One morning a decade ago, Gillian Anderson started crying about the cruelty of ageing and didn’t stop until evening. “If you watch yourself on film, there is a certain point you see yourself... change. It’s arresting,” she says, sitting on a velvet sofa at home, dressed in black, her stiletto boots tucked under her, and with such fine features it’s as if she’s been drawn with a very sharp pencil. “It can either be completely traumatic or something that instigates a shift of consciousness towards thinking about what’s important. But you have to go through that trauma first, to mourn.”
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Anderson has been thinking about age again for two reasons. The first is that last summer she turned 50. The second is that later this month she will play the role Bette Davis made famous – Margo Channing, in writer-director Ivo van Hove’s new stage adaptation of All About Eve. A deliciously quotable film about ambition (itself an adaptation of Mary Orr’s 1946 short story, "The Wisdom of Eve"), it remains a classic, as well as the defining role of Davis’s mid-career. It tells, of course, the backstage story of Margo, a magnetic Broadway star who takes a forlorn fan (Eve Harrington, to be played by Lily James) under her wing, only for her to clamber past her to success, treading Margo into the dirt on the way. “Imagine, to know every night that hundreds of people love you,” Eve murmurs famously, picturing herself on stage, her eyes a little too vivid.
Unsurprisingly, the new production is the West End’s most anticipated show of early 2019, though it remained shrouded in mystery right up until the previews. Van Hove – the enigmatic Belgian director of Lazarus, the musical based on David Bowie’s back catalogue, and a much-lauded 2015 production of A View from the Bridge – is always an intriguing quantity, while the star power of Anderson and James has set pre-sales alight. Rehearsals are yet to start when we meet and, though excited, Anderson is curious, too: “What will it be? Right now, it’s just... an idea.” With a score by PJ Harvey, the production will certainly be a tense demythologising of fame and an acerbic satire on ambition. But Joseph Mankiewicz’s film won six Academy Awards in 1951 – can the play live up to its splendour?
Van Hove calls me from New York as Network (another film he’s taken to the stage) opens on Broadway. All About Eve is a script he’s been waiting to adapt for years. “Because it talks about theatre,” he says, “one of the most important things in my life, the thing that expresses who I am, what I think of the world. It talks about relationships, these dysfunctional families we form, these dependencies. Theatre. Is it worth it?” He sighs at the weight of his question. He feels an urgency in bringing the story to the stage now. “One of the themes is abuse of power – you see Eve being dominated, and understand Margo has been, as well. This is the circle of life, nothing is forever.”
For some actors, reaching the point in your career when you’re invited to play the declining diva rather than the rising starlet would be cause for a new course of cosmetic procedures, or at least a few deep breaths. But Anderson, who has been famous longer than not (she was cast in The X-Files aged 24), says she only accepts work that excites her. For Bette Davis, wrote Roger Ebert, “Growing older was a smart career move” – the same could be said for Anderson. “I don’t think I could ever be an Eve,” she says – her American-English accent sounding almost Scandinavian, with its glassy inflection and sonorous growl. Besides, “There’s a natural sweetness to Eve, even though there’s something darker underneath, so the actress that plays her has to be innocent herself, almost naive. Even my resting face looks like I’m thinking about much more important things.”
Such relief, then, that Lily James exists. The star of Downton Abbey and Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again has played the ingénue more times than she can remember, so the draw of Eve (apart from the chance to work with Van Hove – in the audience for his production of A View from the Bridge she was, she says, “dying” to jump up on stage) is the opportunity to tip the innocence over and see what’s underneath. As befits her generation, she leaves me voice notes from a busy restaurant, whispering slightly into the phone. “The story plays on those anxieties, the idea that you’re a commodity, the fears you have on a bad day.” As an actress playing an actress, like Anderson, her focus on the themes is absolute. “I want to explore all that poison the industry plays up to.”
Seeing them go toe-to-toe is an exciting prospect, though re-watching the film today is blissful but shocking. While camp and cutting, as a profound portrait of how women’s identities are eaten away by age, in 2019 it feels closer to horror film than drama. “There’s a sense of being forgotten as you age, of becoming invisible when your currency has no value any more,” Anderson offers. “Margo has a sought-after younger husband, too, and then this amazing, refreshing young girl comes along.” She gives a pointed look, her lips pursed, then chuckles remembering a moment from her adolescence. “When I was in high school in Michigan, I was in the punk scene and had a boyfriend in a band. And a girl arrived. Ha, I’d never thought of it in this context before. Anyway, she started to change…” says Anderson, recalling how the girl cut her hair, got a nose ring, and all of a sudden looked like her twin. Then what happened? “Then my boyfriend had an affair with her.” She hoots, the memory becoming a fond one from this distance.
“In my current life, the new version of that is the hiring of a young nanny,” she says. Anderson, who lives with The Crown writer Peter Morgan, has three children with former partners, and her eldest and youngest are 14 years apart. “I once called a Swedish nanny agency and the woman was trying to comfort me by saying all the nannies were ‘pretty’. I must have made some noise out loud, because she told me this was something that was sought after. I said, ‘There may be some women that want a beautiful young nanny, but there are those, too, that would rather… not.’ Right?”
At 29, James is disinclined to trade on looks. She bristles when agents use the phrase “hot young thing”, in part because of modesty, but also because she knows that youth is fleeting, and heat cools. “It can feel so limiting, and it makes you focus on the transience of this life. The industry plays on the feeling that women’s careers are short or that only youth is admirable. So much of this job is not about acting but about how you appear, which, yes, can prey on your anxieties. But when I look at people like Maggie Smith and Judi Dench, I see how long careers can be rich and grow and change.” Especially with roles like Eve. “The play shows how fabulous women are in all their glory, their wit, their sensuality. Sorry, our wit, our sensuality. Our cattiness. It celebrates the beauty and the ugliness of women. It’s magnificent, isn’t it?”
And yet, Margo isn’t allowed to age. A woman must preserve herself, as if she were crystallised fruit, at 28. “These things feel important today,” says Van Hove. “I’m not interested in making a show about stardom, I’m not interested in making a museum piece.” He deliberately hasn’t re-watched the film, choosing instead to make theatre about theatre, about telling “the truth”. When he was growing up, a Belgian actress told him she could see that he and the theatre, “would make a good marriage”. “And she was right – we’re still together, through good and bad reviews,” he laughs. “It’s not my job, it’s my life.” He talks about it with an earnest gruffness, his responsibility to the truth, however dark – and he’s ready to guide Anderson and James through the horror.
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Anderson takes a sip of tea. “The thing to remember is, how one looks in the mirror is the youngest one will ever look again. So you can’t do anything but celebrate it! Ageing is something we all need to find a way to embrace – the inevitability of age, of decline, of… rot.” She cackles, hearing herself, a well-attired goth contemplating death on a winter afternoon. This will not be a cosy show, this will not be a nostalgic love letter to theatre. This will be an elegant and electric exploration of what it means to be a woman. As Margo says in the film, after downing her drink, audiences will need to fasten their seatbelts. “It’s going to be a bumpy night.”
All About Eve is at the No?l Coward Theatre, WC2, from February 2