Lady of the 'House'
By ROBERT PHILPOT
PASADENA, Calif. -- "Comeback" is such a loaded word. Often, when writers say someone has made a comeback, the person hasn't really been gone but has just done a series of substandard projects. You could call Matt Dillon's performance in Crash a comeback because it could win him an Oscar and he hasn't done work this good since 1998. But he never really went away.
Gillian Anderson, on the other hand, went away. She went away from TV, not working on a show since The X-Files signed off in 2002. She went away from movies, with her last significant film credit in 2000's The House of Mirth, based on the Edith Wharton novel. She went away from the United States and moved to London, where she lives with her second husband and her daughter from her first marriage.
Anderson "comes back" in a big way this weekend with a key role in Bleak House, a BBC production that will make its American debut at 8 tonight on PBS' Masterpiece Theatre. The complete series also arrives on DVD on Feb. 28. An adaptation of a Charles Dickens novel that's thicker than most phone books, Bleak House will run for eight hours over six weeks, with tonight's episode and the final episode airing in two-hour installments.
Anderson plays the icy Lady Dedlock, a woman searching for her old lover, who is at the heart of Dickens' treatise on the absurdity of the legal process. Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce is the suit that drives the complex plot, which ropes in 80 speaking roles, including, as is typical of Dickens, some peripheral characters who invade the story simply for comic effect. (Esther Summerson (Anna Maxwell Martin) leads the cast of characters as the orphan at the center of a dark secret).
Clearly, this role is as far from hunting extraterrestrials as Anderson could get. Indeed, earlier in the day, Anderson told a roomful of TV critics that, after The X-Files, she never wanted to do TV again. But she dismisses the "comeback" label, and doesn't want this role to be seen as "Gillian's return to television." What about the theater that's been occupying her in London or the movies she's filmed that are coming out this year?
Anderson says that nine seasons of the science-fiction/paranormal hit just sapped too much from of her real life. So stepped out of the Hollywood grind and headed to London, perhaps led by memories of a childhood spent there. She bought a house and met the man she married. "I know what it's like to do things that are soul-decaying," she says. "And a lot of, you know, a large aspect of life in Hollywood, in a stereotypic way, I find soul-decaying. And I choose, albeit frustratingly to other people in my life, not to expose myself to too much of that. And what that has translated into is that I live in a country that I absolutely love, in a city that I am awakened by and educated by on a daily basis."
Anderson says she did take a year off to travel with boyfriend-now-husband Julian Ozanne, a photojournalist and filmmaker. The two married in Kenya in late 2004 and have visited 30 countries in three years -- among them, Lebanon, Syria, India, Sri Lanka, Russia, Romania. Some of those places are considered risky travel destinations.
"They consider Beirut to be the Paris of the Middle East, and it certainly is," Anderson says. "It's a beautiful, beautiful city that also still shows signs of the devastation that has gone on for years and years. Every other building has blown-out windows. But it wasn't scary."
Anderson also engaged in charity work overseas, including with an organization called Artists for a New South Africa. "Their primary focus used to be the anti-apartheid movement, but [now] it's on AIDS and HIV," she says.
After tackling Edith Wharton and now Dickens, it's easy to imagine that she has a bookcase filled with Penguin Classics at home. But she was unfamiliar with Bleak House till she was approached for the project. Most of her upcoming work, she says, is contemporary. For her, it's all about good writing.
"It's few and far between the scripts that . . . have something to say or are a celebration of historical writers," she says. "In England, I get offered films. . . . I don't get offers in America. People don't know what to do with me in America. And I've disappeared."
Anderson's director for Bleak House, Andrew Davies, has a strong body of work, most notably the Colin Firth-starring adaptation of Pride & Prejudice that aired on A&E a few years ago. Davies has declared Bleak House one of his favorite projects, along with Pride & Prejudice. For fans of the earlier miniseries, that will be reason enough to watch Bleak House. It's worlds away from alien autopsies and government conspiracies, but Bleak House will put Anderson back on the radar in the States.