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In 'The Crown,' Gillian Anderson Explores Thatcher's 'Powerplay' With The Queen

Gillian Anderson portrays British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in <em>The Crown. </em>
Des Willie
Gillian Anderson portrays British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in The Crown.

Actor Gillian Anderson says lying about her age helped her land the role that first made her famous. Anderson was just 24 — but claimed to be 27 — on her initial audition for the role of Dana Scully, a doctor investigating paranormal phenomena on The X-Files.

"I had no experience whatsoever. I had only ever done a couple of plays and scenes in college," Anderson says. "If [Scully] comes across as being a little bit cocky and at the same time green, it's all real. It's me trying to pretend like I know that I am the person that I say I am."

Anderson played Scully for the show's entire 11-season run, which spanned from 1993 until 2018. Now she's taking on a very different role as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on the Netflix series, The Crown.

This time, if there is an awkwardness to the character, it's more intentional. Anderson notes that Thatcher, who grew up working class, tended to be "nervous and obsequious" around Queen Elizabeth II.

"There was a rigidity to the way that [Thatcher] behaved," Anderson says. "You kind of see all of that in the depth of her curtsy, which was infamously very, very, very deep ... almost as if she's trying too hard."

Interview Highlights

On Thatcher's relationship with Queen Elizabeth II

We see during different seasons of The Crown the prime minister being educated about how to behave, how to enter, how you don't turn your back on the queen, you don't speak first, you wait to be spoken to, you don't ask questions. All of that is very different from how the rest of us live. And so what we mostly see is her initial awkwardness and trying to figure out how the best way to sit is and how to read each other and get a sense of what their similarities are, because there are a huge amount of differences, but there are also some very stark similarities — their Christianity and their age and the fact that they're mothers and their work ethic. So it's a very interesting — sometimes copacetic, sometimes combative — powerplay that happens between these two women during the course of the series.

On capturing Thatcher, both physically and vocally

In thinking about Thatcher's silhouette, [there] is both her particular girth, coupled with the outline of ... that bouffant ... and then her particular walk, which she kind of pumped her left arm as she held her right arm crooked with a handbag over it, and she would pump that arm and walk in quite small steps even ahead of Reagan, ahead of Gorbachev, ahead of whoever she was walking with in their own country.

But it was really getting comfortable enough in her vocal qualities, which ... is very measured. She was also known for her pitch sometimes, especially in party conferences or when she was talking to large crowds. ... There's a lot more fluctuation in her public voice than we necessarily see in The Crown in so many of these indoor scenes.

On Thatcher being a pioneer for women but not a feminist

The fact that she was in office normalized female success, and I think the girls who grew up when she was running the country were suddenly able to imagine leadership as a female quality. But at the same time, she wasn't a feminist. She didn't have interest in social equality. She didn't really know anything about female solidarity. She had a lack of interest in childcare provision and positive action, so she wasn't really a feminist icon, and yet she allowed young women to imagine that women could be suited to power. Her presence there was a real dichotomy: The fact that she only brought [in] one woman cabinet member in the 11 years that she was in office ... is remarkable, astounding. And at the same time felt she could control, stand up to, be on the same level, same footing, as all the conservative men that were surrounding her. It wasn't just incredibly male-dominated, it was entirely male-dominated.

On playing sex therapist Jean in the series Sex Education, and how she talks about sex with her own teenagers

Asa Butterfield and Gillian Anderson play a mother and son on the Netflix series <em>Sex Education.</em>
Sam Taylor / Netflix
Asa Butterfield and Gillian Anderson play a mother and son on the Netflix series Sex Education.

I have three children and two of them are teenagers, 12 and 14, boys. ... One of the things that I was afraid of [when taking the role], they were just starting at a new school, and I was worried that it would affect them negatively to have a mom who was on a show that was so explicitly about things related to sex. ... But I think, because the show has so much heart and because the show is so diverse, it's so freeing, it's allowing a freedom of conversation that has not been seen before in television, and has been embraced so passionately by all different ages, from parents and children alike. It actually went a long way towards, I think, bringing my children closer to me, in a sense, a feeling that it was something that it was cool, for the first time, that I was involved in.

They've swore to me they haven't seen it and I'm pretending I believe them. I think that I'm not Jean. I think that I'm surely not. I definitely have better boundaries than Jean. But I think I'm surely not as awkward and as intrusive and as blatantly embarrassing. And yet I find myself trying to have conversations with them or asking questions about under armpit hair that I haven't yet seen, and can I see it at the dinner table? It comes out of your mouth before you realize what you're doing. So I think we all struggle with that, even if we think we're cool parents. All parents are cringe-worthy.

On fighting for better pay on The X-Files

It made sense at the very beginning [to earn less], because I had come from nothing and [co-star David Duchovny] had just done a big feature film with Brad Pitt. But once we were into the third season and we were doing the same amount of work, the same amount of hours, it was essentially a two-handed series, it no longer made sense there was such a discrepancy in our paychecks. And then had to fight again when we did a feature [film] and had to fight again years later when we did more series. It was an ongoing thing.

Heidi Saman and Kayla Lattimore produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.
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