October 22, 2000
Playing with Fire
By Grace Bradberry
Gillian Anderson is in her trailer wrestling with a punch bag. It stands on a spring-loaded base, next to the exercise bike, and for some reason she considers it to be in the wrong place. She is not happy about the lighting either - the power is off, and the place is lit only by dim, yellow emergency bulbs. "Ambience is everything," she quips, poking her head around the door to call for help. Finally she sits down and discovers a rip in her shirt, just beneath the arm. "Sorry...." she says distractedly, tugging at the scratchy blue threads. "There's something very strange going on here." Then she laughs.
I had expected many things of Gillian Anderson. Aloofness. Caginess. Even hostility. But one thing I did not expect was giddiness. It is so much the reverse of what she projects on screen. As Agent Dana Scully, her character in The X-Files, she rarely smiles, let alone laughs. There is sexual tension, but it is of the buttoned-down variety - Scully never flirts.
It's early evening when we meet at The X-Files set, on a dusty ranch owned by the Walt Disney Company. It is north of LA, in a remote canyon beyond the San Fernando Valley. Signs at the entrance threaten trespassers. The X-Files crew have set up by a ramshackle wooden house next to a lake. Anderson has already been transformed into Scully - her naturally unruly amber hair has been dragged straight and she wears a black trouser suit. A production assistant interrupts her conversation with her hairdresser to introduce me, and my first thought is that she is small (5ft 3 in) and extremely beautiful.
She apologizes for the fact that I have been "waiting around so long with so little action," and looks around for another chair. Then she films a scene with a burly man, who is so familiar towards her - putting his arm around her at the end of the shot - that I assume she knows him well. But as she walks towards series creator Chris Carter, her back to the actor, she smiles and cringes. The man, it turns out, is merely a bit-part actor.
"He told me some stuff he shouldn't be telling anybody, says Anderson, as we walk back towards her trailer. On the way, she talks about how she used not to drink any coffee, but now has the occasional decaf. She took it up again because after she quit smoking in May, she began sucking lollipops and now wants to substitute decaf for candy. The punch bag is another way for "getting out the extra stuff," of which there is a lot right now: "I would slam my head against the wall if I didn't have to worry about bruising my forehead," is how she puts it.
Professionally, though, it is restraint that has again defined Anderson's work. She has delivered a revelatory performance in Terence Davies's masterful adaptation of the Edith Wharton novel The House of Mirth (On nationwide release from Friday). As Lily Bart, a beautiful but impoverished socialite trying to put aside her emotions as she searches for a wealthy husband.
Gillian Anderson brings a combination of poise, self-containment and intensity. When she smiles, it is a deliberate act, produced for decorative effect. As the film takes a dark turn, Anderson becomes stiller than ever. There has been talk of an Oscar nomination for Gillian Anderson. And why not? Before Boys Don't Cry, Hilary Swank, crowned as Best Actress in March, was best known for a stint on Beverly Hills 90210. Anderson, on the other hand, already has an Emmy and a Golden Globe Award for her portrayal of Scully in a series that has won critical acclaim. She has also appeared in Peter Chelsom's The Mighty and Playing By Heart.
As a teenager, Gillian Anderson was a punk - a fact that has turned into a cliche since she hit stardom - and despite the New Age music that periodically rises above our conversation, she still loves the realease of more anarchic music. "I recently went to a [Red Hot] Chili Peppers concert, and I was like a good little celebrity, standing to the side of the stage. And I regret not being in the mosh pit and I wish that I'd just f****** gone down there. Right now I want to be in a perpetual mosh pit."
This was not what Terence Davies perceived in her when he met her at London's Covent Garden Hotel in the summer of 1998 when she was on holiday in England. Having only seen photographs of Anderson, and never having watched The X- Files, he perceived in her a modern-day Greer Garson, with the luminous beauty he wanted for Lily Bart. Gillian Anderson, in turn, was prepared to break off from a holiday in London to meet Davies beause she had loved The Long Day Closes, the directo'rs evocation of his deeply troubled childhood in Liverpool. Davies subsequently flew to Los Angeles to hear Anderson read. Afterwards, Davies, known for his eccentric manner, offered her the part in the most formal terms.
Despite being set in turn-of-the-century New York, it was shot in Glasgow (a City she scoured for low-grease restaurants). Anderson read and reread Wharton's novel, making copious notes on her script, constantly fretting that she would reproduce Scully in Lily Bart. "Every once in a while I'd see something and go, 'Oh was that the way Scully would be?" I'm so bloody judgmental," But Scully never seems to fall in love, nor does she descend on a tragic spiral. This time Anderson was able to draw on some parts of her life that just don't get plumbed in The X-Files. "I can say that I have experienced that depth of love and yes, I am sure that an aspect of me drew on that," she acknowledges. "The wretchedness certainly I have felt at times in my life."
In one of the most powerful scenes, Lily Bart and the man she really loves, the equally impoverished Lawrence Selden, steal some time together beneath a tree. They merely touch hands, then kiss, but the charge between Gillian Anderson and Eric Stoltz, playing Selden, is greater than if they had made love. Anderson agrees: "There's an element of awkwardness, and there's an element of exposing oneself so tremendously in a way, even though we're all corseted up and everything," Intimacy and touch are not easy subjects for Gillian. When she first arrived on the set of The X-Files, aged 24, she found the physical contact of the crew hard to take. I'd always been such a private person, such a loner, and such a non-physical person, and all of a sudden hair, makeup, wardrobe were here at the same time. At the beginning, I couldn't take it. I think I had some tantrums... somebody would come from behind and brush my hair and I'd literally be like, 'Ugh', I felt violated, it was that strong. It must, from the outside, have looked as if I was just a spoilt bitch. And I probably was."
For whatever reason, Gillian Anderson spent most of her adolescence feeling alienated. She has given a variety of explanations, but has never been specific about the troubles that beset her. From the age of two to 11 she live in London, where her father took a course at the London Film School and a variety of jobs. Her mother operated computers at the Daily Mirror. Thean an old child (her brother and sister are still teenagers), she lived in flats in Clapton, Haringey and Crouch End. She smoked for the first time at eight behind the railway line, and hung out with the local children. "There was a crowd that was really rough and would beat up on people, and I went in and out of being one of them, and one of the ones beaten up by them."
When she moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, "My accent was so thick, they couldn't understand it," she says, falling into a mimicry that could bag her a job on EastEnders. She was admitted to a high school for highly motivated children - "I swear to God the only reason they accepted me back then was because I had a British accent." But the initial interest generated by her north London intonation soon fell away."I think I was disliked a lot When I was younger I think I showed off and I fed off the attention. And to a certain degree that has been satiated in this job, just in doing what I do. I think it's enough that I don't need to then push it."
Then, in her mid-teens, she got into an alternative-music crowd and acquired a boyfriend ten years older. "We were an active, known couple in the scene. And he was in a band." It was at this time that she dabbled in pain-numbing behaviours. Alcohol? Drugs? Anything that you can think of, some more than others, and some for longer tperiods than others," Her one moment of mainstream triumph was when she mounted a production of Edward Albee's A Dog's Story, and won an intershcools best actress prize. "I was the girl with combat boots and hair dyed pink, a nose-ring and dresses that were way too big stolen from thrift stores," she says. Couldn't she at least have raided the local department store? "I should never have said that," she says, half -wailing, half-laughing and covering her face. "I didn't want anything expensive, It wasn't of interest to me."
At 17, she left home to study drama at Chicago's DePaul University, deliberately eschewing the student dorm to live in a low-rent artists' district. She is still in thrall to some of the problems that plagued her as an adolescent. She has been in therapy in every city that she has live in, including Vancouver, where The X-Files was first shot, and now Los Angeles.
At one point I mention her temperament, and she corrects me and says it is much deeper than temperament. "My life has been devoted for a long time to - it's a very dramatic word but I have to say that it's true - survival. It's so easy and sometimes so welcome to take another path and to just go downhill." What ultimately precludes any self-destructive binge is her daughter Piper, now six, the product of her marriage to Clyde Klotz, a set designer whom she met during the first season of The X-Files. They were married after three months, and subsequently separated.
"People would say, 'You've had such a whirlwind life, y'know. The show, the pregnancy, the divorce'. And I'd be like 'Yeah, and so?' It was only afterwards that I thought, 'Holy mother of God'." The pregnancy causes consternation among the show's executives. There may even have been people wondering why she didn't have an abortion. "I think there were people who wished that I had. I am prochoice but I knew that I could not do that. I know that there were people saying, 'Why the f*** didn't she use a condom?" Her ambition did not run to abortions. "And on top of that, I didn't want another burden to carry around," she says, smiling. It was only a coupld of years ago that it hit her -"Oh my God, how could I do that? It was the first season. Things were so wharped and distorted I had no sense of anything."
She returned to the set just ten days after her caesarean section, carrying huge feelings of guilt both about the show, and about her daughter, whom she feared was bonding more with the nanny. Yet during those first three years, Gillian Anderson went from unknown actress to a cover star. I want how she had dealt with this literal ego-trip, and she tells a rather uncomfortable story. "There was a period going through my divorce when for weeks I was in tears, I was on the phone constantly to him, with lawyers, and we were constantly having to touch up my make-up just to get through.
"One of the producers pulled me aside and tried to tell me an analogy about an actress he had worked with who had started to do the covers and had started to get very full of herself and so she would show up to work late, and she was on the cellphone a lot. And I was absolutely appalled that he would think that was what was going on with me ... I mean everybody knew that I was going through a divorce. It made me more hypersensitive to not behave that way."
On the other hand, she has sometimes gone into battle to be treated as the equal of her co-star David Duchovny (who has more or less left the show, to be replaced by Robert Patrick). "There have certainly been times where I have felt incredibly taken advantage of, where I have put my foot down about some things that may look as if I'm being a bitch." In the first series, she was always to walk a few paces behind Duchovny. Like an orthodox Muslim wife? "Exactly." As her celebrity grew, Gillian Anderson wasn't having any of it. That she and Duchovny did not get along is well known. "We were friends during the pilot," she says. Then seems to think better of such a blunt statement and adds, "In a different way than we were through the rest of the show." Was there antipathy or just distance? "To be hones, a bit of both - yeah."
She refuses to give details, and instead becomes philosophical. "What is fascinating to me about life," she says, "is that the most important people in our lives are those who bring us the most pain." Ouch. "There were aspects of him that were very uncomfortable for me. And by the same token, I think, that under it all there was a great deal of mutual understanding with the situation that we found ourselves in. And by the grace of God, no matter what, we showed up and there was chemistry."
Gillian Anderson is sticking with the show for two more seasons. Her shooting schedule has been worked out so that she can regularly fly up to Vancouver - where Clyde Klotz still lives - to spend time with her daughter. Until now, it has been Piper who has travelled between Canada and California, spending three weeks in each. Her parents, now on amicable terms, decided that she should go to school in one place. In Hollywood, this is not nearly as obvious a choice as it might sound. There are some notable actors who put their children into school wherever they happen to be filming.
You wonder if her daughter will inherit some or any of Anderson's tempestuous nature. "She is a very precocious and rambunctious child," she says, rooting out a photograph. "This is not an example of her being precocious - but look at that pose!" Her daughter is standing on the beach, her hair blown askew by the wind, a hand clasped to her bosom as though she were about to orate. "She's got seaweed on her head and she was probably throwing rocks in the water. I am a good mother, but I know that genetically she's gonna have some stuff to work out.
"She's very stubbon. I try to have the conversation with her about her feelings and is she angry, is it something I've done? And she refuses to have that conversation. It's very challenging. I imagine that there will be a day when she comes to me screaming, saying, 'You f****** worked for the first seven years of my life. "Why?' The first nine it will be. But it's a choice of necessity, and it's a choice of human need to feel fulfilled in one's life." There is no doubt that Anderson is an intense person, but there's also a reckless joie de vivre that is very appealing. She likes to drive her Porsche fast, and last summer went on a course in Atlanta, learning to spin it on wet roads. 'I'm not afraid in that way. The fear that I have experienced in life, on emotional and psychological levels, is far greater than any fear I could experience from driving at 130mph in a car."
She owns a horse, practises pilates and has a spaniel puppy called Happy, who on the evening we meet causes her a certain amount of unhappiness by chewing the straw covering from one of her flip-flops. She also has a boyfriend whom she will not discuss, except to say that she has more or less cured herself of her addiction to what she has described as dangerous men." It's changed from being attracted to a dangerous man who might be an addict and completely self destructive to, lets say - though this is not what's happening now - a very grounded, intelligent, sexy photo-journalist who goes off and almost gets killed. Somebody who could actually have a pretty healthy relationship but, ooh,he's ....you know."
We may yet get to know the identity of her shadowy boyfriend. There is every possibility that Anderson's performance in The house of Mirth will win her awards. For years now, she has eschewed the various openings of envelopes that go on for months. But the walk down the red carpet could soon become a necessity, and she is unlikely to want to make that trek alone.
Transcript appears courtesy of The Times.