"The Truth Is Out There"
By Duncan Campbell
October 1, 2000
X-files star Gillian Anderson has rejected the lure of Hollywood for the austere style of cult British director Terence Davies. What is she thinking of...
There are two bridal showers taking place in the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills this afternoon, strange rituals in which wealthy people will be showering other wealthy people with presents in advance of a wedding at which they will be showered with even more presents.
In the hotel bar, a glum, middle-aged couple are discussing the menu for their daughter's wedding reception with a caterer who is taking them through the costs for chicken entrées and brisket of beef. The man makes a half-hearted attempt to cut the hors d'oeuvres - 'Hey, they're going to be full before they have their second glass of wine!' - as they select the chardonnays and prepare to pay the sort of money that would keep a small village in Guatemala going for a couple of centuries.
There could really not be a more apt backdrop to an interview with Gillian Anderson about Lily Bart, the character she plays in The House of Mirth, the Edith Wharton story of a gallant but flawed young woman desperately seeking marriage in turn-of-the-century New York. Wharton's classic satire on money and social conformity is now a film which marries Ms Anderson, the former Crouch End schoolgirl who became a heart-throb to millions of X-Philes, and Terence Davies, whose Distant Voices, Still Lives established him as one of our most original filmmakers.
This seems an odd marriage. Ms Anderson is a star, made so by the extraordinary success of The X-Files. Davies is a cerebral talent whose films have mainly used lesser-known actors and whose territory has been of intimate memory rather than classic fiction. The target of Edith Wharton's satire was New York's amoral, money-fixated society a century ago. The film's producer, Olivia Stewart, likens the period to Hollywood today and the way in which actors can so easily slip from casting grace and box-office desirability. Anderson also finds contemporary echoes of the book in the current world.
'I see the parallels,' says Anderson, but she finds a stronger link in the torment that takes place within the character of Lily Bart and 'the ins and outs of one's sanity in navigating this life, no matter what year one is growing up in. It's about survival and trying to the best of one's ability to put one foot in front of the other with some semblance of morality and upstanding behaviour and not fall under the weight of life.
'Everybody, in one way or another, is trying to fit in,' says the woman who has accomplished the apparently impossible task of fitting sensuality into the role of FBI agent Dana Scully. 'Fortunately, we as women have more choices than we did back then. In those days, having a job was such a lowly place to be. There still is a ridiculous disparity between the classes, those with wealth and those without, but it's not as much a matter of life and death for women as it was then.'
Lily Bart could hardly be more different than go-getting, down-to-earth Agent Scully. As Edith Wharton puts it: 'Everything about her was at once vigorous and exquisite, at once strong and fine. He [Laurence Selden, her admirer] had a confused sense that she must have cost a great deal to make, that a great many dull and ugly people must, in some mysterious way, have been sacrificed to produce her.'
Davies, who could not be described as an X-Phile, saw a photo of Anderson and was struck by her similarity to the society beauties painted by John Singer Sargent.
The House of Mirth did not cost a great deal to make, with a budget not much higher than a single X-Files episode. Anderson was attracted by the idea of working with Davies whose earlier films, in particular The Long Day Closes and Distant Voices, Still Lives, had, as she put it, 'stopped me in my tracks'. His work, barely known in the United States, had such an impact on her that she broke off from a holiday in London in 1998 to meet Davies and agree to play the part. The novel itself she had read but it was just a distant voice in her past.
'So it was a wonderful surprise to have agreed to do something based on a memory and a script, and wanting to work with a director and then finding that the novel itself was really extraordinarily written. Edith Wharton was so meticulous about character and inner dialogues that I felt she was saying, "This is how you play this scene" and "This is how you play this scene".'
How Davies's style and pacing will be received in the US is another matter. Even though he has a number of other name actors involved, including Dan Ackroyd, Eric Stoltz (who plays Selden), Elizabeth McGovern, Eleanor Bron and Jodhi May, the American market is an unforgiving place. Anderson hopes that a recent (minor) surge of interest in the US in foreign movies will make the environment riper for The House of Mirth .
There had been much talk about her finally closing the X-file but the new series will not, after all, be the last. 'I was actually on contract for this year and I originally had fantasised that I could get out of it but that wasn't the case.' But Anderson says loyally that she is still happy to be Scully. 'There is the introduction of a new character [Robert Patrick as John Doggett] and there is a new enthusiasm.' And viewers will find out how Scully got pregnant before Christmas.
She is also in talks about doing theatre work in England and looks certain to follow Kathleen Turner and Nicole Kidman on to the London stage, where she has already been seen taking part in Eve Ensler's Vagina Monologues. She did some theatre - 'as one does' - when she was studying at Cornell University and the Goodman Theatre School at Chicago's DePaul University. She has also performed on the stage in New York in Christopher Hampton's The Philanthropist and Alan Ayckbourn's Absent Friends. The left-hand coast of America will not get such a close view.
'LA doesn't seem like the right climate; it doesn't seem that the attention span here is long enough. I was trying to imagine The Real Thing [by Tom Stoppard] coming over but it would feel blasphemous almost to wander off a palm-tree-laden street into a theatre to see the brilliant performances of those actors. It would be too surreal.'
One of the attractions of working in London is that it was her home as a child when her father was studying at the London Film School. She went to Coleridge school in Crouch End and St Aidan's in Haringey and plans to live part-time in London; her current home is 'roughly - very roughly - in Malibu'. Her life has been a peripatetic one: born in Chicago, then off as a family to Puerto Rico to stay with her grandparents so that her father could save money for his studies, then London, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Los Angeles, Vancouver, LA again, entering and exiting a marriage with X-Files set designer Clyde Klotz and becoming a mother of daughter, Piper, in the meantime.
Her profession has never been under greater political scrutiny. The actors' strike which started in April has become increasingly bitter, the presidential candidates are always anxious for the endorsement and fund-raising powers of a celebrated name, and Hollywood has come under political fire for its marketing of violence to children.
'It is a curious predicament that we are in right now, in the amount of violence and projected hatred that is in front of our eyes on a regular basis,' says Anderson. 'I cannot watch the news, I cannot read a load of newspaper articles. I would get so distracted with wanting to do something and help. The enormous amount of sorrow and loss is overwhelming... what is so ironic is that this is obviously something people want to see.
'We have this despair that we're living this American life and in some way we release that through this aggression that comes through in our form of entertainment. In some way, we're getting out all the rage and dissatisfaction and frustration. Is that healthy because it's an outlet that is not affecting our home life? Or by seeing that in the movies, are we then able to go home and have an excuse to slap our loved one? It's so hard to know.'
Her own political moves have been mainly in support of Hillary Clinton. 'I have to say that Gore is the lesser of many evils, so to speak, but I actually have a lot of faith in him.' She thinks Hillary has been the victim of media gossip-mongers, a subject on which she has some personal experience.
'Sometimes, I genuinely enjoy having conversations with journalists; enjoying the few moments of intimacy with a stranger is fascinating to me. But once in a while that backfires and you're suddenly reading something that has a bent on it that you didn't feel was in the least bit a part of the conversation that you thought you were having. Then you get overly protective and say very little and then you come out of the hole again.'
Writing about the success of The House of Mirth , Wharton, who died in 1937, explained that 'a frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys. Its tragic implication lies in its power of debasing people and ideals'. Anderson agrees that there are plenty of modern-day parallels here.
'A perfect example would be that we're doing this extravagant television series, where we spend $3.5 million per episode, at the same time as people are starving all over the world and we work these ridiculous hours - 14-, 16- ,18-hour days with people driving home at five in the morning; something is only done about those hours when somebody dies,' she says. 'Disaster is the only thing that will put a stop to frivolity.'
The House of Mirth opens on 13 October
Transcript appears courtesy of The Observer.