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The Globe and Mail
January 21, 2006

From The X-Files to Dickens

Gillian Anderson fled the celebrity of her role as former agent Scully of The X-Files. Now she's being acclaimed for a brilliant Bleak House performance, JOHN DOYLE writes


PASADENA, CALIF. -- Gillian Anderson is simply lying there, on a couch, waiting to be interviewed. She greets me with a wan but welcoming smile. She looks a little unhappy.

"Just sit down," she says. "We don't have much time, but ask away." This is good. The last time I saw Gillian Anderson down here during a TV Critics press tour was when The X-Files was at the height of its popularity. Anderson came to a Fox network event and I saw her surrounded by jostling journalists, all of them anxious to ask her questions. She looked scared, resentful and lost. After a mere few minutes, she fled.

Back then, she played the buttoned-down agent Dana Scully and was the co-star (along with David Duchovny) of a sci-fi show that became a cultural phenomenon. She was one of the most recognizable figures in the firmament of TV celebrities. She was a star. She also had red hair.

Now her hair is sandy-blond, shoulder-length and loose. She's wearing white slacks, a plain but elegant dark top and white boots. Her only jewellery is a glittering wedding ring. She's stretched out on a couch with a shawl wrapped around her because, somehow, she's aggravated an old back injury from the X-Files days. She's tired. She says she needs a nap.

She's here, on a rare return to Hollywood, to support her latest role. It's for TV, but it's British TV. Anderson plays one of the central figures in a stunning new adaptation of Charles Dickens's 1853 novel Bleak House (airing on Masterpiece Theatre on PBS, starting tomorrow night, for six weeks).

This is not the standard, slow-paced period drama familiar from years of Masterpiece Theatre productions. Bleak House is galvanizing, grown-up storytelling at the level of The Sopranos or Six Feet Under. It's dazzlingly good television. Anderson plays Lady Honoria Dedlock, a tragic figure with a dark secret. The story teems with characters and incidents, but Lady Dedlock is at its still centre, often alone and palely loitering while ominous events accumulate around her.

In the opening scene of what is the most lavishly praised and most-watched (in Britain) period adaptation in years, she's staring out a window. Her deadly dull husband asks if it's still raining. She acknowledges that it is, and says, to no one, "And I am so bored."

Bleak House proceeds from there, in anything but a boring manner. Adapted by veteran Andrew Davies (the BBC miniseries version of Pride and Prejudice, the Bridget Jones movies) as a fast-paced soap opera, it is instantly addictive, superbly entertaining drama. Davies adapted it as a 15-part series of 30-minute episodes. The episodes ran for several consecutive nights a week on the BBC, repeated together on Sundays. The idea was to mimic the fast storytelling and cliffhanger-filled style of Coronation Street or East Enders. It unfolded on British TV much as Dickens had written it, and it worked superbly well. Millions watched it. The critics adored it and Anderson was singled it for her heartbreaking turn as the doomed Lady Dedlock.

"I hadn't read the novel Bleak House," Anderson says. "I'd read Dickens, but not this novel. I'd read several of his great novels, though I think it's different if you read them when you're young. You appreciate the storytelling, the stand-out characters, but you don't appreciate his ability as a writer, the depth of his humanity. He writes about everything, the rich, the poor, the prisons, the law courts, the country houses, the orphans and the families. I read the script for Bleak House and I was tentative about it. I'd told the producers, 'I don't do television.' But they charmed me and I did actually read the novel. I was captivated."

In Bleak House, everything hinges on a lawsuit, the epic case known as Jarndyce and Jarndyce. It involves a series of wills, all of them disputed. A great fortune will go to whomever the court declares is the rightful beneficiary. An army of lawyers are making fortunes from the case. Chief among them is the cold-hearted blackguard Tulkinghorn (Charles Dance), who eventually learns that his client Lady Dedlock has a secret. There was a child born out of wedlock, a lover and a past that's as shrouded in mystery as Lady Dedlock's cold and troubled face.

There are two sweet young people without parents, who are claimants in the Jarndyce case. Their minder is the orphan Esther (Anna Maxwell Martin) who, like all orphans in Victorian literature, is a social atom, floating to and fro between the social classes. She has many suitors, and her presence stirs an uncharacteristic, emotional reaction from Lady Dedlock. There is a murder, a kidnapping, a case of smallpox, much deceit and greed. There is even a case of spontaneous human combustion.

A curiosity for me is Lady Dedlock's dreadful secret in the story. She's a fossilized creature, trapped by ideas and mores that are barely comprehensible to a modern audience. Can modern women sympathize with her? Anderson is having none of this caveat, but she's thoughtful about it.

"I think there is a general understanding of what it was like back then for women. All women today can identify with that. It's not so different from what their mothers faced -- a child born out of wedlock and taken away, the shame of that, the pain of the loss, the dead feeling that comes with being trapped in a loveless marriage and the pain of feeling that the best time was in your youth. It's about pain. That's Lady Dedlock's situation. Everybody can grasp that. Anyone who goes through a divorce, or loses a child, knows about the pain, and that's her pain. Dickens dissects human nature and human nature is timeless."

For all the acclaim that Bleak House has brought Anderson (and the entire cast) in Britain, there remains the matter of Anderson's flight from Hollywood. She fled her X-Files celebrity and status almost as quickly as she fled that TV-critics event a few years ago. She fled to Britain. A marriage had ended and she had a daughter to raise. Her personal life was being written about in celebrity-obsessed U.S. magazines. If she gave any interviews, she talked about being unhappy about talking about herself.

Based in London since 2003, she's done several demanding and acclaimed theatre roles there and appeared in a number of small movies made in Britain and Ireland. Some have never even been released in the United States or Canada. Mind you, soon after Bleak House runs on Masterpiece Theatre, she can be seen in Michael Winterbottom's film adaptation of Irish writer Laurence Sterne's madcap 18th-century classic, the novel Tristram Shandy (titled Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story). Still, she's been off the showbiz radar. Anderson says she's enjoying it all and is absolutely at peace with her life and career.

"I try in my life to follow my heart. Not just in relationships, but in what moves me and what is important in my life. I know what it feels like to do things that are soul-decaying. And a large part of life in Hollywood, living in that stereotypical way, I find unbelievably soul-decaying. And I choose, albeit frustratingly to other people in my life, not to expose myself too much to that.

"I don't get paid very much for the work I do, by some standards. I'm in a luxurious position that I did a series for nine years. I don't have to worry about a roof over my head. And I can make these kinds of choices. It's less to do with [expletive] you to the industry and more to do with me following my path."

In fleeing to Britain, Anderson was, in a way, going home. Born in Chicago in 1968, the family moved to England when she was a toddler. She spent 10 years growing up there before the family returned to the U.S., this time to Grand Rapids, Mich.. It was there, while in high school and an admitted tearaway, that Anderson decided on an acting career. After some good reviews for roles in off-Broadway plays, Anderson auditioned for some TV roles. At the age of 24, se found herself cast in The X-Files. Everything changed and, as Anderson admits today, she wasn't ready for it.

"I had no idea on any level what I was getting myself into. I wasn't on television much. I didn't watch television. I didn't even really know what a pilot was. Fox was putting its money on another show, not The X-Files. I was on contract. I signed a contract for 5? years before I even went to my final audition. I wasn't rich. I hadn't been paid a penny at that point. And even though we thought that after 13 episodes it might disappear, it just kept going. If I had known before we started, I most definitely would have said, 'Not on your life.' But, in retrospect, I'm really glad I did it."

And Anderson is not exactly willing to wipe The X-Files from her résumé forever. At a press conference earlier, asked about the rumoured possibility of another X-Files movie, she explained her position. "David [Duchovny, who played Agent Mulder] and I and Chris Carter -- the X-Files creator -- have been excited about and determined to do the next X-Files movie. I think it would be a huge amount of fun to get together in a reunion situation and just make a really good, really scary film. Now it has become complicated, for reasons I'm not sure about. There are contracts involved. Fox is involved and it's become a bit messy. Hopefully by the time we do it, whenever that is, people will still give a damn."

As our interview winds down, Anderson is still supine under her shawl. A PBS representative quietly reminds us there's only a few minutes left. Anderson is clearly exhausted and seems about to collapse further on the couch, just as Lady Dedlock swoons several times in Bleak House. Me, I think of a way of perking her up. All actors like to be praised, to have their good work noticed. I tell her I've seen a small Irish movie she made, called The Mighty Celt. In it, she plays an IRA widow raising a young boy in the immediate aftermath of the end of "the Troubles" in Northern Ireland. It's a sweet but very sophisticated movie about recovering from the trauma of violence and war. I tell her, truthfully, that she did an exceptional job with the difficult Northern Ireland accent.

She perks up immediately. She's no longer flat-out on the couch. She's sitting up, eager to talk about that little movie she knows is good. She thinks it unlikely that anybody in the U.S. or Canada will see it because of the regional accents. She asks me to do anything I can to pass the word that it's good and maybe get it released in Canada and the U.S. I promise to do it, but tell her I'm not that powerful.

"Oh, just talk about it," she says. "Like you talked to me about it. And Bleak House too. Thank you!" And there's nothing wan about her smile as she says goodbye. She's happy now.

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