Reader’s Digest (2013)
Andrew Duncan has a rough-and-tumble interview with Gillian Anderson—star of new BBC2 drama The Fall—and rather enjoys it. Sort of
My encounter with Gillian Anderson is a lively joust – with a constantly uncertain outcome. She arrives, punctual to the second, at the London hotel where we meet, unencumbered by that ubiquitous and stultifying accountrement of fame – the agent or PR person. But during our interview there will be a few times when I fear she might throw her glass of water over me and walk out.
At 44, the acclaimed actress is a gorgeous, petite, blonde bundle of contradictions, warm yet reticent. One moment she’s friendly, guileless, almost girlie; the next, edey and suspicious.
She says the problem is that it’s not hard to make fun of her – “Actors are easy meat. Anything you say can be seen as pretentious” – and vows every interview will be her last. “Some journalists have it in for me. There was one from The Sunday Times last July. Oh my God, it was unbelievable. It shocks me that someone can feign to be nice and the article turns out so nasty.” The interview mentioned the “peculiar” way she replied when asked if she had a partner, seemed to mock her “therapy speak” and made much of the fact that she’d recently attended Tatler magazine’s Lesbian Ball (along with lots of other straight women) after she’d told another journalist she’d had a gay encounter at school.
The reason I’m here is to discuss the new BBC2 series The Fall. Gillian plays Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson, a Met officer on secondment in Belfast to track a serial killer. It’s unusual because viewers are shown the murderer’s identity from the beginning, making it an intriguing cat-and-mouse game.
“I think it has the potential to get viewers on a deeper level than they’re used to,” says Gillian, who helped edit the show, using on-set police advisers to make the story believable. “The wring [by Allan Cubitt] is complex and has a deep understanding of human nature. I’m intrigued by Stella. She’s not square like Scully [the FBI agent Gillian famously played in The X-Files] nor overbearing or mean-spirited. Ego doesn’t run her show.”
At one stage, Stella meets a detective in the street and immediately invites him back to her hotel room. “She’s comfortable in her own sexuality. The scene mirrors one of the serial killer’s victims who’s studied a tribe where a woman can see a man she finds attractive, spend an enjoyable night with him and he leaves next morning. There’s no commitment. It’s sweet, although I’m not sure it would work in our society.”
In spite of her enthusiasms for the series, she’s wary. “Many times I’ve filmed something that seems special, but when it sees the light of day, only a small group agrees. It’s a weird, sad feeling, but that’s the nature of the business. Actually, it’s a miracle when anything good gets made because so many things can go wrong.”
She’s played plenty of law-enforcement officers before – from Scully to an MI7 agent in Rowan Atkinson’s Johnny English Reborn. Even so, the perennial success of cop films slightly bewilders her.
“There have been very effective TV shows—The Wire, NYPD Blue—and now female-driven series like The Killing, which I was addicted to. Clearly something works, but I have no idea what it is because I don’t normally watch them.”
Gillian was born in Chicago and moved to Crouch End, north London, at the age of two. Her father studied at the London Film School—going on to run a post-production company—and her mother worked as a computer analyst. When Gillian was 13, the family returned to the US and lived in what she thought was the stultifyingly provincial Grand Rapids, Michigan, where her parents had two more children. She was jealous of them and rebelled by becoming a punk with a stud in her nose, dyed red hair and a musician boyfriend ten years her senior.
She shudders. “I was promiscuous, drinking a lot and lucky to come out the other side.” Her classmates voted her the “Girl Most Likely to be Arrested”. They were right. She was apprehended by the police on graduation night “when I tried to glue the school gates shut. I’m pretty sure it was the only time, though”.
After acting at school and college, she turned professional, and was just 24 when she was cast in The X-Files, an initially low-budget sci-fi show that became a surprise worldwide hit for the next nine years.
Ill-prepared for publicity, she regrets that she posed in knickers for FHM—whose readers voted her the world’s sexiest woman. “I was very naive.”
When The X-Files ended, she returned to London, where she felt she’d be less typecast and able to find more theatre work. However, her 2002 West End debut in What the Night Is For was sniffily disparaged by some critics for drawing an audience of X-Filers rather than “proper” theatre-goers.
“Even now I’m in a box in America. I understand that. They wonder what I’ve been doing. They don’t realize I’m a character actress – even though I do a lot of work. If I didn’t feel so happy in London I’d get on a plane and try desperately to remind everyone, but they’re not going to offer me a Bleak House [she played Lady Dedlock in the 2005 BBC1 series] or The Crimson Petal and the White [BBC2’s adaptation of Michael Faber’s epic novel, in which she played a Victorian brothel-owner].”
In 2009, she was nominated for an Olivier award for best actress as Nora in a production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. “I’ve played my fair share of strong characters because I can pull them off, regardless of whether or not I am myself.” And are you? I wonder. “Yes. But aren’t we here to talk about new ideas? I can see this is going to end up being dreadful.”
Recently, she’s made several yet-to-be released films, including Mr. Morgan’s Last Love with Michael Caine and I’ll Follow You Down with Rufus Sewell. “What else would I do but work? I’m only in my forties. And I probably only do it six months a year. Mostly I pop in for two or three weeks. The Fall was my biggest commitment for a long time. I’d like to play Blanche Dubois [in Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire]. Part of me has always wanted to do ‘art’, with my ‘popular’ work, I’ll allow myself to do more.”
Is that frustrating? “Why are we talking about me being frustrated, in a box? It’s freaking me out. I’m not frustrated.”
Indeed. We return to a safer subject – her affection for Britain. “London is my favourite city in the world. I love everything about it – it’s a great place to bring up children and there are so many green spaces. People in the British service industry are so great. And, by the grace of God, I don’t have paparazzi outside my door. It would be a shame to go back to America, although I’d never say never. It would be for work. Or love.”
Now we’re sailing back into choppy waters. In 1994, she married X-Files assistant art director Clyde Klotz and had a daughter, Piper, now 18. The marriage broke up in 1997. In 2004 she wed documentary-maker Julian Ozanne, but they separated two years later when she was pregnant by businessman Mark Griffiths. She and Mark have two songs, Oscar and Felix but announced their separation last August.
She has admitted before that there’s “a huge list” of things that make her difficult to live with. I suggest – possibly unfairly, certainly tactlessly – that she mightn’t be very good at relationships.
She gasps, “That’s a very bold statement. Oh, my goodness! Did you really say that? I’m shocked, and wonder if I should answer. You have completely thrown me.” Nevertheless, she laughs.
I wonder how happy she is. “Is anyone always happy?” she says. “Every day’s different. But does it matter? Why would I not be happy because my personal life? I’ve had a fabulous time with fabulous men. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
She’s thoughtful for a while, then adds, “I try very hard not to be right so much. That’s important in life. I agree with the phrase, ‘I’d rather be happy than right’, but it’s hard sometimes. It feels good to be right. I’m definitely not all the time. I have lots of people to tell me that.”
All those men? I attempt frivolity, unsuccessfully. “I didn’t say that. Can you see what an unbelievably provocative thing it was to say I’m not good at relationships? You pretend to be a kind older gentleman and then say something like that. It’s bizarre. Why is it my responsibility to keep a relationship going?”
We ponder that, then she smiles – it’s her turn to be ironic, “All right, darling, you’re correct. Is that what you want?” And she leaves, still laughing and good-natured. I hope.
Thanks to Cathy 🙂