By Andrew Billen
Before leaving to meet Gillian Anderson I ask a colleague if he ever watches her show, The X-Files.
"The X-Files?" he says in awe. "I just think it's the greatest TV program ever."
Well, perhaps it is the best program of its type ever, if a series about two FBI agents who covertly investigate paranormal crime can be said to belong to a type. When I first watched it, I was slow to see the point.
At last I think I've got it straight. The production values are high, the acting is fresh - particularly Anderson and the cameos of spooky geriatrics and extraordinarily knowing infants - and the scripts are clever. But the end product is the highest hokum, an update of The Twilight Zone. If it has one aim, it is to scare us witless; ie, out of our sensible objections.
I met Anderson, its 26-year-old female lead, in London during her tour of Europe before the next season's filming starts. She plays Agent Dana Scully, a strawberry blonde power-dresser, sidelined into Department Weird in order to keep a check on her partner, Fox Mulder. She is the skeptic, he the true believer, although her lack of faith is bestes as, episode after episode, Mulder is proved right; there is something out there and we should trust no one.
Anderson says Scully's "brain is too big" but that otherwise she admires her. The X-Files has been such a hit in the U.S. that by the time Anderson completes the fifth series to which her contract commits her, she will be financially secure for life.
On paper, her private life is also on a roll. On New Year's Day 1994 she married Clyde Klotz, the show's then production designer. Their daughter, Piper, is now eight months old.
You would think these facts would make her a happy young woman and a slightly boring interviewee, but you would be wrong. The first hint I get that Anderson has found life far from easy is from what she says about her childhood. She mentions "separation anxieties" that continue to haunt her about leaving her childhood home in Grand Rapids, Mich. Then, praising Mike Leigh's films, she says she identifies with the teenage daughters in Life Is Sweet.
I ask if she means she had an eating disorder like Jane Horrocks's character, but she says: "We won't discuss that." (In contrast to her apparent heaviness on screen, she is slight, 5-ft. 3-in. and spectrally thin.) When she won the part of Scully two years ago, she suffered an extreme version of the imposter syndrome. Primarily a stage actress whose television career was limited to a single appearance on The Class of '96, she was also aware she was not cast from the Cybill Shepherd/Pamela Anderson mould of TV beauty.
"For a long time," she says, "there was this feeling that they were going to find out they'd made a really big mistake. Had it been a larger network than Fox they certainly would not have taken the risk. Even they were interested in getting a typically marketable beauty, although that was not how Scully was written."
Like an accident waiting to happen, she then betrayed her producers' faith in her by getting pregnant, albeit not by design on her wedding night. She felt she had now given them real reason to sack her, but again they did not: Scully just took to wearing flapping lab coats.
The true difficulties came 10 days after Piper's birth, when she went back on set. This was a hasty return. What if she had suffered post-natal depression?
"I did have post-natal depression," she says, "except there was no time for it, which made it worse. And I was breast feeding, still am. Doing all that while filming was a much gutsier thing than I realized at the time."
Hadn't having Piper made her happier in the long run?
"I am a much happier person since she came along. Nothing is quite so important any more."
So if The X-Files was cancelled it wouldn't be the end of the world? "No, no. It would be a great relief actually," she says, laughing, but not very loudly.
It is when I start to investigate what got her through this period that our conversation takes a turn toward what The X-Files's writers would call unexplained phenomena, and what she describes as "the spiritual."
Neither she nor Clyde are exactly religious, she says, but they did choose a Buddhist priest to officiate at their wedding. How far does she take all this? Does she see psychics, for instance? "I have done. It is not a regular thing I do, but I have."
Had they been useful?
"They have, but I can't give you examples," she says. "It is more guidance at a particular time. You don't ask specific questions of the Tarot cards."
How could a pack of cards know anything?
"You want me to give you my explanation? Because I believe there is a natural order to things, and that we are here to learn and to grow and to enrich our soul. All the information in the world is here with us and it's just a matter of tuning into it. The Tarot is a way to access that information."
But this is information we already know?
"In a sense, yes, but I think there are many different kinds of information. There is also the theory that we actually have help from spirit beings who are around us constantly."
What does she think about that? "I'll buy it. I actually believe that."
Does she have a spirit guide?
"I'm sure I do. Everybody does, one or many. But it is not something I think about too much or something I preach."
When I say this sounds pretty near the outer limits of credibility to an atheist such as myself, she looks at me with wonder and asks if I ever feel "a bottomless sense of hopelessness."
"When I was in high school," Anderson says, "I was in a very atheist crowd and it was the consensus that religion was a crutch; but over the past few years I have grown to appreciate that feeling of safety or trust, that there is a light at the end of the tunnel and that there is a reason for us to be here."
Does she discuss this with her co-star, David Duchovny, who is sometimes portrayed in the press as a total non-believer?
"We don't discuss it but I understand he has similar beliefs but heading more towards Buddhism. He is very skeptical in terms of the paranormal but not of the spiritual. They are different. They connect at some point but they are two different things."
On Thursday, X-Files filming starts again in Vancouver, chosen on grounds of economy. More 14-hour days will follow as a new story is completed every eight days. In 10 months' time Anderson will be 24 episodes farther down the tunnel, 24 mysteries nearer the light.
Transcript appears courtesy of The Observer.