13 Ways of Looking at Gillian Anderson (2016)
From Scully to Blanche, an actor at the top of her craft breaks some news and discusses everything from Streetcar to The Fall
By Rebecca Kurson
She’s very beautiful, even more beautiful than she was a decade ago. She’s very short—she’d stand just 5-foot-2-inches tall if she ever took her high heels off—but she’s a blonde now, and it suits her pale skin. She was never a ginger. That was only for The X-Files and she’s a blonde again, like she was as a child growing up in England. Ms. Anderson doesn’t have the weird, pinched look of a Hollywood Botox star, and that’s because she lives in London now. She drinks very milky coffee, and praises a staffer when the coffee arrives—“Perfect color!” she exclaims with genuine delight.
Here’s one other way she’s not like a Hollywood starlet—she shaves. She’d sliced her leg, badly, before the photo shoot, and laughs about it now as makeup is applied to the cut. “I bled like a stuck pig!” During a long interview with the Observer, she laughs a lot, sitting on a stool in St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, where the London production of A Streetcar Named Desire opened on April 23 and runs until May 7. Ms. Anderson is Blanche duBois, and she won rave reviews for the 2014 Benedict Andrews revival at the Young Vic in London.
She made a film about Blanche duBois. The short is like watching a play, since the camera is still; Ms. Anderson calls it “theater-like in its construction, in a way that film isn’t usually, almost like Terence Davies.” The inspiration for the film short, she explains, “came initially from the Young Vic. They asked, ‘Would you be interested in making some sort of a film for our film series.’ Chiwetel [Ejiofor] has done something for Season of the Congo, and at the time, I didn’t know whether, with my focus being on the play, if I’d even have time to think about it, or what I might do it on.”
But the thought of playing Blanche before she packed her suitcase proved incredibly compelling. “I kept getting the imagery very clearly in my head, of that life,” Ms. Anderson explained. “Her past lives and breathes in the present of the play. That was the impetus.”
The short features a tottering Blanche in her studio apartment. At one point, she leans out the window, answering a pack of unseen gentleman callers. “Hey Blanche,” one of them yells up, “come have a drink with us.” She considers it, as she stands between the open window and the billowing curtain.
“How many are you?” she drawls.
“Well, that’s three too many,” Blanche retorts, but at the same time, she is putting on her party dress and getting ready to go. She doesn’t bother zipping the dress, just throws on a tatty stole and leaves. “That dichotomy is throughout her life and the play,” notes Ms. Anderson. “Yes, no, yes, no, yes, no, yes, no…of course.”
(Photo: Emily Assiran for Observer)
There’s a story with the unzipped dress, too. When Ms. Anderson was performing in Streetcar in London, her dress often came undone during a pivotal scene. “In our production of it,” Ms. Anderson says, laughing, “there’s a pink dress that I put on that would stay all the way up, and I could never reach all the way up, so they would have to stay it at a certain point. I also had a bra on. But there were nights when that stay wouldn’t work. So for the whole scene, I had to hold the dress up and gesticulate like this [waves wildly] and it was fine and it worked, but that [Blanche’s unzipped dress in The Departure] reminded me of that time on stage. It wasn’t so hilarious the first couple of times it happened. I was like, ‘I can’t believe this!’ Plus there’s mashed potatoes and food and gravy and beer that the dress is sweeping up, and I’m stomping around in this dress.”
Ms. Anderson is very careful, a private person who doesn’t like the stranger who keeps lingering about by the glass doors of the theater, and she’s careful with her words. She lived in England as a child, and learned to swap accents with ease. She’s lived in America, filmed for months in Canada and now lives back in England. She might have something to add to the current debate on who, exactly, is an American citizen. But when asked about politics, she stays out of it.
“I don’t know this debate,” she demurs. When pressed, she keeps out of the fray and speaks only to her own experience. “Well, in terms of immigration, I feel like London has my heart, and I feel like potentially my soul is still in America. I’ve been asked before if I would give up citizenship. And I wouldn’t. I’m quite clear on that. And I do identify as an American,” and she says it with an emphatic American accent. “But because of the depth of my childhood there, it is so ingrained, that I long for England when I’m away from it.”
Ms. Anderson can blur the line between American and British, but Tennessee Williams’ play is something else altogether. “I don’t think Tennessee’s plays could be transposed in any other place but America. It felt very quintessentially American when we did it in the U.K. And it’s a mixed cast, half British, half American, all played it American. It definitely feels like a quintessentially American play.”
The play debuted at the Young Vic in 2014 to spectacular reviews. Written in 1947, A Streetcar Named Desire now features music from Patsy Cline and PJ Harvey, and has a decidedly modern air. The U.K. cast features Ben Foster as Stanley and Vanessa Kirby as Stella, and is directed by Benedict Andrews, revered for his innovative productions of Three Sisters and Streetcar.
“Bringing something that’s been built and created in the U.K. and bringing it here and it will be differently judged,” she points out. Ms. Anderson is full of praise for her co-stars and the director. “I think one of the things that Benedict Andrews is so brilliant at is getting to the root of the writer’s intention and certainly the type of archaeological work that we did to bring out its essential truth was so specific. We were mining for the gold of Tennessee Williams.”
She also completely inhabits Stella Gibson, in a tour de force performance in The Fall, which airs on Netflix. Stella is a detective superintendent from London, brought in to investigate a series of murders in Belfast. Who is Stella Gibson, besides the most elusive and compelling character on television today? “I feel like she is something rare and unique in contemporary creative culture. She’s her own species almost,” Ms. Anderson declares. She credits Alan Cubitt, who writes the series, now about to release its third season. “I remember when we were filming, I kept thinking, ‘There’s something about her I think women are going to understand. There’s elements of her that I certainly don’t have in me. There are confounding and just unique enigmatic aspects that if I were paying attention, I would aspire to!’ ” Stella is both heartless—she has no sympathy for a cuckolded wife, and little pity for the men who inevitably fall in love with her. But Stella weeps for her victims, and agonizes over the unknown fate of one of the killer’s victims. “So much of who she is is not how I am in my life. But I find her so compelling still and felt that from the moment we were working on it, even when we were doing the press for it, I kept saying, ‘She’s going to be good for women!’ ”
Stella drinks voraciously, and is sexually omnivorous, hitting on both a female medical examiner and at one point stopping in her police car at an investigation just because the detective there is very striking. She gets out of the car, tells him her hotel room number, and leaves. Cool.
But in a few years, when her beauty begins to fade, could Stella become a Blanche DuBois? No, says Ms. Anderson. “I don’t think so. The thing about Blanche is that Tennessee talks about the delicate humans of the world. Blanche is delicate in a way that Stella [Gibson] will never be. “
Ms. Anderson has famously played two law enforcement characters, both of them the voice of reason and eminently competent. Agent Scully was the only person who could keep Mulder in check. In The Fall, there’s a glorious scene with a suicide where Stella takes control of the situation. She excises a hysterical woman from the scene with surgical grace. Is the actor anything like these police officers?
Gillian Anderson at St. Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn. (Photo: Emily Assiran for Observer)
Ms. Anderson laughs again. “I might be the one who gets hysterical! Seriously, I don’t have the same reflexes that she [Stella] has in my life. I’d like to think that I would because of all the police officers I’ve played, but I’m actually a little bit of a ditz. I’d probably be the one going, ‘Now what am I supposed to do? Where’s the exit?’ ” She laughs: “The truth comes out!”
Stella Gibson has a deep connection to Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan, who is possibly too handsome to portray a murderer, because you kind of wouldn’t mind seeing him creep into your bedroom) and the show does little to explain their bond. So why, when both Paul and Stella’s lover, Tom Anderson, gets shot, does Stella run to Paul? Pure practicality, explains Ms. Anderson. She hesitates to reveal too much, and wisely pulls back. “Before, when I answered this question, it was speculative…” she says slowly. Now that she’s filmed season three, she knows. “But the fact of the matter is, [Stella] doesn’t want him to die. She can tell the wounds to Anderson are not as bad. He’s sitting up, whereas Spector is bleeding out. She wants to see him in prison. She wants to see him punished for what he’s done. She doesn’t want him to get away with death. It would be so easy.” As for the link between cop and killer, season three will reveal…absolutely nothing about it.
Stella is an elegant presence in the police station, wearing flimsy silky tops and gorgeously high heels. But she leaves her hotel and sleeps on a cot in an office. Stella is eminently self-reliant, Ms. Anderson explains. “It’s part of who she is. She’s a grafter, as they say over there. She’s a worker. She will do whatever it takes to get to the root of the disease. She works until the work is done. If it’s too late to go back to the hotel, she makes sure she has something to change into and her dry cleaning. She takes good care of her clothes in that way. It’s a very good juxtaposition between the cot and the cashmere sweater. And she makes do. She gets her needs met, regardless.”
Ms. Anderson is the co-author of a line of successful science-fiction books. She has written (with Jeff Rovin) two volumes of The Earth End Saga. Ms. Anderson joined the secret sci-fi society when she was cast in The X-Files, but, she recounts, it wasn’t until she realized “how much of the science-fiction films that were out in the ’70s and ’80s were big parts of my life and I had a secret love for them. For me the way into to it was to create a character [Caitlin O’Hara] that I didn’t think necessarily existed in that genre—a normal mom. She discovers that she can do things that she didn’t realize that she could do. That she’s not a superhero. She’s just a psychiatrist. She’s learning about it at the same time the audience is.”
Typically, Ms. Anderson gives credit to those around her. “It’s very clear to me that I could not do this in any way, shape, or form without Jeff. I am a co-backseat writer in this. It’s something I enjoy immensely. I’m not at a stage on my writing that I know where chapter one would go. My brain doesn’t work that way, or at least I haven’t asked my brain to work that way to try and figure something out.”
Gillian Anderson at St. Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn. (Photo: Emily Assiran for Observer)
Best of all, the books will be coming to the small screen. “We’ve just recently sold this to be made into a TV series. It hasn’t been announced yet, so I can’t tell you who will be in it, but it will be announced within the next few weeks.”
Ms. Anderson rarely watches anything. She doesn’t binge on Netflix and she doesn’t see many movies either. “I don’t watch anything. I do not know where people find the time,” she says flatly. “On planes, I work. I’ve got another book I’m working on. Or I am memorizing lines. I think I watched my first film in a year and a half just recently. I watched a French film called Marguerite, about this Parisian singer who had the most ghastly voice ever in the history of human beings. And she sang in salons. It was eventually determined that she literally had no idea and she was loopy. Eventually someone told her and she collapsed,” and she giggles for a while. “Then my daughter was here recently and the one night we went out properly we saw Deadpool. So it’s a great juxtaposition: a French film and Deadpool.”
She likes my boots. Dr. Martens 1460 Originals 8 Eye Lace Up Boot, Pewter Koram Flash. She ends the interview by interviewing me. When she learns I reviewed the season finale of the new season of The X-Files, she really wants to know. “Were you happy with them?” she asks me, quite earnestly. “The extra episodes?”
“I was ecstatic,” I answer. She is pleased. When I express sorrow that Mulder is left to die in a crappy white car on an anonymous bridge, she offers a little comfort.
“I think that the mixture of the success in the rerun and the clear statement of the desire for it to continue is still out there, then I think it more likely than not to continue. I think that in retrospect, there was maybe a hope that it would be seven, not six. So it was a bit more abrupt maybe than it would have been.”
With that, her milky coffee is finished and so are we.