Gillian Anderson: A woman of extremely few words

Recreating Lady Mountbatten’s cut-glass accent in Viceroy’s House is something Gillian Anderson is happy to talk about but unfortunately, that’s where the chit-chat begins and ends

The official trailer for 'Viceroy's House', starring Gillian Anderson, Michael Gambon and Hugh Bonneville. Video: Pathé

 

Almost two decades have elapsed since the journalist Bill Borrows interviewed Everton legend Duncan ‘Big Dunc’ Ferguson for Goal magazine, but today the transcription of that encounter is vividly scrolling through my mind like the intro to a Star Wars movie.

In case you missed the relevant issue, back in 1997, Bill Borrows was dispatched to write a six-page feature on the recalcitrant Toffee. Ferguson, assuming he’s there to endorse his boots, answers every question accordingly: “I liked the product, and they were comfortable”; “I hadn’t signed a boot deal with anybody else”; and “ever since I’ve been at Everton, I’ve been more or less wearing Mitre”.

Today, Gillian Anderson is channelling Big Dunc. Sporting a cream silk blouse and folding herself in a way that makes her already tiny frame seem all the smaller, there are few obvious similarities between The X-Files star and the FA Cup winner. Her skin is pale, but luminous. And she makes no gesture that might be misconstrued as a head butt. But today, it’s all about the boots. Okay, not boots, exactly.

Vaudeville hook

Viceroy’s House, is a new historical drama about Lord and Lady Mountbatten (played by Hugh Bonneville and Anderson) and the 1947 partition of India. I’ve been warned ahead of the interview that Ms Anderson is only willing to discuss Viceroy’s House, a phrase often employed by movie PR people to ward off crass questions about broken marriages or warring co-stars. In this context, however, the phrase means: Ms Anderson is only willing to discuss Viceroy’s House.

But I quite surprised when I first started watching video and listening to tapes just how posh her voice was

An assistant hovers nearby – exactly one vaudeville hook’s length away. Others hover just beyond the hotel room door.

The small-talk that bookends the encounter is smaller than you imagine. Microscopic, in fact.

We shake hands. Opening gambit. Having shot three seasons of The Fall in Belfast, she must have spent more time there than most Irish people have?

“Probably,” she smiles.

All attempts to widen the discussion are batted away with that same smile and a blink. Several questions are answered with a small laugh, or “Absolutely.”

I wish she were mean. Or condescending. Or bitchy. Instead she’s unfailingly polite and frequently monosyllabic.

Women directors

How did the actor, a proud feminist, Vagina Monologues veteran, and long-time supporter of the Feminist Majority Foundation, feel about working with the director Gurinder Chadha? Does she consciously keep an eye out for women directors?

“I do keep half an eye out,” says Anderson. “It is a bonus. But also the nature of this particular film is very clearly the take of a female Asian-British director. And there’s something really wonderful about that. I haven’t had the opportunity to work with a female director too often. Maybe only two or three times.”

Viceroy's House: A drama about Lord and Lady Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville & Gillian Anderson) and the 1947 partition of India.
Viceroy's House: A drama about Lord and Lady Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville & Gillian Anderson) and the 1947 partition of India.

Okay. We’re getting somewhere.

I wonder about the film’s presentation of Edwina Mountbatten. Viceroy’s House depicts her frustration and attempts to relieve the misery inflicted by partition. But given that Edwina’s many bisexual affairs – including a long-standing dalliance with prime minister Nehru of India – are widely documented, this might have been a much racier picture?

“Absolutely,” says Anderson.

So even Viceroy’s House proves off-limits in certain regards.

Let’s try again. Most of that film was shot against the very royal splendour of Rajasthan at the Maharaja of Jodhpur’s residence, the Umaid Bhawan Palace hotel, a once imposing symbol of empire, comprising 700 million bricks, 300 rooms, 37 fountains and a ludicrous number of tennis courts and cricket greens.

“It’s a very curious thing to be filming in a country that’s so poor and to be filming in a palace,” nods Anderson.

“Certainly colonialism – parts of it – is alive and well on that continent. The location we were living in was the palace that we were shooting in. So it’s a very different experience from pretty much anywhere else in India. There was another actor who worked with us who couldn’t square that. He went and stayed somewhere less opulent.”

Cut-glass vowels

The opulence and heat were oppressive. But the cut-glass vowels were trickier still. We’re allowed to talk about the vowels. That’s something, right?

If somebody comes up to your door and says Dickens, you listen. And if the adaptation is good, it’s hard to say no

“It was very intense,” she says. “It’s a very different way of using one’s mouth. It takes quite a lot of concentration. But I quite surprised when I first started watching video and listening to tapes just how posh her voice was. I think that’s a decision one has to make. How far back are you going to go with your upper-class voice? And how are you going to normalise it for modern audiences?”

Anderson herself speaks with an English accent, with no hint of having spent significant time across the Atlantic. She has lived in London with her three children – Piper (22), Oscar (10) and Felix (8) – since 2002.

But she has been bidialectal for most of her life. It’s complicated. Born in Chicago, she moved to Puerto Rico with her family when she was a toddler (her mother was a computer analyst, her father ran a film post-production company); between the ages of two and 11, she lived in London, before moving to Grand Rapids, Michigan. She continued to spend her summers in north London, where he parents owned a flat.

Treading the boards

Her career is equally tricky to untangle. As an American TV superstar, Anderson was named as one of the 50 most beautiful people in the world in 1997 by People Magazine, and, when she returned as Agent Scully in last year’s X-Files reboot, a record-breaking 27 million viewers tuned in.

But British Anderson is better known for treading the boards. Her Blanche DuBois in a 2014 production of A Streetcar Named Desire at the Young Vic won rave reviews and an Evening Standard Theatre Award. On screen – at least on this continent – she often gravitates towards the posh: Lady Dedlock in Bleak House, Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, Wallis, Duchess of Windsor, in Any Human Heart.

“I don’t know why I’m attracted to posh,” she says. “I definitely like literary roles. It’s not necessarily on purpose. If somebody comes up to your door and says Dickens, you listen. And if the adaptation is good, it’s hard to say no.”

Funny. I get the feeling that Gillian Anderson wouldn’t find it hard to say “no”.

Other words, however . . .

  • Viceroy’s House is on general release