The First Lady star Gillian Anderson on why being in the White House would be ‘hell’!

Gillian Anderson as Eleanor Roosevelt in The First Lady seated at a table and wearing a pink floral dress
Eleanor Roosevelt (Gillian Anderson) faces a host of challenges in The First Lady. (Image credit: Boris Martin/SHOWTIME.)

The First Lady brings life inside the White House to life through the eyes of some of the fascinating presidential spouses who have made it their home.

Currently airing in the US on Showtime, The First Lady landed in the UK and Ireland on Wednesday, June 22 on streaming site Paramount Plus.

The 10-part series centers on Eleanor Roosevelt, played by Gillian Anderson, Betty Ford, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, and Michelle Obama, played by Viola Davis. It explores the challenges each of the women faced when their husbands – Franklin D Roosevelt (Kiefer Sutherland), Gerald Ford (Aaron Eckhart) and Barack Obama (O-T Fagbenle) – became President and also how they went on to make the role of First Lady their own.

The Fall and The X-Files star Gillian Anderson spoke to What to Watch to tell us more about what drew her to The First Lady

The First Lady takes a look at the lives of three very different women. How do you think their time in the White House compared?

“They each had to define the role to suit themselves. Michelle Obama hadn’t seen herself in that role, she was an accomplished lawyer. Yet Eleanor embraced it and made the most of it. But they all had individual challenges based on the decade they were in. They were constantly overcoming hurdles and preconceptions and people trying to silence or squash their power or their voices.”

Michelle Pfeiffer in a red dress as Betty Ford, Viola Davis in a pale blue dress as Michelle Obama and Gillian Anderson in a purple dress and white blouse as Eleanor Roosevelt stand together in a landing in The First Lady.

Betty Ford (Michelle Pfeiffer), Michelle Obama (Viola Davis) and Eleanor Roosevelt (Gillian Anderson) have very different experiences in the White House in The First Lady. (Image credit: Ramona Rosales/SHOWTIME)

What was your take on Eleanor Roosevelt?

“She dedicated her life to duty and service and was prolific in her good works with civil rights and soldiers and women. She was also incredibly good natured and kind and gentle. But she talks in her autobiography about a darkness that we might describe as depression and she also had a complicated relationship with her daughter. She's three-dimensional.”

How do you see her relationship with husband Franklin?

“He'd been having an affair and she wanted a divorce but they found their way into a productive, respect-filled working relationship. She was always saying to him, ‘You have to do this for these people.’ And he would tell her to do the things she wanted, but not to tell him about it because he'd get in trouble. He accepted her value but sometimes she was infuriating! And I think he was very hurt by her relationship at the beginning with Hick [journalist Lorena ‘Hick’ Hickok, with whom she grows close in the series, as played by Lily Rabe].”

Kiefer Sutherland as Franklin D Roosevelt in The First Lady sitting at a table smoking and wearing glasses and a navy pinstripe suit

Pressure mounts for Franklin D Roosevelt (Kiefer Sutherland) in The First Lady. (Image credit: Boris Martin/SHOWTIME)

Did you enjoy working with Kiefer?

“He's wonderful! There were some moving scenes between us because there were fears and challenges that all the couples went through. It’s not just what happened in the White House, but what happened in the bedroom and around their dining tables. It's a slice of their lives.”

Was Eleanor perhaps a role model for subsequent First Ladies?

“Yes, it almost feels like she was the first First Lady and she defined what the potential of that role could be. Since then, following First Ladies have defined it for themselves in different ways, but there was a structure that she set up and the voice that she gave the role. Before it was quite a silent, background role and she moved it further to the front. She defined the modern First Lady.”

What kind of research were you able to do into playing her?

“Quite a lot. There's a lot of audio, and a lot of seemingly archaic television interviews, mostly actually talking about her husband, not necessarily about her, but still you get a sense of her. There's some fantastic books out there. And we had Blanche Wiesen Cook, a biographer who did a triptych of books, spanning her life, and she was an advisor on the series and so I was able to talk to her.”

Gillian Anderson in a dark dress as Eleanor Roosevelt and Clea DuVall in a brown suit as her private secretary Malvina “Tommy” Thompson in The First Lady.

Eleanor Roosevelt (Gillian Anderson) proves a force to be reckoned with in The First Lady. (Image credit: Daniel McFadden/SHOWTIME)

What was it like recreating Eleanor’s distinct look?

“Challenging. When one thinks of Eleanor Roosevelt, you think of her teeth, and you think of her height, as well as the positive impact that she had around the world. Eleanor was six foot tall and I’m five foot three, so I knew I’d have to let go of the height thing, we weren’t building ramps! But I wore prosthetic teeth because Eleanor’s teeth defined her look and getting used to those was a challenge. But I'm pleased that we did that. And I had six different wigs for different periods of time and I think about 62 costume changes.” 

Finally, has making the show given you any desire to become First Lady or President yourself?!

“No! It would be hell. To have to make difficult decisions, to negotiate and behave as an adult is too much. Not that, as we have learned recently, all presidents for instance behave as adults! And I wouldn't be able to wear my pyjamas half the time, which is what I like!” 

The First Lady season finale aired on Showtime in the US on Sunday, June 19, but has just landed in the UK on the new streaming service Paramount Plus on Wednesday, June 22.

Where can I watch Paramount Plus in the UK?

Paramount Plus is going to be available online at as well as through the Paramount Plus app on mobile devices and connected TV devices from Apple, Amazon, Google, Roku and Samsung. The price for Paramount Plus in the UK is going to be £6.99 per month/£69.90 per year; a free seven-day free trial will be available.

Caren Clark

Caren has been a journalist specializing in TV for almost two decades and is a Senior Features Writer for TV Times, TV & Satellite Week and What’s On TV magazines and she also writes for What to Watch.

Over the years, she has spent many a day in a muddy field or an on-set catering bus chatting to numerous stars on location including the likes of Olivia Colman, David Tennant, Suranne Jones, Jamie Dornan, Dame Judi Dench and Sir Derek Jacobi as well as Hollywood actors such as Glenn Close and Kiefer Sutherland.

Caren will happily sit down and watch any kind of telly (well, maybe not sci-fi!), but she particularly loves period dramas like Call the Midwife, Downton Abbey and The Crown and she’s also a big fan of juicy crime thrillers from Line of Duty to Poirot.

In her spare time, Caren enjoys going to the cinema and theatre or curling up with a good book.