The Irish Times
August 20, 2005
Gillian goes to Andersonstown
Gillian Anderson has just made a film in Belfast, playing an IRA widow. And her accent isn't half bad. But then a life on the move has left the 'X Files' star with a habit of changing her voice to fit in, she tells Donald Clarke
There is, arguably, no more effective way of making American actors look ridiculous than asking them to attempt a Northern Irish accent. Reputation or experience count for little when confronted with vowel sounds a Californian could more easily reproduce by reversing a tractor over a goose. Fans of Gillian Anderson, the diminutive, buttoned down actress who set nerdish hearts aflutter in The X Files, might, therefore, be forgiven for approaching The Mighty Celt with trepidation.
Pearse Elliott's forthcoming film casts Anderson as a working-class Belfast woman whose son, played rather brilliantly by young Tyrone McKenna, develops an interest in greyhound racing. Cover your ears, Ulster folk. Against the odds, Anderson does a very good job. Some of the rounder sounds are a little forced, but for most of the film you would be hard pressed to identify her as an outsider.
"The production hired a terrific dialogue coach," she says. "So while I was still doing a play in London" - The Sweetest Swing in Baseball, at the Royal Court - "I would rehearse several hours a day. Then there was an excellent guy on set who would listen carefully. But, yeah, it is the hardest accent to do. You use so much of the range of your mouth. So little of it resembles anything else in any other dialect. So, um, yeah."
The "yeah" with which she allows so many of her reluctant answers to peter out is not a bold Middle American affirmative. It is closer to the lazy noise Fulham girls make when you ask if they fancy a trip to the Cresta Run. It is, in fact, very nearly a "yah".
Many who have heard Anderson interviewed on television have been taken aback by the protean nature of her accent. She was born in Chicago in 1968, but, after a brief stay in Puerto Rico, her family moved to London, where her father attended film school. When Gillian was 11, the Andersons again relocated, this time to Grand Rapids, in Michigan. Her vowels never quite recovered from the trauma. I would guess that having such an uncertain accent makes it easier for her to shift into other, unfamiliar dialects.
"I think I do have an ear for accents. I think I do find them easier to pick up. But it is, also, a little frustrating. I can be sitting before somebody from Australia or New Zealand, and, before I know it, I am slipping into the rhythms of their speech. It is a bit embarrassing. I could get a phone call right now from the States, and once the American voice hits my ear I will turn American."
At any rate, on this day in Bloomsbury - a few miles east of the Notting Hill Gate home she shares with her husband, the Kenyan-born journalist and documentary maker Julian Ozanne - there is not the slightest flavour of an American about her. Perched primly on the sofa, her hair dyed a custard cream, she is every inch the reserved, undemonstrative Englishwoman.
To be fair, she does seem to have a particular antipathy to the press interview. "The fact that you have to be raped in the process, have to be violated, ad nauseam . . ." she told the Guardian newspaper a few years ago while musing on the promotional junket.
Leafing through her cuttings, one doesn't come across too many hatchet jobs. It's not entirely clear why she feels so hard done by. I suppose some interviewers do make rather a lot of a brief outbreak of juvenile delinquency she went through after moving to Michigan. There were piercings. There were older boyfriends. There were even a few run-ins with the police. But it doesn't sound as if she was ever in danger of becoming a sociopath.
"You know what I think most of that coverage is?" she says. "That was all anybody wanted to talk about, because the rest of my life is so f***ing boring. It seems like a very important aspect of my history, because there was all this big drama. But there really wasn't. What it was mostly was that I was an only child, and I was going through puberty and, at the same time, moving from a big cosmopolitan city to a small Republican town. And I was both embraced and rejected there. You have a lot of stuff going on at that age. As with many kids, I chose to express myself in that particular way: how I dressed, the way that I acted out in school and so on. I didn't kill anybody, and I didn't burn any buildings down. So, no, it really wasn't that big a deal."
But Anderson has said that she greatly appreciated being sent to a psychiatrist at that stage. Indeed, in her interview with Sue Lawley on BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs she suggested that her life might have been a disaster without an analyst's input. "I have been seeing a therapist since I was 14 years old, and I still go to one. I really do believe in that," she says.
That is quite American of her. On this side of the Atlantic we tend to believe that nobody needs to see a psychiatrist unless winged gargoyles begin passing them messages about the end of the universe. "I am sure there are more and more Europeans who are open to the suggestion than that close-minded opinion suggests," she says, allowing herself a flicker of a smile. "I don't know if you hold that opinion or you are just being funny. But a lot of people around the world may find themselves behaving rudely to people or mistreating their children and then decide they want to do something about it. And this is one approach."
It would be stretching it to say that Anderson was saved from a life of debauchery by her passion for the stage. But she admits that things did seem to fall into place when she began acting. After leaving school she originally intended to further a career in marine biology. "Then somehow I found myself in a play. And suddenly here was something I could really do. I knew this was it. It is like anybody who finds themselves doing something that helps them tick."
As you might expect, life changed dramatically for Anderson when, in 1993, she landed the role of Dana Scully in The X Files. Each week the medically trained FBI agent, despite talking more sense than everybody else on the show put together, was revealed to be misguided in her scepticism about aliens, ghosts and other supernatural manifestations. Suddenly, Anderson, who was now living in Vancouver, where the series was shot, found herself a star.
"One week I was collecting unemployment. I was living with a boyfriend in a one-bedroom apartment. Then I got this job and moved to another country. I ended up breaking up with my boyfriend and had no home. Then I met my future husband, got married and had a baby. And, as all that was happening, I found myself in the middle of a series that people were enjoying and wanted to see more of. Everything changed."
Anderson and her first husband, Clyde Klotz, subsequently divorced. But her professional partnership with David Duchovny, who played the conspiracy mumbler Fox Mulder in The X Files, lasted for close to a decade. It has frequently been rumoured that the two actors loathed one another. I assume this was not the case.
"Why is it that now, in retrospect, people can start that conversation by saying, 'I assume that is not true,' when they didn't at the time?" she muses. "David and I are closer now than we have ever been. Look, when you are working with somebody for such an intense period of time, of course you don't want to see them outside work. I didn't want to see the girl who was doing my hair every day, either. There are inherent complications in such forced marriages. In other countries the men get to beat the women; thankfully, that doesn't fly in America. It was an important time for both of us. So we worked a lot of things out together in a psychological and metaphysical way." She remembers my feigned scepticism about analysis. "But, of course, you wouldn't understand any of that stuff."
It must have been peculiar to find herself a character in the formative sexual fantasies of so many young science-fiction enthusiasts. As I understand it, only Counsellor Troi from Star Trek: The Next Generation is regarded with quite so much erotic longing by the geek community.
"I think I felt more comfortable with that than with men in suits thinking about me in that way," she says, softening up somewhat. "There was something kind of cool and safe about the kids. Not seven-year-olds, you understand. I mean perfectly healthy, smart young teenagers. I think it is fine that what some people - not me - would consider nerds were having awakenings to this interesting person."
And Scully was a good role model: a doctor, a sceptic, an empowered female professional. "Yeah. She was all things to all people. Her fan base is varied in age and sex and . . . er, um, yeah."
Since the cancellation of The X Files, in 2002, Anderson has not hurried her career along. In 2003 she received wildly contrasting notices for her performance in What the Night is For in the West End of London. The Sweetest Swing in Baseball, the following year, was more positively reviewed. But she has yet to fully follow through on the promise she showed in Terence Davies's thoughtful 2000 film of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth.
Where are the roles which that unsentimental, moving performance seemed to gesture towards? Some are, perhaps, coming our way over the next two years. Anderson has just finished filming the crucial part of Lady Dedlock in the BBC's latest adaptation of Dickens's Bleak House. She is currently commuting to and from Africa, where Kevin Macdonald is directing his film of Giles Foden's novel The Last King of Scotland. And then there is The Mighty Celt.
Written as well as directed by Pearse Elliott, whose broad script for last year's Man About Dog helped that comedy clean up at the Irish box office, The Mighty Celt is a sensitive, moving piece of work, which profits from consistently strong performances. But how on earth did she find herself doing it? Made on a minuscule budget, the film is not an obvious choice for somebody in her position. "I have a very good agent who knows what I like," she says. "I thought it was a really moving script. It was very, very sweet. I just loved the relationship between Tyrone and his mother. There was a real loving fondness there that I hadn't played before."
The Mighty Celt makes an honourable attempt to engage with the consequences of the first decade of the peace process. Robert Carlyle stars as a former paramilitary. Anderson is the IRA widow who used to love him. It must have been quite overwhelming for Anderson suddenly to be confronted by these ancient disputes. What surprised her most about working in Belfast and its environs? "I guess what I was most amazed about was how much I liked it. I was amazed at how happy people were. That was not the impression you got from abroad. My experience on a day-to-day basis was that it really felt like a community. There was stuff going on underneath. There was tension. But on the whole people's attitudes were quite bright and healthy. And that was not, I think, just because they were working on a film set."
Anderson, who was initially as cool as Scully, has warmed up considerably. As I stand to leave - perhaps because I am standing to leave - she seems positively chirpy. I thank her for being so helpful. "Helpful?" she says, amazed. This, I discern from her tone, is not a word interviewers often use about her. "What? So you won't have to take it all from the internet?" Of course I will. In fact I had the story written before I even met her. "Oh, for goodness' sake, you're not supposed to own up to that, even though we know it's true."
I suspect she won't be reading this.