Golden Globe winner, activist, mother of three: Gillian Anderson makes midlife look easy – and now she is reprising her role as the outrageous sex therapist Jean in Sex Education. Lorraine Candy meets a woman in her prime.
There is a moment in the second series of Netflix's Sex Education when Gillian Anderson's character, Jean, sighs a deep resigned sigh as she is lying in bed one morning and spots the messy pile of small change her latest lover, Jakob, has left on her bedside table.
It's my favourite moment of this uplifting show about the tangled love lives of British secondary school teens that manages to appeal to both parents and adolescents alike. Anderson plays the outrageously inappropriate sex therapist Jean Milburn, a stylish, confident single mother.
The sight of those coins will resonate with any woman of Anderson's age and stage of life (she is 51), whatever kind of relationship they are in.
These pennies, a symbol of how untidy life gets and the constant imposing presence of someone else even when they aren't in the room, represent for Jean the gradual realisation that the excitement of a new love soon becomes tempered by the boring bits.
For those of us who have been married a while, the coins are perhaps the equivalent of the dull domesticity of picking up the shirt always dropped on the floor or the wet towels you always end up refolding after your teens have left them near but not on the bathroom radiator. Anderson and I chat about this a lot when we meet to talk about the second series of Sex Education, given that we are both working mothers in our early fifties.
The actress, who is most recognised for her role as Scully in The X-Files, is twice divorced and has three children, Piper, 25, Oscar, 13, Felix, 11, whom she co-parents with their father. Her partner of three years is the playwright, screenwriter and creator of The Crown, Peter Morgan, himself a father of five.
In person Anderson is chatty and witty, aloof and friendly at the same time, a peculiarly feline trait that I often encounter in driven, confident women who have reached midlife. Tell me about Jakob and the coins, I say, what is it like starting a new relationship in your forties, compared with your twenties?
"It's very different," she says. "I think you are more fully formed, especially if you have taken time out of previous relationships to find yourself.
"Early on after the break-up of my last relationship and before my current one, somebody encouraged me to write a list of needs and wants in a future partner. Needs are non-negotiable. If you go on a date with someone and realise they won't meet, say, three of those needs, then they are not the person for you. It may last as a relationship, but it won't make you happy. Wants are easier, not more frivolous per se, but easier to deliver. Doing this made it clear to me going forward who would be good for me in a relationship.
Sex Education returns: 'We should have sex therapists at school'
Comment: Fleabag and the curse of the successful woman
"And there is a new creativity nowadays to what a relationship should look like, too. For instance, my partner and I don't live together. If we did, that would be the end of us. It works so well as it is, it feels so special when we do come together. And when I am with my kids, I can be completely there for them. It's exciting. We choose when to be together. There is nothing locking us in, nothing that brings up that fear of 'Oh gosh, I can't leave because what will happen to the house, how will we separate?'. I start to miss the person I want to be with, which is a lovely feeling. And it is so huge for me to be able to see a pair of trousers left lying on the floor at my partner's house and to step over them and not feel it is my job to do something about it!"
I've never interviewed a celebrity who, even though she is wearing heels (little pointy white boots) is still shorter than me (I'm barely 5ft 2in), but Anderson is tiny. This is only important to note, I think, because her roles since Dana Scully have been so big and so powerful: Blanche in A Street Car Named Desire and Margo Channing in All About Eve on stage; Lady Mountbatten in the film Viceroy's House; Stella Gibson in The Fall; and now Jean Milburn.
I wonder if she is perhaps filed under "tricky, unpredictable, charismatic, spiky, intelligent and fearless woman" in the casting director's directory of suitable roles. After all, her next part is going to be Margaret Thatcher (in The Crown). And when she arrives for our chat in the closed Chinese restaurant of a central London hotel, she apologises for the sticky mess in her hair caused by wearing the Iron Lady's wig the previous day. Her nails are manicured pale pink like Thatcher's too.
"She had a condition that meant two fingers of each hand would curl around — Reagan had it too — so it affected her gestures and she would wear lots of rings and bracelets to distract. But she kept her nails long, which is how I have to keep them now," Anderson says. She is fascinated by Thatcher, concluding, after studying her childhood, that "nobody ever existed like her. She was unique."
Anderson might be unique herself, and despite giving many interviews (three last year), I see that she has been smart and managed to remain a bit of an enigma. When I listen back to the tape, she is very good at general talk, but not so hot on specifics.
She spent her early years in north London with her American parents before going back to Michigan for high school. She was a teenage punk plagued by panic attacks that have continued to trouble her over the years, particularly during her intense work schedule on The X-Files. She went into therapy at 14, then became world famous at 25, and had her first child at 26 (the same age her parents had her, before going on to have her two siblings 12 years later). She split up with her first husband three years after that.
In 2011 she endured the death of her brother, Aaron, aged 30, from a brain tumour, which she rarely discusses. She is an impressive activist, campaigning for a variety of issues including women's rights in Afghanistan, Burma, South Africa, Uganda and South America. There are 10 charities she has worked with listed on her website, and in 2017 she co-wrote We: A Manifesto for Women Everywhere, a well-received handbook of advice for women. She has also designed two small fashion collections for Winser London, which include some gorgeous silky blouses. I found I had three in my wardrobe without knowing they were hers.
She is a Bafta nominee and Golden Globe winner, and Neil Gaiman, who cast her in the TV series of his book American Gods, said: "She is in this strange place where everything exists in the shadow of Scully, yet she is bigger and better than that."
When I listen to her 2003 Desert Island Discs, though, she tells a darker story. In between Radiohead and Jeff Buckley, she talks of troubled mental health that she has worked ferociously hard to improve. She has been in therapy for more than 30 years.
Anderson tells me she has been teetotal since her early twenties and despite some mild probing on my part is reluctant to elaborate on exactly why. I understand. She has soon-to-be teenage children who don't need to know about any of the "dangerous things" she has done, as she described them to Sue Lawley.
I'm fascinated by Anderson and can see why she was the perfect person to cast as the quirky, funny therapist Jean in Sex Education, which really hits its stride in the second series. While still a comedy at heart, the subject matter tackled by its fantastic young cast is revelatory. Sex Education is one of the first productions to hire an intimacy director to make the young actors feel comfortable and process what they were doing, often naked in front of multiple cameras, to be happy and authentic about what they did and feel they had input.
Anal sex, drugs, masturbation, STDs and nudity feature graphically in this show, which I would advise all parents and teens to watch, though not at the same time — only Jean would do that. When I interview Anderson I have yet to see the finale, but Jean's journey is that of many women in the middle of their lives after divorce with teenage children.
"There's a grief, isn't there?" Anderson says as we discuss the menopause. "I haven't quite got to the place where I don't have my eggs, but your body is going to mourn that, isn't it? I remember the very last time I breastfed and it was heartbreaking. I wept and wept through it.
"And I know people who describe particularly difficult periods at home as a child without realising they are describing their mothers going through the menopause.
"We're all at the point where we're kicking off just as our teenage children are kicking off. I was looking at some home videos of Piper when she was three and wondering where all my patience came from in my twenties. I have forgotten that version of me."
She says she doesn't feel quite ready for her two boys to become teenagers, but sometimes Jean slips into their conversations at home.
"I find myself saying something embarrassing at the dinner table and I don't know if it is me or if Jean has given me the licence to say that. Maybe I have always been that way, though. Some of what she shares is too much information. I wouldn't share it, even with my eldest in her twenties. But my son came home after having a sex education class and I completely clammed up. I couldn't bring myself to continue the conversation. I just let it die. I really don't know why."
Over the years Anderson has tried to schedule her roles to fit in with her children, but like many of us who have devoted much of our time to careers, she still lives with nagging doubts about doing the right thing.
How did you deal with a small child while filming back-to-back episodes of The X-Files for 16 hours a day, I ask, especially when you decided to go it alone as a mum. "I missed her, really so much. Those moments when you see a small child in the street when you are apart from yours and the conversation just drops, it's hard. She was on a plane a lot when she was six and we moved production to the West Coast, from Vancouver to LA. I justified that, I mean it was selfish on my part. I just could not imagine being away from her for long periods of time.
"I became obsessed with schedules, and I still am because of that time. I would plan and colour-code everything, make a series of propositions about schedules so I could see her, and the show would either reject or accept them.
"With the boys the longest I have been away from them was during the last two X-Files series, but again I would be travelling constantly to see them."
I ask her if she regrets working so hard. "Not yet," she says. "I have a feeling that will come. I definitely feel like on a level I do regret Piper flying back and forth [to her dad, when she was six] as an unaccompanied minor." We sit in silence for a bit, mulling over the thought.
"But there's another version of my life where I could have worked less, had a smaller life and been more present as a parent. I could have chosen that, that could happen. But sometimes it feels like why would you, if you keep getting work as an actor, doing things you dreamt of doing and being offered incredible roles at this age, while paying the bills, and you still get to see them a huge percentage of the time and they witness a mother enjoying her work?"
She has talked to her daughter about it, but says the boys are not yet at the place where the lightbulb goes on and they realise Mum was still up at 6am the days she faced 16 hours of work to be with them, or those days we all have when we are still on the edge of the sports pitch, despite the demands of a job.
But Anderson is an all-or-nothing personality. She tells me she is either on a healthy eating plan, meditating and working out or hiding like a hermit at home eating chocolate. She has been plagued by frozen shoulders in recent years, leading to months of pain-filled insomnia and cortisone injections.
"My default position is sedentary," she tells me when I ask about her meditating and yoga right now. "I like being in bed in my PJs. "When I'm working, like right now, I seem to exist mostly on chocolate. I used to go through stages when I'd feel dreadful and review it all and start a food plan, torture myself counting shots of milk and all that.
"In the cycle of all or nothing, I am in the nothing phase right now. It has gone on for quite some time, but I think I am better to be around. I was having lunch with my daughter a few years ago and we were just, you know, eating, not asking for stuff without oils or sugar, and she said, 'It's so much better when you are not in that place.' "
I've enjoyed my hour with Anderson; she is likeable and thoughtful. I sort of hope we'll meet again one day. It's unlikely she'll read the interview; she has said before that she rarely does. So what do I think as I walk away from her? I'm impressed by her curious nature and, obviously, her sense of style, a blueprint for us all at this stage of life, but mostly I'm inspired by her strong sense of self. It has obviously taken quite a bit of work for her to get there, but from what I can see, it has been worth it.
Written by: Lorraine Candy
© The Times of London