The Times interview
Gillian Anderson: ‘I don’t see the end of my relationships as failures’
The world’s greatest Gillian Anderson fan was in the row next to mine to see the actress star in A Streetcar Named Desire this summer. At least I assume she was. Her left calf bore permanent witness to her adoration. It was covered with large tattoos of Anderson. On one side was Scully from The X-Files, and, on the other, Stella Gibson, the detective superintendent who Anderson played last year in The Fall, a controversial serial-killer drama set in Northern Ireland, which, as she puts it, is, “amazing, disturbing and coming back soon”.
“I think there was a third too,” Anderson says of the tattoos when we meet at the Young Vic. She had spoken to their owner at the stage door afterwards. “Or was she just talking about getting a third? I didn’t even realise we have three sides of a calf.”
If Anderson is blasé about the stardom that is driving women to the tattoo parlour, it is probably because she has known fame for two decades, almost from the start of The X-Files. For the past dozen or so years she has been living in London, where the Chicago-born actress spent half her childhood, and we Brits have ever since been quick to claim her as one of our own outstanding classical actresses, on television in Bleak House and Great Expectations and on stage as Nora in A Doll’s House, and most recently as Blanche DuBois inStreetcar.
In her mid-forties, this tiny, weightless woman is also regarded as an almost classical English beauty, although her sexual magnetism, in her youth leered over in magazines such as FHM, is what directors are currently playing on. In the case of DuBois, her desirability is a kind of lethal question mark: is her beauty faded or still threatening? In The Fall, DI Gibson’s is in no dispute: the policewoman’s effect on the patriarchal Northern Irish cops she is parachuted in from Scotland Yard to help is electrifying and sometimes paralysing.
Upon this subject, Anderson, grungily dressed for me in an oversized T-shirt and full skirt, becomes combative, as I soon discover. We do agree, I think, that Gibson is a female detective unlike any on television before: cynical but humane, tough but empathetic, remote yet sexually commanding. Her quarry is Paul Spector, played by Jamie “Fifty Shades” Dornan, the serial murderer of women. You might even compare Gibson’s arrival in Belfast to the manner in which DuBois falls into and disrupts the marriage of her sister inStreetcar. Both women find themselves in a war on women. DuBois is destroyed by a misogynist brute; Gibson is the avenger of such women.
“I love her,” Anderson says in a London accent that catches me by surprise. When I saw her in 2000 in LA, where she was promoting her movie The House of Mirth, she spoke with a north American accent. Her upbringing, divided between Crouch End, London, and Grand Rapids, evidently allows her to make these choices.
She loves Gibson? “Yes, I do, I really do. She was my favourite. That was previous to playing Blanche. And not to take anything away from Scully at all, but I had a sense before I did The Fall that she’d be good for women. It would be good for women to have someone like her out there in our contemporary social consciousness.”
Gibson certainly has sex on her terms, not society’s. “Well, that’s not the most interesting thing about her. She’s so clearly comfortable with herself and all aspects of herself, not just her sexuality. I’m admiring of her, the way that she articulates things in the feminist realm.”
Anderson says she does not obsess about women’s status in our culture, but when she is asked about it finds she has things to say. She talks about revenge porn, the trolling of articulate women, the abuse of teenage girls on social media. “If this is where it’s at today, where is it going? Is it going to take legislation? You know, it might have to at some point. Is there an epidemic of misogyny? Or is there now just this modern outlet for something that has always existed but, because of social media, is more visible than it has ever been?”
Yet, The Fall’s first season was problematic to feminists too, with some feeling it was guilty of the misogyny it sought to dissect. Viewers witnessed Spector’s stalking, rapes and murders (his victims all young, all brunette, all attractive, all professional) through his eyes. In the Daily Mail, the critic Christopher Stevens called it “the most repulsive drama ever broadcast on British television”, “an invitation to share an extended rape fantasy”.
What did Anderson think of the Mail’s attack? “It’s ridiculous. I mean, if you’re really paying attention, there’s more humanity in The Fall than in a lot of the other shows that are about killers that are on TV.”
Doesn’t she agree that there are too many TV shows that have women’s corpses in them? She pauses. “There are too many corpses of women in life.”
I tell her how uneasy I was during last year’s finale, when a woman about to be attacked by Spector was seen from his visual perspective on the lavatory with her knickers around her ankles. Wasn’t she?
“No. I mean, obviously the level of her vulnerability is going to add tension, but is it somehow less worrying if somebody gets murdered or raped in their house when they have a three-year-old child in the room next to them? Is that somehow less vulnerable, less intimate, less over the top than seeing a woman sitting on the loo?”
At a press conference to launch this season — whose first episode indeed features one of Spector’s victims alone in her house with her daughter — the creator Allan Cubitt said that if people thought The Fall was misogynistic, he would have failed “abjectly”. His surest alibi is, obviously, his creation, Gibson, yet she too has proved a divisive figure: a career woman with no clear hinterland or family, irresistible to men but apparently indifferent to them except as sexual partners. I quote Anderson the cultural critic Lisa French who thought Gibson a “male character in women’s clothing”. “The show carries an implicit message that women shouldn’t really be like Stella Gibson,” she wrote. “There is danger for women in this message. It implies that success requires a choice, a life with personal relationships or a successful career. The latter is depicted as leaving the woman alone, hardened and driven.”
“Do you think she comes across as being unsatisfied?” Anderson responds. “An unsatisfied human being? That she’s unhappy in some way? She’s not lonely. She’s not sad. She’s not depressed. She’s not suicidal. She’s not an alcoholic. She gets her needs met in her life.”
A senior police officer, who was one of her one-night stands, asks her at one point if she has any idea of the effect she has on men. Does she?
“I think she has an understanding that that is the case and there is an equal and opposite reaction that takes place. She’s not dressing for men.”
Perhaps, I suggest, Gibson’s fitted blouses make the slut-walk point that a woman has a right to wear what she wants to wear without being sexually abused? “The fact is Stella is not wearing skirts that are up to her panty line. If she were, we could be having that conversation, but the fact is, she’s wearing pretty much sensible clothes that just happen to be chic. None of them are particularly overly tight or overly exposing. Should she be wearing sweatshirts and sweatpants so that some man doesn’t get hard?”
It is the way the programme is directed though, I insist. In the first of the new season, Gibson gets changed in the police loos in front of a lesbian officer who is her junior. “But you don’t see anything.”
No, but it is awkward, uncomfortable. “Yes,” she says, as if I am once more missing the point.
And then there is the press conference in the first run where a button pops from Gibson’s shirt. What is that saying? “Well, I think that that is pointing to her vulnerability. They’re talking about the fact that they have now come to the conclusion that it is a serial murderer. And the tension, not just sexual tension, but the human tension, the awkwardness tension, the embarrassment, all of that, is heightened to the nth degree because of the unfortunateness of that moment.”
Gibson, in fact, must be the least vulnerable woman cop ever on television. Compare her to Scott & Bailey or even Prime Suspect’s Jane Tennison. Anderson says there will be a couple of moments in this run where she will show more vulnerability and “there’s something that happens that just completely pulls the rug from under her”.
Vulnerable is hardly a word I would apply to Anderson today, but, oddly enough, our previous encounters did leave me protective towards her. The first time was 19 years ago near the start of The X-Files. She had suffered post-natal depression on set, she told me, and did not seem to have wholly recovered. In fact, her first marriage to an assistant director on the series, Clyde Klotz, was heading for divorce. During our next encounter, the Los Angeles one, I was a little horrified that, having spent months ruling out making more X-Files, she had signed up for more nevertheless.
In the 14 years since, every now and again a headline has made me wince on her behalf. In 2006 she divorced again, after a two-year marriage to Julian Ozanne, a documentary film-maker. Her relationship with Mark Griffiths, a businessman and the father of her two young sons ended in 2012, a year after her brother, Aaron, had died of a brain tumour aged 30.
She is 46 now and, I observe, it has not been an easy life. Has it hardened her? “Haven’t I had an easy life? Why do you say that?”
I recite why.
“I’ve had a very blessed life. I don’t see the end of my relationships as failures. Certainly, the times I’ve had with any of the partners that I’ve been with have been majoritively joyful and pleasant and have some beautiful children to show for it. And I’m friendly with everybody, very friendly,” she says. When she is filming away, her sons stay with Griffiths, much as her daughter, Piper, did with Klotz before the pair relocated to London a dozen years ago.
“I mean, around the ending of the last relationship and my brother’s death, it was a very, very tough year and a half, but on the whole, other than that, if you’re talking about since the last time I saw you, I’ve had an extraordinary life.”
I feel all in all, that although I admire Anderson enormously — almost to tattoo point — I have spent a vigorous hour being bettered in an argument. Never mind Stella Gibson, she is a tough cookie, I say.
“I am a tough cookie,” she confirms.