July 13, 1996
By Andrew Duncan
It's become trendy now to believe in aliens and Gillian Anderson's no exception. Unlike cold, sceptical Scully in The X Files, she believes the truth is "out there", but is very down to earth about fame and family. Do we really want another tale of sex, drugs and alcohol? Probably not. OK, maybe a bit - particularly as I am in a sedate New York hotel room sitting next to a demure 5ft 3in red-headed mother wearing granny glasses stimulated by nothing more sinister than decaff and croissants. And tales of her teenage indiscretions seem as far-fetched as the plots in, well, The X Files, which has made her a world star of scary proportions. Gillian Anderson has checked into the hotel under an assumed name. Some days she daren't leave home to visit the grocery store - "Because I'm not in the right head space to deal with intrusion, even if it's wonderful people saying they like the show. I try to be gracious but at times I draw the line. Have I remained sane?" She shrugs. "You have to accept the price."
And all this because of a surprise ("It's a goner," scoffed a critic of the first programme), originally low-budget bit of hokum pandering to the paranoid fantasies of those who believe there is a secret basement of the FBI in Washington where "X" files are stored, containing details of supernatural events covered up by the government. She is Dana Scully, a power-dressing sceptic recruited out of medical school to keep an eye on "true believer" agent Fox Mulder, played by David Duchovny. Part of the attraction is the sexy but chaste relationship between the two principals ("It's definitely heterosexual - there's a huge amount of tension - but unconsummated", she explains), and their deadpan emotionless delivery of sci-fi mumbo jumbo as they encounter liver-eating serial killers, vampires, bodies sprouting from other bodies and assorted paranormal goodies. Like most cult TV shows, it polarises those who are hooked and those who believe it is nonsense, albeit well crafted.
Surely, I suggest, an intelligent woman like her must admit a lot is pastiche? "You're allowed to say that. I'm not sure I am. I have my token answer of why it's successful - it's a timely, tight show that takes you on a good ride. For some reason it's become acceptable, even trendy now, for people to talk about their belief in aliens, or admit their experiences. A few years ago they would have been confined to an institution. The anti-government message is also timely. They've hidden things from us for years, but now people are starting to go, 'Hey, wait a second.'"
In Future Fantastic, the BBC's science-based series she presents, there's been talk of a secret American air base that tests alien technology. "Fascinating stuff," she says. "It's highly possible, not necessarily probable. Smart people from every walk of life talk about their experiences with UFOs. I believe in them. It makes perfect sense the government would cover up, because it indicates there is something more powerful out there. But when someone talks about being 'abducted' part of me shuts down and withdraws."
Her first ambition was to be a marine biologist. "I started looking into colleges and then for some reason auditioned for a community play, was cast, and that was it." She went to Chicago's Goodman Theatre School, then New York, winning an award in Ayckbourne's 'Absent Friends' off-Broadway. "I thought the theatre was the thing, and still do. At first I said no to TV - 'I am an actress'. I was very snobby in that area, but five years ago TV was conceived in a different way. It was taboo for theatre actors to do a series in case you became stereotyped. And the work wasn't necessarily high quality."
This "snobbish attitude" was a fortunate defence in 1993 when she was offered the part of Scully by The X Files's creator and producer Chris Carter, against the wishes of the network. "They wanted a big-breasted blonde," she recalls. "That's the only way they knew how to market TV and make money. Every time I went in, they told me to wear tighter clothes, but I knew the character wasn't a bimbo and thatís not who I am, so it was, like, 'This is me, take it or leave it.' None of us expected it to be so popular. It was, 'OK, we're doing TV. I hope it lasts a year and then stops so we can move on.' It didn't. But I'm calm. My attitude is awe rather than questioning it."
"I was a little restless after the first year and felt I was stuck in this situation. Now I try to focus on the fact that it's only a small period of time in a long life. It will be over before we know it, and it's done for most of us what nothing else could have. I don't know about being set up for life financially, but it will help tremendously in terms of careers."
Her own career might never have begun if she hadn't escaped a problem childhood. From the age of two to 13 she lived in Crouch End, north London. Her father studied a the London Film School and her mother was a computer analyst. "I liked it but didn't realise how much until we moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, of all places. What's wrong with Grand Rapids? I like big cities, less right-wing cities." It was at that time her parents had two more children - Aaron, now 15, and Zoe, 12. "I was very jealous. I'd been the centre of their world, an only child, and all of a sudden I wasn't. I became a big, big sister at a time when a child needs as much attention as possible. I was going through puberty. I needed to find out who I was and to express myself in some way."
And how. At 14 she put a stud in her nose and a punk musician boyfriend ten years her senior in her bed. "There was growing unrest with Grand Rapids," she explains. "I'd been a good little girl in corduroys and plaid. All of a sudden I bought these red shoes, which were the rage in London, put red dye in my hair, started to wear funky miniskirts and gradually progressed to more outrageous outfits. I felt I was being creative for the first time. My parents were scared I'd get hurt or in trouble, but allowed me to be independent and do whatever I needed. Some things were hard for them. I'm not sorry. I needed to go through it, and they needed to deal with what they were experiencing with me. The best artists seem to be the ones who have had most turmoil in their lives. It's so important that parents allow their children to do what they need and for children to realise their parents are there unconditionally and without judgement. If my daughter decides to be creative in the same way, more power to h er. She's already so precocious."
One report claimed she'd been an alcoholic. "I don't want to talk about that, nor to be too specific about if drugs were involved. Let's just talk in relative terms. Life was excruciatingly painful for years. I'd deal with it by being quite wild - promiscuous, drinking a lot. Anything and everything was fair game. Ninety nine per cent of college students do exactly the same, so why should I be any different? Some get caught up in it, and it doesn't stop. Fortunately I was lucky and came out the other side. Something inside me always knew what I wanted to accomplish in life, and I was influenced by some remarkable people who got me out of the situation I was in. I listened, received their support. I hope by talking like this I give encouragement to those who are in a mess. I'd say for kids the time between 11 and 28 is really hard. Yeah, I'm 27."
Great news. In another month - her birthday is on 9 August - she'll be fine. She laughs. "After 28, women - it's a bit later for men - calm down, become grounded and feel their purpose in life. Then you have mid-life crisis and I think what's even more horrible for women is the menopause. I'm not looking forward to that."
A couple of months after starting The X Files she fell in love with assistant art director Clyde Klotz and they married on New Year's Day, 1994, on a golf course in Hawaii, with a Buddhist priest officiating. "Marriage calmed me down a bit, too, because I knew that while I was married to this one person there wasn't an option to be distracted in other ways." Indeed, the careless rapture of her wedding night resulted in the eventual birth of her daughter, Piper. "We didn't say to each other, 'Hey, let's make a baby tonight,' but when I realised I was pregnant the reality hit me - was I going to lose this opportunity to work with such a splendid character and with the support of such great people? I also had a very strong trust that I should go ahead with the pregnancy and everything would be OK, no matter what the outcome was."
The scriptwriters arranged for her to be kidnapped and lapse into a coma to explain her missing weeks immediately before the birth. "Piper made me appreciate life, the world, and my situation. I realise other things aren't so important and heavy. Life just is. I'm happy now." Clyde left The X Files to concentrate on art - he carved a four poster bed for their Vancouver home - and is now working on a computer-animated series. I wondered if her high profile causes a marital problem. "There's no reason why it should, but it does, so let's not talk about it."
Back to the real life of the supernatural. "It's so elusive you can understand why people are hooked. It's weird, though, that there's more of an obsession about life on other planets than things which are around us already - spirits, angels, ghosts. I'm not a religious person, more a spiritual one. I believe there is something greater than us. Teleportation and things like that could be incredibly positive, but what scares me is it getting into the wrong hands and being used to control people." Not that such arcane subjects preoccupy her too much. "In order to get through the day I have to programme myself to concentrate on the present. I can become very worked up about certain political and economic things, so it's better not to get involved unless I'm in a situation where I can effect change."
She does, of course, have power. The show has spawned comic books, videos, CDs, conventions and any amount of merchandising. "It's fine that people can make money, but Chris, David and I see next to nothing of the millions it generates, even though our faces are on everything. That's not because I have a bad agent. It's greedy networks. They always say they're not making much money and it goes into the shows, but there's a certain point where it's not fair."
The fans - Xphiles - are a different matter. They have Internet bulletins where they call themselves the Gillian Anderson Testosterone Brigade and burble away about minutiae of the plots. "I can understand the escapism. It's unfortunate in one way, but fortunate because it keeps them from doing more harmful things." Like hunting for aliens in the undergrowth.
Transcript provided by Darren Smith and appears courtesy of Radio Times.