Actor spotlight: Gillian Anderson

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Gillian Anderson knows how to make a lasting impression on her audiences. She keeps them second-guessing what her psychologically complex characters will do next, and can flexibly shapeshift from one guise to the next. Anderson complicates her characters with weighty side glances, a pursued lip, or a sudden glare. Sometimes a whisper will do. She steps into a sea of different disguises, morphing from a nonchalant sex therapist to an impregnable prime minister seamlessly.  

Most recently, the American actress has been the star of TV series such as The Fall, Sex Education and The Crown, where she’s captivated viewers in every frame. The strangely hypnotic relationship between Stella and Paul in The Fall keeps its audiences hooked across all three series; Anderson is capable of being at once vulnerable and formidable, exposed and contained. In fact, despite a repertoire of strong female characters, she also conveys women susceptible to hurt and to pain. By the final episode of The Crown, her Margaret sobs – ‘the Iron lady’ cries – but it is both violent and dignified as she keeps Thatcher’s robustness through an upright posture and a clenched hand across the face. 

Jean Milburn… proves that Anderson can do both drama and comedy

Jean Milburn is certainly complex, and whilst appearing a confident sex therapist who knows who she is, Jean is not always honest to herself and struggles with intimacy. Anderson subtly conveys her insecurity despite an outer shell of confidence; perhaps she brushes her hair back hesitantly, takes a deep breath at the wrong time, or holds her hands together tightly. They are little signals that Jean is not one-dimensional comedy. The lack of boundaries, the painful openness of Jean that is incredibly awkward do make her hilarious and proves that Anderson can do both drama and comedy. 

In both Sex Education and The Fall, Anderson plays older women confident with their sexuality and comfortable with having a sexual relationship with younger men. Some critics call it bold, but it’s sad that it should be. Anderson normalises not only a woman-led drama but places a woman over forty with an open sexuality centre stage, in a refreshing stance that we need to see more of. 

She’s subtle and bold, vulnerable and explosive

Anderson’s earlier success on the stage is not to be forgotten beneath a wealth of roles on our TV screens. Her role as Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire won her the ‘Evening Standard Award for Best Actress’. Blanche most certainly shows Anderson at her best: the immediately imposing grandeur of an old Southern Belle collides with Anderson’s gradually disintegrating drunkard who, by the end of the play, smothers lipstick on her face like a clown and can’t stand up to face the fight. She is simultaneously repelled by and attracted to the men around her. A lean forwards, a step closer, a laugh, suddenly becomes a gasp and a scream and a desperate leap behind a curtain. Anderson enjoyed the role, reflecting: ‘Blanche was like no one I’ve ever inhabited before, and she’s certainly in there more than any other character I’ve played.’

Gillian Anderson is a formidable actress who contributes to the changing picture in TV that female-led drama can be just as successful as the male lead, and women shouldn’t be sidelined in favour of the latter. She doesn’t shy away from challenging roles; she shapeshifts into entirely different personas with ease, adapting her accent, her posture, the way she opens her mouth, the way she holds her head, and most often of all – her hairdo. She’s subtle and bold, vulnerable and explosive. She can do any genre in any form and she’s one of my favourite female actresses of all time. She deserves the critical acclaim she has garnered.

Image: Martin Kraft via Wikimedia

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