“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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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser