By Nancy Rosenblum
I must say, I am not an X-Files fan. However, I am a huge Gillian Anderson fan. In fact, I remember perfectly the evening when I first saw her. I was at work. All the news stories were cut and in, so I was switching through TV shows until the end of my shift at 11:00 P.M. Suddenly in front of me was this most unusual, beautiful, female face. It was a close up, the background was dark behind her and she seemed to melt away the boundaries of the television screen. Seeing this red-haired, blue-eyed, actress was exciting for me because for that hypnotic minute, I had hope that a voluptuous woman could be a star on television. (She was heavy then by Hollywood's standards, and has since slimmed down.)
It was back in 1993, the first season of the now famous series and Anderson was only 25. I didn't know she was the lead actress of the show, or what the program was about, but her presence was captivating because of her difference. I quickly grabbed a co-worker and asked her to look at this woman. "Isn't she great! Who is she" Do you know what show this is? I asked. "Yeah," she said. "It's The X-Files and that's Agent Scully." She then filled me in on the few episodes I had missed and I left work that evening, feeling better than ever about the future of TV heroines and our new role model; Special Agent Dana Scully, FBI.
Seven years later the show is an institution. Scully has a new partner, and Anderson is directing episodes. But it is her acting choices outside of the television arena that continue to spark my interest. She has not gone the big studio picture route, which she easily could have. Instead, in her words, she has chosen "socially conscious movies, instead of the ones that could make more money." They have been smaller roles, in smaller films that push her dramatically. Rent Playing by Heart and The Mighty to see what I mean. Both of these vastly different films offer her dramatic choices as different as apples and bananas. In Heart she is the relationship wary Meredith and in the terrific children's film The Mighty as Loretta Lee, well, let's just say she is fairly unrecognizable.
But it is her recent movie role that is her boldest so far. She has chosen a classic tale of woe, and difficult part for her first film lead. The House of Mirth is the film and the character is the tragic Lily Bart. Anderson carries the movie with ease, shattering the bonds of Scully and becoming an actress to be reckoned with.
Edith Wharton's tragic novel is about the undoing of spirited socialite Lily Bart, who refuses to marry for money, and lacks the courage to marry for love. It has been faithfully written for the screen by Terence Davies. He pays meticulous attention to the grammar and style of 1904 New York. It was a time when English culture and customs held reign in America, endowing us with tea cups and manners and leashing us with restraint. Davies directed the film with the same fastidiousness he used adapting the words. From the opening scene where Lily's silhouette appears through the smoke of a stationary train, we know we are in for a visual treat. Frame by frame it is a stunning picture.
And frame by frame, Gillian Anderson is captivating. Whether it is the tilt of her head while sharing a cigarette with Lawrence Seldon, (Eric Stolz), or her rapid, vulnerable breathing, she says as much in the silences as she does reciting dialogue. Not to be overlooked is Laura Linney's performance as the jealous and manipulative Bertha Dorset. Never has evil been so enjoyable to watch. Linney steals every scene she's in with joyful exuberance.
However, it was Anderson that I had the pleasure of interviewing. I spoke with her about following her heart, the relevance of Lily's predicament today and the possibility of Scully coming out:
Lesbian News: Congratulations. You are sensational in this movie. How does it feel to carry your first film?
"When making the movie I didn't linger on that fact. I just tried to take it one scene at a time. If I didn't it would have become too overwhelming. I do know that I showed up every day and did the best that I could."
What do you think Lily's plight is?
"Lily's plight for me is a moral dilemma. In all of our lives on a daily basis we are presented with opportunities to do the right thing. Sometimes it's simply how we treat someone when we walk into a room. I think it is an extraordinary part of the complexity of this role that not only do we see Lily struggling with whether to marry for love or money but we see her not choosing either. She cannot bring herself to marry someone that she doesn't love just for social status, nor can she bring herself to marry the person that she truly loves, Lawrence Seldon. That is the true tragedy. I think that we have that experience in our lives quite often. Where we are just stuck in this place and can't make a move. To me, the higher road for the character of Lily Bart would have been not only to not marry for money, but to be with Lawrence. By choosing him, she would be admitting that the other world was not important to her. By not choosing, she is not fully admitting it yet and that catches up with her."
It seems to me Lily's conflicts are still relevant today?
"Absolutely. That's what's so fascinating to me. Particularly in this business. Our egos have every opportunity to guide us to the wrong decisions. While I may do some altruistic things to benefit humanity and my family and make me feel good about myself, there are still times when I think, 'Well if this door opens maybe I'll go this way, or if this door opens up maybe I'll go that way.' Knowing deep down inside the choice is against my better judgement. It all comes down to choosing from the heart instead of the head."
So are you more a heart person?
"More of a heart person, definitely. But that doesn't mean it's not a struggle. I react more from the heart instinctively. Yet, there are times, and there will be forever, when I have to sit back and think about what my real motivation is for doing something."
How long does it take you to feel like you've really nailed a role?
"Oh god, in film, never. So far in my experience I haven't liked anything that I've seen myself do. I think that there is always room for imporvement. I hope that someday I will be able to say, 'I am proud of that.' But it hasn't happened yet."
So...are you proud of X-Files?
"Well, yes I am. Week to week I can say that I appreciate things that I do as Scully."
Scully has become a huge role model. I have a 15-year-old niece and she and all of her friends at school want to be forensic scientists or FBI agents.
"And how amazing is that? If there is one good thing that has come from the show it is what it has done for science and the medical community in terms of the amount of women and young girls that are now interested in those professions. It's wonderful that women of all ages find Scully to be a role model. She is honest. She is independent. She is smart."
Tell me about that baby she's carrying.
"I wish I knew. I thought we were going to address it in episode five and it was hinted at but it wasn't addressed. Anything could happen at this point."
Now that Mulder is off the series, do you think Scully will come out?
"You know, you'd think so."
Aside from young girls you also have quite a lesbian fan club. What do you think about that?
"I think it's fantastic! I think the more people who can support a strong, autonomous woman who can kick some ass on the side the better!"
What do you think of the dearth of meaty roles being offered women?
"The truth is, people just want to escape and see blockbusters. Nobody wants to see a chick flick. So, as much as women say we want more scripts, better scripts, unless it's Charlie's Angels nobody wants to see a 'girl' movie. However, I do think we are starting to find a successful formula with smaller films like Magnolia and American Beauty. Ensemble movies with lower budgets that are about human relationships and situations with lessons in them that are waking people up. Audiences seem to be paying attention to them."
What's next for you?
"I have been told there will be a second X-Files movie. I might do some theatre next."
(...I hope if Gillian does do theater, it's in Los Angeles. She was a real treat in her recent cameo performance of the Vagina Monologues).