Gillian Anderson’s Bidialectal Accent, Explained
Since Gillian Anderson shot to fame as FBI Agent Dana Scully on 90s TV hit The X-Files, the actress has enjoyed huge fame on both sides of the Atlantic. There has always been some confusion, though, over which side of the pond Anderson really calls home. Born in Chicago, Anderson lived in London until she turned 11, and continues to spend much of her time in the UK to this day.
It’s commonplace for actors to adopt different accents for different roles, but observant viewers have noticed that even in interviews, the way Anderson talks wavers between American and English. In fact, Anderson’s accent changes naturally depending on who she’s talking to, as a result of her growing up in both Britain and the US. Anderson doesn’t have a British accent, nor an American accent, but a ‘bidialectal accent’.
“In my mind, London was home”
As she was born in Chicago, Illinois on August 9th, 1968, Gillian Anderson is officially American, but she did not spend her formative years there. Soon after their daughter’s birth, Gillian’s parents relocated to Puerto Rico for a time. Then, around the time Gillian turned two, the family relocated once more to London, England.
Anderson lived in the British capital city (primarily in the Crouch End region) for almost a decade, and as a result she naturally grew up with a regional accent. This only became an issue for the future TV star when the family relocated back over the Atlantic once again, finding a new home in Grand Falls, Michigan.
The actress reflects, “I grew up in London… We moved to Michigan when I was 11 and our intention was always to move back. That never happened. But in my mind, [London] was home.”
Not unlike others who have relocated from Britain to the US (such as fellow actor John Mahoney), Anderson soon found that her English accent marked her out as different. Bullies targeted her, and as a result Anderson made a point of adopting an American accent.
Whilst living in Michigan, Anderson and her parents continued to spend their summers back in London, where she was able to revert to her former accent. As a result of many years living this way, Anderson eventually found that she would slip back and forth between the British and American accents automatically.
Given that Anderson acts for a living, cynics among us may assume her criss-crossing of accents is an affectation typical of dramatic types, not unlike how some method actors maintain their character and dialect off-camera.
(The British Christian Bale, for one, was infamously heard yelling at a Terminator: Salvation crew member in his character’s American accent, while the actor has also been known to conduct interviews with an American accent depending on the nationality of the character.)
“I literally can’t help it”
Being bidialectal is essentially a pronounced form of ‘code-switching,’ when speakers almost unknowingly alternate between different languages or dialects in conversation. Anderson has explained that the accent she uses “depends on who I’m talking to, so usually when I’m talking to Brits, it slides into British, and vice versa for American.
“Sometimes it’s conscious because I knows that somebody will be thrown by it, so I’ll consciously do it, but the majority of time, let’s say if I’m at a dinner party and I’m sat between one of each on either side, I literally can’t help it.”
At times, Anderson says, she has tried to control it: “I was in Los Angeles recently with a couple of Brits and I thought, I’m going to see what it’s like to talk among Americans with a British accent, and I felt so uncomfortable. It felt so disingenuous… But when I’m [in the UK], it’s nearly impossible for me to maintain an American accent.”
Anderson’s bidialectalism became the subject of some notoriety following her 2021 Golden Globe win for TV’s The Crown. While the actress won for her portrayal of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, she gave her acceptance speech with an American accent.
Reacting to this, Alec Baldwin – whose wife Hilaria had faced scrutiny for being bidialectal (having grown up in both America and Spain) – wrote on Twitter, “Switching accents? That sounds…fascinating.” Baldwin, an often controversial figure on social media, faced such a backlash for this tweet that he wound up temporarily de-activating his account.
“Depending on who’s in my ear is which direction my accent goes”
Baldwin later issued an apology in which he stressed he was a “huge fan” of Anderson, and only meant to “illustrate the point that multicultural expressions of anyone… [are] your business.” For her part, Anderson said she did not consider her shifting accent “newsworthy,” adding “it’s just something that I live. I grew up between two countries and so depending on who’s in my ear is which direction my accent goes.”
Another famous actor said to be bidialectal is John Barrowman, who was born in Scotland but moved to the US at an early age. Reportedly, Barrowman to this day tends to slip into a Scottish accent when in the company of other Scots. It is also suspected that this may be the case for Mel Gibson, who was born in the US but spent most of his formative years in Australia.