“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

Nicola Snothum / Millenium Images
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The end of solitude: in a hyperconnected world, are we losing the art of being alone?

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. 

Michael Harris is a Canadian writer who lives in a big city and whose life is defined and circumscribed, as so many Western lives are now, by digital technologies. He finds it hard to leave his phone at home in case he misses anything. He worries about his social media reputation. He uses apps and plays games, and relies on the internet hive mind to tell him which films to watch or where to eat. Here is what happens when he goes on holiday to Paris:

Disembarking from the train from London, I invited a friendly app to guide me to a hotel near the Pompidou . . . The next morning, Yelp guided me towards a charming café in the Marais. There, wizard-like, I held my phone over the menu and waited for Google Translate to melt the words into English. When the waiter arrived, I spoke into my phone and had it repeat my words to the grinning garçon in a soft, robotic French. Later, at the Louvre, I allowed a Nintendo-sponsored guidance system to track my steps up the centuries-old Daru staircase as I squinted confusedly at its glowing blue you-are-here dot . . .

Terrifying, isn’t it? Well, I thought so as I read it, and Harris thought so afterwards. It was situations like this, during which he realised that his life was controlled, confined and monitored by distancing technologies, that led him to wonder whether solitude – the act and the art of being alone – was in danger of disappearing.

Harris has an intuition that being alone with ourselves, paying attention to inner silence and being able to experience outer silence, is an essential part of being human. He can remember how it felt to do this, before the internet brought its social anxiety and addiction into his life. “I began to remember,” he writes, “a calm separateness, a sureness I once could live inside for an easy hour at a time.”

What happens when that calm separateness is destroyed by the internet of everything, by big-city living, by the relentless compulsion to be with others, in touch, all the time? Plenty of people know the answer already, or would do if they were paying attention to the question. Nearly half of all Americans, Harris tells us, now sleep with their smartphones on their bedside table, and 80 per cent are on their phone within 15 minutes of waking up. Three-quarters of adults use social networking sites regularly. But this is peanuts compared to the galloping development of the so-called Internet of Things. Within the next few years, anything from 30 to 50 billion objects, from cars to shirts to bottles of shampoo, will be connected to the net. The internet will be all around you, whether you want it or not, and you will be caught in its mesh like a fly. It’s not called the web for nothing.

I may not be the ideal reader for this book. By page 20, after a few more facts of this sort, I had already found myself scrawling “Kill everyone!” in the margins. This is not really the author’s fault. I often start behaving like this whenever I’m forced to read a list of ways in which digital technology is wrecking human existence. There are lots of lists like this around at the moment, because the galloping, thoughtless, ongoing rush to connect everything to the web has overcome our society like a disease. Did you know that cows are now connected to the internet? On page 20, Harris tells us that some Swiss dairy cows, sim cards implanted in their necks, send text messages to their farmers when they are on heat and ready to be inseminated. If this doesn’t bring out your inner Unabomber, you’re probably beyond help. Or maybe I am.

What is the problem here? Why does this bother me, and why does it bother Harris? The answer is that all of these things intrude upon, and threaten to destroy, something ancient and hard to define, which is also the source of much of our creativity and the essence of our humanity. “Solitude,” Harris writes, “is a resource.” He likens it to an ecological niche, within which grow new ideas, an understanding of the self and therefore an understanding of others.

The book is full of examples of the genius that springs from silent and solitary moments. Beethoven, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Einstein, Newton – all developed their ideas and approach by withdrawing from the crowd. Peter Higgs, the Nobel ­Prizewinner who discovered the Higgs boson particle, did his best work in peace and solitude in the 1960s. He suggests that what he did then would be impossible today, because it is now virtually impossible to find such solitude in the field of science.

Collaboration, not individuality, is fetishised today, in business as in science and the arts, but Harris warns that collaboration often results in conformism. In the company of others, most of us succumb to pressure to go with the crowd. Alone, we have more chance to be thoughtful, to see differently, to enter a place where we feel free from the mob to moderate our unique experience of the world. Without solitude, he writes, genius – which ultimately springs from different ways of thinking and seeing – becomes impossible. If Thoreau’s cabin in the woods had had wifi, we would never have got Walden.

Yet it is not only geniuses who have a problem: ordinary minds like yours and mine are threatened by the hypersocial nature of always-on urbanity. A ­civilisation can be judged by the quality of its daydreams, Harris suggests. Who daydreams now? Instead of staring out of the window on a train, heads are buried in smartphones, or wired to the audio of a streaming film. Instead of idling at the bus stop, people are loading up entertainment: mobile games from King, the maker of Candy Crush, were played by 1.6 billion times every day in the first quarter of 2015 alone.

If you’ve ever wondered at the behaviour of those lines of people at the train station or in the street or in the café, heads buried in their phones like zombies, unable or unwilling to look up, Harris confirms your worst fears. The developers of apps and games and social media sites are dedicated to trapping us in what are called ludic loops. These are short cycles of repeated actions which feed our brain’s desire for reward. Every point you score, every candy you crush, every retweet you get gives your brain a dopamine hit that keeps you coming back for more. You’re not having a bit of harmless fun: you are an addict. A tech corporation has taken your solitude and monetised it. It’s not the game that is being played – it’s you.

So, what is to be done about all this? That’s the multibillion-dollar question, but it is one the book cannot answer. Harris spends many pages putting together a case for the importance of solitude and examining the forces that splinter it today. Yet he also seems torn in determining how much of it he wants and can cope with. He can see the damage being done by the always-on world but he lives in the heart of it, all his friends are part of it, and he doesn’t want to stray too far away. He understands the value of being alone but doesn’t like it much, or want to experience it too often. He’ll stop checking his Twitter analytics but he won’t close down his account.

At the end of the book, Harris retreats, Thoreau-like, to a cabin in the woods for a week. As I read this brief last chapter, I found myself wishing it was the first, that he had spent more time in the cabin, that he had been starker and more exploratory, that he had gone further. Who will write a Walden for the Internet Age? This book is thick with fact and argument and some fine writing, but there is a depth that the author seems afraid to plumb. Perhaps he is afraid of what he might find down there.

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. After 200 pages of increasingly disturbing facts about the impact of technology and crowded city living on everything from our reading habits to our ability to form friendships, and after warning us on the very last page that we risk making “an Easter Island of the mind”, the author goes back home to Vancouver, tells his boyfriend that he missed him, and then . . . well, then what? We don’t know. The book just ends. We are left with the impression that the pile-up of evidence leads to a conclusion too vast for the author, and perhaps his readers, to take in, because to do that would be to challenge everything.

In this, Solitude mirrors the structure of many other books of its type: the Non-Fiction Warning Book (NFWB), we might call it. It takes a subject – disappearing childhood; disappearing solitude; disappearing wilderness; disappearing anything, there’s so much to choose from – trots us through several hundred pages of anecdotes, science,
interviews and stories, all of which build up to the inescapable conclusion that everything is screwed . . . and then pulls back. It’s like being teased by an expert hustler. Yes, technology is undermining our sense of self and creating havoc for our relationships with others, but the solution is not to stop using it, just to moderate it. Yes, overcrowded cities are destroying our minds and Planet Earth, but the solution is not to get out of the cities: it’s to moderate them in some way, somehow.

Moderation is always the demand of the NFWB, aimed as it is at mainstream readers who would like things to get better but who don’t really want to change much – or don’t know how to. This is not to condemn Harris, or his argument: most of us don’t want to change much or know how to. What books of this kind are dealing with is the problem of modernity, which is intractable and not open to moderation. Have a week away from your screen if you like, but the theft of human freedom by the machine will continue without you. The poet Robinson Jeffers once wrote about sitting on a mountain and looking down on the lights of a city, and being put in mind of a purse seine net, in which sardines swim unwittingly into a giant bag, which is then drawn tightly around them. “I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now/There is no escape,” he wrote. “The circle is closed, and the net/Is being hauled in.”

Under the circumstances – and these are our circumstances – the only honest conclusion to draw is that the problem, which is caused primarily by the technological direction of our society, is going to get worse. There is no credible scenario in which we can continue in the same direction and not see the problem of solitude, or lack of it, continue to deepen.

Knowing this, how can Harris just go home after a week away, drop off his bag and settle back into his hyperconnected city life? Does he not have a duty to rebel, and to tell us to rebel? Perhaps. The problem for this author is our shared problem, however, at a time in history when the dystopian predictions of Brave New World are already looking antiquated. Even if Harris wanted to rebel, he wouldn’t know how, because none of us would. Short of a collapse so severe that the electricity goes off permanently, there is no escape from what the tech corporations and their tame hive mind have planned for us. The circle is closed, and the net is being hauled in. May as well play another round of Candy Crush while we wait to be dragged up on to the deck. 

Paul Kingsnorth's latest book, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” (Faber & Faber)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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