GILLIAN ANDERSON HAD MADE A CAREER OUT OF PLAYING COMPLEX, ALOOF CHARACTERS. BUT AS SHE TELLS STYLIST, SHE’S NOT AS SERIOUS AS EVERYONE THINKS
WORDS: ALIX WALKER PHOTOGRAPHY: MATTHEW SHAVE
There were a lot of doubters in the office on the day that we asked Gillian Anderson to eschew the designer gowns of the traditional celebrity cover shoot and play along with our – and the rest of the planet’s – unhealthy obsession with Jamie Dornan by wearing a T-shirt adorned with his face. It wasn’t a completely arbitrary request; she does co-star with him in the monster hit BBC2 series The Fall which – brace yourselves – is back on our screens next week. But she’s also a woman with a reputation to uphold. One which errs on the serious side. From Agent Scully in The X-Files to Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, and, most recently, DSI Stella Gibson in The Fall, Gillian’s penchant for strong, aloof characters has created a public persona which, wrongly or rightly, doesn’t exactly scream playful.
Gillian, 46, who arrived at our shoot from the London home she shares with her three children (Piper, 20, Oscar, 8, and Felix, 6), inspected the T-shirt with her icy blue eyes, her wide mouth an unreadable smirk, then fixed them on Tom, Stylist’s photography director, and said, “I think I’m feeling in a fun mood today, Tom.”
And with that the whole room fell under her spell. Gillian was warm, witty, engaged and, I can report, quite the opposite of that un-playful media persona. In fact, she loved the Jamie T-shirt so much she took it home, along with an Agent Scully doll to show her children that she was “properly famous once”. She hadn’t eaten since 5am and attacked the lunch buffet with gusto, chatting to the crew about her dealings with the paparazzi.
I, on the other hand, missed lunch because after many begging emails to the BBC, I finally had access to the first (unedited) episode of The Fall’s second series and was greedily watching it on my iPad before our interview, freshly reminded of how darkly captivating this psycho-sexual crime thriller is.
Set in Belfast, the highly charged cat-and-mouse game between the most unlikely of serial killers, bereavement counsellor Paul Spector (Dornan), and Gillian’s coolly feisty police detective, was BBC2’s highest rated drama in eight years and the most talked about series in the Stylist office well, ever. Gillian knew the second the script landed on her desk that she had to do it, despite having sworn off TV drama for good.
“I’d made such a strong commitment to not do ‘serious television’ and nothing was going to sway me, so it was getting my mind past that hurdle. But it was one of those things where you could tell from the script that if we got it right, it had such huge potential. And I just found her so intriguing that it was a no-brainer.”
When former Calvin Klein model Dornan was cast alongside Gillian, she spent the first series explaining who he was to everyone. Now, with 50 Shades Of Grey scheduled to come out (he stars as Christian Grey) next February, she’s being asked about his career – an interest she takes with great humour and a knowing smile, fully aware what that level of fame brings with it.
“You know, he’s created a very grounded life for himself with his wife and their new baby. He has exactly the right, healthy perspective on the whole messy side of what it is that we do.” Was she ever nervous about starring alongside a novice? “Allan [Cubbit, the series creator who also wrote Prime Suspect 2] said, ‘Look, there’s somebody who’s perfect for the role’, but I think he was having a little trouble selling it. I saw Jamie’s audition tape – it was just him peeling an orange – and it was very clear he was the guy.”
THE FALL GUY
For those of you who have somehow missed The Fall, Gillian’s character Stella is fearless, direct and unreservedly upfront about her sexual desires, yet not devoid of vulnerability. Does Gillian draw parallels between the character and herself? “It’s a tricky one. In terms of her reserved nature and single-mindedness, there are aspects which are very much like me. But there’s another part of me that’s not like her, which is slightly goofy, childlike and infantile.”
One of the most interesting facets of the character is her sexual confidence, the reaction to which highlighted how depressingly rare sexually provocative women are on TV. “Considering it’s 2014, I think it’s surprising that it’s so unusual, it became such a point of reference for people,” agrees Gillian. “I wonder whether there’s enough permission in society for women to embrace their proclivities. That doesn’t imply deviance or anything. Just that maybe we do need to, as women, embrace that aspect of ourselves, give ourselves more freedom, more leeway, more acceptance, permission to just be who we are sexually. There are so many unconventional couples these days. So many versions of relationships now because of the divorce rate and the slow-but-sure acceptance of gay marriage and different kinds of couples embracing togetherness publicly. But I don’t think we’ve actually realised how closed-minded we still are.”
Currently single following the split from Mark Griffiths, the father of her two sons, two years ago and with two divorces behind her, Gillian has thought about this part of her character. “It’s funny how rare it is to see [sexual confidence], especially in Stella’s age group. I remember a friend of mine going to Japan where there are f**k-me buddies who you just call up. That can be a mature thing, it doesn’t have to just apply to the 20-somethings. It also doesn’t have to imply anything like sexual addiction or deep loneliness or that one can’t have a relationship. It’s actually a choice because of their busy lives and the needs that they have.” She pauses and laughs. “I didn’t know I had so much to say about this!”
At the time of our interview, Gillian is still starring as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire at the Young Vic, 2014’s hottest theatre ticket. It was a lifelong dream to play Blanche and both critics and audiences raved about her extraordinary performance – so much so that the run was extended by two weeks. “It’s just been such an all-encompassing experience; the way everything has come together was an act of God really,” she tells me. But the part didn’t come without its challenges, including a recurrence of panic attacks associated with a fear of forgetting her lines.
“I was terrified because I’ve had panic attacks on stage before, so deciding to do this was a lot of pressure. I went to a couple of different hypnotists to deal with the anxiety because about six months before I started, I was already projecting the fear of the future onto really small moments and struggling to even give a thank-you speech. I think the combination of hypnotherapy and working my ass off, so that I was just so comfortable with the material, meant that it hasn’t been an issue.”
Gillian’s panic attacks first began in college, following a childhood that was not without its challenges. Born in Chicago, she moved to London’s Crouch End as a toddler, then to Michigan when she was 11. She resented the move, was bullied and by 14 was in therapy, admitting, “It kept me sane and alive”. In high school she was voted ‘Most Bizarre’, ‘Most Likely To Be Arrested’ and ‘Most Likely To Go Bald At School.’ She rebelled, dying her hair blue and having relationships with younger and older men, as well as a long-term relationship with a woman. She struggled to find her place until she was cast in a community play and “knew from the bottom of my heart that this was what I wanted to do.”
Gillian was 24 years old when she was cast as FBI agent Dana Scully alongside David Duchovny’s Fox Mulder in The X-Files. She stayed on the show until she was 34. At its peak, the series pulled in 27 million viewers, spawned a magazine and video games, was parodied in The Simpsons and turned Anderson into one of the most famous women in the world. How does she reflect on that period of her life? She pauses before answering. “I have fond memories, I’d say. It was a big chunk of time. I feel like I went into a time-warp during that period but it was an amazing time-warp to step into, so I have a lot of gratitude for it. Being involved with something that had such an impact on contemporary culture is really cool.”
Two years into the show (it ran for nine and there have since been two spin-off films, with whisperings of a third), Gillian fell pregnant to her then-husband, a crew member called Clyde Lotz. The fact that it happened just as the show was becoming a success caused Gillian a great deal of turmoil but, keen to cause as little disruption as possible, she was back on set 10 days after her daughter, Piper, was born.
“Although I was horizontal for most of the episode, I came back [after the birth]. I also had a pretty serious fight scene. I remember thinking, ‘What childless men have written this scene for me?’ But it’s in my nature to get on with it. I think it was more people around me going ‘Are you f**king kidding me?! She was cut open, and a baby was taken out of her 10 days ago…’ Sometimes I have a tendency to lose perspective on those things and just kind of go, ‘Oh, OK, right…’. The guilt around stopping production and everything that they had to do in order to make it work… I had a huge amount of guilt at the time.”
Juggling a new baby with arguably the biggest TV drama of the Nineties wasn’t easy. “There was a period of time when I was pregnant with my daughter where I started having panic attacks and they pretty much happened every day for well over a year. And it was absolute hell – like hallucinatory… really bad. There have been points in my life where it has threatened to raise its head again, but it’s never got to where it was.”
The show was immensely pressured, working 16-hour days, five-and-a-half days per week, and was at times, somewhat old school. I’d read that Gillian was asked to walk two feet behind Mulder on screen at all times. “Yeah, it is true,” she laughs. “I’m still gobsmacked when I look back. At the beginning, it was under the guise that he was the lead and I was the sidekick. It’s hard for me because I’m so outspoken, I’ve always been a tomboy and one of the lads. That contributes, I’m sure, to my anarchic reaction to anything that has any whiff of sexism. It’s hard for me to know when the shift happened [to being equals on set] because I have a dreadful memory – whether it came from above, or that they could see that it was a more even-handed series than before or whether it was me going, ‘This is f**king ridiculous.’”
Despite her size – the armchair she’s sat in swallows up her tiny 5ft 3in form – Gillian fixes you with such a direct stare that I believe her when she says she’s happy calling the shots. “Yes, I am very good at standing up for myself. But it’s interesting – every once in a while some male figure somewhere will take me right back to my childhood and I’ll really find it a problem [them] being able to do that. Most of the time I’m very good, it’s just a certain dynamic… it only pops up every few years.”
It’s hard to imagine Gillian doing anything with which she’s not comfortable. Today she refuses to take on projects which don’t work with her family and filming schedules have to adjust around her. But she hasn’t always been this assertive. In 1996, Gillian – who auditioned for Agent Scully because “for the first time in a long time, the script involved a strong, independent, intelligent woman as a lead character” – did the cover of British FHM. In her underwear. It became their fastest-selling cover ever, made her the thinking man’s pin-up and copies still sell on eBay for £25. Was she comfortable with the lads’ mag portrayal of her?
“I’m not quite sure if my manager and I understood what FHM was. It was all going OK and then we moved from the downstairs area to the upstairs area and there was a bed in the middle of the photoshoot and I remember my manager going ‘Oh no, no, no…’ We started out with me in a white men’s shirt and then something happened and I got kind of swept up – it’s almost like I got into character and ended up in my knickers! I don’t think I fully thought that one through. When I did the interview for it, I was in Vancouver and I had these flannel pyjamas with cowboys on that I’d had for 10 years – the whole thing was just so surreal and incongruous.”
When you consider just how famous Gillian was during The X-Files, it’s surprising that her career hasn’t followed the paths of the Blanchetts or Winslets. Her CV is impressive, with standout performances in British and American TV dramas (alongside The Fall, she stars as a psychiatrist in NBC hit Hannibal) and films including The Last King Of Scotland, but her CV lacks the big blockbusters you might expect.
After The X-Files, she left the US and moved to London admitting, “I don’t show my face [in LA] very much and that makes it more complicated for me in terms of work. They need to see you in the press and in their face, in meetings, auditions, whatever.” But her goal was always to give her children a stable home life, close to her ex who she calls “a brilliant, brilliant father”.
As someone prone to guilt, has she found it hard leaving her children to work in Belfast for The Fall and Toronto for Hannibal? “I make very, very careful decisions about work, so it’s not usually work that I have guilt about. It’s about the quality of time that I spend with my kids when I am with them. And there are certainly times when we’ve had a stretch of time together and at the end of it I’ve felt like, ‘Well, that could have gone so much better; we could have been outside more; we spent too much time watching movies’. But when it comes to work, I’m so particular, before I start, I lay down a schedule of what I can do.”
She’s also found time to write her first novel, A Vision Of Fire, which centres around a single mother who attempts to piece together a string of mystifying events. It all adds up to a hectic schedule for the family.
“I think probably the person that is affected the most is me,” she admits. “I know for a fact that I have a tendency to put myself last in that respect. But I’m quite good at planning ahead. When I started commuting to Toronto and I was missing London, I started thinking, ‘What is it that I miss?’ and I thought, ‘Well my friends and dinners’, so I started hosting a games night for the mothers from my kid’s school when I was home. Whatever city I’m in, I just see people I care about.”
Gillian is great company – interesting, honest and actually, a lot of fun. I almost suggest a night out with her and Jamie… but I think the T-shirt may have pushed it far enough. I finish by asking her what people would be surprised to know about her. “There’s a perception of coldness about me, so I guess people should know that I laugh! I need to do a comedy.”
SIX THINGS YOU DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT THE X-FILES
Alien conspiracies, paranormal events and killer trivia. The truth is out there. And here…
1. The X-Files pilot was only the second time Anderson had been in front of a camera.
2. Gillian was offered the role of Clarice Starling in 2001 film Hannibal but her contract meant she couldn’t play an FBI agent elsewhere until The X-Files finished.
3. During filming, Anderson spent most of her time in front of the camera standing on a box because at just over 5ft 3ins tall, she was almost 10ins shorter than David Duchovny.
4. David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson’s siblings appeared in the show. Duchovny’s older brother Daniel was in two episodes and Anderson’s then-teen sister, Zoe, played a younger version of Scully in the fifth series.
5. Series creator Chris Carter made Dana Scully the sceptic and Fox Mulder the believer to reverse established gender stereotypes.
6. The first five series were filmed in Vancouver (using over 1,600 gallons of burgundy paint to transform a gravel pit into the deserts of New Mexico for two episodes). The show then moved to Los Angeles because Duchovny wanted to be closer to his then-wife, Téa Leoni.
BEST OF BRITISH
Gillian went to school in London and has lived here for 12 years but how British is she really?
What’s your favourite part of London?
“I love the whole Southbank area – you’ve got the Hayward Gallery and then the National Theatre. I love Borough Market, I love Clerkenwell, I love all the museums in Bloomsbury. I love the Foundling Museum and the Wellcome Collection. I used to live up there, and you’ve got the Dickens Museum – it’s great for that kind of stuff.”
Full English or American pancakes with bacon?
“Neither, actually. I think I’d normally go for either poached eggs on toast or a fruit salad with yoghurt.”
What is a chip to you?
“Well, the chip is an equivalent to a French fry, not a crisp.”
What newspaper do you read?
“The Independent and The Sunday Times.”