A Woman of Substance
With a body of work ranging from period dramas to sci-fi thrillers, Gillian Anderson has established herself as one of the world's most compelling and versatile actresss. As "The Fall" returns to our screens, she talks to Bazaar about feminism, sexual identity and why she never gives up
By Elizabeth Day
Harper's Bazaar: October 2016
Gillian Anderson was 11 when she went for her first audition. It was for the part of Alice in a production of Alice in Wonderland at the local theatre in Michigan. 'I don't know where that idea came from,' she says now, lying on a bed in a friend's house in Santa Monica, with her head propped up against a pillow. She has just flown in from London and has been up since 3am because of jet-lag. 'So,' she says grinning, 'if I fall asleep in the middle of a question, don't take it personally.'
The 11-year-old Anderson had no professional acting experience. Her mother was a computer analyst and her father worked in film post-production. The family had just moved back from almost a decade living in London. She didn't fit in. 'There were 150 girls who showed up for Alice on that day and obviously, I didn't get it,' she says matter-of-factly. 'And I think I thought, "Oh well then, I'm not supposed to do this," and "I quit."' But then, two years later, she decided to do some acting lessons at the same theatre. The teacher took Anderson aside and told her he remembered her auditioning. 'And he said, "You know, we wanted to cast you, you were our number-once choice, but you came out of nowhere! We had no idea who you were. This was the lead in our Christmas special and we couldn't take the risk."' Anderson laughs. Her laugh is surprising for someone with such elegant, fine-boned features - a highly contagious sound halfway between cackling and bubbling, to which several YouTube montages are devoted. She says the whole Alice experience 'was such a lesson for me in not giving up'.
And it's lucky for us that she didn't. At 48, Anderson is one of the most versatile actresses around, equally at home on stage or screen, in period drama or cult sci-fi, who has played everything from an FBI special agent investigating the paranormal to the icy Lady Dedlock and the ghostly Miss Haversham in the BBC adaptations of Bleak House and Great Expectations. This year alone, she has starred in BBC One's War & Peace, returned as Dana Scully in a revival of The X-Files and reprised her Olivier-nominated turn as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire in New York.
And now she is about to return as DSI Stella Gibson in the highly acclaimed BBC detective series The Fall. Once again, she will appear alongside Jamie Dornan, who plays the sadistic serial killer Paul Spector. Her portrayal of Stella - a sexually adventurous, supremely empowered character - has won Anderson critical plaudits and award nomination in equal measure.
'I understand Stella,' Anderson says. 'She's quite effortless. The juxtaposition between her masculinity and her femininity... she's not trying too hard at one or the other. She just is.' The same can be said of Anderson herself. She is self-evidently beautiful, with her startling blue yes, aquiline profile and still, direct gaze. But there is steel beneath the velvet: a sense that her mind is constantly analysing and assessing; that she will stand up for herself when required. She is inscrutable in a very sexy way.
'I think also I've always behaved more like a traditional man than like a woman,' she admits. 'You know, all the adjectives that you could use to describe how I operate in my life and how I move forwrad and control and grasp things and run with them, are more commonly used to describe men. I have a tendency, I think, to have longer-lasting relationships with men who are in touch with her feminine sides.'
She sees a lot of herself in her television alter ego. Like Stella, she is something of an observer: both English and American, splitting her time between the countries, with an accent that shifts according to which side of the Atlantic she finds herself on. 'I always feel like an outsider,' she says. When she went to Chicago to study at DePaul University, she decided to not live in halls. 'I found my own apartment. I don't know why. Everyone else was in the dorms... I don't think I ever wanted to fit in, so I'm quite comfortable not...'
Also like Stella, Anderson is an unapologetic feminist. When I ask her what she makes of our new prime minister, she says: 'I have high hopes actually... I think it's just bloody good that there's a woman in charge.' On finding out she had been given half her co-star David Duchovny's salary on The X-Files, she demanded equal pay for the 2016 comeback series. 'So much of the foundation of feminism is about inequality, and that is a blatant inequality.' Her reasoning was straightforward: 'They're not going to make The X-Files without me. They're either going to step up to the plate or they're not going to make them at all, so I don't really feel that I put my neck out in any way. Women on a daily basis, you know, stepping into their bosses' office to ask for a raise, or to have the conversation about equality, then the stakes are so much higher.'
Anderson has been open in the past about being attracted to both men and women. Last year, she declared in an interview: 'To me, a relationship is about loving another human being; their gender is irrelevant.' Yet she has been married to a man twice, and has three children - Piper, 21, Oscar, nine, and Felix, seven - from two relationships. Her daughter is studying production and costume design and is 'very political', part of a generation of what Anderson describes as 'really curious, proactive young women who want to see change.'
Her young sons understand what their mother does but 'do they care? Not one iota. No interest whatsoever.' They have no idea their mother was voted Sexiest Woman in the World by FHM 20 years ago - and it's probably just as well. 'I never understood that,' she says now. 'I had no clue what anybody was talking about.' She remembers doing an interview with the magazine while wearing flannel pyjamas in a hotel room in Vancouver 'and it suddenly hit me... there is no relevance to me whatsoever. It's purely just outward projection.'
Partly because of this salutary early experience, Anderson has managed to maintain a fairly balance attitude to her industry's obsession with youth. 'There's a freedom in just not caring,' she says. 'Sometimes I don't think about [ageing] for long stretches. And then I'll go through a few days when I feel particularly old, ugly, whatever. And then I'll either get some sleep and it's passed, or I don't care.
'I have had a few moments of grieving youth over the past 10 years - which I think are all wonderful and necessary parts of the process. And the fact is, there's nothing I can do about it really, or any of us can. I'm fascinated by the fact that on some level we all think it's not really goin to happen to us until we start noticing the quality of our skin is changing, and we suddenly gasp, "When did that happen? When did my forearms start to have wrinkles on them?" And I think it's really important just to embrace whatever stage one is at, and try to have as much self-acceptance as possible.'
She smiles and leans her head back against the pillow. Whatever age she is, and whatever stage she's at, Gillian Anderson is defiantly in the prime of her life.
The most beautiful person you know:
'My 21-year-old daughter Piper. She is the most radiant, funny and glorious human I know.'
The most beautiful place on Earth:
'The father of my two boys has a tea estate in Sri Lanka that sits on top of the greenest mountains you have ever seen. It is beyond breathtaking.'
You feel most beautiful when...
'well rested, well groomed and grounded.'
Your favourite physical attribute: