This month Gillian Anderson, as the character Margo Channing , is leading her West End troupe of actors, including Lily James as Eve Harrington, in director and writer Ivo van Hove’s production of All About Eve, based on both the screenplay by Joseph Mankiewicz and the earlier play by Mary Orr, when it arrives in cinemas across the world as part of the National Theatre Live series. There will be encores throughout the summer and fall. Check the National Theatre Live website here for venues and dates near you
I saw van Hove’s production in March at the Noel Coward Theatre in London with its mixture of video and the mannered marauding-about a purposefully flung-apart stage which a van Hove production calls for in order for the actors to gain their traction in the meta-preening with which a van Hove production itself engages. His All About Eve – and Anderson’s for, make no mistake, she is a star in London and the hit play’s biggest draw – is scheduled to run in the West End until May 11. Gillian Anderson, wholly different from Bette Davis in the iconic role of Margo, is brilliant in the way she wearily brattles on without the need for the cynical brittleness that Davis could so bravely conjure in her day. Anderson’s bravery is of a different counterintuitive cast. We talk more about it in the conversation below.
I have long admired the actress – from her role as Dana Scully in The X-Files to Lily Bart in The House of Mirth to Lady Dedlock in Bleak House to Wallis Simpson in Any Human Heart to Miss Havisham in Great Expectations to Sarah Merrit in The Last King of Scotland to DSI Stella Gibson in The Fall. I am looking forward to her portrayal of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in Season Three of The Crown. But I was especially moved by her last appearance on the stage and the delving she did into the stereotypical southern belle of Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Her Blanche was a revelatory portrayal in a starkly reimagined Williams, directed by Benedict Andrews, that amped-up the marauding-about but cut down on the mannered stretches we’ve come to expect in a Williams play. In Gillian’s arms, there was no metaphorical moss hanging from Blanche’s white, toned limbs – just a bit more mined meanness in her heightened politesse, more need (dire and deeply dangerous to all she encountered) in her nasty, un-neatened longing. There was a lot of sinew to her Blanche as her sinful ways were looked on anew.
I have most recently enjoyed Anderson as Dr. Jean Milburn, the sex therapist mother to Asa Butterfield’s Otis Milburn, in the Netflix series Sex Education. I resisted watching the show for a bit because of its being set in a high school, but Anderson grounds it all with a grown-up allure in its deeply smart, cockeyed take on its own tale of nasty longing that is also rather sweet in its nervousness at its need for what others might perceive as nastiness.
There was nothing nasty abut Gillian when she welcomed me into her dressing room at the Noel Coward Theatre. She was kind and curious and empathetic and she laughed a lot. It wasn’t a performance.
KEVIN SESSUMS: Happy Tennessee Williams birthday.
GILLIAN ANDERSON: Is that today?
KS: Yes. That’s today.
GA: Oh, wow. That makes me really emotional.
KS: That’s why I gave you a gift. To celebrate Tennessee’s birthday.
GA: You gave me a beautiful gift, this collection of essays titled Significant Others: Creativity and Intimate Partnerships.
KS: I thought it might be appropriate since your boyfriend is writer Peter Morgan – although boyfriend sounds so much like a high school term the characters would use in Sex Education.
GA: It does, but that’s what we say: he’s my boyfriend.
KS: I saw you as Blanche in Tennessee’s Streetcar at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn.
GA: Did you? But you live here in London.
KS: No, I want to live here. I want to be you. I used to hate London, but I love it for some reason now. It’s a nice place, I think, to be older. I’m not saying that you’re old, Gillian. I’m just saying that you’ve figured out a way to do this. I now live in Hudson, NY. I moved there last year without ever having been there. I lived in New York for 38 years. And I lived in San Francisco for five years before moving to Hudson. Have you ever spent any time in San Francisco?
GA: I have spent a bit of time there. I like many elements of it, but I find many elements too schizophrenic for me.
KS: But what I love about you – I’m not saying you’re schizophrenic – is your incongruity as an actress and a person. You’re both American and British. And as an actress, there is something kind of … well .. keen about you. There is a keenness to you. You come off as rather cerebral. I don’t know if you’re really smart or not – I don’t know you – but you sure seem to be. There is something innately intelligent about you as an actress and a person. There seems to be a native intelligence. And yet, there is something deeply carnal about you, too.
GA: Mmmmm …
KS: I think sacredness lies in the crotch, if you will, of incongruity and that is where the sacredness of your talent as an actress itself seems to reside: in that incongruous juncture of the body and the mind.
GA: It is interesting that you say that. I am very … ah .. heady. I will say that I come across as more intelligent than I necessarily am, and part of that is in the acting. I often look like I’m thinking about really serious things when I’m probably not. My approach to the work is – in hearing you say that – a mixture of “cerebralness” and intuitiveness. And I think .. . I think … I think how I think about it is less an intelligent way in from the brain and actually more of a structural way in. It’s figuring out the structure of it, which is the cerebral element of it, rather than the thinking too much about she-must-be-like-this-because-she-says-this-and-then-that-person-says-this-and-therefore-if-it’s-that-how-does-that-play-itself-out. How all that comes out is how I sense it intuitively instead of getting too specific – although now I’m getting too specific in explaining it.
KS: More incongruity.
GA: It was tricky with this production because Ivo likes all the actors to be off-book completely the first day of rehearsal. I was very curious about doing it that way. I’d never done it that way before. What I did know is that it would probably be best to show up not knowing anything and not having any preconceptions about who Margo is or how Ivo might want to do it, or whatever. And when I’ve shown up before with “empty mind” very often the first few days are spent digging into the play, discussing the play. That is certainly what we did with Streetcar and my director for that, Benedict Andrews, so that by the time you are up on your feet you’ve excavated quite a lot. I mean, the excavation does go through to the very end especially with something like Williams and Streetcar; you never feel as if you’ve even gotten to the foundation necessarily – or, at least, not into all of its corners. But with this, I suddenly realized, okay, I’ve come empty and ready to learn and yet we’re not doing that bit of the process, hang on a second. I guess I’ve got to do that and I have to figure out what he wants it to look like and what he wants us to be. I didn’t quite know at the point we were going to start even what decade we were going to be in.
KS: That is what is disconcerting about this production at times. You realize while watching it that the temporal setting of the play still seems to be the time in which the film on which it is based was originally made in 1950. There are references to the characters having been in vaudeville together and the theatrical world of the time is still referenced in ways that it would not be now. And yet, the costuming is all modern and the “sensibility” of the piece is quite 21st Century. I have seen a lot of productions directed by Ivo and what always strikes me is not only the dizzying aspects – the visual tangents – of his direction, but also how he acknowledges artifice but within that artifice he demands that actors be even more real and exist within it. One has to mine real ore in an artificial quarry even more so than usual in the nature of acting for the theatre. He demands so much of actors – especially with the videos he employs lately in his stage productions – so that you have to be aware of close-ups on a screen as well as acting for the far reaches of theater from a stage. And when this is shown in cinemas in the National Theatre Live series, there will be another rather, well, performative Pirandellian level to all this. Speaking of empty mind, do you just become zen about all the levels and do nothing? Do you become even more simple in your approach the more levels there are to exist within and while existing within them have to transcend them as well?
GA: Well, I think what happened for me was is that because of the way that we started on our feet, that I didn’t feel as if I knew (until what we were being directed towards) where to place her, what homework to do, what degree of theatre diva she is in this world. Theatre divas at that time were very different than theatre divas today. Indeed, theatre divas almost don’t exist anymore in a really contemporary version of that. So can that actually exist? And is that necessary? Does the play ask for that or actually, because of the element of video, is it more of a Hollywood diva because of the film element of it and anything bigger than that will feel too Norma Desmond-y and weird? And that’s not stuff I figured out until after we opened. I was till trying to figure out what it was that we had and who she was in relation to all the elements and all the characters. I don’t think I fully got into her body until after we had opened for two or three weeks.
KS: When I heard you had accepted the role I thought: Why did she accept such an iconic role so associated with Bette.Davis and all she brought to the part? And I’m a gay guy. So when you see All About Eve as a young gay person you sort of get your gay card punched for having done so. And once an actress decides to say yes to that part, then how does she obliterate what so many of us have in our heads – ingrained in us really – about Margo Channing? For me personally as one member of the audience, I witnessed something rather brave and counterintuitive. It was completely not what I was expecting. You went almost in the opposite direction to what I was expecting to see when arriving at the theatre to see a woman playing a theatre diva but, in witnessing your going in that opposite direction, I began to understand for the first time how and why Margo Channing was so fooled and conned by Eve Harrington. There is such exhaustion in your Margo. There is such I-don’t-want-to-do-this-anymoreness in her. To paraphrase Carson McCullers – and even sort of reference your own feminist book We: A Manifesto for Women Everywhere – there is a kind of “ennui of me” to your Margo Channing. She almost seems medicated. She seems to long to be fooled. She wants Eve to fool her. And in that, you have given Margo an agency I never thought of her as having. She is in charge of the narrative instead of its victim. She manifested it all.
GA: Mmmmm .. that’s so interesting. Yeah. Yes.
KS: Why did you say yes to this? Was it a hard thing to say yes to?
GA: What I was saying yes to initially was that it was something that I had already sought out and was trying to find out if anyone had ever adapted it before for the theatre. At the particular time that I had asked that question, it just so happened that Ivo had it. So I tried to figure out who he was interested in doing it with, and then discovered that it was Cate Blanchett. So at the point that they came to me, it had already been mulling around in my head for a year and a half or so as a good idea. So when Ivo expressed interest in my doing it, I thought .. well, let’s say it wasn’t necessarily an immediate yes. I have had mixed reactions to his previous stuff. But in spending time with him, I thought, I want to spend time with this person. I like what he has to say about this project and how he is thinking about approaching it. And he has a sense of humor. I just liked him. So I said yes very much based on that initial meeting. Then I realized that no matter what, that it would give back. Because in doing something such as Streetcar in both incarnations here at the Young Vic and in New York at St. Ann’s, as much as I feel as if it did give back, it also took a lot. I thought if nothing else Margo will give back.
KS: What do you mean by that exactly – give back?
GA: That it would be fun. It would be only fun.
KS: I was amazed sitting in the audience the other night how much of the audience seemed to have never seen the film and were actually shocked and surprised by the narrative of the piece.
GA: Oh, I know. I know. I know. But I didn’t know this piece of it until later and that is that Ivo was not interested in the film and had not seen the film himself. He was interested in the story and the idea that he and Jan [Versweyveld, who lit the show and designed the sets] had for the show.
KS: I love that you brought up Cate. I was sort of afraid to mention that. But I love you for owning that part of the narrative of the production itself because that is another meta aspect of it all. Claudette Colbert was originally cast at Margo before Bette Davis took over the role, just as Cate was originally cast before you took it over. There is an urban legend that the story is based on Tallulah Bankhead and Lizabeth Scott during their time in Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth. But Mary Orr, who wrote the short story and play on which Joseph Mankiewicz based his screenplay, claimed that it was based on a story told to her by the actress Elisabeth Bergner and her experience in a Broadway production of The Two Mrs. Carrolls. Ivo cites both Orr and Mankiewicz as his source material for this adaptation. I did a deep dive into all this in preparation for our talk today and discovered this heightened coincidence. In 1936 – long before All About Eve and a whole decade before the short story by Orr appears in Cosmopolitan magazine – all three actresses, Claudette and Bette and Elisabeth, were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress. Bette won for Dangerous. I love that kind of shit. I wondered if you had all gone so deep in your own deep dive that you are doing Elisabeth Bergner and not Bette Davis. That you are tipping your hat to real aficionados of the piece.
GA: That’s so weird. I didn’t know that about the Oscars. Before meeting Ivo I did watch the film again and what I was amazed by was how much Davis downplayed the biting lines in the script. She often very much lightened and threw away the lines. Obviously it was a conscious decision on her part but, I thought, was it a conscious decision about her take on the character and that she didn’t want the film just to turn into this bitch-fest or was it that she was known as a bitch she didn’t want it to be hammered home as “This is just Bette Davis being Bette Davis”?
KS: She was also rather humbled during that part of her career. This was sort of a comeback in its way – or, at least, a reassertion of her place as an actress.
GA: Definitely. But because before I watched it again I had read so much about it being the bitchiest film of all time, I was so surprised by how un-bitchy it was. I mean, obviously the lines speak for themselves, in a sense. But I was shocked at how gentle she was with it all. She’s not overly drunk in that party scene.
KS: At first when I was watching this reimagined stage version of it, I wondered if it were a play about alcoholism and addiction. I’m in recovery, so I tend to see everything a bit like that when too much imbibing of any substance is part of a narrative. I wondered if her cry for help that she seems to be crying for is about that. But then that seems to dissipate after the party scene in the play. She’s black-out drunk in that party scene now though.
GA: There are only two scenes when she’s drunk. What you don’t realize is how it wraps up at the end is that when Eve takes over for her and calls in the critics and has these reviews, that is the same night that Margo forgives her and the same night that Bill has proposed to Margo. You buy a lot of stuff in a film, you accept a lot of stuff in film. But just in terms of story, we have to pretend that that is not necessarily the case in order for it to have the depth of revelation that she has gone through for it to be so quick, to happen so quickly.
KS: But to go back to what I perceived as an audience member – each audience member has his or her own perception – is that it wasn’t quick. It wasn’t even forgiveness. It was a kind of acknowledgment – or even gratitude – of her being in control of the narrative and allowing it all to happen and this new agency I saw the character as having in your interpretation of her. Maybe it is just your innate feminism coming through in the part and imbuing it in some sort of subconscious way.
GA: It is definitely more thankful at the end, yes.
KS: You also played Nora in A Doll’s House at the Donmar to great acclaim. What is the through-line from Nora to Blanche to Margo and even to Dr. Wilborn in Sex Education? Why are you attracted to these roles?
GA: I don’t know. I don’t generally go searching things out. It has always been about what comes.
KS: That’s very zen of you, very still.
GA: I’m not ambitious really.
KS: So you’re not Eve.
GA: I’m not Eve, no.
KS: Are you more Karen in the play?
KS: Are you more Bill?
KS: Are you Birdie?
GA: I mean, in a sense because I have very much put career in the forefront … well, I have three children, so I couldn’t have put it that much in the forefront. I do work a lot. I find it hard to relax.
KS: You’re a social activist, too, on top of everything else. You have so many interests and commitments. Multi-tasking doesn’t seem to be a problem for you. You’ve written the feminist manifesto I mentioned, as well as co-authored with Jeff Rovin The Earthend Saga series of books.
KS: I really admire you for your activism – maybe more than anything. I’m HIV positive. Activism saved my life. I know your activism regarding neurofibromatosis is personal because of your brother dying of complications from the disease. You own your feminism and have advocated for reproductive rights. You have worked for the Trevor Project and other LGBT causes. Children’s rights and animal rights are important to you. You are not afraid of using your celebrity to speak out for those things you believe in. Where does the sense of service come from? You just framed your role as Margo as “giving back” which itself is the language of service. Do you look on your art as an act of service?
GA: Well, okay: twofold. I do find that after you’re locked into something like a rehearsal period for a long period of time and then you get up onstage, everything just becomes singleminded and very much “about me.” It’s a lot of “me” even though I’m working on the character. And there’s always a certain point where I feel, okay, I definitely need to wake up tomorrow morning and do something for somebody else, or to stretch my attention a bit more because this feels entirely too masturbatory. So that is slightly ingrained in me. I also say no to a lot of stuff because I don’t like public speaking. I don’t like going public with things. I wish I enjoyed that element a bit more because I’ve got a lot to say and a lot that I would say were I to find that easier. And so the things that I have a tendency to do are much quieter and much more solitary. Because of that, I don’t actually feel like I do that much. There are certainly a lot of organizations that I’m involved in, but I am constantly saying, “Noooooo … I can’t … I’m not that person ….”
KS: You’re children are very different ages. Your oldest is 24. And the two youngest are 12 and 10 so being a mother to those two youngest is service in itself right now in your life, I’d say.
GA: Yes. It is. Yes.
KS: I am fascinated by how artists multi-task – especially in living their “normal” lives while honoring the calling of their art. You’re also a fashion designer now and have a clothes line. Is that top you’re wearing one of yours
GA: No. Not this.
KS: You’re doing this too in addition to everything else – designing a line of clothes. Don’t sit there all demure, Gillian, and tell me that you just don’t have time to do everything and be all humble about all this. You’re accomplished and committed in so many ways. You do a lot of shit, woman. Own it. You’ve also written books of different genres. Don’t you be throwing up all this false humble shit in this interview. Own it all. You’re really good at a lot of stuff.
GA: Mmmm .. thank you.
KS: You’re blushing. Or is it just hot in here?
GA: It’s also hot in the dressing room. Very hot in here.
KS: Do you have trouble owning all this? Or is the doing of it what is important and not the talking about it?
GA: I don’t know. I guess because it’s hard to talk about without … I feel …. I feel like …. ah .. I feel like it’s bigger than I am. Whether it’s siphoned through acting or activism or this small capsule clothing collection, they all feel like such gifts. And it all feels as if it is not me.
KS: Is this you verbalizing some sort of spiritual practice?
GA: In a way, yeah. I don’t know necessarily about practice as much as belief. When I’m up there on the stage, I just feel like I’m the conduit. If I’m writing – if it’s poetry for myself or if someone has asked me tor write something – it feels like I am only a conduit.
KS: When I am in the zone in my own writing it is like a constant state of prayer. I don’t know where it’s coming from. “Conduit” is a good word for it. It’s a gift. There is something about that moment when you hit the seam in the ore. There is something sacred about that.
KS: It’s mining without digging it out. You’re not the miner; you’re the seam. I sense that a lot about you and not only your acting, but also the way you’ve chosen to live your life. There is a seamlessness to your having found the seam and becoming one with it.
GA: Well, it seems to …. “it seems to” … see? … but if I get into patting myself on the back for stuff, that just feels disingenuous. I mean, yes, it’s great.
KS: Do you like awards? You’ve won several. Do you like the affirmation of it?
GA: I do. What I know is that if i had not been nominated for an Oliver i would have been disappointed. There are things that I have known where I have been nominated for a BAFTA and haven’t received a BAFTA and been confused as to why and gone, hang on a second, that’s the best work I’ve done in years.
KS: I do love that you mention the Olivier Awards and the BAFTA Awards and not the Tonys or the Emmys. Why do you feel so at home here in England? Why is London where you have settled down since 2002?
GA: I guess probably because it is where I spent my childhood and I always knew I would come back here.
KS: Is part of your living in London because you did live in Grand Rapids in your teenage years? If I asked you if you were one of the other – British or American – what would you say?
GA: It really does feel like both. I think quintessentially I feel American. That rings true for me. And yet this – London – absolutely feels like home.
KS: I sense that you’re a huge star here in England even in a way you’re not in the United States.
GA: Mmmm …
KS: And this production of All About Eve is a huge hit. You can’t get a fucking ticket for this. I keep trying to figure out why this is such a hit. It’s a weird hit. Mixed reviews – although yours have been stellar. I think a lot of it has to do with you.
GA: I think a lot of it is the four elements of it. Honestly. Yes, it’s me. It’s Lily [James, her co-star who is portraying Eve Harrington]. It’s Ivo. And it’s the film. It’s the combination.
KS: Every season on the West End there is something that is sort of the hot ticket, the one play one has to see.
KS: And this season it seems to have been All About Eve. I’ve read that you also collect art. So you’ve got “an eye.” Lots of artists who are performative don’t have that kind of artistic eye, But you have it?
GA: That is so subjective.
KS: Well, you certainly dress in an art directed way. And you also know how to sit. You’ve even art directed your posture and the way you’ve draped yourself next to me on your dressing room sofa. Even that has an aesthetic aspect to it, a structural one.
GA: I wish it were that premeditated. I mean, what I do enjoy is working on houses. I’ve done that quite a lot. Then after a few years, I get bored.
KS: Then you flip them?
GA: Well, you can’t really do that anymore. I have in the past. It more has to do with wanting another project and wanting to express myself creatively in that way. In that sense, I feel as if I do have an eye. I like the art that I have, but I haven’t actively bought in while. There was a time when I collected quite a bit.
KS: I collected a lot at one point and sold a lot of it last year for financial reasons in order to survive, honestly. I was amazed how emotional it was for me. I know art is an object and we should be able to let objects go, but I was amazed how emotionally attached I was to certain pieces that served as talismans to the narrative of my life. They were totems of emotions. Some of it meant a lot to me. Even when I was homeless at the beginning of my recovery and I stored my furniture and art and people were advising me to sell my art, I tried to explain to them why it was important to keep it so I could have the goal of having walls again to hang it on, by giving it all a home I would be giving myself one again. In so many ways, my art was my home. My art saved my life in some profound way. At some point art – if you live with it long enough and in a certain way – begins to see you instead of it just being seen. That is what great theatre does for me too. When I see a great performance or a great production, it is as if I am being seen by it. We all bring our own stories to the theatre and, as we witness it, it is bearing witness to us.
GA: I’ve had nights when I’ve had different people come back and one person has said – a famous singer – it’s the best thing he’d ever seen. Then there was a director who came back the same night and who couldn’t stand it. Couldn’t stand the music. Couldn’t stand the video. Couldn’t stand anything about it. I had these two very different conversations after the same performance on the same night.
KS: But that is Ivo, too. He divides people.
GA: That’s Ivo. Yep. Yep. I think his productions are tricky for people who are script-led. He’s not. He’s not interested in the script really.
KS: Let’s talk about Sex Education a bit. I’m talking to Asa [Butterfield, who plays Anderson’s son Otis in the series] later this week. What appealed to you about playing a sex therapist? Your character is fascinating.
GA: I said yes because it was so smart. I don’t get offered comedy very often so I’m constantly on the look out for comedy. I was also interested in potentially working with Netflix.
KS: Oh, and you have a lesbian sister.
KS: I have a lesbian sister. Let’s bond finally over that.
KS: She’s about to walk the Camino with her lover.
GA: My daughter wants to walk it, too.
KS: I discovered the meditative aspect of walking while doing it myself several years ago. It’s one of the reasons I love London so much. It opens itself to these long meditative walks, that sense of being completely still as you experience forward motion – which, come to think of it, is a pretty good description of great acting and what I sense when I experience your performances: stillness and motion all at once. But one of the things you also realize is that once you get to the end of the Camino, you are just beginning. The pilgrimage commences at the end of it. So thank you for being a part of my pilgrimage, Gillian. Thank you for sharing a sofa with me here at the Noel Coward Theatre.
GA: Mmmm .. thank you.
KS: Thank you for your service.
GA: Thank you for yours.
Check out Gillian’s capsule fashion line here