexuality.

“I don’t often get offered comedies,” she said. “I laughed out loud many, many times over reading the scripts. A good fifth of the episodes we did on [‘The X-Files’] were comedy episodes. So I feel like I’ve shown that I can. But yet people just don’t think about me that way. That stuff just doesn’t come my way, so I exacerbate it by then choosing things like ‘The Fall,’ which is not comedic at all. Hopefully something like this will change that and there will be more of a range.”

Once “All About Eve” wraps May 11, Anderson will take a few weeks off before shooting the second season of “Sex Education.” She has a few other projects lined up that may or may not include “The Crown” — a casting rumor that is “not official,” according to Anderson — all of which keep her home in the U.K.

In the meantime “All About Eve” will be broadcast in movie theaters around the world by National Theatre Live on April 11, with occasional encore performances after that. Ask Anderson about prospects of the play transferring to New York or elsewhere, and she’ll say she isn’t ready to think about that. She’s still working through Margo, finding new ways of playing her every night. Sometimes the performance feels good, sometimes it feels like her best effort yet, and sometimes it just feels weird. And that’s fine. In a few months, Anderson will look back and she’ll see yet another reflection of herself.

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“I feel like I don’t necessarily figure my characters out until after I’ve played them,” she said with a shrug. “It’s almost like my version of them informs me who they are rather than me knowing.”

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘All About Eve’

What: National Theatre Live will present the London production broadcast to select movie theaters starting April 11, with encores presented occasionally into July. Check the website for specific dates.

Where: Southern California theaters include James Bridges at UCLA, Irvine Barclay in Irvine, Reading Cinemas at Cal Oaks Plaza in Murrieta, Tristone Palm Desert 10, and Angelika Film Center Carmel Mountain and Reading Cinemas Town Square in San Diego

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Info: NTLive.NationalTheatre.org.uk

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