The Herald (UK)
November 14, 2003
"Aids is not a fashionable cause any more"
By Mark Smith
For a long time - almost 10 years, in fact - Gillian Anderson searched for a truth we were told was out there. As Dana Scully in the paranoid fantasy series The X-Files, she looked for it among plagues of grasshoppers, shapeshifting aliens, and cigarette-smoking men. She has been looking for truth in real life, too, and she found it when she was least expecting to.
Travelling through South Africa in May last year, Anderson visited Soweto, the township where Aids demands a daily sacrifice. There she met a boy who was living in unbelievable poverty. Every day, despite the appalling conditions, he would get up, go to school, and practise on the violin for hours and hours. There was a joy in his music, even if there wasn't anywhere else, and in subtle ways the boy began to change the landscape for himself and his famous visitor.
That boy and his group, the Soweto String Quartet, have come to mean a lot to Anderson. Affected by their hope and commitment, she has helped organise a benefit concert for them in Los Angeles and has committed her time to another more personal struggle: the search for truth about Aids and Africa, and how one is slowly destroying the other.
That search has brought the 35-year-old actress to a conference on the subject in London organised by Action for Southern Africa. A number of experts are giving speeches and almost all of them list the numbing statistics: every minute five Africans die of Aids; one-third of the people of Botswana are living with HIV; the life expectancy of the average Zambian is 33. Anderson has none of the experts' special knowledge, but she does have something to give that they don't: fame.
There is a problem, though. Anderson is not entirely comfortable with celebrity and it is clear within minutes of us starting to talk just how big a sacrifice she is making in coming here. In an accent that is three parts Holland Park, one part Hollywood (she moved from London to Michigan when she was 13), she admits she is finding the idea of a public address hard. "It's much easier for me to be an actor than it is to be a public speaker," she says. "I would like to be a more political person."
Today she looks like exactly what she is: a film actress in a crowd of charity workers. Her hair has been transformed from dark red to light blonde and she is wearing a retro white angora coat and boots nicked straight from Emma Peel's wardrobe. But, considering it has been described as one of the most beautiful in the world, her face is an unusual one. There is a mole on the left cheek evidently hidden for years by the X-Files make-up artists, a long nose and the kind of pout-for-hire lips that make her look permanently annoyed. Perhaps she is.
She is here today, though, to be Serious About Africa, and it is clear her interest in the subject is intense. She is a board member of Artists for a New South Africa, and in the past two years has visited Tanzania, Namibia, Kenya, and South Africa. She was born in America, she says, lives in London, but her heart is in Africa. "I've always felt an incredible pull towards Africa and once I got there all of a sudden it made sense. It just kind of lodged into my soul." Later this year she is planning to return, although she won't be taking her nine-year-old daughter, Piper. "It's not appropriate to take her into some of the areas I'll be going into." The sentence ends in a huge full stop; she doesn't want to describe in detail what she has seen.
For Anderson, the main obstacle to progress on Aids in Africa is the lack of western cash. Oh yeah, sure, Bush has promised $1bn to the UN's global fund on Aids, tuberculosis, and malaria, but it's conditional on the rest of the world stumping up another $2bn and no-one's been rushing to make a commitment. "We are at a time finally where there is an opening and the biggest problem is funding from the west. There are other problems. It's quite complicated, but it's also very simple: there is a dire need for money." Anderson seems genuinely let down by this lack of cash; perhaps if she had been in the political game a little longer, she would not have been so surprised.
Another problem for Anderson - and here her argument is more compelling - is the issue of Aids itself. She is right that in the west a few medical advances and show-business fund-raisers have led to the perception that the disease has pretty much been seen off. If this is, as Nelson Mandela has said, a war, then the frontline is thousands of miles away.
"It's not a fashionable cause any more," says Anderson with some exasperation. "People have moved on to other things. The war in Iraq took a lot of attention away; we were - and still are - protecting ourselves from evil and when that's a distraction, the public may say, 'Why are putting funds into this?'. But the problem is not over; in fact, it's worse than it has ever been."
She leans across the table, her blue eyes focused on my face as if searching for a hidden autocue. Suddenly, she is Margaret Thatcher in knee-high boots. "It's easy to blank out from the statistics when you're talking about 42 million people and that half of them are in southern Africa alone. We have to get beyond that and see that if we don't address this, it will come to our doorstep."
Clearly Africa is near the top of her list of priorities, along with her home in Notting Hill; Piper, the daughter from her now-dissolved marriage to Clyde Klotz, an art director on The X-Files; and her Kenyan fiancÚ Julian Ozanne (Africa again). Certainly, her only recent film of note was 2000's House of Mirth, which was partly filmed in Glasgow.
"I've just been taking a long time off and I'm finally getting back to wanting to work again. There are some things I've got my eye on."
She has, she says, been busy adapting a novel into a screenplay, so is that the way her career is going? "No, not necessarily, I'll probably end up doing all of it." She is also convinced she will be pulled back to Africa before too long. "I'm sure that some time in the not too distant future I will be spending living time there." At this point, the interview has become a little too personal for Anderson. The Margaret Thatcher look comes over her again. "Can we try to keep the focus on why we're here?" she snaps. Clearly, Gillian Anderson is used to keeping people to her agenda.
Despite this chilliness, I'm beginning to believe Anderson could be quite good at this political business, even if the threads of her arguments are sometimes prone to finish in straggly ends. Perhaps, too, there is something else she can get from campaigning: peace with that damned public profile. "It's not a conscious decision to do it that way," she says, "but my feelings about the invasion that comes with having a public profile are not affected by me doing more active social work. It is still an issue, it is still something that bugs me." She spits out the word "bugs" angrily as if swatting the problem out of her life. "Sometimes it's fine and sometimes it's inappropriate. It's less of an issue in London than it is in the States and Canada."
Whatever the price she has to pay in geek-love, she is clearly serious about using her celebrity for the cause and even muses about making greater sacrifices. Could she give up that lovely house in Notting Hill? "There have been times in my life where I've thought, 'I feel so moved and fed by different causes' and I could see myself putting the majority of my focus into that and letting go of a lot of the way that I live now."
If she were to do that, and perhaps go off-script a little more, Gillian Anderson might just make a significant success of political campaigning. After all, there can be a hundred conferences attended by a thousand campaigners, but it can take just one star to get involved for things to start to change. Certainly, Anderson has it in her. One-to-one she may be a little chilly, but speaking to the wider conference she is clear and decisive. For Anderson and the campaign on Aids in Africa, that is maybe all that matters.
For more information on Action for Southern Africa, visit the website.
Transcript appears courtesy of the Herald (UK).