Gillian Anderson: Self destruction is my default mode
She electrified the stage as Blanche DuBois and is steaming up our screens in The Fall. As she scoops Best Actress at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards she reveals all to Nick Curtis
By Nick Curtis
London Evening Standard: December 2, 2014
"It feels emotional," says Gillian Anderson, who is as small, pert and cautious as a wild bird. The 46-year-old star of The Fall is talking about winning the Natasha Richardson Award for Best Actress at the 60th Evening Standard Theatre Awards on Sunday night.
She's also talking about the role she won it for, Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire at the Young Vic, a booze-worn beauty and disgraced schoolmistress whose grand behaviour while seeking sanctuary in her sister's claustrophobic apartment is a red rag to her brutish brother-in-law Stanley.
Anderson's interpretation of Blanche was a personal and artistic benchmark - overstrung, brittle but profoundly sympathetic - in a radical production by Australian director Benedict Andrews that used modern dress and a revolving box of a set. The fastest-selling show in Young Vic history, it got rave reviews and has been broadcast to more than 2,000 cinema screens worldwide by National Theatre Live. The Standard's Henry Hitchings called Anderson "electrifying" while The Guardian praised her "stellar performance".
"It was bloody intense," says Anderson, in her clipped English accent laced with the odd Americanism. "A three-and-a-half hour play, for however many performances we did a week. I got injured. . ."
The cut on the shin she sustained from a flying plate in one typically fraught scene was nothing compared to the emotional toll, although Anderson went straight from the set into a publicity tour for a sci-fi novel she's co-written, then some overseas filming: "So I haven't yet embraced or processed the full extent of what that show meant to me. I haven't sat down and had a good cry, a liquid release of relief and grief that it is over and joy that it began. And somehow, this award, this recognition, is making me feel very emotional indeed."
Anderson had been "talking about playing Blanche since I was two years old" and "since it was something I was determined to do I did know that if I didn't do it soon I would be ageing myself out of it, because of the [Williams] estate's protection against her being cast too old".
She was introduced to Andrews by Vanessa Kirby, her co-star in a fine BBC production of Great Expectations (and, ultimately and brilliantly, again in Streetcar). "I am very opinionated, very controlling, I like to be involved," says Anderson, "but it was very clear when we sat down after Benedict had agreed to do it that he was the boss."
When a slot arose at the Young Vic it chimed with her belief that the show should be done "in a small theatre, in the round, in the middle of summer. I wanted it to feel timeless, not dated and definitely not futuristic. I didn't know until afterwards that Benedict was heading towards the same thing."
With regard to Blanche, she says: "There's not huge identification: I don't feel like a fragile person in this world or that society is bearing down on me. But in terms of Blanche's trajectory… I understand her desire for self-destruction. Even though on the one hand she is fighting for her life, she is also participating in her own demise, actively on a daily basis, not just through drink but through being in that house."
Is it sympathy or empathy Anderson feels? "Both, I think," she says. "My default is self-destruction, and anything on top of that is a bloody lot of work."
Anderson was an angry punk in her youth, and got arrested on graduation night. What form does her self-destruction take now? "Oh, so many forms over the years. Um, let's just gloss over that. She said to the journalist." She laughs: Anderson has a lovely laugh.
The Standard award represents recognition by her chosen hometown. Anderson was born in Chicago but lived in Crouch End and Stroud Green from the age of two to 11, before her family moved back to Michigan. "We didn’t really go to the theatre when I was a kid here," she recalls. "It was The Magic Roundabout, Blue Peter. But when I was a fish out of water in Grand Rapids, Michigan, once I had identified that I wanted to act, the women I looked up to were Judi [Dench], Helen [Mirren], Juliet Stevenson, Kristin Scott Thomas, of course Maggie [Smith]. That was the real stuff to aspire to, and I had a kind of secret understanding and yearning to be part of that."
Originally hoping for a career in theatre and film, she instead became in 1994 a massive TV star and a nerd's pin-up as Dana Scully in the phenomenally successful sci-fi show The X Files, where she also met her first husband, art director Clyde Klotz, and had her daughter Piper, now 20.
When the series ended in 2002, Anderson decamped from Los Angeles to London, married journalist Julian Ozanne, divorced him after two years, had sons Oscar and Felix - now eight and six - with businessman Mark Griffiths, and carved out a new career.
She was in Bleak House and Great Expectations on TV, in The Last King of Scotland and A Cock and Bull Story on the big screen, and was a pale but resolute Nora in A Doll's House at the Donmar. Now Blanche DuBois has put her alongside the Denches, Mirrens and Smiths, previous winners of the Evening Standard's Best Actress Award, in the event's milestone 60th year.
"Any time as an actor one can be in the same sentence as those women. . . it's beyond words," she says. "I wouldn't by any stretch say I was as good as them. But for the first time I feel that with the stuff that I am doing now, between Streetcar and The Fall, I am dipping my toe into some familiar territory with them."
Ah yes, The Fall. Allan Cubitt's BBC drama has given Anderson a role diametrically opposed to, but every bit as compelling as, Blanche, in the form of DSI Stella Gibson, the Met officer brought to Belfast to track down serial killer Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan). Anderson eloquently deflects the accusations of misogyny and exploitation that have dogged the show, saying that all its characters, including the victims, are fully realised, complex humans, and that the show is disturbing because it is so plausible. Of the 16-year-old babysitter Katie playing sexual mind games with the killer, she says: "I completely understand and sympathise and I might have done the same at that time of life."
Of Gibson, she says: "She is enigmatic, cold, intelligent, professional, strong, all of those things. There is vulnerability there and a sensitivity, that comes out in fits and spurts. When her raw patches are touched she is not infallible. But at the same time she is slightly scary."
We talk about Stella's blouses (they instantly put Anderson in character) and her sexual confidence, with men and women. Last Thursday viewers saw her make an impulsive pass at her coroner friend Tanya Reed Smith (Archie Panjabi), before being herself accosted by her boss and former lover Burns (John Lynch). These dramatic turns were capped, with typical Cubitt flare, with the revelation that Stella keeps a diary and that Spector has been in her room and read it.
Was she nervous of the lesbian storyline, given the furore her 2012 revelation that she'd had a fling with a girl in high school had caused? "No, not at all. I am an actively heterosexual woman who celebrates however people want to express their sexuality. I have been in support of gays and lesbians and transgenders since I was a teenager. My sister is gay and married to a woman and a lot of my friends are gay and lesbian."
Anderson's younger brother Aaron died of a brain tumour in 2011, as did her former high school girlfriend, hence her decision to speak out. Currently, Anderson is single, happily so.
We talk briefly about the hype surrounding her co-star Dornan's forthcoming role in Fifty Shades of Grey, a level of fame and attention greater than any she experienced in her X Files days. "I would have to get out the Uzis and start gunning people down. But he is extraordinarily grounded and self-deprecating and has a very good perspective. Just a sweet guy."
Anderson would have liked a bigger film career, and wrote her sci-fi novel A Vision of Fire with Jeff Rovin in the hope it would become a movie role. But she has no regrets. If she hadn't left LA and followed her heart to London "I wouldn't have the sons I have today, or live in the best city in the world. Every single morning I drive through the city, I am grateful and I see things I have never seen before, even on the school routes I take. I spent many an hour on the South Bank in the summer with the boys. It's a bike-friendly city, mostly. The green spaces blow my mind. And in all my years of seeing a lot of theatre in this city, I can count on one hand the shows I didn't like."