There was a moment, making the fourth series of The Crown, when Gillian Anderson was in full costume as Margaret Thatcher and her partner, the series writer Peter Morgan, came to see her on set. “I smiled at him, as me, Gillian, smiling at her boyfriend, and he said, ‘This is Thatcher! This smile is Thatcher!’” Anderson recalls, laughing. “And I’m like, no! This smile is me!”
Watching the show, you can understand the confusion. In the role, Anderson performs one of those metamorphoses where though she is entirely visible as herself beneath that great cloud of hair, she is also utterly transformed. For a while, the creative team had toyed with the idea of her wearing prosthetic teeth to capture the distinct shape of Thatcher’s mouth, but Anderson found them too cumbersome.
She wore a padded suit beneath her clothes to bulk up her frame a little, but otherwise there were no particular physical changes beyond what she was able to do as an actor: the grand, almost hoarse voice, the tilting walk, the smile that is genial but edged with intent. The important thing, says Anderson now, sitting in a Hyde Park café, “was not doing it so much that it ended up a parody.”
There’s nothing parodic about the finished product, released on Netflix this month. Instead, there is the weird sensation of finding yourself sympathising with one of the most controversial prime ministers the UK has ever had, who always seemed monumental and invulnerable until her final ousting from Downing Street.
As the episodes unfold, you watch Thatcher running up against the snobbish judgement of the Royal Family, the patronising disdain of some of her Cabinet members. “I had to get to a point where it’s nothing to do with my opinions of her policies, of her actions,” says Anderson. “It is only about her as a human being and her motivation as a politician and as a mother.”
At times, she says she found herself questioning the portrayal – why wasn’t there more on the poll tax or Northern Ireland? But she was given no special treatment as the writer’s partner to shape her character. “For our own sanity, and actually for the benefit of the relationship, we had very clear boundaries,” she says. “I am not going to comment on the script, but you are not allowed to comment on the performance!”
Accepting the part in the first place was a ‘no-brainer’. The challenge of the character, the sheer difficulty in playing someone so distinct in the collective imagination – “as daunting as it might be, as intimidating, you have to say yes,” she says. Anderson isn’t unaccustomed to taking on such a vast and powerful part – in recent years, she has worked her way from Blanche in A Street Car Named Desire on stage, to Stella Gibson, a detective on the trail of a serial killer in The Fall, to Jean Milburn, the sex therapist in Netflix’s Sex Education. But of those, Thatcher is the only major historical figure. To play her, she had to switch off any preconceived notions of the character, and simply try to climb inside her head, a mental demarcation she mastered during her decade-plus stint as Agent Scully in The X Files.
“I’m pretty good at compartmentalising in my life, period. I think I learnt that quite young, being a young mother, in a really intense TV series where it was either full on, on set, or I was in my trailer having to shut the door and no longer be that person but be Mum.”
Anderson’s daughter is now in her mid-twenties, and she has two sons, aged 12 and 14. She finished filming The Crown just before lockdown began, and spent the next six months with her family, for which she acknowledges her good luck. “I’ve had outdoor space. I have kids who are a little bit older, I don’t have toddlers. I’m not stuck indoors all the time. Had that been the case, I would have lost my mind after week one, I just know I would,” she says.
Work got cancelled, or pushed back, but she knows she’s fortunate to have the jobs at all. (When we meet, filming of the third season of Sex Education is about to start in Wales, involving a complex arrangement of quarantining and three-times-a-week Covid testing.)
Instead, Anderson used the time in lockdown to embrace not working, and as the Black Lives Matter protests gathered momentum, she threw herself into reading and educating herself about anti-racism movements. “I’ve got so much to learn, there’s so much I don’t know,” she says now. “I needed to look at perceptions about various things, and interrogate myself, and be more supportive of Black businesses, more active in discussing with my kids’ school about how they’re going to talk about this very important moment in history.”
She is also involved in commissioning theatre projects involving Black writers and directors. “Part of the point is to change things systemically and also to make it sustainable.” Knowing what she can do, as an actress, and the potential for change she can create is a complicated balance. “I feel like I have an opportunity as somebody in the public eye to draw attention to things, but I don’t comment, I don’t offer my opinion on social media on a regular basis, because it’s not my world. I’m an actor, I’m not a politician, I’m not a social worker.”
Still, in an oddly Thatcher-like tendency, Anderson doesn’t shy away from the necessary conversations, or from challenging herself to do more. At one point, she talks about how the former Prime Minister could not “help but run at something full steam ahead”. Is she the same? She smiles. “I think people in my life would say I’m a little bit like that. I like to deal with things – if there’s an issue or a problem, let’s talk about it.” I ask whether she feels Thatcher – this woman who changed the shape of a country, whose legacy we still wrestle with today – left an imprint on her personally. Anderson looks uncertain.
“I’m not sure there’s much of a trace,” she says. But then she remembers how Morgan came home recently and showed her a title sequence from the show that included Thatcher, “and as I’m watching her, my face starts togo into her resting position”. She does it now, the lower lip receding, the head leaning to one side, the voice dropping to that distinct pitch, until Thatcher is disconcertingly present, even without the hair or the handbag. “I say she’s not there any more,” says Anderson, “but she’s closer than I realise.”
Source: Harper’s Bazaar