“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

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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