“It changes. On one hand, I believe I came into this world being in control, but I often don’t ask for help when I should, which means I have a tendency to isolate. It can take a while to snap out of it.” [x]
The X-Files (1993-2002)
“Rich and layered, deep and alternatively light and tragic, it’s the show that changed, well, everything really, about how television drama was executed. It lives on even today, as we see how the protagonists of Fox Mulder the Believer and Dana Scully the Skeptic continue to influence how characters are shaped, and the way the mythology of the show allowed for primetime television to explore new roads of storytelling. It was beautiful and asked the most human of questions regarding our existence and our beliefs, but more than anything, it was a love story in every possible regard— the love for life, the love for truth, and of course, the love for each other.”
Many men out there, and no doubt some women, too, will be pleased to hear that much of my chat with Gillian Anderson is spent ploughing on about “sexual energies”. Anderson — a great actress, a huge star and, most vitally, FHM’s Sexiest Woman in the World in 1996 — has a certain hold on her public. A potent mix of serious kudos and erotic frisson, she’s an adult proposition in every sense. Sorry, though, guys: this being Anderson, we’re not in a world of kittenish confessions, but something a bit tougher and deeper: a wide-reaching chat involving dysfunction, misogyny and the sex trade. “All this energy,” sighs the actress eventually, as we somehow end up on sex trafficking in the Middle East. “All this energy being expended to finance, deal with, regulate, abolish men’s sex drive!” It’s the most bracing brunch I’ve ever had.
The reason we’ve ended up on this topic, at 11 in the morning in a Clerkenwell hotel, isn’t actually Anderson’s fault. Really, it’s down to one blouse, and one blouse only: that of DSI Stella Gibson, from BBC2’s megahit crime series The Fall, in which Anderson’s stylish Stella tracks down Jamie Dornan’s sizzling serial killer. It has been horribly watchable, generating much praise, but also some disquiet. For some, it was the slickest way yet of seeing young women murdered on the box as entertainment; for others, Stella, tough, brusque and an unabashed sexual agent, has been rather a shock, too.
“She’s loads of fun to play,” the actress grins. “She’s complicated.” Stella’s steamy scenes don’t bother her — apart from when she forgets to alert her teenage daughter, and the poor girl watches them, unwarned, with her friends. (“She was, like, ‘Muuuummmm!’”) Anyway, clearly, Stella is bold. “And she continues that boldness in the second season,” Anderson says delightedly.
We are meeting on a rainy mid-morning in May to discuss the 45-year-old’s return to the stage: this month, she will play Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. A collaboration with the maverick Australian director Benedict Andrews, it is arguably the most anticipated stage event of the year. People often bemoan the fact that there isn’t really a “female Hamlet” — to which you might say, lucky actresses — but Williams’s kaleidoscopic heroine, who is gradually overwhelmed by the forces within and without her, is a contender, a benchmark part.
“She’s a vixen,” Anderson says. “She’s not the Other Woman — except she is. And she’s not the Whore — but she is. She’s not the Crazy Woman — but she is. She kind of encompasses everything, except the Mother — except she mothers her sister.” People who dismiss Blanche as a blowsy Southern hysteric do so at their peril. “She’s so much more than I thought she was.”
So, there’s all that to come, but here she is now, tiny and delicate and obviously beautiful, with a tiny and delicate suitcase, sitting patiently on a sofa and desperate for some toast. She’s just off the plane from Northern Ireland, where she has been filming The Fall 2; she gets long weekends to spend with her sons, who are 5 and 7. So, naturally, The Fall, and its foibles, come up first.
Anderson sees the questions coming, and addresses them with little prompting. The series writer, Allan Cubitt, she says, uses the show “as a platform to be outspoken about what are ridiculous and archaic aspects of our contemporary society — especially where women are concerned”. He is, she says, “careful with his intention”. So it’s not just high-gloss misogynist schlock? “It’s so completely the opposite.” And how does she feel about the criticism? “Any type of negativity around it doesn’t concern me. I feel quite comfortable in that, and in who Stella is as well.”
People, she says, have only read the detective as “cold and unfriendly, and I don’t see her that way. I might be completely in denial, but I just think she has more to her personality than that coldness.” She just has a job to do, “boundaries of what she can and cannot tolerate”.
It’s more than 20 (20!) years since Anderson was catapulted to a giddy, global, unending fame as Dana Scully in the cult series The X Files. Since leaving the show in 2002, she has established herself as a proper, A-grade artist; she has also left America for London, where she had already lived as a child (from a toddler until she was 11), continuing a seesawing existence between this side of the Atlantic and the other. It means she carries both accents in her. Today, I get classic English, throaty but still RP.
She’s a chameleon, then, but there is something in her that directors will keep coming back to: a mood board of steely, sexy, vulnerable, intransigent, haughty but humane. Hmm — you don’t do the love interest often, do you? She gives a high, exhilarated laugh, seeming a little affronted, but really, obviously, loving it. She has other typecasting to contend with instead. “I’ve been everybody’s boss,” she says with a sigh.
If Stella is the latest hot boss, though, there’s a snag. People tend to misread Anderson, just as they misread Stella; they tend to dislike her boundaries. A few interviews I’d read had suggested that she was, frankly, a bit of a chilly bitch. Yet here she is now, warm and laughing and considerate, open to each question. I can see why it might be hard to gauge her: sometimes she is quite surprisingly direct, other times she meanders off, hedging, digressing, pondering. And she says she has a “terrible” memory, which may be a little convenient sometimes — but also, with children and several jobs on the go, sounds entirely feasible. Anyway, she’s not rude at all. So where is this ice maiden?
“It’s interesting, because I sometimes read articles that people have written about me, and I, too, am written about as being cold and un-approachable, and all that sort of stuff.” She calls it “a peculiar type of betrayal, based in fantasy to begin with” (which, unfortunately, is probably a good summary of the interview process). But she says she has seriously thought about the through line of it all, and where it comes from. She’s sure much of it is due to becoming famous so young, then — after marrying, having her daughter, Piper (19), and divorcing in quick succession — having soon had things to defend.
Matters have grown more complicated since, as life tends to do: another marriage, which ended; her two boys with another man, from whom she has also “uncoupled”; then she went and said she’d had relationships with women… The tabloids must not know where to start. Anderson’s only concern, really, is her children. She recently talked with her daughter about how “strange” it is to be related to a famous person. “I have a feeling there are consequences to that, which aren’t evident right now, but might be later on — you know?”
The thing is, however, it’s all just baggage; she is “enjoying my life very much right now”, acting, looking after her children or, maybe most surprising of all, penning a series of sci-fi books with a co-author. The first is due in autumn; the long-term view, obviously, is to generate another juicy role. Professionally, something good has always come along: see Terence Davies’s The House of Mirth, in which she was the doomed Lily Bart; or the BBC’s Bleak House, stealing each scene as Lady Dedlock. What about personally? Have things just levelled out?
“I’ve gotten out of my own way a lot more, in many areas of my life. I feel less tortured — self-imposed torture,” she clarifies, laughing. When can she date this new phase from? She laughs again. “If I give you a date, it’ll spell trouble.” Anderson has been open about her search for answers. Once upon a time, she would study philosophies, go to retreats run by Eckhart Tolle, the spiritual writer who gave us The Power of Now. She doesn’t have time for that these days, but the quest isn’t over. “I would say that now, today, and maybe for the past 10 years, I have consistently lived in the future. Or I try to. It’s a constant battle.”
All of which, somehow, brings us to Blanche DuBois. For an eminent actress, it’s a must, but with Anderson, it’s nearly a surprise. Generally, she is asked to exert some kind of control; here is a character defined by her vertiginous unravelling. But Anderson has wanted to play Blanche since high school in Michigan, and, tellingly, it’s very much her project. In the back of her mind was the fact that the Williams estate is fussy about who can play Tennessee’s heroine; the actress can’t be too old. Lunch with a producer brought it to a head.
“Knowing that I only do a play every three or four years, and already it was getting to that four-year mark” — she last did A Doll’s House, at the Donmar, in 2009 — “I said to him, ‘Look, I don’t want to have a conversation unless we’re talking about Streetcar.’ He kept saying ‘What if, what if’, and I said, ‘This is the only thing I want to do next, and if I do it, it has to be this, otherwise, four years down the line, I’m gonna be 50 or whatever.’” A pause. Shock. Silence. Gillian Anderson, 50? “God!” she laughs, digesting it, falling sideways across her sofa. “Wow. Yeah. So.”
So, it was she who approached Andrews. He had magnificently directed Cate Blanchett at the Barbican in 2012, and the Young Vic’s incendiary Three Sisters later that year. He’s a smart choice, but not safe: many stars of her calibre would have settled for something cosier, and more lucrative, in the West End. Could she have done Streetcar like that? “No,” she whips back — and she only ever wanted to do it in the round. “The thought of doing it on a proscenium-arch stage does not appeal to me at all. I’d rather not do it than do it in that type of situation. That’s stubborn, I understand, but I’ve wanted to do it for such a long time.”
And there you have her: you could call her stubborn or defensive; you could also say she is a woman who has weighed, valued and asserted her own worth. Still, I was intrigued to know how rehearsals would go with Andrews, since he’s hardly a pushover either. So I call her a month later at the Young Vic. Rushing around on her mobile phone, Anderson says she is loving every minute. Andrews is wonderful, she says, while Blanche’s story is more pertinent than ever — and that’s not just a feminist thing. She tries to explain. “It’s, you know, mass market, mass consumerism, TV network stations, noise, populations — everything that can, as a society, impact on a person, a human being who is fragile, who is, at heart, a poet.” Don’t raise your eyebrows: with Andrews at the helm, this will all probably get in. And it will probably be good.
Finally, I caddishly remind her about her surprise at the approach of 50. Is she ready? “It just shocked me when I said it out loud,” she says. “It became true all of a sudden. It had air around it.” But no, she’s not fussed. “Talk to me when I’m 49¾. The only thing that I’m wary of, obviously, is ‘the change’ — what that will do to my psychology. But I hear it gets better for women.” Why worry, though? Change is what she does best.
THE SUNDAY TIMES, 6 july 2014 [x]
✧: “Joe [Wright] just told me: ‘You better make it good because it’s really significant.’ So, I felt very worried that it wouldn’t be good enough and I just made it and I thought, ‘Well, it’s kind of OK.’ Someone asked me before ‘What makes a costume iconic?’ It’s really only partly the costume designer. It’s really about Keira wearing it, at that moment, looking the way she does. The way that it’s framed. How Joe uses it. How it fits in the story. All those things make it something… It’s made to be at that moment in the movie, and its greatness comes from all those elements at the same time. I didn’t know it would be so good, you can’t know!” — Jacqueline Durran, costume designer for Atonement (2007).
"Ancestors, I ask you for your guidance. Blessed mother, come to me with the Gods’ desire for my future. Blessed father, watch over my wife and son with a ready sword. Whisper to them that I live only to hold them again. Ancestors, I honor you and will try to live with the dignity that you have taught me."