Gillian Anderson excels at embodying contradiction. Her career-making X-Files character, Dana Scully, is a hardened scientist who clings fiercely to her skepticism of the paranormal, even as her work for the FBI presents near-daily evidence of its existence. The Fall’s Stella Gibson is a shrewd detective with a deep understanding of male violence and an even deeper compassion for its victims, yet finds herself perversely drawn to the sociopathic murderer she’s hunting. And in Netflix’s Sex Education, she brings sly poise to the role of Jean, an insightful sex therapist whose utter lack of boundaries has mortified her teenage son into developing his own sexual neuroses.
“When I first got offered the role, I was a little bit uncomfortable about that,” Anderson admits. “The fact that she’s a professional therapist and yet she’s rummaging through her son’s drawers and prying into his life? I kept saying, ‘Is this too over the top? Is it just too unlikely that somebody could have such a different value system, and such a different moral framework, depending on the situation she’s facing?’” The show’s creators were receptive to the question, she says, but nothing changed—in fact, season one built towards the potentially character-assassinating revelation that Jean was planning to write a book about her son’s sexual issues. Anderson has since come to appreciate her contradictions. “It’s part of what makes her interesting to play, and it’s also very human.” Though that ill-advised book proposal prompted a rare moment of humility for Jean in the season finale, Anderson hints that her epiphany may be short-lived. In season two, which premiered on Netflix January 17, “you see quite quickly that they haven’t changed very much at all, and their relationship is basically in the same state that it was, which is him cringing and her saying far too much!”
Along with contradictory, Anderson’s characters tend to be formidable. The Sex Education pilot script describes Jean as “a statuesque woman who exudes sexuality,” and as a longtime fan, I’m prepared to be intimidated by Anderson in person. But when we meet for morning tea in the leafy, lush Los Angeles neighborhood of Bel Air, she’s warm and down-to-earth, eager to delve into the unflinching sexual honesty that made Sex Education such a nerve-striking hit for Netflix. “The show digs into all the missteps, and the trial and error, and the pain and the embarrassment and the shame,” she says with relish, “and it’s done with such understanding and heart and forgiveness that I think viewers have a real sense of identification. Whether that’s as a forty-something looking back or a teenager seeing yourself represented in the show.”
On the November day we’re speaking, Anderson is midway through filming season 4 of The Crown, in which she’s playing conservative icon Margaret Thatcher. The show’s intricate production schedule means she’s shooting her scenes out of order in dribs and drabs over the course of eight months, an example of “what Helena Bonham Carter calls ‘helicopter acting,’” Anderson says. “You’re dropped in for a couple of days, and then you’re picked up and go away for a while, and then you drop back in again.” Building the performance with such a peripatetic schedule has been a challenge, she says, especially in playing such a familiar and indelible figure. “But there comes a certain point when you realize that this is The Crown‘s version of these people, and so as much work and research as you’ve done, you’re really just seeing slivers of their lives through the prism of the queen. That adjusts how you play something, and how you build the arc of the character in your mind.”
Elected as the U.K.’s first female prime minister in 1979, Thatcher is a deeply controversial figure for reasons that have little to do with her gender. During her 11 years in Downing Street, she passed a number of divisive laws which prioritized economic growth and privatization, and put vicious constraints on labor unions (perhaps unsurprisingly, she was close with Ronald Reagan). But Anderson’s trepidation about the role was less about Thatcher herself, and more the prospect of working with The Crown’s creator and showrunner, Peter Morgan, who is also her boyfriend.
“We had long conversations about whether it was wise to work together,” Anderson recalls. “I think we both came into it with a bit of fear. We’re both perfectionists, and it was important for us to lay down boundaries in terms of what could be discussed. Because we talk about his scripts all the time, and I give him notes on stuff that he’s written. And as we were getting closer to the fourth season, it became obvious that there was a lot that had to be off-limits, because I’d shifted roles. It became important that if I did have notes on specific scenes, that they would go through somebody else, rather than being direct to him, and equally that he would give me notes through directors, rather than over breakfast! And that’s challenging, because I’m so used to going ‘You know, can we just talk about this?’”
The Crown was partially inspired by Morgan’s 2013 play The Audience, which centered on Queen Elizabeth’s weekly meetings with her prime ministers, and those audiences have always formed the spine of the series. The queen has so far been through seven prime ministers in the show’s three seasons, and after this revolving door of men, it will be riveting to see her first meeting with the first woman elected to lead a major Western power. “The show addresses it a lot,” Anderson says of the fact that Elizabeth and Thatcher are both women in rare positions of power. “They were the same age, and both very similar in many ways and completely different in others, and I’m sure there were aspects of each of their personalities that really irked the other. It’s a complex relationship, and I know it’s one that really interests Pete.”
Sometimes in an interview, you realize there is no elegant way to segue into your next question from the subject you’re currently discussing. One such moment arrives for me as I try to determine how to bring the conversation around from Margaret Thatcher to Anderson’s social media presence—specifically, her delightful penchant for sharing images of everyday objects that look like genitalia. The #PenisOfTheDay and #YoniOfTheDay hashtags were born during the first season of Sex Education, Anderson explains: “On set, I would take pictures of stuff that was around Jean’s house, because it’s pretty extraordinary. Just about every inch is covered by an erotic image of one kind or another.”
Once she started sharing her findings, the hashtags evolved into a glorious crowdsourced collection of penile and vaginal highlights from followers, which represents both an ideal accompaniment to Sex Education and—as I’m learning—a perfect encapsulation of Anderson’s own sly, subtly irreverent sense of humor. “The things that get sent in are, more often than not, things that people find in nature, which is so cool,” she continues. “I very rarely find things in my own—” and she pauses before finishing this sentence, as both of our eyes simultaneously fall on a beautiful orchid that sits, in a vase, on the table between us. This orchid is not subtle. This orchid is like if a human vagina was granted one wish by a fairy godmother, and that one wish was to become an ornamental flower.
After we both stop laughing, Anderson says with a shrug, “I might as well create my own content,” and snaps a picture of this perfect Yoni Of The Day. (Later, she will dedicate it to me in a tweet, and I will briefly consider the possibility that Twitter is Good after all.) “I have blocked my own children,” she adds, which brings us back to her initial trepidation about taking the role in Sex Education. Anderson has 13- and 11-year-old sons, and was deeply conscious that her participation in an explicit show on the biggest streaming platform in the world could make life awkward for them—just as, onscreen, Otis is horrified when Jean’s zucchini masturbation tutorial video goes viral at his school. “It’s one thing to have a mum who’s in a successful show where there’s penises and yonis in every scene, but it’s another thing to have a mum in a show that everybody cringes about,” she says.
That particular fear turned out to be unfounded, but the show has had a different kind of impact on Anderson’s mindset as a parent. “As time has gone on, and my kids have gotten closer to being teenagers and behaving like teenagers, something interesting has happened,” she says ruefully. “I used to think ‘Well, I would never handle this like Jean does. I’ve got my boundaries straight, and I wouldn’t embarrass my sons.’ Cut to: me constantly saying the wrong things, asking too many questions about their girlfriend or talking about body hair or something—it’s like I literally cannot help it. I don’t know if that’s because of Jean, or because we’re all just a little bit closer to that than we might like to imagine.”