GILLIAN ANDERSON: DRAMA QUEEN
BY RACHEL HANDLER | PHOTOS BY ALEX MARTINEZ
After changing the game for women on TV with ‘The X-Files,’ Gillian Anderson is at it again.
As an actress, much of Gillian Anderson’s most memorable work has occurred in the darkness — her TV characters have stared down everything from alien conspiracies to serial killers to kidnappers. But the unaffected Anderson remains anything but gloomy off-screen. “I’m a complete goofball most of the time,” she says. “I learned a long time ago to leave stuff at the door. If there’s anything that I take home with me, it’s exhaustion after a day.”
It’s a lesson Anderson picked up during her nine-year tenure as Dr. Dana Scully on “The X-Files,” but one that continues to serve her these days as she acts in three separate TV shows: On NBC’s “Crisis” (which films in Chicago and concludes June 29), Anderson stars as Meg Fitch, a mother who has to sacrifice nearly everything in an attempt to rescue her kidnapped daughter; on BBC’s “The Fall,” she’s Stella Gibson, a stoic detective charged with unmasking a serial killer who targets young women; and on another NBC vehicle, “Hannibal,” she’s Dr. Bedelia Du Maurier, the titular character’s psychiatrist.
But no amount of murderous psychopaths can bring Anderson down — in fact, the only time she uses the word “bleak” in our interview is to describe the state of TV roles for women pre-Scully. “There was a big question mark as to whether the world was ready for strong, independent women,” recalls Anderson of “The X-Files’s” 1993 debut. “And lo and behold, the world was ready, and has been ever since.”
She’s not overstating Scully’s impact — since the show’s 2002 finale, TV has steadily surpassed film in terms of embracing and promoting its female stars; according to recent research from USC’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, while women make up roughly 30 percent of movie characters, they make up nearly 40 percent of characters on prime-time. “People wanted to emulate [‘The X-Files’],” posits Anderson. “There are more female-led dramas on TV right now than ever before. And most of the women are intelligent, high-powered, independent.” It’s more than appropriate, then, that Anderson is now taking on three intelligent, independent characters herself, reaping the benefits of what she sowed so many years ago.
Anderson, 45, has always been just as autonomous and whip-smart as the women she portrays. Though she was born in Chicago, her family moved to London soon after, where they stayed until moving to Grand Rapids, Michigan, when Anderson was 11 (all of which explains Anderson’s delightfully inscrutable accent, a collision of precise English consonants and flowing Midwestern vowels). She’s previously spoken at length about her “punk phase” in high school, when she was voted “Most Bizarre” and “Most Likely to Be Arrested.” That outsider status followed Anderson to DePaul University, where she studied theater and waitressed to support herself while sporting “big, maroon-colored hair and pointy black boots.” “I had a few friends, but at the same time, I was a bit of a recluse,” says Anderson, who recalls rotating through 14 different roommates over four years in her Bucktown apartment (where she lived long before it became, as she puts it, “fancy shmancy”).
After graduating, Anderson moved to New York, starred in a series of plays, then headed to LA, where she landed her first TV role as a guest-star on Fox’s “Class of ’96.” That’s when “The X-Files” producers took notice of the young actress and sent her a script. Anderson, then 24, immediately identified with the shrewd, stubborn Scully — and was pleasantly surprised to see a woman like that represented on the page. “Just in terms of character structure, how she was defined was so different than what was then normal on TV,” she says.
Though “The X-Files’s” impact on television drama is incalculable, its impact on its audience is fairly easy to quantify. Anderson says she’s still approached by die-hard fans of the nine-season series — not to mention courted via the US Postal Service. “If I’d kept everything people have sent me over the years, I’d have to have a second home,” she laughs. Last year, when Anderson and co-star David Duchovny reunited for a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” interview, they ignited an Internet firestorm, bantering about the dating rumors that have plagued the pair for years thanks to their overabundance of chemistry. While she only recently admitted that the two never got together, she does claim that they’re “much closer on the whole, more appreciative and understanding since [filming ‘The X-Files’].” “We don’t talk,” she adds. “But every once in a while, we’ll email, every once in a while, we’ll have a meal together. We reminisce. He’ll remember something funny that happened on the show and email me about it.”
When “The X-Files” ended in 2002, Anderson moved back to London, in part to escape the attention she was garnering in the US due to the series and parts she’d taken in films like 2000’s “The House of Mirth.” Until recently, things were relatively quiet for the actress — she starred in a few movies, including “How to Lose Friends & Alienate People” in 2008, took the stage in several West End productions and portrayed Miss Havisham in a BBC version of “Great Expectations” in 2011.
Staying relatively off the radar was a choice; Anderson says she didn’t feel pressure to follow up her “X-Files” success. Instead, she had bigger priorities, focusing on raising her three children: Piper, now 19, who she had with her first husband Clyde Klotz; Oscar, 7; and Felix, 5; both fathered by ex-boyfriend Mark Griffiths. “The only pressure I feel is to be a good mom,” she says. “I’m very particular about the work that I do. It has to be, in my mind, good enough to take me away from my children.”
Her newly ramped-up workload is evidence that all three of her current projects fit that criteria. “Crisis” in particular drew Anderson’s attention because of its tight script, full of hairpin twists. “I just couldn’t put it down,” she says. She says she also signed on because she believed both “Crisis” and “Hannibal” were attempting to subvert network TV stereotypes — much like the “The X-Files” once did. “I think [both shows] are shaking it up for NBC, which is trying to fall away from its old, more typical shows.”
As she takes on this series of unconventional female roles, Anderson challenges herself to make sure each character retains her individuality. “I’m simultaneously playing three strong blond women — to me, they’re completely different. But the jury’s out on whether they actually are,” she says, laughing. “I might be delusional.” But she does see the common thread between the three — and how it’s a direct result of her body of work. “I have a tendency to be offered very strong women [roles],” she says. “I’m usually cast as everybody’s boss, because I think that — regardless of my own real level of power and intelligence — it looks like I know what I’m talking about, even if I don’t know the first thing about it.”
And though her white-hot career proves that women on TV have come a long way, Anderson still thinks there’s room for improvement: The actress has yet to play a woman as multifaceted as herself. “I’m very willful and very independent,” she says. “I don’t usually play women who have both that and [silliness] in their character. I don’t know why, but I’ve never really seen that before to the degree that I’ve manifested it in my own life.”
The good news? Given the way Anderson’s changed the course of TV history before, it’s only a matter of time before fictional women measure up to her real-world complexity.
We tested Anderson’s “X-Files” recall by reading her three real episode synopses — and two that we completely made up. (She cautioned us up front: “People will tell me about episodes I shot and I literally have no memory.”) Here’s how she fared:
Splash: Bizarre murders in a hospital’s plastic surgery unit lead Mulder and Scully to suspect a supernatural force may be responsible.
Gillian Anderson: Yes, I think we did an episode about that.
S: Do you remember anything?
GA: No. [Laughs] Well, very, very vaguely.
S: Mulder and Scully get stranded at sea while investigating a possible sea monster sighting, and discover that the boat captain they’ve entrusted with their lives may be involved in the government cover-up of the creature.
GA: Yes? Real?
S: No, we made that up.
GA: [Laughs loudly] All right, well it’s plausible. Very plausible.
S: A little girl is kidnapped and imprisoned by a mentally unstable photographer. Mulder discovers a psychic connection between the recently kidnapped victim and another girl kidnapped by the same man years ago.
S: No, that’s real.
GA: What was that called?
S: ‘Oubliette,’ season three.
G: Ohhhhh … I remember the title.
S: Scully pursues a cult that worship a slug-like organism and believe it to be the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, but in her efforts to save an injured stranger, she discovers she is in over her head.
GA: Yes, yes we did that one. Is that the one where I was like, Amish, and strapped to a bed?
S: Maybe? Last one: After Mulder is witness to a spontaneous human combustion, he shares with Scully that he fears extraterrestrials may be behind the phenomenon. His suspicions are confirmed when he begins to have dreams of being abducted and slow-roasted over a votive candle on a nightly basis.
GA: [Laughs] Just based on ratio, I’m gonna say no. But it is possible.
S: Yep, we made that one up.