Emmys: ‘The Fall’ Star Gillian Anderson Takes Us Inside Stella Gibson’s Mind
As Yahoo TV recently noted, Stella Gibson, Gillian Anderson’s character on the thriller The Fall, is “so unapologetically feminist, unapologetically promiscuous, and unapologetically better than everyone else on the Northern Ireland Police force that she inspires celebratory fan tributes with titles like ‘Stella Gibson being a boss.’”
Her cat-and-mouse game with serial killer Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan) in Season 2 of the drama should also inspire Emmy voters to nominate Anderson for Outstanding Lead Actress. We spoke to Anderson, who’s currently filming Fox’s reboot of The X-Files (which earned her an Emmy in 1997), about key scenes in Season 2, and her hopes for Season 3, which she’ll begin shooting in December.
You wrote an essay profiling Stella for us before Season 2, and you said that some people see her as cold. You wondered if that was something that show creator Allan Cubitt saw in you, since he wrote the character for you. When we did a deep dive into Season 2 with him, we asked him that question and he said no: He sees Stella as someone who’s warm, but she has a “surface coolness,” a kind of control that he does believes you exude as an actress. Do you see Stella as someone who is trying to control things that are beyond her control?
I think that’s pretty accurate. I think she likes to be in control, and I think that’s served her very well in her work and also in her personal life. I think she’s extraordinarily focused in her work, and I think it takes up a lot of her headspace. I think she’s spent so many years singularly focused that she doesn’t really know anymore how to step outside of that until it’s almost become a part of her personality — this concentrated, deliberate, focused, serious, professional. So I think when we get to see aspects of her personality when she tries to step outside her comfort zone — when she makes a deliberate effort to be kind, friendly, warm, complimentary, share a joke or something even intimate and on a personal level — those moments really stand out for the character, watching from the outside, because they are so few and far between. They’re there, and they allow you into another aspect of her that maybe she just doesn’t have access to that readily.
That leads nicely into the first scene I wanted to talk about: When she realizes Spector has broken into her hotel room and read her diary, which is the ultimate loss of control. Take me through filming that moment and how you got to that place. We see the tears building, and the realization that she’s lost something of herself to him, of all people.
I think in the actual scene, the audience hears Spector speaking [what he wrote in her diary]. I didn’t hear his voice, and they didn’t need to have somebody reading out loud, because I was reading the words on the page. What he writes is so blatantly provocative and potentially shaming and intuitive. And the fact that he’s quaffed that boundary, and stepped into not just the privacy of her room and the privacy of her diary but the privacy of her mind and her thoughts — it’s such a violation that it knocked the wind out of her. Literally, she’s so not used to anyone getting anywhere near even on the surface what she projects. She protects herself. So for that protection to have been bypassed, and for him to have found her soft spot completely out of the blue. … He really steps into an intimacy that she doesn’t share with anybody. It’s a huge, huge invasion of her mind — a mind that she keeps very closed.
In your essay about Stella, you mentioned that she chooses her clothes carefully and cares about how she looks — for herself. You said she’s “at once in touch with her femininity in a way we have not seen, and yet still able to stand up for herself with strength, intelligence, grace, and self-containment.” Is her wardrobe also like a suit of armor, in a way?
What I find interesting is that it’s not. She’s neither wearing suits that are buttoned-up and double-breasted and trousers to emulate the male counterparts on a daily basis, nor is she overtly dressing sexually as armor. I think what I find fascinating about her is that it is purely to satisfy a desire that she has within herself for herself. If that confidence and that self-knowledge creates a boundary somehow, puts distance between herself and other people… I don’t believe that that’s a deliberate statement in any way or a protective device. That’s more about the other person and their take on her or their opinion about how she should dress.
The next scene I wanted to touch on is the 20-minute interrogation scene, which became a great power play between Spector and Stella. How did you approach that crucial sequence?
I thought that it was exquisitely written. How did I prepare for it? I mean one always intends to be entirely off-book, but with something like this, it’s really important to know 100 percent that you are off-book and can follow the rhythm of the scene from beginning to end without interruption. When we did a rehearsal of it, it was clear that Jamie felt the same way because we were able to do the 11-and-a-half pages straight through. What was fascinating about the process was that because we haven’t sat face-to-face in scenes before, it was as much about the actors dancing as it was about the characters dancing and observing each other, sussing each other out. We both lightly got into…predatory is the wrong word, but it’s almost like two cobras facing off. A cobra and a mongoose or something. It was something about that, and because it’s such a quiet scene, and we end up very grounded in our bodies but also very much in each other’s space. It had that kind of heightened sense to it. It was so much fun to play, and also to see how good Jamie was and could be.
There are times when each of you speaks directly into the camera. Allan has said that he wanted to do that so viewers would feel the intimidation. What were those takes like to film?
Usually those moments are asked of actors at the very end. It’s like the final take, which means that you’re either exhausted by then, or you have the rhythm and you’re vibrating at a particular level. And so, it can actually be exhilarating. I think you can’t help but jump into the perspective of the viewer and get a sense of the power that such a shot would have in a scene like that. So it can be quite fun to be able to play with that heightened intention there.
Another memorable scene was the aftermath of Stella’s rejected invitation for Reed Smith (Archie Panjabi) to join her in her room and ACC Jim Burns (John Lynch) coming on to Stella there instead. Stella says that line to Burns about how we all have these emotional and physical needs that can only be met by another human — the trick is to ask the appropriate person. Can you imagine an appropriate person for Stella?
What I love about that scene is that, of course, Burns thinks that she might be talking about him when she says, after that, that she made a mistake herself. It’s like he slightly wonders if maybe they’re on the same page, even though she admonished him initially. Who would be the right person for Stella? I mean, I would think that it would be an unmarried man, within a decade of her own age maybe, above or below. Equal intelligence, successful, has a sense of self-knowledge and understanding of appropriate behavior and boundaries himself. Whether she’d be able to handle that, I think, would be challenging for her. I think that she could do it… if they saw each other once a week. [Laughs.]
There will be a third season of The Fall, and Allan has confirmed, of course, that Spector will survive being shot. I found it so interesting that Stella ran to Spector first when he and DS Tom Anderson (Colin Morgan) both took bullets. In your mind, why was that?
I mean, it is really the right thing to do. She spent how long now tracking this guy? She knows that there’s medics around. She knows that Anderson’s likely going to be perfectly fine no matter where he’s hit. She doesn’t want this to end here. She’s fascinated by [Spector]. She is fascinated by what drives him. She also knows that he’s got a young daughter, even though that’s obviously going to be a complicated relationship. But I think she doesn’t feel like her business with him is done yet. It’s also an easy out for him after what he put people through.
One of the things that Allan has said he hopes we’ll learn more about in Season 3 is Stella’s history with her father, which is addressed in her diary. Is that something that you’re looking forward to exploring more?
I think so. We’ve talked about it, and I am interested in exploring quite a bit more. I’ve had a lot of thoughts and ideas about where we head next, but Allan is the one who goes off in his little world of genius and figures out the best way for it all to unfold. I have 100 percent faith in him. Wherever he leads us, even if it has no resemblance whatsoever to a direction that I thought might be fun or interesting or fascinating for myself or for an audience, I know that he’ll lead us down the right path. It may or may not have anything to do with her father. [Laughs.]
There was a lot of secrecy around Season 2. I’m sensing there’ll be a lot of secrecy around Season 3. How does that compare to what you’re dealing with now in terms of secrecy with the return of The X-Files?
It’s a little bit of a different level because first of all, The Fall world is a smaller world. So at the very beginning, those scripts are going to a small handful of people. When you’re dealing with a network like Fox, and you’re dealing with a franchise, there’s a lot more potentially at stake. There’s a lot more people who have their fingers in the pie. And also, the expectations are so high, and there’s a lot of boxes that need to be ticked, especially with the first episode. It’s always so much more satisfying when there’s as few spoilers out as possible, with any scenario. But I’d have to say lockdown is greater for The X-Files. [Laughs.]