The Fall and rise of Gillian Anderson (2016)
Gillian Anderson: ‘The fact that I’m working consistently is miraculous’
By Jessamy Calkin
16 SEPTEMBER 2016 •
On the surface, Gillian Anderson appears icily controlled, but under the cool facade, there’s a wild side. On the eve of The Fall’s third season she speaks to Jessamy Calkin.
One night in the summer of 2014, during the Young Vic’s sell-out run of A Streetcar Named Desire, Gillian Anderson, playing Blanche DuBois with a rapture that seemed to almost deify the role, took to the stage for the customary standing ovation with blood coursing down one leg.
Her knee had been hit by a splinter of china from a plate hurled by a furious Stanley Kowalski (Ben Foster), and the wound had split open when she dropped to the floor. ‘Never have I seen a production of the play that was so raw in its emotion, so violent and so deeply upsetting,’ said the Telegraph critic Charles Spencer.
I was in the audience that night, on my feet and cheering what was an incandescent performance. Now, two years later, Anderson shows me the scar on her leg. It had been bandaged up backstage and she thought it would be fine. The next morning, she lifted the bandage to take a look, and ‘I lost consciousness.
I went so far away. And when I woke up there were four people standing over me. I’m a bit phobic about blood. There’s been quite a bit of blood in my life with my kids over the years, and I would rather be the one who’s strong rather than the mother who turns away or passes out…’ She passed out several times.
It was down to exhaustion too – ‘By this point my whole being felt drained. I felt like I was the thinnest of threads’ – and there were two shows the next day. The doctor told her the cut was exceptionally deep and she’d be off for two weeks.
In the end the show was cancelled for just one night (which was a shame, she says, as Tom Stoppard had tickets), and she choreographed a strategy that was knee-friendly on stage. Today she has just returned from a hugely successful run of the play in New York, at St Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, and is completely elated.
‘The whole experience for the cast and crew was kind of miraculous,’ she says. ‘Most often there’s something that doesn’t quite work – but everything, every single thing, fit into place like cogs that were meant to work together.’
Anderson is perched on a sofa in the bar of a small London hotel, wearing a blue dress, with her legs and bare feet tucked underneath her.
Her face is pale and completely beautiful. She has an air of fragility but also a voluptuousness of spirit; there is something wayward about her, and a sense of mystery and great depth.
What you see is not necessarily what you get, and what you get is certainly not all there is. But she takes all my questions head-on, and is articulate and thoughtful in her replies.
We talk more about the blood. When she was little, she says, her father sliced his finger open on a tuna can, went into the bathroom to rinse it, and passed out on the floor, falling against the door so nobody could open it to get to him. ‘So perhaps the phobia is hereditary.’
None of this bodes well for the third series of The Fall, the BBC’s riveting drama about a serial killer in Belfast being hunted by Anderson’s DSI Stella Gibson. In the first episode of the new series, Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan) – who was shot at the end of the last one – is in the operating theatre having abdominal surgery to save his life. And boy, is there blood – a lot of it.
There is a wonderful scene in which the camera draws back on the chaotic aftermath in the trauma room, revealing all the visceral detritus and discarded shoes and bits of clothing – it’s like a still life by Sam Peckinpah.
Anderson, as the inscrutable Gibson, continues her battle of wits with Spector, though she is now under investigation for allowing him to be shot while in police custody.
There are moments of great tenderness in this episode; but I can also reveal that Spector’s nurse in hospital is young and pretty with black hair, rather like his favourite type of strangulation date…
The Fall was created by Allan Cubitt, who wrote the part of Stella Gibson with Anderson in mind. Gibson is perfect territory for Gillian Anderson: enigmatic and acerbic, endlessly sexy, but with a certain moral ambiguity. Anderson has described her as an island, and had no trouble getting under her skin.
‘I like Stella a lot,’ she says. ‘I really like her. I felt I understood her without being told anything. Allan is such a good writer. There was something inherent in the sparseness of his writing, and how you learn about the characters through their actions.
‘It’s rare to read a script that is so spare and yet gives you so much. All the characters are distinctive and interesting, and it felt quite European.’
The Fall was received rapturously by audiences and critics, but it had its controversial aspects, especially in initial episodes, which included rather too many loving shots of Spector washing and posing corpses. Both Cubitt and Anderson vigorously defend the series against any accusations that it glamourises violence.
‘It’s an exploration of violence, but specifically male violence against women,’ says Cubitt later, over the phone.
‘But the show always aimed to empower the female characters as much as possible, and that includes the victims – I did everything I could to build Sarah Kay’s character before she became a victim, and to sustain her character through the grief of her family and through Gibson’s insistence that the women don’t become faceless victims.’
‘Allan’s intention has never been in any way to exploit, or be explicit in how women are represented,’ Anderson says.
‘He’s not condoning it, it’s grounded in reality. Allan has done so much research on serial killers and their psychology. We are paying attention to the deep, deep tragedy of violence against women.
‘There’s birth, there’s death, there’s love, there’s sickness. He gets the audience to question their own ethics.’
In one episode of the second series, Gibson draws attention to the viewer’s complicity when she points out that it is the ‘people who like to read and watch programmes about people like Spector who should be asking themselves questions’. Anderson is an executive producer of The Fall, so she collaborates with Cubitt (who directed the new series and the second).
‘I give notes on the edit, and I’ve been on set for so many years and have an intuition about scenes and shots and rhythm and whatever, so feel confident about making suggestions. There are a few things I’ve fought for, but he might say, “No – I like it the way it is.” On a rare occasion I will say, begging, “Please look at it again.”’
‘Gillian is particular and meticulous. She understands what a shot is going to look like according to what lens you’ve got on the camera and so on,’ Cubitt says, ‘and she brings all of that to bear as well as being an intuitive and emotionally powerful actor. No one could render the character better.’
Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson is a complex woman. Cubitt rebelled against the archetypal TV detective with a dysfunctional trait: ‘They gamble or they drink or they have a failing marriage or a difficult daughter. I wanted to create a character who didn’t bring any obvious baggage into the story at the beginning, someone who you’d get to know little by little.
I felt this reflected the way things work in life: you meet people in a professional context and gradually, through the choices they make, you start to form an opinion of them. It’s not all laid out for you on a plate; you don’t immediately know about people’s childhood or their inner life, and so the idea was that she would be a fairly enigmatic character, and reveal herself gradually to the audience.
‘Gillian has always really embraced that aspect of Gibson. In fact, early on in the first season, if there was anything I was doing that revealed too much about [the character] she’d encourage me to take it out, so there’s still a lot left to learn.’
The ambiguities of The Fall’s characters are one of the appealing things about the series. They are fallible in a credible way; not all good or all bad. The sadistic Spector, for example, while fond of torturing and strangling women, is very loving to his young daughter, Olivia; and Gibson herself makes some mistakes.
‘Yes, some decisions that Stella makes are very questionable – and I like that. I’ll think, “You just lied!”’ gasps Anderson.
‘How does that square with the rest of how you carry yourself? That is so interesting…’ Do you recognise that quality in yourself, a certain recklessness? She thinks for a moment.
‘Yeah. I am a mix of normal, safe, quiet, regimented, serious, morally and ethically led – or at least I try to be for the most part.
Then every once in a while – or maybe more than once in a while – there is a part of me that is incredibly reckless. I think it bubbles underneath all the time, but as a mother, and an earner, and a responsible working woman, I override many things that might be irresponsible. Most of the time.’
I am intrigued: you still have the reckless instincts you had when you were younger, but you choose to go the other way? ‘Yes. Maybe yes.’ Were you wild when you were younger? ‘Mmmm…’ she says, nodding.
And she was. Drugs – lots of them – and alcohol, along with stylistic misdemeanours such as piercings and adventurous hairstyles – followed by therapy when she was only 14. Anderson was born in Chicago but moved to London when she was two.
‘We started in Clapham Common, sleeping in other people’s places for a while, sharing flats, then found a place in Crouch End, then Harringay.’
Her mother was a computer programmer and her father went to the London School of Film Technique, in Covent Garden, and opened a little shop selling old-fashioned cameras, with a friend who was a puppeteer. Then the family moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where her father ran a film post-production company.
Anderson was the eldest (by 13 years) of three children. In 1986 she won a place at DePaul University’s theatre school in Chicago.
‘I drove to Chicago in my dad’s VW bus, breaking down along the way, and lived in a very cheap part of town,’ she says.
When she graduated, she went to New York to audition for casting directors and agents. ‘I wrote my monologue and borrowed some clothes for my audition, then someone from William Morris said they would represent me if I moved to New York. So off I went, and lived on couches and auditioned for what felt like forever not getting anything.’
Her big break was a role in Alan Ayckbourn’s Absent Friends, for which she won a best newcomer award, in 1991. She went to visit a boyfriend in LA, decided to stay and sold her return ticket.
Then she landed The X-Files. She was 25. In Vancouver, where she had flown to film the pilot, she met her first husband, Clyde Klotz, who was assistant art director on the series. Her daughter Piper was born the following year (an alien-abduction scene was arranged to cover for her pregnancy).
Anderson played Dana Scully, an FBI agent and medical doctor assigned to investigate the X-Files, a collection of unsolved cases possibly explained by supernatural phenomena. Scully is the hard-line sceptic, the foil to Fox ‘Spooky’ Mulder (David Duchovny), whose firm belief in the paranormal stems from witnessing his sister’s abduction when he was a child.
Anderson clearly had little idea that The X-Files would last for 10 series and become one of the most successful sci-fi series in television history – involving months of 16-hour days and many fights with Duchovny. (The 10th season aired earlier this year, 14 years after the previous one.)
The X-Files was a life-changer, but Anderson was a troubled spirit. ‘Success has nothing to do with happiness,’ she firmly told a rattled-sounding Sue Lawley on Desert Island Discs in 2003, when Lawley implied that being in The X-Files should have brought her happiness. ‘That kind of security isn’t really security. It’s got nothing to do with material things.’
Since then, Anderson has had a prolific career in television, film and theatre and carved out a fairly unique position for herself; she is a cool customer whose portrayal of Scully inspired a whole generation of women, but she also appeals to purists and serious drama fans.
She is memorable in so many things: as the heartbreaking Lily Bart in The House of Mirth, as the undone Miss Havisham in the BBC’s Great Expectations, and as Lady Dedlock in another brilliant BBC adaptation, Bleak House (a performance for which New York magazine memorably described her as ‘like a Ming vase with a Munch scream’).
She has won a multitude of awards, including a Golden Globe for The X-Files, and been nominated by FHM as the Sexiest Woman in the World (‘Meaningless’). Not bad for a rebellious punk rocker who was voted the student most likely to get arrested by her schoolmates. She must be hugely motivated, I suggest, to have come as far as she has.
‘I don’t believe I’m ambitious,’ she says. ‘I don’t. I do have determination, and if there are things that I want to do, I’m a bit like a dog with a bone. And that has served me well in many ways. I leap before I look, but it also makes me say yes to things when I’m terrified.
‘Take Streetcar, for example. I don’t know what it was, but something in me felt like it was something that I had to do before I died. So I was determined to make that happen.’ She didn’t really understand the character she was playing until halfway through rehearsals, she says.
Her mother reminded her that she’d played the part of DuBois in a national competition, in which she’d come second. ‘I had done it when I was 16, and the crazy thing is I was 46 when I next played the part!’
At the end of the New York run, she was heartbroken to leave DuBois behind. ‘The missing of it,’ she says emotionally. ‘I felt like somebody had died. She was like one of my oldest friends and I started to think, “If I don’t get to play her again then it’s like burying her.” I’ve never felt like that before about a role.’
She was old to play DuBois, but she brought to bear a convoluted mixture of grandeur and unravelling tragedy.
Anderson herself is no stranger to sadness. Her brother, Aaron, died of a brain tumour in 2011, having suffered from neurofibromatosis, a genetic disorder that causes tumours to grow on nerve tissue, since he was three years old (Anderson works to raise awareness of the condition).
She has been through two divorces, and in 2012 split with businessman Mark Griffiths, the father of her two sons, Oscar, nine, and Felix, seven. Anderson has lived in London with her children since 2002, having moved here from LA. (She still switches seamlessly from an American accent to an English one in interviews, depending on the continent.)
Given her own adolescence, what kind of parent is she? ‘It’s interesting: on the one hand I feel as if I’ve gotten off easy with my daughter and how sane she is at 21, but then every now and then I think, “Oh, it just hasn’t come yet” – and if it does then I question how equipped I would be.
‘I think I’m incredibly trusting and lenient because of my own experiences, and I don’t watch over her, I don’t check things – I’ve never been that kind of mother. I love her with an open hand.’
Gillian Anderson is now 48, and looks better than ever. ‘The fact that I’m working consistently is miraculous, given the history of our industry. Especially over the past decade or so, television has been much more generous to women of a certain age, and there are many series led by women.
It’s not quite the same in film, but it is a conversation that was started some time ago and has picked up pace with what Meryl Streep is doing for equal pay. I hope that momentum will actually equate to changes. But you have to create more material to begin with.’
It must help that Anderson doesn’t look her age; and she is refreshingly un-selfdeprecating about that.
‘It is my grandma Rose I have to thank – my mum says she is responsible for my skin. And when I was a teenager I looked older: I could always get into bars when I was underage, so I have been very lucky.’
Good genes, she thinks, are more effective than surgery. ‘There are so many things you can do these days without going under the knife: natural solutions. I’m not necessarily anti-surgery; I’m anti the shame that is attached to women who make that choice, rightly or wrongly, in their own mind.
‘I think it’s unfortunate that there is so much pressure on women, and yet they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. That is heinous.
‘But I must say very honestly that I am lucky. In a few years there may be something I find intolerable, and I’m not going to say I wouldn’t buckle. I hope that I would be comfortable enough with myself not to, but I have to allow for the fact that I am an actor, and there is vanity in me. There have been times when I’ve observed myself ageing and mourned my youth, and I am always shocked by that.
‘I guess all one can do is try to make sure that the motivation for those types of choices is coming from the right place.’ Anderson is honest about all this, but her feminist credentials and belief in the part women can play on the political stage are at the core of her being. She is co-writing a book called We: A Manifesto for Modern Women with journalist Jennifer Nadel. ‘It’s a set of guiding principles.’
And she recently took part in MP Jo Cox’s memorial service in London. She didn’t know Cox, but ‘I was asked if I would read a poem, and I liked the poem and it felt like the right thing to do. It was a beautiful event; Malala [Yousafzai] was there, which almost brought me to tears.
‘I was so moved and inspired by what she said. She’s something to be reckoned with.’ She is optimistic about Yousafzai’s generation.
‘There’s a lot of powerful thinkers and activists and doers out there, who feel like they’ve got something to say and are not going to sit back and be dictated to – it’s fantastic.’
And she is unflinching in her support of Hillary Clinton. ‘I think it’s so important to have a woman in the White House – and when will that happen again?’ she says levelly. ‘Having women in power right now is vital to the stability and sanity of our globe.’
Photo : Jenny Hands