She's known to sci-fi geeks and period-drama addicts alike as the queen of controlled froideur. Yet the real Gillian Anderson is intense, emotional and funny. Chloe Fox meets the unpredictable actress mid-marriage break-up to talk husbands, houses and escaping Hollywood. Photographed by Robert Wyatt
Gillian Anderson is standing in the living room of her Notting Hill townhouse, gazing up at the huge painting that hands above the fireplace. Head cocked to one side, hands firmly on hips, one white-snakeskin-booted foot crossed over the other, she looks from behind like a very determined teenager, right down to the messy ponytail from which most of her shoulder-length hair has escaped. "I love how complex it is!" she shrieks with a naughty giggle. "Look, there's a maze and there's the Taj Mahal, and there's a snake and there, look, look in the middle, at the girl and boy twins! It's called The Impossible Marriage," she gabbles, barely drawing breath, gesticulating manically, running her hands through her un-brushed hair. "It's so magical and so weird. I kind of feel like it was painted for me!"
Absolutely, and in every way, Gillian Anderson is not what you would expect. That's if what you'd expect is what I expected: a kind of real-life version of Dana Scully, the sceptical, no-nonsense, trouser-suited FBI agent Anderson played for almost a decade (from 1993 until 2002) on the hit American sci-fi TV show The X Files. The real obvious difference is a simple one: the most famous redhead of recent times is not a redhead at all ("No, no, mousy blonde with highlights"). She is also not humourless, not uptight, not clipped, not cold or intimidating. She giggles, gossips, charges round her sky-lit kitchen to show me photographs of her 2004 Kenyan beach marriage to former Financial Times foreign correspondent Julian Ozanne and almost falls over her excitable bull-terrier puppy, Radley, in the process. "Come and see Julian's study," she enthuses, just as I've made it over to the corner of the kitchen in which she's admiring the plates her 11-year-old daughter, Piper, decorated at the weekend. "That's a Diane Arbus print. I love it. Don't you love it?" she gestures en route to the room in question, where heaving bookshelves, leather armchairs and African maps announce that an alpha male has definitely been there.
It's hard not to envy Anderson's life, which seems as sun-filled as her home. It is surprising, therefore, to hear - a matter of weeks after our interview - that Anderson and Ozanne have separated. Aware of the effect it might have on my article, Anderson rings me to tell me herself. She sounds tired, but remains the consummate professional. "It's an amicable parting," she explains carefully, "but however mutual these decisions are, they are always going to be painful. We have had a wonderful life together and obviously there is a lot of grief right now."
Surprisingly, this is the first time I have heard her sound remotely American. By virtue of being married to an Englishman and making a life in London, Anderson - who also lived here until the age of 11 - sounds more English than you or I. But when she explains that "it is not appropriate to go into the details" of the break-up, it is the American star speaking, only too aware of the prevailing cultural obsession with the personal lives of celebrities.
When casting was taking place for last year's soap-opera-style BBC adaptation of Charles Dickens' Bleak House, no-one quite believed the casting director, Kate Rhodes James, when she said that Gillian Anderson lived in London. It was fortunate for them that she knew. Anderson's cut-glass English accent was just one of the many remarkable things about her Bafta-nominated portrayal of Lady Honoria Dedlock, a beautiful aristocrat woman with a painful secret. "Haunting", "mesmerizing", "breathtaking", said the reviews. "Absolutely not," said most people if you suggested dinner on a Bleak House night.
"Bleak House has definitely changed stuff for me," Anderson says from her elbows-on-knees position on the edge of a vast sofa, looking intently down at the Golden Virginia tobacco she is rolling between her unmanicured fingers. "I feel like my performance was an example of what was lurking inside me that I hadn't been able to release before." But when she was first offered the part, Anderson turned it down, not wanting to be pigeonholed as a television actress. "I gave nine years of my life to The X Files," she snaps by way of explanation, fixing me with the clearest green-blue eyes I've ever seen.
Gillian Anderson made such a perfect Agent Scully. But, as an unknown 25-year-old actress, she very nearly didn't get the part because the producers didn't think she was conventionally sexy enough. Back in those days, her tiny 5ft 3in frame was considerably plumper than it is now, but those hypnotic eyes won out in the end. Anderson - who has that rare kind of beauty that deepens every time you look at it - quickly became one of the most famous faces in the world. Today, most of her internet fan sites are closed to new members, although I did find some spaces on Obsse.com - that's Order of the Blessed Saint Scully the Enigmatic, for those who want to worship (and I'm not joking) at the temple of "Her Pantsuitedness."
When The X Files ended in 2002, Anderson was happy to walk away - from its geeky sci-fi fans (who still inundate her with obsessive fan mail); from Vancouver (where she spent 10 months of the year filming the show, in often sub-zero conditions); from the 12- to 16-hour working days; from the never-ending blur of press junkets and photo shoots; and from the constant speculation about her fractious relationship with co-star David Duchovny. Worth millions thanks to the series, she could afford to take some time off. But rather than lying by a swimming pool reading scripts, Anderson turned her life totally around by moving to London. "I had got to a point in my life where I was voluntarily going on [an NBC game show called] Hollywood Squares," she explains, with a roll of those eyes. "It was soul-decaying and I needed to get out." Not long after arriving here, Anderson - who was in another relationship at the time - met Ozanne at a mutual friend's dinner party. They continued to run into each other over the next few months and soon fell in love.
Basing herself in London might have made sense personally, but professionally Anderson's move was a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it released her from her pigeonhole ("In England, I am considered an actress. In America, I am a television celebrity"). But on the other hand it scuppered any plans she might have had to become a big-bucks Hollywood movie star. "I know the game. I know how it work," concedes the woman who, since returning to London, has put in two very well-reviewed theatre performances - in What the Night is For at the Comedy Theatre in the West End and The Sweetest Swing in Baseball at the Royal Court. "There is no question that my living here is lessening my chances of being noticed in America and becoming a box-office star," she declares matter-of-factly, gently picking a stray piece of tobacco off her tongue and in the process revealing a Sanskrit tattoo - which translates as "every day" - on her right wrist (she has two others, on her ankle and her hip). "Having said that, I have made some very interesting independent movies in the past few years and just being in London has made me a happier person because it is a place where I can be totally myself."
When Anderson talks deeply about herself, she has a habit of staring, almost trance-like, into the middle distance. She chooses her words carefully - often pausing for many seconds to do so - and gently sucks in her bottom lip while she thinks. This, after all, is a woman who has given so many interviews in the past that at one point, she says, she barely knew who the real her was any more. She also doesn't take at all kindly to misrepresentation. Or inaccuracy for that matter. "The other day I did a phone interview about Bleak House with a journalist who had very obviously not seen it," she recalls, her voice clipped with disapproval. "At a certain point, I told her I was going to end the interview there and she could call me back once she'd actually bothered to watch it."
In life, Anderson feels she is chaotic, always chasing her own tail. But when it comes to her work, she is the opposite: disciplined, controlled, the consummate professional. Kevin Macdonald, who recently directed her in The Last King of Scotland, the film of Giles Foden's novel about Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, is fascinated by her precision. "It's like she homes in on the character," he enthuses of her portrayal of Sarah Zach, an Israeli doctor who has a brief affair with Idi Amin's Scottish private physician, played by James McAvoy. "And, once she has perfected the part - down to the most intricate facial expressions - she doesn't mess around. All her takes are absolutely spot-on." Macdonald, who first met Anderson when they were both on a panel for the World Cinema Awards two yeas ago, was struck by the intellect which, he would argue, is the key to her considerable talent as an actress. He was also enthralled by her acerbic dismissal of a lot of the films in competition. "She's certainly a feisty one," he laughs. "When I met her for the part in LA, she turned up and immediately started telling me what she liked and disliked about the script. Not many actresses would come to an audition and start asking 'What are you trying to do there?' and 'What's the point of that?' but that's what makes Gillian such a rare creature."
It is a marker of Anderson's intelligence as an actress that she resists typecasting. Whether she is playing an aristocrat (House of Mirth, Bleak House), a Northern Irish working-class mother (The Mighty Celt) or a comic version of herself (A Cock and Bull Story), she does it with every fibre of her being; morphing, chameleon-like, from one to the next. Even on the Vogue photo shoot, she doesn't play at being a postmodern Hitchcock heroine in blouse and pencil skirt: she physically becomes her, down to the slow hip-swinging walk which has every eye in the room following her from set to changing room. "Just when I think I have worked Gill out, she surprises me again," says casting director Dixie Chassay, who is also Ozanne's goddaughter. "She's hard to really get to know - both as an actress and as a friend - which to me only makes her more fascinating."
In her 37 years, Gillian Leigh Anderson has lived more lives than most. Shortly after she was born, her parents moved from Chicago to Puerto Rico. Then, when Gillian (whose first words were in Spanish) was just 15 months old, they set off once again; this time for London's Crouch End so her father, Edward, could study film production at the London School of Film Technique. At the age of 11, Anderson's life was uprooted once more when the family moved back to America and the small town of Grand Rapids in Michigan, where her father took a job in video post-production and her mother, Rosemary, worked in computers. "I grew up as an English schoolgirl with American parents, being teased about being a Yank," Anderson (who has been in and out of therapy since the tender age of 14) has said of her all-over-the-place early years. "Then I went to American and that didn't feel like home either."
In her work, Anderson seems to have found an outlet for, and a hiding place from, her identity crisis. "It is only on a film set that all the chatter and the nonsense in my head go quiet and I really, truly know who I am," she says, with that far-off stare again. In a blink, she switches from contemplative mode, putting her small hand on my arm and letting out a guttural laugh. "Actually, do you know what?" she says, as if it has only just occurred to her. "Acting is actually the one area in my life that I don't feel that I am fucking up in some way!"
Definitely one of life's panickers, Anderson has a tendency to speak faster and faster as she tells a story about a stressful situation. "So I'm standing in a freezing-cold house in a dark forest in the middle of winter," she says of one of the days she spent at the end of last year filming Straightheads, a low-budget thriller about a middle-class couple who survive a gang attack and embark on a violent spree. "I'm trying to get my head in the right place for the scene. But the house is full of people. And the soundman is eating his lunch in front of me and breaking my concentration. And I have to carry this gun. But the gun's broken. And I'm holding it together. And then it starts to rain. And we have to wait to shoot the scene. And the crew are standing around joking and laughing and I just lose it. I throw a major tantrum. 'What the fuck is going on here?' I shout. And then I storm off into the rain. Because, you know, I just need to get out of there and go for a fucking walk." Then she looks at me wide-eyed, genuinely frazzled by the mere memory of it. "I can be tricky when I want to be," she smirks sheepishly.
"Sure, she had her moments, but she was a real trouper almost all of the time," says director Dan Reed when I ask him about the incident. "She didn't put on any airs and graces, even when she has to shoot a sex scene with Danny Dyer in the middle of the night, in the middle of a wood, in minus five degrees."
A word that comes up a lot when people talk about Gillian Anderson is "intensity". Here is a woman who doesn't do anything by halves, be it acting, partying, indulging or abstaining. As a teenager in Michigan - whose fellow high-school pupils voted her "most likely to be arrested" - she rebelled with all her force; dyeing her hair purple, smoking, drinking and drugging to excess and gluing her school gates shut on graduation night. When she landed the part of Scully, she poured all that energy into her work. She literally gave it her everything, returning to work just 10 days after she gave birth to her daughter Piper (whose father, Clyde Klotz, was an art director on the series and with whom Piper lived in Vancouver until very recently). "I used to deal with the stress of working on the series by eating well or not eating well," she remembers. "One minute I was macrobiotic and the next I wasn't. Sometimes I'd be drinking five coffees a day and then I wouldn't drink any." This confused attitude to her body continues to this day. "There are basically two of me," she confesses. "One of me eats well, meditates and looks after myself and the other is totally undisciplined in every way."
When Anderson was 21, she gave up drinking for a long period of time. ("I like alcohol a bit too much," she has been quoted as saying.) She is no longer, however, teetotal. "There are periods when I do drink, and periods when I don't," she explains. Having made a point of not discussing her relationship with alcohol in public, however, she has inadvertently encouraged speculation. Earlier this year, a newspaper reported an alleged incident involving Anderson - who witnesses say had drunk at least six glasses of red wine - being physically and verbally aggressive towards a man for not paying enough attention to his child on a flight from Sri Lanka to London. Suffice to say that, at the time, Anderson was going through a drinking phase. Currently, she isn't. "I'm not drinking at the moment," is all she will say.
There may be two of her in the rest of her life, but when it comes to her work there is only one, very focused Gillian Anderson. "My work is the one area that I am always, without fail, incredibly disciplined in," insists Anderson (who, as well as considering her next acting move, has written her own screenplay and has plans to direct). "It silences all the self-centred crap and the anxieties and the fears that dog em in the rest of my life. I remember once having a particularly emotional time in my private life while I was working on a film. One day I had this realisation that I had been so immersed in the work that I hadn't thought about any of it for hours. The relief I felt was incredible," she almost sighs, fixing me with those ocean-deep eyes which, just for a moment, look childishly excited. "It was like this light bulb went on and I thought to myself: 'Well, at least there is one way out of the madness.'"