By Graham Fuller
Gavin Smith interviews House of Mirth star Gillian Anderson about her collaboration with Terence Davies, the advantages and disadvantages of playing Scully in TVís The X-Files as she approached her first major film role, and the work that went into one ot the year's great performances, surely in line for an Oscar nomination in February.
Was there anything that made you hesitate about doing this film?
The only thing I guess was, given that it was a huge historical undertaing, the responsibility, and the potential for backlash. It fleetingly crosses your mind, Am I willing to take this on and have people say, You aren't right, you're nothing like the character? But I've never done anything in my life base on fear.
Did you and Terence Davies have to come to terms over your conceptions of Lily?
Overall our takes on and passion about the character fit hand in hand. Wharton tells you exactly what is going on every single minute, so it was like having Cliffs Notes. My feeling was, here was a pretty darn good screenplay adaptation, but it doesn't have narration ? a bold choice that leaves a lot out. The majority of this novel takes place inside Lily Bartís head. I felt it was my responsibility to carry the poetry of the words and the huge knowledge, understanding, and subtext of the character, without the dialogue. It was Terencesís job to carry to poetry visually.
Was there a point where you understanding of Lily took over and you started to tell Davies things about her that he didn't know?
One doesn't tell terence anything [laughs]. I respect his knowledge and intense understanding of the novel inside and out and I don't believe I ever questioned it. There was not much discussion about motivation and tools for getting somewhere ? it was mostly about vocal register ? he was very intent on our using the middle voice.
So you were left to create Lily's internal emotional life and reality on your own.
Yes. Terence is very particular about how something is done and what the end result is. He knows how he wants to hear it and how he wants the rhythm and tone of the words to be and those would be the kind of notes he would give me. Not about how to get there.
There was certain stance that I found, a certain way of holding my body and my head, and a particular way that my mouth was, that felt like Lily. Whether it's obvious on the outside or not I have no idea, but on the inside, that was what I found familiar that got me to her. Terence was very specific about her dignity no matter what was happening, something I would not necessarily have moved times, we tried to leave out as much self-pity as possible.
Was it hard to keep track of the nuances in the arc of Lily's character shooting out of sequence?
Absolutely. On The X-Files we shoot out of sequence every day, and sometimes we're shooting three different episodes at one time, so I'm used to that. But here we shot the final stuff first, all the heavy-duty stuff, and then went back to the beginning. The challenge that Terence had was in continuing to remind me about the lightness. It was a lot of pressure to film the early scenes without memory of what was to come.
Did Lily's ambivalence pose an acting problem?
It's tough, and tough in terms of the scope of the film ? how to have the audience stick with you and understand someone who one minute is saying, I love you, and the next, I don't want to see you, and not feel like they've missed something. What I had to keep focusing on is the fact that in essence, she is an emotional brat. She's petulant and she's used to things her way.
There's a huge gap between what Lily's feeling and what she's showing. Is that hard to create?
I enjoyed that and find it interesting when I see other people doing that. Lily is still, but she's less still than Scully. When there are things going on in her mind, little aspects of it register in her face. She gives away a lot more than Scully does.
In particular in the scene at the opera, there are so many conflicting things going on in her, which she's trying unsuccessfully to hide.
That moment is so embarrassing for me to see. The fall of her sitting there, and working with the decision to have me in a red dress, with everything that implies, and the dynamic between her and Rosedale and Trenor in the box with her, her aunt in the opposite box, and Selden down below ? she's holding this very fake smile, pretending everything is okay and innocent.
It's quite intricate emotionally.
Layers are not difficult for me. You have the luxury of takes, so if you feel like, say, you did not take in the fact that your aunt is across the way in one take, you do it again and try to add that piece.
Did you find yourself asking for more takes because you knew there was more to get?
That was a running theme between the two of us. If I asked for one more take, it was usually the final one that I felt had all the elements, and Terence often felt like it was the before. learned a lot from that ? I have a lot of luxuries working on The X-Files and I have running relationships with directors where I get to say, You know what? That take sucked. And they will completely get it or they will trust me. I'm used to that, but it's not always appropriate at times in a film like this.
The stylization produced by the formality and etiquette, and the sense that everything the characters say has hidden levels of meaning, almost suggests that you're playing someone who's acting.
That was quite tricky. There is so much that is not said. What one says is not what one means. It's a constant in every scene that we are pretending to something other than what we really believe we are or want to be. We never show our true feelings. Which is why the film appears to be very melodramatic and stagey in the way characters speak. When Lily is talking to Percy Gryce about going to church the next day, it's so contrived ? she's lying through her teeth. I didn't want to play those scenes completely honest, without a slight false smile ? I wanted to make a point of the constant deceit to oneself and to others. So Lily does perhaps come off as being a little more false and calculating than people remember her in the novel.
Where did you find common ground between yourself and Lily?
I try very hard to be brutally honest in my personal life and put all my cards on the table. But as a child I was very calculating and determined to get my way, and felt I had a certain right to things, so I drew on that. I have also had periods of wretchedness in my life and have been good at hiding that from the outside world.
Do you rely on specific techniques when you're dealing with big emotional scenes?
I've tried, and it just doesn't work that way for me. It's gotten me into trouble sometimes, but I really do need to be there in the moment. I can get to what it felt like when so-and-so said something to me, or the loss of my daughter, or whatever it is to get me to that place, but it never feels genuine as just being there. The first time I read a script is when I get it. The readings after that are about getting back to that place.
Were there any particular challenges in coming to Lily, who describes a definite arc, after playing someone in a long-running TV series who essentially remains the same despite everything that she goes through?
Scully has shed quite a lot of tears over the years, and to be readdressed with that emotion as another character and do it differently is a big challenge. To be able to stand outside the performance and be aware of the nuances and differences, but not be so careful or controlling about it that you restrict yourself from being free in the moment ? it's a curious dilemma [laughs]. I do think that over time, as I have changed and matured and gotten more comfortable with myself, so has Scully. And there's also a difference now that Mulder is temporarily gone. She seems more well rounded somehow. With Mulder around, there was always a piece of Scully that was...
Yeah, in a way. When you're in a relationship with someone, no matter how much you fight to maintain a sense of self, when that relationship is over, there's always a piece that comes back to you. And I fee that's kind of what's happened.
Gavin Smith is editor of Film Comment.