“My father told me I should go into word processing”

Actor Gillian Anderson on slapstick, motherhood and the perils of Googling yourself.

You're starring in the slapstick comedy Johnny English Reborn, which seems an unusual choice for you. Was that part of the appeal?
I generally like to make choices based on who I'd like to work with - and I liked the idea of playing the MI7 [spy agency] role with Rowan Atkinson. I think the thing that surprised me the most was how technical it was . . . I was aware of how I needed to work my technical muscle in a way that I hadn't before.

Is the atmosphere on the set of a comedy film different from that on, say, a period drama?
There's a heightened sense of comedy around and there's a bit more laughter. On the other hand, it seems to be more serious, because it's quite serious business, comedy.

Is there snobbery about doing a broad comedy?
Very early on, when I signed on to this project, I had read on IMDb [that] somebody was commenting on why I would choose to be in this film. And I thought, hang on a second - if I was doing a Jim Carrey film, nobody would be having that reaction.

It worries me that you are reading IMDb comments. Do you google yourself a lot?
No! I was looking up something else.

Some people do.
Ha, the first thing I do when I get up every single morning, after I feed the kids, is I go and google "Gillian Anderson".

Are your children affected by your fame?
No, the very, very first situation that we had was when we went to see Cars, and at the movie theatre we were handed a popcorn box with my picture from Johnny English Reborn facing me. My almost-five-year-old said: "Mummy, that's you!" really loudly and proceeded to turn the box around to find out where Daddy was.

It was very funny, but that was the first time that any kind of explanation was needed. And
I can't even remember what we said to him at the time - we sort of tried to push it under the table. It's too early for him.

If any of your children wanted to act, what would you say?
Well, I have a 17-year-old, and that would be the one to come to me soonest. Fortunately she is not interested. I have to say I'm a bit relieved she doesn't want to be an actor.

Because of the lifestyle or the insecurity?
Yes, because the statistics show, I think, that only 5 per cent of actors are working at any one time. My father gave me a lecture at one point when I was younger and told me that I shouldn't be an actress because I should probably get a real job, and that I should go into - what was it back then; computers were really young? - it was word processing.

You've done several period dramas. Are the roles available better?
It's a joy to do that kind of stuff. Every time somebody comes to me and says do Dickens, do Ibsen or Chekov or whatever, it's an honour. If there were two roles sitting in front of me and one of them was Ibsen and one of them a modern piece, I'd probably choose Ibsen. The other side of that is, yes, there is a shortage of good material for women that is as provocative and complex as some of the writing in the classics. But I don't feel like I'm choosing those [the classics] because there's nothing else out there. I am choosing those because I want to do them.

You were in A Doll's House at the Donmar Warehouse in London. What is it like to act in such an intimate theatre?
Each theatre has its own, very strong person­ality. There's something quite arresting about being in a space that small. The closeness of the audience lifts you in a very different way.

Why do you like Ibsen?
Ever since I don't know for how long, people have come to me and said, "You have to do Hedda Gabler; that's a role that's made for you." I'm not sure how much of an insult that is.

In March, you chose Barack Obama as the person you "most admire". Is that still true?
Well, I don't know about most admire. I still think he is a person I admire, but it has been a horrible ride for him since he came into office. And I just cannot imagine waking up every single day and having that burden on your shoulders and not just wanting to crawl under the covers and say, "I'm done." I still hold him in high esteem; he is doing his utmost for everybody. I am amazed what he still handles and the grace he continues to operate under.

Do you vote?
Yes, but in the States. Very enthusiastically for Obama coming into office, and this time round it will be Obama again, no matter who comes up on the Republican side.

Was there a plan for your career?
No, I've gotten lucky.

Are we all doomed?
No, not at all. Only some of you.

Defining Moments

1968 Born in Chicago. Grows up in London and Grand Rapids, Michigan
1993 Lands star role in the X Files TV series
1994 Marries her first husband, Clyde Klotz, and gives birth to her daughter, Piper
1997 Wins an Emmy, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award for The X Files
2005 Stars in the BBC's Bleak House
2006 Gives birth to her son Oscar
2008 Her second son, Felix, is born
2010 Is nominated for an Olivier Award for her role in A Doll's House at the Donmar

Johnny English Reborn is in cinemas now.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, This is plan B

FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism