Amber Anderson has a theory and it’s really quite a lovely one. Everyone has an instrument they are meant to play – even if they never get around to playing it.
Doesn’t matter if you don’t consider yourself musical. Doesn’t matter if you’ve not so much as shaken a pair of maracas since secondary school. Strings, woodwind, brass, percussion: your instrument is out there. Awaiting discovery. Head to your local music shop and pick up, say, a trumpet. If you don’t vibe, try the double bass. Not for you? The drum kits are at the back.
Anderson compares it to the concept of daemons in His Dark Materials. Everyone has their daemon. Everyone has their instrument. Unfortunately most of us will remain ignorant of its existence: “You could be an amazing flautist and we would never know.”
I passed French Horn grade four and subsequently retired from music aged 11. “French Horn is a really cool instrument,” says Anderson, brightly. Not in my hands it wasn’t – clearly my musical destiny lies elsewhere. Hopefully one of the funky ones: guitar, saxophone. But yeah, I kind of adore her theory – and if, like me, your instrumental soulmate remains yet unfound, hopefully you are now inspired to start the search.
Anderson’s? The piano. Her relationship with the piano sounds akin to Ziggy Stardust and his guitar – boy, could she play it. That was the plan: professional pianist. But then aged 17, she discovered acting and, against the advice of her parents and the world in general, she decided to make a go of it. Anderson will shortly star in the final season of Peaky Blinders, the most sizeable – and stylish – TV event of the year. Acting is going OK.
I've never had a death threat before. I did only get two though. It's not an epidemic
Not that she can divulge much about Peaky Blinders, or her characters. “I can say I’m playing an antagonist. Playing someone who is there to disrupt and generally mess with everyone. And that’s fun!” Over her career, “I’ve almost always played women who cared about being liked a lot. And this character doesn’t. At all. And that was quite fun to inhabit, for want of a better word.”
“I’m not a method actor in any way, shape or form but you do absorb what you’re playing a bit. You just can’t help it. And so it was quite fun to turn up on set with a kind of irreverence. Not caring about other people’s opinion of me. It’s quite an enjoyable feeling.”
Can she tell us her character’s name? “No. I know there are theories.” One such theory: she’s Gina Gray’s mother, the scheming young American played by Anya Taylor-Joy. “I think there’s three years between us in age!” Anderson, 29, grins, mock offended at the very notion. “How dare you!”
The role's mystery hasn't stopped Anderson from receiving death threats on Instagram. "I've never had a death threat before," she says, sounding more perplexed than alarmed. "I've literally had people go, 'go kill yourself, you'll never replace Grace Shelby.'
"First of all, it's not real. Second of all, I'm not trying to replace Grace. I'm a completely new character." She stresses the vast majority of fan interaction has been extremely positive. The death threats were a little alarming but "I did only get two though. It's not an epidemic." Which is unquestionably two too many but props for the fortitude.
Mention of death threats aside, a conversation with Anderson in Notting Hill’s Electric House passes very pleasantly indeed. (It’s named for the adjacent cinema rather than any affiliation with Thomas Edison, or hardcore EDM.) She orders herbal tea; I opt for one of those super-berry smoothies that arrives thick and almost cartoonishly purple. In the street below us, Portobello Market hums away in the afternoon sunlight. I half expect one of the traders to burst into song.
Important question first – how are the cats? She owns three: Sooty is 11, Jasper is nine, John is one and a bit. “John’s very new – and boy does he know it.” Keeping well then? “They are all still alive and well. Or at least, they were this morning when I left the house.”
John is an unusual name for a cat. Why John? “Cos it’s ridiculous!” She grins. “If I get a dog I want to call it, like, Gary. Or Jeremy. Keith!” We consider dog names that shouldn’t be pet names. “If it’s a girl, Patricia,” says Anderson. “Patricia! Get back here! A big, golden retriever called Patricia.”
She’s a quietly remarkable person, Anderson. She’ll mention something very matter-of-fact and it’ll take a moment to appreciate the extraordinary weight of what she just said. Take her decision to pursue acting – itself a bold and unexpected swerve off the course that had been mapped for her, a course that had already spanned six years of music school and was expected to run into college, adulthood and the concert halls.
Music had always been her life. Her parents were musicians – her mother a classical pianist (among many other things), her father once toured France in a folk band – and their daughter was strongly encouraged to follow their tempo. When I asked her how she got into music, she smiles and replies, “by force!”
“It was always, ‘you’re going to learn an instrument and you don’t have a choice.’” She started with the violin, then discovered piano aged nine. She was good, good enough to maybe make a career from it, but she began to dislike the solitude, the isolated hours of practice. She liked playing in orchestras, and that’s hard for a pianist. “It’s generally quite a solo instrument,” says Anderson. “It’s a big instrument so they can’t fit many in an orchestra.” Also, transportation is tricky – you can’t exactly go pushing a baby grand up the escalator on the Tube.
As she grew older, “I realised I wanted to work with groups of people, and not just sit on my own for eight hours a day, playing the piano. Which is amazing if you love your instrument but also quite a lonely thing. That’s when I started thinking about drama.”
Before Anderson could audition for drama school, she got model scouted – “a very happy accident.” She began commuting down from Scotland to London for shoots. Fell in love with the city, got herself an acting agent and started auditioning for roles. Condensed into a few sentences, the journey reads relatively straightforward – but you should never believe what you read.
For starters, she was 17. When most of her contemporaries were taking their A-levels, Anderson dropped out of sixth form and moved to London. Parental reaction was exactly as you’d imagine. “My mum was really upset. She thought I was throwing away the only good opportunity I had. And she could have been right; I could have moved down here and it could have been a disaster.”
There was no financial support from her parents. The kid was alone. “No family, no friends. I lived in Homerton before Homerton was trendy. It was pretty dicey sometimes. But I was naive: I was walking home off the night bus in heels, going back to my ex-council flat that I was renting.”
She assumed the jobs would come. They didn’t. “The first year was very tough. No one tells you that just because you have an agent, it doesn’t mean you’re going to get work. I moved down with the fake confidence.”
She only had a couple of grand in the bank, money that was soon devoured by London’s cost of living. After six months, she went back to Scotland and moved in with her dad. She’d take the night bus to castings, Inverness to London at £20 a pop. A gruelling existence but cheaper than London rental prices.
Her aunt told her to return to college. Her godmother refused her request for a loan a refusal that Anderson appreciates today: “It meant that I didn’t think I had any kind of cushion. Therefore I had to try and make it work, somehow. If you’re doing something by necessity, it does drive you more.”
Yet the outlook was bleak. “I thought I’d failed. I left school, arrogantly, thinking I could have a career and now I’m back in Scotland again. That was difficult. But I didn’t really have a choice but keep going because I didn’t have A-levels. It was either keep trying to make it work in London or end up back in Scotland, working as a waitress.”
Despite – or perhaps because of – her desperation, she struggled with the audition process. She still thought of herself as a model, moonlighting. “I would go into auditions almost apologising for being there, which definitely doesn’t get you the job.” It required a pep talk from her agent to convince Anderson that she belonged in the industry as much as anyone else.
I note the seeming contradiction between her confidence in moving to London and the imposter syndrome she felt once she’d arrived. “Yeah,” says Anderson. “I definitely didn’t think I deserved to be in the room for a while. I took myself off and I did loads of summer schools, went to Guildhall and did the theatre course and stuff. I was desperate to do anything that made me feel like I was qualified.”
Gradually, things started to happen for her. There was a small role in the 2011 medieval comedy Your Highness. The same year, an advert for the dating site match.com which swiftly became ubiquitous. You might even remember it – the one where a guy and a girl sing a spontaneous duet in a music shop. “I like old movies. Like The Godfather III.”
Few aspiring actors list ‘adverts!’ on their dream resume but the money allowed her to return to London, for good this time. Another advert, a glossy 2016 affair for Burberry, saw her work with the great director Steve McQueen. “He makes you feel so confident,” says Anderson of McQueen. “Like you can do anything.”
There were roles in BBC crime drama Strike and 2020 Jane Austin adaptation Emma – the latter alongside her soon-to-be Peaky Blinders co-star Anya Taylor-Joy. It was a long old journey down from Scotland but Amber Anderson has undoubtedly arrived.
Exactly why the Anderson family moved to Scotland in the first place is itself an interesting story. Essentially, her mother assumed the Millennium bug would cause the downfall of civilisation and decided to relocate the kids to a farmhouse in rural Scotland. “It’s a funny, funny part of my life story,” says Anderson. “Mum decided that if we lived in a remote part of the world, where we could grow our own vegetables and be self-sufficient, then we’d be better off when everything else was falling into chaos.”
The move garnered a fair amount of media attention: “Mum publicised it a lot. We were on the Richard and Judy show when I was four. It wasn’t enough to move; she also had to tell the world.” Her mum sounds like an interesting woman… “She’s a very interesting woman. She’s a very unusual woman. She’s someone who’s lived about ten lives in one. She’s done a lot of different jobs, lived in a lot of different countries.”
The end of the world didn’t happen – a non-event that presumably caused mixed feelings for Anderson’s mum. (Even today, says Anderson, her mother is adamant the bug would have happened if the system hadn’t somehow intervened.) But Scotland was now home and a very lovely one – it’s called The Great Outdoors for a reason.
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Another interesting Amber Anderson fact: she had a Steiner education (also known as a Waldorf education). Named after the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner – whose professions also included literary critic, architect and occultist – the Steiner education removes children from the traditional classroom and prioritises engagement with nature, art and practical skills.
Anderson can explain better than me. “It’s the idea that kids should be allowed to be kids and not be forced to learn to read and write until they’re eight. Before the age of eight, you don’t learn reading or writing. You just play outside, play in the trees, paint things, make things, do drama and art and knitting and learn how to chop wood. It’s all very outside and nature based.”
A Steiner education sounds amazing. “It’s a very different way of learning,” says Anderson. “I loved it. My one boundary in terms of kids is I want them to go to a Steiner school.” She learnt reading and writing in her last year in England but believes the delay, “doesn’t make any difference in terms of progress. If you learn at eight or if you learn at five, it doesn’t mean you’re not a good reader. It just means you’re a little bit older and potentially more ready to learn."
She wants to learn more skills in the years to come – keep honing her craft as an actor, but also develop entirely new skills. She recently moved house and discovered the joys of gardening. “I’ve started getting out there and planting stuff. That’s quite therapeutic and really enjoyable. It’s so, so relaxing. I get very anxious and very in my head. Gardening is fucking amazing!”
Before we part, I ask Anderson where she’d like to be a decade from now. It’s a tough question made even tougher for someone whose chosen career “makes it kind of impossible to plan for the future. I can’t even plan a holiday. But the dream is to have got a place in the countryside, be able to have some time out in nature. I’d like to have done work that I’m proud of, but also managed to maintain a private life and maintain some level of trying to get the Tube. Be normal.”
I’m not sure Amber Anderson will ever quite be normal. She’ll have to settle for being extraordinary instead.
Watch Peaky Blinders Season 6 on BBC 1.