Amber Anderson interview - how the Emma actor went from Forres to films

Movies, music and #MeToo

Amber Anderson stars as Jane Fairfax in Autumn de Wilde's Emma. Picture: Focus Features

Remember the millennium bug? Actor Amber Anderson does, even though she was only seven at the time. It’s the reason her family packed up and relocated all the way from Somerset to the Highlands as the world braced itself for a meltdown if computers failed to cope when the date flicked over to 01/01/2000. As it turned out, thanks to bug busting by techies, the lights and tellies stayed on, emergency services didn’t go down and food supplies didn’t run out. But they could have... 

“We lived in Glastonbury in Somerset but moved to Forres to survive the millennium bug because my parents’ thinking was that if we moved to a very remote place and became self-sufficient, we’d be OK,” says the 27-year-old, now based in London.

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“I was seven and completely convinced that the world was ending – obviously that comes with a lot of baggage to unpack now.” She laughs.

“I woke up on New Year’s Day 2000 and my bedside lamp wouldn’t work so I went running downstairs and said, ‘Mum! The millennium bug happened!’ and she was like, ‘no, it’s all fine’.” She imitates her mother’s calm delivery.

“Obviously the millennium bug didn’t happen and my parents were disappointed, but they thought they hadn’t been wrong in being precautionary because it made people prepare. Now if I mention it, my mum just gets a bit embarrassed,” she says.

“But I’m so happy I ended up in Scotland and got to grow up where it’s safe and beautiful. I think it was the best type of childhood. I would kill for my kids to have that one day because there’s just so much real space, it’s amazing.”

It made sense for the Andersons to head for the Highlands as that’s where their roots are on her father’s side.

“I was born in Somerset but from way back on my dad’s side it’s all Scottish.”

If Y2K and the millennium bug seem a long way back, try 1815. The Georgian-Regency period is where Anderson found herself last summer filming Jane Austen’s Emma, back on the big screen as part of the film industry’s love affair with remakes.

This version of the social satire about meddling and matchmaking is directed by music video wizard Autumn de Wilde, with a script by Booker Prize winner Eleanor (The Luminaries) Catton. Premiering on Friday it stars Anderson as Emma’s friend Jane Fairfax, her career moving up a gear as she steps into a central role alongside Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Bill Nighy and Gemma Whelan.

Anderson may have dodged the millennium bug but the acting one got her and she started out as a snowflake in the school nativity – “I was really angry I didn’t get to be Mary,” she laughs. After primary school in Logie (“my favourite – when you went up a year you just moved tables in the classroom”) and the local Steiner school, Anderson went on to Aberdeen City Music School where she studied piano to grade eight and violin to grade nine. At 16 she won a performing arts scholarship to Gordonstoun, then at 17 left for London and landed “a very small but very fun” first role in David Gordon Green’s 2011 American stoner comic fantasy film Your Highness starring James Franco and Natalie Portman.

“I’ve completely learnt on the job and done theatre courses and seen coaches over the summer. This year I’m going to clown school for a month, at the theatre school L’Ecole Philippe Gaulier, and I’m really excited. But with film I think there are some things you can only learn on the job. I think a lot of it is confidence and age and getting to know yourself. My acting got a lot better when I became less afraid of expressing certain sides of myself. Becoming a better actor is also about living your life as well, focusing on your self-development, friends and relationships, and not always having acting as the most important thing.”

Anderson is uniquely qualified to play the accomplished but impoverished Jane Fairfax, since both are queens of the keyboard.

“After I left music school I didn’t play piano for maybe six years, I was just acting and modelling, then I thought I don’t want to be one of those people that gives up an instrument and always regrets it, so I started taking lessons, got my technique back. Two years later when they wanted an actress who could play the piano live for Emma, I was ready.”

Learning the authentic Regency music was a labour of love and when it came to the period instrument used in the film, Anderson couldn’t wait to get her hands on it.

“It was a forte piano, an early 1800s version and it has a very different sound. The keyboard is shorter and the keys smaller so it meant relearning the pieces. It’s very rare that a pianist gets to play on one of those and it was amazing to play music written by composers like Mozart on that instrument, how it was meant to sound. So Emma was the most life-changing and amazing job because it incorporated everything I can do. Plus I love Jane Austen, it’s an amazing cast, and the chance to work with Autumn was very attractive. The whole thing felt like a brilliant present.”

Authenticity being crucial in this version of Emma, that extended to the costumes from Oscar-winning designer Alexandra Byrne, who also worked on 2018’s Mary Queen of Scots.

“We had made-to-measure corsets that we wore the whole time. You can’t slouch into a sofa when you’ve just done a big scene. You either have to lie flat on your back or perch on a high backed stool with the delicate old fabrics draped over it, like a human tea cosy. Occasionally they’d get loosened while we had lunch, but it was pretty hardcore.”

Anderson has another film due for release, the Canadian independent White Lie, which just premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.

“It’s a very dark drama about a student faking cancer to commit fraud. I play the second lead, the main character’s (Kacey Rohl) girlfriend, who is incredibly devoted and doesn’t know she’s lying, so my character goes through a lot. I’m really proud of it. That and Emma are the most exciting things in my career – it’s an exciting time.

“It’s weird too, because you audition for years and years and years – or I did – and I’ve always got jobs, but my career’s not had this type of momentum. So it’s surreal when you are actually beginning to get really exciting jobs, you think ‘is this real?”

After Anderson’s film debut in Your Highness she starred with Max Irons and Sam Claflin in The Riot Club, was in indie thriller Skin Walker and in 2017 appeared with Tom Burke in BBC’s Strike, the crime drama series based on JK Rowling’s detective novels. She was in Steve McQueen’s Mr Burberry, Lotus Eaters, We Are The Freaks and ITV’s Dead Man.

Strike was a really exciting moment, and when I did Maigret, the film with Rowan Atkinson, my first good-sized role on telly, I was over the moon.”

Anderson has also added her name to the list of women who have spoken out about movie mogul Harvey Weinstein in the wake of his arrest and trial, claiming that in 2013 he coerced her into a private meeting where he proposed a ‘personal relationship’ in return for career advancement. “He tried to take my hand and put it in his lap, which is when I managed to leave the room,” she wrote on Instagram in 2017.

“I spoke up because I just wanted to add my name to the list,” she says now.

A list that’s now up to around 90 women.

“Yeah, it’s mental,” she says. “I did an interview in New York with the District Attorney when they were preparing the case against him. To be honest, my experience with him was horrible but nothing in comparison to some of the others’. I think the only input I really can have is to help them corroborate types of behaviour or ways he would coerce people because my story is unbelievably similar to many other people’s in terms of how he would get you to meet up with him, how he would persuade you to go, how he would get you alone. I think it was helpful to them to have as many of those stories as possible.

“It remains to be seen what’s actually going to happen to him but obviously it wasn’t just him, there were so many other men and cases.

“But on the ground things are changing in a very positive way. There seem to be more women around; producers, casting directors and studio heads. I was just in LA doing screen tests, and I would say half the people I was auditioning for were women. It wasn’t like that two or three years ago.

“I think #MeToo was a huge earthquake that changed things a lot. When there’s intimacy or sex scenes almost everything now has an intimacy co-ordinator, whose only job on set is to make you feel safe, supported and protected. That makes you feel less inhibited, less afraid. Intimacy co-ordinators just didn’t exist before. Obviously people still have bad experiences, but it feels like there’s good change happening.”

Not that Emma required an intimacy co-ordinator with its floor length skirts and chaperones. Miss Fairfax is not the type of girl to scandalise society by flashing her ankles as she tickles the ivories.

“No, god! There wasn’t anything like that on Emma,” she says and laughs. “They don’t even hold hands. That would have been considered unbelievably provocative. It was a quite unusual job in that sense,” she says.

Although Austen’s women are expected to remain chaste and covered, for Anderson her stories still have a contemporary relevance, especially Emma, billed as ‘Jane Austen’s beloved comedy about love and all its surprises’.

“She’s very good at shining a light on the layers of social structure and the rules people abide by. It’s satirical, poking fun at the weird rules we give ourselves, especially when it comes to love and relationships. I think it’s still very relevant. Her stories are relatable and human, and you can see yourself in those characters and events. That’s why they’ve lasted this long.

“Also the character of Emma is interesting because she’s not a very likeable protagonist. She’s socially manipulative and plays with people like they’re puppets. Jane Austen herself said ‘I wanted to write a heroine no-one else would like except me.’ Yet by the end you’re on her side because you understand that not everything is good or bad, black or white. And it shows it’s almost pointless trying to be in control, because life just constantly surprises you.”

Anderson is also working on The Souvenir: Part II, the American-British drama film, written and directed by Joanna Hogg. Starring Honor Swinton Byrne, her mother Tilda, Joe Alwyn and Richard Ayoade, it’s due for release this year. After that, Anderson is exploring what’s out there.

“I’d like to do more projects that involve music, but really I just want to work and do interesting things with good directors. TV or film, I love both, and the way people shoot telly now is more like the way film is shot anyway – the cameras, how it looks, except you end up with maybe three films’ worth so you can develop a character.

“I just want to be employed,” she says, “to keep working and hopefully getting better.”

She’s still got the bug.

@JanetChristie2

Emma is on release in UK cinemas on Friday. The Souvenir: Part II will be released later this year.