Gillian Anderson X-cels in the House of Mirth
By Leslie Campbell
Mirth: Funk and Wagnall define mirth as: "pleasurable feelings, or buoyancy of spirits; that which brings forth merriment or gaiety." This definition better describes Gillian Anderson than the house in the title of her new movie from Sony Pictures Classics, The House of Mirth. While there is little mirth about the film, it was certainly a joyous experience for its leading lady. Gillian is best known for her groundbreaking role as Special Agent Dana Scully on Chris Carterís ever-popular Fox network television series, "The X-Files." While Gillian has relished her part in redefining the role of women in television, her fortuitous initiation into the acting world is only a jump-start to what she really wants to do: movies. And with four features already under her belt, sheís off to a good start.
Born in Chicago, Illinois, Gillian lived in three different countries by the time she was 11 years old. Upon moving back to the U.S., her family settled in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Gillian became interested in acting while attending high school and went on to hone her craft at the National Theater of Great Britain, in Ithaca, New York, and at the Goodman Theater School at Chicagoís De Paul University. She developed her skills further doing off-Broadway theater in New York, before fate brought her to Los Angeles. From there, Gillian burst onto the scene as FBI agent Dana Scully, a role that has won her an Emmy, a Golden Globe, and two SAG Awards for Best Actress in a drama series. Gillianís true passion, however, is movies, and she has shown her versatility beyond X-Files-The Movie by playing a quintessential "trailer trash" role in The Mighty and a sexually hung-up, neurotic businesswoman in Playing By Heart.
It took a special actress to play Gillianís character, Lily Bart, in the screen adaptation of Edith Whartonís classic novel, The House of Mirth. Set in the early 1900ís, Lily Bart is a ravishing society dame whose haphazard search for a suitable life-partner leads her into a series of calamities. Lily Bart is described as "charming, multi-faceted, decorative, and complex," and director Terence Davies considered Anderson perfect for the part. Co-starring with Eric Stoltz and Dan Aykroyd, Mirth and its leading lady Anderson are worthy of Oscarís attention.
Venice: Letís start pre-"X-Files." Tell us a bit about your background.
Gillian Anderson: Born in Chicago, shortly after that we moved to Puerto Rico, and soon after that to London. London was a great place to grow up and I donít think I ever really appreciated that until I went back.
How do you think those experiences have influenced your life and your craft?
I think because of all the moving around I did at an early age, itís made it easier to move around as an adult, which I have done quite a bit. It is almost inherent as an actor these days. The wonderful thing about London was how diverse culturally and ethnically it was. That is something I donít see a lot of in my current world, between L.A. and Vancouver. Actually, last summer I took my daughter, Piper, to London. Sheís six now, and it was extraordinary for her to be on the London underground and witnessing people in the world as they are and not just from a car traveling between home and school and back again. It was great to sit with her (on the train) and remember myself at her age and how used to it I got and how safe it felt as a kid.
How did the acting evolve?
It wasnít something that I always wanted. For a while I was looking into schools for marine biology and archeology.
Thatís a departure.
When I was in high school, I was fascinated by undersea life and the sciences. Then, I donít remember what it was exactly that got me to audition, but once I did, I was focused, and then I was hooked.
How old were you?
Around sixteen. Then I heard of some acting schools and I went through the process and got accepted. Itís curious for me to look back on that time and wonder where I got the guts that led me to take that acting leap.
Do you think fate had anything to do with it?
Yes. But I think you drive your own course of fate. I think Iím doing just what Iím meant to be doing.
Well, in a sense, you have ended up doing the sciences after all, with "The X-Files." That had to appeal to you on some level.
Exactly. When I signed on for the show I had no idea that those aspects were being developed. Then, in the middle of the first season, we started doing autopsies, and I thought, ĎHey, this is really cool,í because I always liked doing autopsies and dissecting things in class.
It was meant to be. So what led you to the "The X-Files?"
After college I was told by a New York agent that if I moved there they would represent me. So I lived in New York for a couple of years and did a couple plays and waitressed.
Par for the course.
I actually had no intention of going to L.A., it just didnít appeal to me, but I came out here because of a relationship and didnít intend to stay. I preferred the idea of staying in New York and doing plays and, you know, smart films. I found myself staying in L.A., though, and auditioning. Eventually, I actually began to enjoy my time here and the move really became a cathartic experience for me. It was a good time. It almost felt like a year off because the sun was always shining, after living in Manhattan.
So, L..A. was a nice surprise for you?
Yeah, it was a nice surprise. So I was here for a year and mostly auditioning for movies but once in a while TV came up.
I read somewhere that you once swore youíd never do television.
Well, I was not really interested in doing TV. I had quite a low opinion of it at the time.
That soon changed, but then again, so has television.
It has changed a lot, but when the "X-Files" script came along, it was a pilot at the time, and there was something really special about it. When it came in, I hadnít worked in almost a year, so itís not like I had a lot of choice, but the script helped me to say, ĎYes, I can do this.í At the time TV was the last thing on my list but this felt like something that could bridge the gap between film and television. So I went into the whole audition process completely naive. I mean, when I went into the interview I was wearing clothes that were completely inappropriate for the audition. But they asked me to come back dressed differently and I went to the network without any idea what was appropriate or knowing what was at stake. I didnít know what the odds were of getting cast as a complete unknown in a lead role. I thought these sort of things happened all the time.
How dramatically did the show change your life?
It changed everything. Firstly, it moved me away from L.A. to another country (Vancouver, Canada, where they shoot "The X-Files"). Itís been such a wild ride from the beginning. From kind of falling into this thing kicking and screaming and not quite knowing what was up and what was down. I had to find where to plant my feet. But itís been a wonderful and challenging journey.
I understand you wrote and directed one of the episodes last year called, "All Things." How was that experience for you?
It was an amazing experience. I didnít realize how much I was going to enjoy it. It was a process of doing something that youíve never done before, that you are both exhilarated by and terrified by at the same time. Jumping in and figuring out how to write an episode, how to construct a script, knowing exactly what to shoot and trying to do all that while shooting 14-hour days on the other side of the camera. I got a lot of support from the producers and the cast. The creative process appealed to me very much because Iím a detail-oriented person. I like lists. I like crossing things off on lists. I like crossing my tís and dotting my iís. It was absolutely exhilarating.
Did they approach you or did you request to do the episode?
Somebody suggested that I direct an episode and I said that I would, Ďonly if I could write it, too.í So I went home and wrote an outline for an entire episode.
Where did you get your storyline?
There were a couple images that had been floating around in my mind. Somehow just sitting around on my couch that day, the images became a story.
Is this something youíd like to do more of?
How has the transition from David Duchovny to Robert Patrick affected you?
I think that for Dana itís been a bit bumpy. Itís been a very emotional transition for her. I think the issue of trust has come up 100-fold. But, I think sheís finding herself constantly surprised by this new person in front of her. Robertís character, John Doggett, is strong and supportive, and I think that feels good to her. He keeps reminding her that heís here to help find Mulder and that, of course, is her objective.
And the departure of David, thatís got to be a little hard for you.
I think whatís great is that David gets to do what he has wanted to do for a long time. I have to trust that heís happy in the decision that he made. As for Robertís coming in, I think his enthusiasm for the character and the job is so great that he has kind of infused the rest of us with a new enthusiasm to keep going. I personally was starting to lose it, so this has been a very positive beginning to the new season.
Moving beyond "The X-Files," youíve made four films now, playing everything from "white trash" to high society. Your character on the show seems to personify the new modern woman, both sexy and smart. Does that make you feel like a good role model?
I think certainly that the role of Scully changed the role of women in television. I think Chris Carterís writing this character has made sweeping changes in the face of television over the past seven years. Itís extraordinary that young girls can look up to a character who is smart and brainy and can stand up for herself. Sheís very independent. Personally, I live in a very different world than my character. I know I donít pretend to be something Iím not, but I donít know if Iím an example of a modern woman.
How do you feel about your film career thus far?
Film is a completely different world. Iíve been sidetracked now. Doing television, mind you, itís as wonderful a sidetrack as one could ask for, but in film, Iíve only just begun. Thereís so much more I want to do and people I want to work with.
Iíve just seen your new movie, The House of Mirth, and you are anything but Scully-like in your role of Lily Bart.
It was probably the hardest professional experience Iíve had, with the challenges surrounding it. But at the same time, it was one of the easiest. The way Edith Wharton wrote the novel, almost in Cliff Notes, she goes into the mind of each character so intricately that she basically presents you with a beat-by-beat performance. It was a blessing to work from such an extraordinary novel with extraordinary prose. Also, I loved the location (Scotland and England). It was a wonderful cast and entering into director Terence Daviesí world was a feat in and of itself. Iíve been a fan of his work for sometime and felt grateful to be working with someone Iíve long admired.
You mentioned some big challenges.
First of all, youíre working with an Edith Wharton novel that is written as dialogue in someoneís head and a screenplay that doesnít have narrative which has its obvious challenges. We had to try and imbue the film with details that were not there. I had a certain pressure to carry the poetry of the unwritten word in subtext. Iím glad to have had that pressure. Itís a large, sprawling story thatís one of the most famous stories of all time and I hope people who are familiar with it, and hold it near to their hearts, will feel like the film does it justice.
How did you prepare yourself for the role?
Before I left for Scotland I did a lot of research on the time, the politics, and the social climate; on etiquette, on details of behaviorism. Then when I got to England, I did intense work on the actual novel and took pages and pages of notes.
Did you enjoy doing a period film?
Yes, other than a French farce that I did in college, this was the first real period piece that Iíve done, and Iíve always wanted to do one. Eventually I will want to tackle it again. Itís very complicated, however.
Are you always looking for roles or do you wait until they find you?
Things come up that I canít take because of my commitment to "The X-Files." Itís frustrating to see stuff go by because Iím just not available, but I know why Iím still here (on the show). I know what my purpose is and that my time here is obviously not over. I do trust that the projects Iím meant to be involved in will happen.
Do you believe in the paranormal?
Yes, I do actually. I believe that our abilities with energy, as human beings, is much greater than we have realized thus far, and I believe that there are higher states of consciousness and reality, and that it can be all good if we put our minds in the right place.
Transcript appears courtesy of Venice Magazine.