From ‘X-Files’ to ‘The Fall’, Gillian Anderson has a knack for finding quality TV shows. She tells Ed Power about her new Netflix collaboration.
A great cry went up among geeks the world over earlier this year when Gillian Anderson announced she was stepping away from the X-Files.
After 25 years stoically pursuing little green men, Agent Dana Scully was handing back her badge and revolver.
Anderson had ambitions beyond standing behind David Duchovny looking moderately peeved.
“Everybody in my life has always hoped I would get the opportunity to steer away from the serious boss or the head of some type of law enforcement agency or other,” she says in a hotel room in central London.
“It has been known for a while that I would rather do something funny.”
Her latest project, it’s safe to say, is lightyears removed from the X-Files and her dour Belfast serial killer thriller, The Fall.
In Netflix’s forthcoming Sex Education, Anderson plays a sex therapist named Jean, who has a complicated romantic life and an intense, occasionally strained relationship with her teenage son (Ender’s Game’s Asa Butterfield).
“The script was a page turner for me,” she says.
“I really loved the character – she was quirky and funny and different.”
‘Different’ is clearly something Anderson has craved in her roles.
The X Files didn’t quite typecast her – but it did make her the go-to actress for directors seeking to imbue their productions with an elegant gravitas.
That was certainly true of The Fall, in which she portrayed a London Met detective on the trail of Jamie Dornan’s charming (and literal) ladykiller in noir-ish Belfast.
And it has been the case even with her more out-there roles – such as the identity-switching deity she depicted in Amazon’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (in one episode she turned up as dressed as David Bowie’s spaceman Ziggy Stardust).
“A lot of elements of my own personality don’t necessarily get to see the light of day in the characters I do,” she says.
“I have a tendency in my own life to be much quirkier and goofier and silly and weird than perhaps the straightness and seriousness and suicide-ness of a lot of the characters I play.”
Anderson has arrived with a straight-from-the-salon bob and is dressed causally in a grey shirt and trousers. The accent is cut-glass British.
The plummy intonation may come as a surprise if you know her only from the X-Files.
Far from an affectation, it is is a product of her multi-national upbringing.
Anderson was born in Chicago but spent most of her childhood in London, before relocating age 11 to Michigan.
She flits between speech modes depending on what side of the Atlantic she finds herself.
Anderson was very young – just 24 – when cast as Dana Scully and was a natural as a sceptic paired with Duchovny’s earnest Fox Mulder.
The X-Files was enormously popular and arguably bridged the divide between traditional serialised entertainment and the “Peak TV” of the post-Sopranos era (Breaking Bad’s Vince Gilligan got his break in the X-Files writing room).
It could very easily have defined her.
Indeed, another performer might have regarded it as the role of a lifetime.
But Anderson decided early on that she didn’t want to be synonymous with a specific character.
She returned to the X-Files, it is true, when the series was rebooted in 2016.
Yet she had thought long and hard about going back and, when the second comeback season ended earlier this year, indicated she was done with Scully.
“It’s time for me to hang up Scully’s hat. It just is,” she said.
More controversial was The Fall , which was accused of fetishising violence against women.
Anderson rejected the charges speaking to The Guardian in 2016.
“It’s unfounded,” she said. “It’s not gratuitous in any way.
"Rather, it points to the fact that there is still so much violence against women in the world.
"There are so many other series that are drastically more violent and gratuitous than ours, but they get less attention for it because it’s in the context of, say, vampirism.
"Ours is so real, and its characters so recognisable, that it gets under the skin.”
Sex Education is a far more straightforward watch.
It’s searingly honest about the trials of adolescence but its heart is in the right place so that the humour never comes off as cruel or vindictive.
“I laughed out loud when I read the script,” she says. “Which doesn’t happen very often.”
Anderson turned 50 this year and so has had to confront the industry’s perceived prejudice against middle-aged women.
“One goes through stages,” she told reporters in 2016.
“I did a job once where I felt like the oldest person in the make-up trailer, and I literally cried for two days afterwards.
"I was grieving my youth, wondering where it had gone. I didn’t even feel like I was present when it was there.
"It is really shitty. But then it becomes about embracing what you’ve got, and so much is great about this age.
"There may, she says, be a perception that the British are more prudish. But that isn’t something Sex Education is concerned with overly.
“The Americans have stuff like that too – films such as The 40 Year Old Virgin , which are very American.”
She resides mostly in London now, which meant it was no great trial to travel to Wales for the Sex Education shoot.
As the mother of a grownup daughter and two prepubescent sons a bigger ask was playing the long-suffering parent of a moody male adolescent.
“I don’t know how I am going to respond to someone sitting there at the table grunting,” she says. “It’s not something I have experienced yet.”
What was most challenging about Sex Education, however, was being funny to order .
She has starred in comedic projects before – for instance, alongside Steve Coogan in Michael Winterbottom’s brain-bending 2005 adaptation of Tristram Shandy.
Sex Education was different in that she was the one trying to cajole laughter from the viewer.
“Drama works by degrees,” she says. “Whereas with comedy, either something is funny or it is not.
"And some of that depends on how it’s shot – where the lens is, which you may not have control over.
"I have done comedy before. But I’ve not necessarily been in something where I’m not the straight man. It is very different.”
Sex Education debuts on Netflix on January 11.