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For a change, Gillian Anderson uses some comedy ‘muscles’ she tells Andrew L. Urban, while director Oliver Parker explains why he had to be strict with the cast to make sure they played it straight – except of course Rowan Atkinson.

She went from running Britain’s spy agency MI7 to running MI5, in back to back roles this year, but for Gillian Anderson this was no demotion. “For one thing,” she laughs, “MI7 doesn’t really exist.” Anderson is in Sydney promoting Johnny English Reborn, in which she plays the spy boss Pamela Thornton to Rowan Atkinson’s Agent One, Johnny English.

While Anderson says she generally avoids playing “potentially similar roles” (especially so close together), she was intrigued by the differences: in Shadow Dancer she co-stars with Clive Owen in a dramatic story about a young woman who has been a member of the IRA alongside her brothers and husband becomes an informer for Britain's MI5. 

In Johnny English, she co-stars with Atkinson in a comedy thriller about the former agent who returns to the field and botches everything.

Although she is playing a role reminiscent of M in the James Bond franchise recently perfected by Judi Dench, Anderson says she is not channelling Dench. “I did think about her,” she admits, “but Judi almost whispers when she talks and I don’t know how she can harness so much power like that …”

"in comedy, precision is important"

And comedy is indeed hard work. “I felt I was working a muscle I hadn’t used much before,” she says. “It’s very technical; I found it difficult and I needed to go over and over and over stuff to get it right. Sometimes how it is in your head doesn’t come out like that and in comedy, precision is important.”

The film’s director, Oliver Parker, agrees. “Rowan’s approach is meticulous, it’s almost mathematical – so it was great and refreshing to see the film with an audience in Sydney at the premiere this week.”

In comedies, even with Rowan Atkinson, it’s important to keep it straight for most of the cast, “and we had to be strict with them,” adds Parker. “As the writer Hamish McColl said to them, ‘No nibbling on the comedy cake!’”

In the five years since MI7's top spy Johnny English (Atkinson) vanished off the grid, he has been honing his martial arts skills in a remote region of Asia. But when MI7 chief (Anderson) learns of an attempt against the Chinese premier's life, her team must find the highly unorthodox agent. With one shot at redemption, he must employ the latest in hi-tech gadgets to unravel a web of conspiracy that runs through the KGB, CIA and even MI-7. He has a young trainee agent, Tucker (Daniel Kaluuva) to help him, and some backroom help from behaviour study expert Kate Summer (Rosamund Pike).

After years away, English returns to a new world of the agency: the building now has mauve trim and naming rights have been sold: it’s now “Toshiba Military Intelligence” and the merchandise (including equipment) is tagged “Spying For You”.

“We originally wanted to use Apple,” says Parker, “but it’s not as incongruous as Toshiba.” There is also a high profile, voice controlled Rolls Royce in the film, to satisfy Atkinson’s “romance with automobiles” as Parker puts it. 

“That was Rowan …he had set it up with Rolls Royce. I heard him on the phone talking to the head of the company in Germany when I walked into the production office one day at the start. It seems to fit; Rolls Royce is so quintessentially English … even though it’s now German owned,” he says laughing.

"to blend the comedy and thriller elements"

For Parker, the most important thing was to blend the comedy and thriller elements so well that audiences would take the dangers seriously to give the film its edge. “It’s a slim concoction, the Johnny English brand, but we had to make him heroic, a character striving to be better than he is.”

Likewise, Anderson tries to be better than she feels she is in her private life, supporting several charities. “I feel a bit hypocritical talking about it because people give a lot more of their time than I do. I mostly attend board meetings not work on the ground – but I bring attention to them. I do it because in this self obsessed business that I’m in, it’s easy to fall into a self centred mode and you can get sick of yourself. There’s nothing like putting one’s energy to help someone else in some small way. It helps to balance things….”

Published September 15, 2011

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Gillian Anderson


Oliver Parker

Rowan Atkinson - as Johnny English

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