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Scoop: Why Gillian Anderson found it ‘scary’ to play Prince Andrew interviewer Emily Maitlis

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Gillian Anderson says it was “scary” to play former BBC News night journalist Emily Maitlis in a Netflix drama about her 2019 interview with Prince Andrew.

The X-Files and Sex Education actress had reservations about taking the part.

In fact, Anderson was so daunted that she initially turned down the role of the interviewer in the new film Scoop. “It was just too scary to play Emily Maitlis, because she’s still living, because she’s so formidable, because people know her so well,” she says. But in the end, she decided to dismiss her doubts and accept the part. “I thought I probably do have to do it because I’m so scared of it.”

Anderson is speaking alongside her co-star Billie Piper in the Langham Hotel, about 100m from where News night is made in the corporation’s New Broadcasting House. Referring to Maitlis, Anderson laughs: “I think she’s amazing, I’ve since met her and behaved with her as if I knew her. As if we were best friends.” The Emmy and Golden Globe-winning actress explains that the pair bumped into each other at a Cancer Research fundraiser at Bafta’s headquarters last year.

“The hilarious part of it was that I had come to this charity event not having prepared at all and was really disheveled.”And she showed up as Emily Maitlis, who looks like a movie star and was tanned, short white skirt and everything. I look like her great aunt in the pictures.” Anderson says she did not get to quiz Maitlis while preparing to play her, for a simple reason. The real-life former News night host is the executive producer of a rival three-part Amazon series.

A Very Royal Scandal will star Luther’s Ruth Wilson as Maitlis and Michael Sheen in the role of Prince Andrew, and will cover much of the same ground.

“She knew I was playing her, but has her own project, so was very boundaries about that,” says Anderson of their encounter. Netflix’s version sees Rufus Sewell play the prince, and is based on the memoir of former News night producer Sam McAlister, who secured the royal interview and was on set through much of the production. She is played by Piper, who describes McAlister as “a formidable woman with an art of negotiation”, “so high energy” and “unlike anyone I’ve ever met”. “I had an £11,000 wig,” says Piper, beaming as she explains how she achieved the look of Mc “Really!” says Anderson with genuine surprise at the price. “That’s where the budget went. That was unicorn hair,” she laughs.

 

‘A car crash in slow motion’

Both actresses remember their reactions when the original Prince Andrew interview was broadcast.  “Agog,” says Piper, going wide-eyed as she thinks back. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and felt like, I don’t know if I will ever see anything like this again.” “I put off watching it,” remembers Anderson. “Because I’d heard what a car crash in slow motion it was in a way. It throws up so many questions.”  The pair is adamant that there is every reason to make a film about the interview, even when the original can still be easily watched online.

Alister’s trademark wavy blonde locks.

“This is as much about the story behind [it], the people behind the acquisition of the interview,” explains Anderson.

Both say the fact that it was women, in particular McAlister, who were instrumental in making the interview happen, is what most appealed to them.

“It captures all the moments where it almost didn’t happen,” says Anderson.

“Even after they captured it, the Palace could have shut it down. So why not dramatize [it] up until one of the most dramatic and important interviews in history?”

When it came to recreating the actual interview, Anderson and Sewell learned a 10-minute section off by heart.

“It felt like a play,” enthuses Anderson.

“It was like a play watching it,” says Piper, jumping in.

Anderson had replayed and replayed the original audio, learning all the rhythms and breaks in speech. When it came to filming, she found out that Sewell had independently employed the same technique.

“When we were sitting in front of each other there were six, eight cameras and it was ‘Go!’. And because he had prepared in the same way and could go from beginning to end, it meant we could do those 10 minutes straight.

“We just fell into the rhythm of the interview and how those questions were asked. We took a breath afterwards and went, ‘That was it!’ It was fun. It was scary. It was amazing. It was weird.” Prince Andrew was also reportedly happy after recording the real interview.

The Netflix film, on which McAlister is an executive producer, is based on her book Scoops: Behind the Scenes of the BBC’s Most Shocking Interviews. She wrote the memoir after taking voluntary redundancy from her News night job in 2021.  She gives her theory about why Prince Andrew believed the recording had gone well.  “I call it royal delusion,” she says. “People at a certain level, and I was often dealing with heads of state and CEOs at the time, nobody thinks they’ve done a bad interview.

“The level to which they don’t think they’ve done a bad interview probably depends on their level of power and their level of understanding their own capabilities. Prince Andrew had 59 years of being told he was incredible.”

Despite leaving News night, she is still fiercely proud of the programmed, which is undergoing a series of major cuts, and says “the powerful will sleep more soundly” when the BBC Two show is reduced to 30 minutes.  McAlister is equally diplomatic when asked about Maitlis’s Amazon series, insisting there is “no animosity” between them, describing the projects as “complementary” and admitting she is unsure if anyone plays her in that version (“Can you find out for me?”). There was a moment when she cried during filming, when watching Piper recreate her old daily arrival for work.

“To see Billie encapsulate my life for over a decade, I found it pretty moving. To see her bouncing with the curls and lashings of lip-gloss, coffee in hand. No-one has an expectation to end up being played by Billie Piper in a Netflix movie.”

A long-lasting satisfaction is that the film highlights what went on behind the scenes at News night to make the interview happen. “I get producers all the time coming up to me and saying, ‘I can’t believe that people are hearing about the work that we do’.”

 

Pizza the action

There is just time left to confirm that Anderson and Piper are both more regular customers at Pizza Express than Prince Andrew, who famously told Maitlis about vising the chain. “I was there on Friday,” smiles Piper. “I go about once a week. I’ve got young children.”  “I’ve probably been to the Woking one,” adds Anderson mischievously.

For research? “No. For pizza,” is her deadpan, deep pan response.

And as for what they think Prince Andrew will make of the film? They are both adamant in agreement that this time he will not be watching.

Scoop streams on Netflix from Friday 5 April.

SOURCE: BBC NEWS