The importance of being Gillian Anderson
This year’s Best Actress, Gillian Anderson, talks to Nick Curtis about her winning turn in A Streetcar Named Desire, plucking up the courage to try Shakespeare and why London is ‘the best city in the world’
When I first met Gillian Anderson a month ago, she was still coming down from her terrific turn as the self-destructing Southern belle Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire at the Young Vic. The 46-year-old star of The Fall and The X Files seemed watchful and measured. In our second conversation, some days after she won the Natasha Richardson Award for Best Actress at the 60th London Evening Standard Theatre Awards, she keeps breaking into fits of giggles.
‘The last time I went to the Standard Awards it was at The Savoy and must have been around 2004,’ says Anderson. ‘I think I was married. And I don’t think I was nominated. This time I knew it was going to be bigger and that Anna Wintour was co-hosting at the Palladium, but I didn’t realise that pretty much everybody in the theatre world and beyond would show up. So I was dumbstruck and I get a little bit stupid when I’m dumbstruck and can’t really have normal conversations. It was beautiful, though, full of old-world glamour and romance.’
It was also full of unintentional comedy: ‘My dress [by British couturier Nicholas Oakwell] was too big and I had to hold it up with my armpits all night. Hence all the pictures of me looking quite grumpy.’
Still, the evening went swimmingly. ‘It was very jolly [on my table]. It was James McAvoy and Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Stoppard and Evgeny [Lebedev, the London Evening Standard’s owner] and Tom’s wife Sabrina [Guinness] and James’ wife [Anne-Marie Duff] and Benedict’s fiancée [Sophie Hunter]. We talked about stag nights for about the first 45 minutes, not that I’ve ever been on one.’
At our first meeting, Anderson said she was honoured to be nominated alongside Kristin Scott Thomas, Helen McCrory, Billie Piper and Tanya Moodie for an award previously won by the likes of Helen Mirren, Maggie Smith and Judi Dench — women who were her acting heroines when, after living in London from the age of two to 11, she moved with her family to Grand Rapids, Michigan, and found herself ‘a fish out of water’. At the ceremony she ‘talked to Helen Mirren a little bit, which is always a pleasure and an honour, and I had a brief conversation with Helen McCrory, but it was mostly about dresses.’
Anderson has already booked tickets for Cumberbatch’s forthcoming Hamlet, and mourns the fact she missed McCrory in Medea at the National Theatre because of Streetcar. I know she saw Shakespeare in Love this year, as I was sitting behind her and she graciously signed a fan’s programme. She raves about Scott Thomas’ Electra at The Old Vic and the Young Vic’s two other great shows of 2014, The Scottsboro Boys and A View From the Bridge.
Anderson’s award was the penultimate of the evening, just after Tom Hiddleston won Best Actor for his ‘incredibly strong’ Coriolanus, when organisers were trying to speed things up: ‘That made me very paranoid and instead of making what I had to say shorter, I ended up telling stories that had no rhyme or reason or ending to them at all, to the point where people were probably clinking their spoons on their glasses, thinking, “Shut the f*** up.” ’
Hardly. I’ve seldom seen an award better received. And Anderson’s career disproves F Scott Fitzgerald’s maxim that there are no second acts in American lives. Initially hoping to work in film and New York theatre after studying drama in Chicago, Anderson shot to fame in 1994 as Dana Scully on the phenomenally successful TV show The X Files. It won her a devoted legion of obsessive fans and an FHM award as the world’s sexiest woman, something that still mystifies her. ‘What do you mean, do I still think I’m a sex symbol?’ she says sardonically, when I bring it up. ‘It was very flattering but it has nothing to do with me. It’s the characters I play, and most of them are not sexy. Miss Havisham [whom she played in a 2011 BBC adaptation of Great Expectations] is not sexy.’
Anderson met her first husband, art director Clyde Klotz, on The X Files, and had a daughter, Piper, now 20 and an art student in London. When the series ended in 2002, Anderson decamped from LA to London, married journalist Julian Ozanne, divorced him after two years, then had sons Oscar and Felix — now eight and six — with businessman Mark Griffiths. She split from Griffiths in 2012, the same year she told Out magazine she’d had relationships with women in the past. One of her former girlfriends had died of a brain tumour, and the death of her brother Aaron from the same condition in 2011 prompted her to speak out, she said: that and the fact that her sister Zoe is married to a woman. Today, Anderson describes herself as a passionate supporter of gay rights, ‘actively heterosexual’ but happily single. She had no qualms about the scene in Allan Cubitt’s The Fall, the controversial but compulsively watchable Belfast-set TV thriller, in which her character, the formidable, icy DSI Stella Gibson, began kissing her pathologist friend (played by Archie Panjabi), seeing it as a further sign of Gibson’s headstrong complexity and a way of expressing her support for the gay and lesbian community.
Anderson’s career since moving back to London has skyrocketed. She was in Bleak House in 2005 and the aforementioned Great Expectations on TV, and was a pale but resolute Nora in A Doll’s House at the Donmar in 2009. Most recently, she has pulled off a stunning double: her Streetcar came in between the two series of BBC’s The Fall.
The second series finishes this week: the BBC kept the feature-length finale under wraps from everyone, so I couldn’t discuss it with Anderson. But she strongly defends the show against allegations of gratuitousness and succinctly explains its appeal. ‘What is the gap between the person who fantasises about tying someone up, or raping a co-worker, or spends hours on porn [and the person who acts]?’ she says. ‘That is the gap Stella is interested in and that gap is what we as an audience are interested in, and what keeps us tuning back in.’
She wrapped the second series on a Friday and went straight into rehearsals for Streetcar the following Monday. Did she physically prepare herself for the role? ‘Maybe I should have done, but no,’ she says. ‘When I’m away working, I’m working full steam ahead, and when I’m at home, I’m full steam ahead with my kids. So finding a couple of hours a day for the gym? I don’t know where I could even fit that in.’
For those who didn’t see Streetcar… well, you missed something. Williams’ play was staged by the maverick director Benedict Andrews at three hours-plus in modern dress on a revolving, goldfish-tank set of an apartment. It made us voyeurs to Stella’s tragic antagonism of her brutish brother-in-law Stanley (played by Ben Foster) and made the play feel brilliantly timeless and punishingly raw. After the first performance she felt ‘like a truck had hit me, and I thought, “My God, I can’t do this. Physically, this is impossible.” But you just do.’
At this point, I owe Anderson an apology. After our first meeting she said she needed ‘a good cry’ and I thought this meant the production had emotionally drained her. Actually, she was mourning the exhilaration it brought her. ‘After every performance I felt like I was in a state of catharsis, that I had gotten it all out,’ she says. ‘I felt very peaceful and calm, if not meditative. Certainly there was evidence that I was extending and expanding myself and my body was seeing the effects of it — you know, I was bruised all over, I needed a great deal more sleep, and things changed in the process in terms of how and when one eats. But I was not prepared for how invigorating it was.’
There are plans to take the production to New York: ‘but it seems there’s only one theatre that can take it, so it wouldn’t be till 2016.’ She is also in discussions about another London stage appearance in 2017 or 2018, in ‘another classic’ but ‘not Shakespearean. I would love to do some Shakespeare but feel like I need to be in the hands of somebody very patient. I studied it a long, long, long time ago. My bathroom wall is plastered with Shakespeare pages, but other than those I don’t think I have read him in a very long time.’
Next year she returns to her other serial- killer series, NBC’s Hannibal, in which she plays the eponymous killer’s therapist. At the time of writing there is no way of knowing if Stella Gibson will be alive for a third series of The Fall. This year, Anderson also co-wrote, with journalist and author Jeff Rovin, a sci-fi novel, A Vision of Fire, with a view to turning the story into a film for herself. This was less to do with a post-X Files yearning to get back to sci-fi than the fact that ‘I am aware of myself as a commodity in the genre’. Whether or not the film will happen is another matter. Anderson says she would have liked to do more films, but if she hadn’t followed her heart and moved to London, ‘I wouldn’t have the sons I have, or live in the best city in the world. And I’ve had an extraordinary career.’
Our time is almost up, so I ask how a transatlantic actress and single mum tackles the holiday season. Turns out it’s complicated. ‘My daughter’s father’s family are German,’ she says. ‘So she’d celebrate with them on Christmas Eve and then come back to wake up at mine on Christmas Day.’ This year, Piper will be with her father again. Anderson spent Thanksgiving back in Michigan — ‘without the kids because I didn’t want to take them out of school’ — and Christmas is up in the air. ‘I’m in denial about the fact it’s coming up,’ she says. ‘Right now, Christmas equals panic, though at some point it will involve relaxation, lots of food and being horizontal. And maybe, when there’s lots of family around, it’ll be possible for me to sleep in.’