‘X-Files’ Behind Her, Gillian Anderson Is a Believer
During the middle of our breakfast one early morning in January, the flaxen-haired actor Gillian Anderson abruptly asks me if I recall the coffee shop scene from Pulp Fiction. You know, the one where Honey Bunny and Pumpkin plot how they’re going to rob the joint? “I don’t know why. It’s a mixture of the music and some aspects of our conversation, but this feels like a parallel universe,” she says, except ours is inside the Trump SoHo New York hotel. “Like, what if all of a sudden those two people”—she points to a couple plunging into pancakes at a nearby table—“have alien beings inside them and something is going to crawl out of their skulls?”
The Koi Restaurant at the Trump SoHo doesn’t bear much resemblance to the greasy spoon in Quentin Tarantino’s cult classic, but there has been something slightly supernatural about our conversation this morning, which has included discussions about lucid dreams, Charles Dickens, Tibetan monks and sociopathic behavior. Anderson’s alien-inhabitation scenario also could have been taken from an episode of The X-Files, the revered ’90s science fiction series that propelled her into international stardom in her role as the skeptical, brilliant FBI Agent Dana Scully.
But having spent the morning with Anderson, I suspect this kind of reference is not out of character. Clad in a brown silk shirt and a teardrop turquoise necklace, Anderson seems more believer (or at least agnostic) than skeptic, perhaps due to the many “extraordinary experiences” she tells me she’s had; when I press her about said experiences, she just smiles and leaves the details a mystery.
Born in Chicago in 1968, Anderson packed up for Puerto Rico with her family when she was 15 months old, and then when she was 2 it was on to the U.K., where her father ran a postproduction film house. When she was 11, her parents moved to Michigan, where she was teased for her half-British, half-American drawl. Friends describe the teenage Anderson, who was involved in amateur acting troupes, as a “punk”; she favored the anarchist musical stylings of the Dead Kennedys and Skinny Puppy and sported a shaved head, a nose piercing and an all-black wardrobe.
The actor described herself in a 2013 interview with NPR as the kind of youth “people would get to do the things they were afraid to get in trouble for,” and she was voted “Class Clown,” “Most Bizarre Girl” and “Most Likely to Be Arrested” as a high school senior. Come graduation night, she fulfilled one of those predictions when she and her boyfriend were nabbed by police for attempting to glue the locks on the doors to City High School in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
But it wasn’t long until she cleaned up her act by, well, acting. From a young age she had been recognized as a gifted actor with a fluency for language, and she began acting in community plays and through her high school’s acting troupe. After graduating with a fine arts degree from DePaul University, she moved to New York City, where she had a stint starring in well-received off-Broadway productions, including Absent Friends, which earned her a Theater World Award. She soon relocated to Los Angeles and landed her breakout role on The X-Files. Then then 24-year-old convinced the show’s producers she was 27, hoping the white lie would make her a more credible Dr. Dana Scully.
Some think Anderson, now 46, peaked playing Scully, but she is just hitting her theatrical stride. She ended 2014 with an acclaimed turn as Blanche Dubois in a limited production of A Streetcar Named Desire at London’s Young Vic. (“She makes each phase of the Dubois disintegration her own,” wrote Guardian critic Susannah Clapp.) Then there are her two current television hits, NBC’s Hannibal and BBC’s The Fall (which she also produces), both of which have been picked up for a third season.
Her roles in these two criminal-profiling dramas—Dr. Bedelia Du Maurier, cannibal Hannibal Lecter’s psychiatrist, and Stella Gibson, a hardboiled special investigator hunting a serial killer—solidify her grip on the title of TV’s biggest ballbuster. When we meet, The Fall’s acclaimed second season is three days from having its debut on Netflix, and Anderson seems content, worlds from that character, who sacrifices her life and sanity to catch the complicated psychopathic killer and father Paul Spector, played by the hunky Jamie Dornan (soon to be seen in Fifty Shades of Grey).
When I mention her penchant for challenging roles in gripping psychological dramas, she insists it’s not intentional. She’s a serious dramatic actor, as evidenced by her roles in television miniseries adaptations of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House and Great Expectations. Which is not to say she doesn’t find characters who deal with murder fascinating. “It’s almost like we’re testing how much can we take,” she says. “We’re pushing our own boundaries in terms of how much of this information can we take in and study and watch before we tip over into that person. There’s something definitely addictive about that.”
Tomorrow she’ll be heading to Toronto to start shooting the upcoming season of Hannibal, but she’s also signed on to an as-yet-to-be-announced film project as actor and producer, is writing the second book of her science fiction series A Vision of Fire and is about to write another book that is “coincidentally, about seeking truth.” Oh, and there has been chatter recently about conversations between X-Files series creator Chris Carter, Fox executives and her former co-star, David Duchovny, about rebooting the supernatural series in 2016.
So does she have alien DNA that affords her around-the-clock productivity, or has she simply learned to function without sleep while jetting between Chicago, Toronto and London for her projects? She laughs at my alien theory, then puts her face in her hands. Looking up again, her blue eyes are half-mast but lively. “I embrace jet lag for all those quiet hours where one can actually get some work done,” she says.
It’s then that I spot two diminutive tattoos: a circle on her left hand and an inscription on her right wrist—two of four tattoos that are all in some way about “peace of mind, right mind, right action.” Anderson’s about to get inked for a fifth time, but she won’t tell me what she’s getting (or where). Whatever it is, I suspect it will be another reminder about seeking calm amid chaos, especially given her enthusiasm for spirituality books by religion scholar Karen Armstrong and Tibetan Buddhist nun and author Pema Chodron. “I don’t ask for help until I’m literally on my knees,” she admits. “So I try to transmute some of the pain and discomfort and resentment and frustration.”
The Fall’s Gibson is a law enforcement officer dedicated to nabbing a serial killer endangering the lives of young women in Belfast. But she isn’t the archetypal good cop: She is operating in a moral gray area. In the pursuit of justice, she has only a passing consideration for how her actions affect others; she lies to get ahead and sleeps with a married fellow officer who’s killed the next day. To further complicate things, she is an Englishwoman tasked with being an authority figure in Ireland.
She says she’s drawn to Gibson for her self-confidence and connection to her femininity, but she is still awed by her. “I don’t think I’ve ever read a character like Stella before. I’m as confounded by her as the audience is,” Anderson confesses. “Her behavior sometimes, and the things that she does…I have winced! Yet it’s so clearly organic to who she is and within the realms of this personality.”
Before we leave I muster the courage to ask her an X-Files fandom question: Is the truth out there? “Well, it better be out there somewhere,” she says. “Whether the framework is political or spiritual or metaphysical, the answer is the same answer for all of them, which is yes. It is.”