By Sam Bayoumi
Raised in Puerto Rico, America and England, married in Hawaii and Lamu, Gillian Anderson now finds herself irresistibly drawn to Sri Lanka. Sam Bayoumi speaks to the sci-fi starlet turned property developer.
Gillian Anderson falls in love easily. We're not talking past husbands (of which there have been two) but houses. She bought her first, in Vancouver, at the age of 24 or 25, flush from her success in The X-Files, the alien-chasing TV series in which she made her name. In the 18 years since, she's worked her way through 12 or 13 more residences. These are not the temporary rentals made to accommodate a life spent dashing around the world on film shoots. These are houses bought, done up and then sold on at a profit. Some become, for a while, the family home, some are weekend country retreats or holiday homes - but mostly they are projects.
Anderson is passionate about her real estate. She was recently shooting in an abandoned building in Belfast and the only thing she could think about, she says, was how great it would be to convert the place into apartments. So, is the woman who was the glacially cool Agent Dana Scully and who was voted FHM magazine's Sexiest Woman in the World in 1996 at heart a fanatical property developer? 'It's what I do,' she says. 'It's the way I get to be creative when I'm not working. I love buildings. I love houses.'
The passion for property dates back to her teens. She was born in Chicago, but when she was two her parents relocated to London where Anderson spent the next nine years; the family returned to the US to settle in Grand Rapids, Michigan, but Anderson would revisit London every summer. 'We had some neighbours in Crouch End [north London] and they had this flat that was exposed brick, and wood floors with seagrass carpeting, and odd curious objects of art that they had collected from around the world. They'd done the place themselves and I always felt like that's what I wanted my house to be like when I was a grown-up. When I was 16 I asked them if they ever sold their flat to call me. They did, eight years later, and said: "We know that you're famous now so you can afford it."'
Success in The X-Files, however, kept Anderson anchored first in Vancouver and later Los Angeles, where the TV series filmed for nine months out of every 12 for nine straight years. It was only when the show finished in 2002 (there have since been two big-screen sequels) that she headed for London. For an in-demand actress who could have walked into the cast of almost any Hollywood blockbuster it was not a move designed to further a career in the movies.
'I knew that when the show ended what I wanted to do was theatre, and for whatever reason I wanted to be in theatre in London rather than New York. So I came here, looked for a play and found one.' Her West End debut in What the Night Is For drew a warmer response from X-Files fans than theatre critics, who were hardly any more enthusiastic about her next play, The Sweetest Swing in Baseball. Her performance in Ibsen's A Doll's House at the Donmar theatre in 2009 was far better received - the Telegraph hailed her performance as Nora as 'superb... by turns sexy, neurotic, manipulative, terrified, and in the great last act absolutely merciless'.
She has also appeared in films The Last King of Scotland, A Cock and Bull Story and Johnny English Reborn, and later this year appears alongside Clive Owen and Andrea Riseborough in Northern Ireland thriller Shadow Dancer, and with Michael Caine in Mr Morgan's Last Love. On TV she was a startling Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, and was Bafta- and Emmy-nominated for her Lady Dedlock in Bleak House. She's also had two sons, Oscar, born 2006, and Felix, born 2008, with her current partner, an English businessman (there's also a daughter, Piper, from her first marriage).
Her first London home, acquired in 2002 (joining homes in Vancouver and Malibu), was on Portobello Road in Notting Hill, an area she chose because lots of her friends lived there. She turned a grimy old townhouse into a boho retreat - 'I changed the dining room into a Moroccan room with a banquette and lots and lots of colours, 18 layers of paint, that kind of stuff' - then moved on. She bought, made over and sold three more Notting Hill houses in quick succession. She then relocated to Bloomsbury, which she says was 'heaven' because the paparazzi never tracked her down there. She's since moved again and is in the process of renovating a new home in east London. It's a part of the city that in recent years has been colonised by artists, designers, architects and new-media agencies, but that is not why she's chosen it. 'I'm a bit of a hermit and it's easy to disappear over here. It's quite anonymous.'
As well as the east London house, Anderson has another project of a more international nature. Five and a half years ago while en route to India she stopped over in Colombo, did a little travelling and liked what she saw. 'Sri Lanka is a paradise. There are different climates on each side of the island - on one side it's winter, while on the other it's summer. The vegetation and wildlife are extraordinary, and you drive around and see 300ft white Buddhas all over the place - which is really cool.'
Back in London she started trawling property websites until she found something of interest: 'It was this house that was so beautiful and ridiculously huge, and the price tag on it was so low. I showed it to my daughter and she said: "Oh Mum, you can't not buy it," so when I was eight months pregnant with Felix, we flew out to take a look and I fell in love with it.'
Set in seven acres of lush grounds an hour's drive inland of Colombo, the house once belonged to a well-known aristocratic Sri Lankan family, one of whom was Justin Deraniyagala. One of the pioneers of Sri Lankan art, he studied at the Slade in London and then worked in Paris, a contemporary of painters such as Picasso, Matisse and Georges Braque; he painted Josephine Baker in the 1920s. When Anderson bought it, the house had been empty for over 30 years, and looked more like a haunted mansion than a liveable home.
Since then she has been flying out to Sri Lanka between six and eight times a year for two weeks at a time to oversee the renovation work being carried out by a local project manager and his team. The main house was reroofed, verandas and balconies were variously opened up and expanded, new bathrooms and kitchens were created, and several outbuildings were converted into additional accommodation.
An internal courtyard was reflagged using antique street stones, light fixtures and decorative glass came from India, the marble in the bathrooms came from Italy, a Spanish artist was employed to do decorative painted ceilings, and special eco-friendly air-con units were shipped over from China.
Anderson has filled the house with an extraordinary global assembly of furniture. The dining table used to be in her house in Malibu and has an Indian base of hammered silver (bought in an antique shop in California) with a top made from jarrah wood railway sleepers. A headboard in one of the bedrooms originates in a circus and was found at Portobello Road market. There's also a screening room, his and hers offices, and a meditation loft.
There are plans for an infinity swimming pool on a piece of high ground with 180 degree views of the neighbouring valleys but she's not sure if she is going to undertake this herself. 'I've been working on it for four years - I don't think I've ever worked on a house project that long before. So there's a part of me that feels like it's time for me to pass the project on.'
Her original idea had been to create an exclusive guesthouse retreat - the house has 13 bedrooms, plus multiple living areas, kitchens and bathrooms - but she's since had a change of heart. 'I'm not the person to have a boutique hotel or a house that is rented out on a regular basis. I thought I could do that but then I realised it's not me. I like to know that we're the only people using the place.' She's decided to put the property up for sale instead.
Besides which there's a possible intriguing new project on the horizon - her partner has just bought a Sri Lankan tea plantation.
For more information on Gillian Anderson's Sri Lankan house, contact email@example.com