Gillian Anderson is smoking weed and drinking wine. She’s having casual sex, talking about masturbation, scrotums and all sorts of things that would be deemed “bawdy” by some—all this while surrounded by sex toys. She’s teaching the world all about s-e-x in Netflix’s Sex Education. It’s a far cry from Special Agent Dana Scully—and that is exactly what the Emmy-winning actress wanted.
“I’m always looking for something different, yeah,” Anderson told E! News.
In the series, Anderson plays Dr. Jean Milburn, a sex therapist, and mom Otis Milburn (Asa Butterfield). Otis, somewhat begrudgingly, becomes a coitus guru himself, but for his school peers. It’s all for the cash and a crush.
For Anderson, the role is a departure from what most TV viewers know her for—the aliens and supernatural of The X-Files and the murder and mayhem of The Fall and Hannibal.
“I guess my favorite thing about Jean is how inappropriate she is because it’s just so much fun to do that,” Anderson said about her character. “It’s so much fun to be that mom who listens at the door and then pretends to be straightening up a picture on the wall, so I think probably that element of her.”
Anderson’s resume does include some comedy, including recent flick The Spy Who Dumped Me, but she’s usually playing buttoned-up characters in dark dramas. That changed with Sex Education, where she said it was “completely fun” to let loose as Jean. The experience is similar to one she had while doing A Streetcar Named Desire on stage as Blanche DuBois.
“Blanche is funny, she’s alcoholic and there are aspects of her personality that were so much fun to step into the expanse of that. And this is a similar thing, which is there are elements of her that are definitely elements of myself, but to have the opportunity to kind of jump into something completely different and just let loose and be loose is exhilarating in a way,” she said.
Like Anderson, Butterfield is known for his fantasy and sci-fi roots, like Ender’s Game and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, but here, he and Anderson get to be normal folks. Well, as normal as you can be when your mom is a sex therapist who wants to talk to you about why you’re staging a scene to make it look like you’ve been masturbating.
“For us, I think it was a nice change of pace and atmosphere to be able to have those funny moments, the kind of mother and son bickering, which is very funny and very, just kind of believable and relatable and so well-written that allowed us to have some fun with it,” Butterfield said.
While fun, the TV relationship doesn’t really mirror Anderson’s relationship with her kids. However, Butterfield said it’s somewhat like the one he has at home, “minus the kind of sex therapy part of it, and the dildos spread around the house.”
“There are aspects of it that definitely are, that I think are kind of universal…especially when you’re trying to talk about things like sex,” he said.
“It’s universally awkward no matter who you’re talking to, even if your mother is a sex therapist. It’s something you just don’t want to talk to your parents about,” Anderson added.
Butterfield said he found himself relating to Otis, specifically the awkwardness that comes with high school and being a teen. “The conversations with your mum and parents embarrassing you, I think that’s something that everyone can relate to as well,” he said.
Series creator Laurie Nunn said the show started out about the relationship between Otis and his mother, then evolved.
“We wanted to tell the story of Otis, a teenage boy being raised by his sex-therapist mother, Jean. Due to his unusual upbringing, he has developed a secret super-power of theoretical sexual knowledge way beyond his 16-years (and a lot of his own hang-ups and neuroses too),” Nunn said in a statement. “What started as an interesting hook for a comedy show about teenagers, quickly progressed into an opportunity to deal with often unspoken and difficult issues concerning early sexual experiences, the painful reality of puberty and the urgent need for inclusive sex education.”
For Otis’ mother, Anderson said she pushed the reaches of embarrassing behavior “way beyond what I would ever engage in myself.” “On the other hand, I don’t think that my kids would roll their eyes or try to run in the other direction any less than Otis does. I think all kids, to a certain point, it’s almost like a rite of passage to be able to find your parents cringe-worthy,” she said.
The humor and honesty of the show is what got Butterfield’s attention. “You just really fall in love with all the people, even the school bully—you feel for him and you really want him to succeed and that’s hard to do,” Butterfield said. Anderson said getting the chance to be on the periphery of “almost like a petri dish” of stars in the making was cool for her.
At first glance, Sex Education looks like a period piece from the 1980s, it bounces between being very British and almost American at times, and that’s all by design. According to Butterfield and Anderson, it’s a love letter to the John Hughes movies of yore, a unique place.
“The show is a funny, heart-warming and utterly cringe-worthy look at teenage sex, love and identity,” Nunn said. “It’s a contemporary British love-letter to the American high-school TV shows that so many of us grew up loving. It takes the familiar tropes of the genre and pushes them into new and current territory, telling a nostalgic coming of age tale from a different perspective.”
“It’s an interesting other world to live in. What a nice place to live, I wish I lived in another world,” Anderson said.
Head to another world with Sex Education, now streaming on Netflix. Watch the videos above to hear more from Anderson and Butterfield.