The first thing that strikes you about Gillian Anderson is her flawless English accent. The second is her size. It’s not just that she’s tiny; it’s as if she was built to a completely different scale model to the rest of us. The American actress best known for playing Agent Scully in The X Files, Anderson is friendly but intense, with a hint of prickliness, and she chooses each word with torturous care. Sentences peter out in a thicket of pauses and ums, before she fixes you with a piercing stare.
“It’s near impossible for me to stick with the British accent in America,” she says, curled up on a sofa in a loose silk shirtdress. “I can go a little way with the American accent here, but not if I’m surrounded by Brits. I end up sounding like a mid-Atlantic Euro-trash twat.”
Anderson is one of those famous people who, if you saw her on the street, you’d think you know from the school run. In fact, she’s been on our TV screens for most of her adult life. It’s 25 years since her breakthrough in The X Files and now, aged 50, she’s starred in almost every notable British drama of the past 13 years, from Bleak House to War & Peace and The Fall. She’s played Blanche Dubois in the West End, an experience she describes as “paralysingly terrifying”, and Edwina Mountbatten in a film about the last viceroy of India. She’s the sort of woman who, talking about her clothes, can say, “I don’t do well with ruffles,” and make it sound profound, and I mean that as a compliment. Today, she’s here to talk about how a life of combining red carpets with the school run has contributed to the capsule collection she’s designed for Winser London.
“I’m not fashion-centric and I don’t follow trends. I wanted a sweater that could feel dressed up or dressed down, that would work with a pair of jeans or a pair of dress pants. I wanted a reversible silk shirt that is shiny silk on one side and matt on the other, so it feels more casual. And I wanted a swing coat that doesn’t feel too bulky, that’s cut neatly on the shoulders. Most of the time I’m dressed down, in black jeans and boots. This feels like you have the best of both worlds.”
The collection is luxe but plain and hugely wearable: lots of black, navy and brown, a tuxedo suit, a rollneck, a silk blouse. She sat next to the woman who sketched out her ideas and said, can you make the hemline here, and move the collar, can you do an exposed seam or a different belt. Ironically, until now she’s tended to wear clothes year after year until they’re dead, and doesn’t much like shopping.
Anderson was 24 when The X Files made her a global star and won her an Emmy and a Golden Globe. She’s rarely been out of work since, invariably playing strong, independent women. She concedes that her career might have been very different if she’d spent it in Los Angeles, rather than London. “But I don’t regret a thing.” Her recent role as DSI Stella Gibson in The Fall generated as much interest for her wardrobe as her character. The internet was awash with advice on how to get the look, with her subtly sexy, feminine silk shirts and pencil skirts. Whether by accident or design, some of her compact Winser London collection has a distinct feel of Stella Gibson about it. Anderson herself has said self-deprecatingly that the clothes would be emblematic of her own style, if she actually had a style. Finding one was part of the reason she agreed to the collaboration.
“There have been so many times over the years when I’ve shown up on the red carpet, seen the pictures the next day and thought, ‘Gosh, is that me?’ I think that was partly why I decided to cut off all my hair, to feel that at least my hair represents how I feel on the inside. And it might have had something to do with turning 50 this year. Does 50 bother me? No,” she says curtly. “It doesn’t.”
Nor will it be affecting the way she dresses. What does it matter, she asks, if you’re perceived to be too old, skinny or big to pull something off? “If you feel good in it, then why the heck not? I’d never wear a miniskirt, but then I couldn’t work a miniskirt even in youth.”
She only recently started working with stylists to put red-carpet looks together, and says before that her agent would call in favours from designers to get dresses for her, and she’d lay them out on the bed at home to choose.
“I try not to do froufrou on the red carpet. I like clean lines, but it’s trial and error. There have been plenty of times when I’ve thought, ‘What the f*** was I thinking? Why did I think that was a good idea?’ ”
But dressing for the public eye is always going to be a conflicted process for someone who doesn’t want to be noticed. She tells me five times in four sentences that she doesn’t want to stand out. “I never want to stand out,” she adds, in case I haven’t got the message.
Anderson has lived in England, on and off, her whole life. Born in Chicago, she moved to London with her parents as a toddler and went to school here until she was 11. Back in America, at high school in Michigan, she was voted the girl most likely to be arrested. Married and divorced twice, she has lived in London for 15 years and is in a relationship with Peter Morgan, who wrote The Crown. She has a daughter, 23, by her first husband, and two sons, 9 and 12, from a later relationship. She has also had relationships with women, and told one interviewer, “It’s just who I am. I have absolutely no issue with it whatsoever.”
Plagued with low self-esteem and lack of confidence, she has been in therapy since she was 14. She takes on some roles to prove to herself that she can do it and survive. “The fact that I did Streetcar and didn’t die …” she tails off. “You think, ‘Why am I subjecting myself to this?’ Every time one does something to prove something to oneself, it makes it a little bit easier to do harder things the next time.”
She dismisses social media as a distraction, and worries that her elder son now has a phone and Instagram, “and all of a sudden he’s paying attention to advertisements ”. She has a woman who does her social media. She’ll forward pictures from a shoot and the woman will tweet them or post them on Instagram, but Anderson doesn’t pay any attention to the comments. Her sons, on the other hand, will.
“Yes, they will,” she says quietly. “I worry about that. I limit screen time, but to varying degrees. I go through periods when I’m strict and others when I’m superbusy and less strict.”
She knows first-hand how challenging the teenage years can be. “But I’m years off them being the ages where they might start to get into my nonsense. My daughter’s over it and she’s fantastic and sorted. I don’t know how we managed that. We’re very lucky.”
The next time I see Anderson is in a photograph of her on the red carpet, wearing a billowing white dress. I contemplate whether she’ll beat herself up for it in the morning and wonder what she was thinking. Hopefully, she’ll be too busy doing the school run.