Gillian Anderson: 'When he was just 30, my brother was prepared to die'
Actress Gillian Anderson talks about love, the loss of a sibling and the challenge of playing Miss Havisham.
By Bryony Gordon
December 26, 2011
Gillian Anderson has a tattoo on her right wrist that is in Sanskrit, and when I ask her what it means she tells me, laughing, that its rough translation is, "none of your business". Anderson is a curious mix of cautious and carefree, clamming up about some skin ink yet talking openly about her brother, Aaron, who died three months ago of a brain tumour. He was just 30. I remark, rather obviously, that it must have been a tough year. "Well, there's certainly been a lot happening this year. But I feel like I've learnt. I feel like I've changed in a positive way."
Aaron was diagnosed with neurofibromatosis when he was just three years old. It is a rare condition with no known cure and causes tumours to grow on nerve tissue, leading to skin and bone abnormalities, but Anderson says that "It's questionable as to whether this was related to that. His condition involves tumours but not very often brain tumours, so the fact that he had an inoperable one was shocking and not commonplace. He was getting his PhD at Stanford. He was in the middle of a young life."
"Aaron was a Buddhist and because of that he was prepared. He was diagnosed [with the brain tumour] at 27 and it got really rough at the end, but he was completely ready. So it was kind of remarkable for everybody who got to witness it and witness his journey." Was it almost tougher on those watching than on Aaron himself? "Yes and no. I mean, my parents are kind of extraordinary," she trails off. "I think it comes down to his perception of everything, his acceptance of his path. None of us were hanging on and trying to pull him back into the world. We didn't want it to be any different than the way it was happening because it was really clear that he was OK."
A lot of interviews dwell on Anderson's spells in therapy, her peripatetic childhood that saw her move from Chicago to Puerto Rico to London to Michigan, the panic attacks she has suffered while doing theatre. "I mean, the amount of times I read the same f------ things!" "This", Anderson says, "boggles my mind�" because she doesn't feel it is representative of the conversation she has had with journalists. It makes her seem like a self-indulgent luvvie, when in actual fact she is terribly good company.
We meet in London (this is home, with her partner and three children) to discuss her role as Miss Havisham in the BBC's Christmas adaptation of Great Expectations, her second Dickens role for the corporation, having played Lady Dedlock in their adaptation of Bleak House. Anderson is quite astonishingly beautiful, far more so than on screen, and speaks with a British accent, which somehow seems to suit her better. She arrives alone, roaring up in a 4x4 and apologising for being late, explaining that she almost ran out of petrol on the M4, while travelling to London from her place in the country. Where in the country? She clams up again, and when I tell her I only asked out of absent interest, that I'm not planning on noting down her entire address and then printing it in the paper, she relaxes a little - enough, at least, to name the county as Wiltshire.
And that's the thing about Anderson: she is fluent and articulate when asked about feelings and experiences, all the personal stuff, but get her on seemingly innocuous things and she becomes oddly private. The 43-year-old would probably refuse to tell you what she had for lunch, but ask her if she was aware of how young she was, by modern standards, when she had a baby and got married (she was 24), and she goes off on one. "Well, I've never really been aware of anything in my life. I mean, when I was doing The X-Files, people used to say 'Oh my gosh, what a whirlwind life you've had - you got this job at 24, you got married, you got pregnant, you got divorced. But my response was always: isn't that just what people do? It never really hit me over the head in the way people were saying."
And then, without prompting: "I think that, - maybe the problem is, - I mean, I don't have any regrets whatsoever, because any regret would mean that I wish that I hadn't done the series or had Piper [her first child], but I guess if I were able to talk to my younger self, I might have wished for a little bit more consciousness. And I wish I had known that I had choice. Not choice in terms of whether or not I had the baby. I just think there were a few times in my life when I could have said no, or I could have stepped back. But I always just went whichever way the wind blew me."
She has been divorced twice, from an art director on The X-Files (the father of Piper, who is now 17) and the documentary maker Julian Ozanne. Might she marry Mark Griffiths, the businessman with whom she has sons of three and five? Or is she done with marriage? "Neither. I have no idea." She says she likes having children now, when she is not working 16 hours a day. [With Piper] I was shooting The X -Files and she was in my trailer while I was on set. And I also think that being a bit older makes a difference, just in terms of the kind of attention and appreciation for the child."
Did she feel a little trapped playing FBI agent Dana Scully? Anderson nods. The series ran for just under 10 years, and there have been two X-Files films, but you get the sense that she would be happy never to reprise the role again, that she has only relatively recently started getting the parts she really wants. Last year she was nominated for an Olivier for her portrayal of Nora in A Doll's House at the Donmar. There was a part in The Last King of Scotland, a wonderful turn as Wallis Simpson in Any Human Heart, and she starred as Mrs Castaway in the recent adaptation of The Crimson Petal and the White.
Anderson is a fabulous character actress, and won Bafta, Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for her Lady Dedlock performance, though taking on Miss Havisham somehow seems a greater challenge, perhaps because she is a more iconic Dickens character, who has been played by everyone from Martita Hunt to Anne Bancroft and Charlotte Rampling (Helena Bonham-Carter will also take on the role in a BBC film to be released next year).
Some have said Anderson is too beautiful, young and glamorous to play Miss Havisham, with one Dickens expert describing the actress as a "cougar rather than a crone". But on screen, Anderson is crack-lipped, scratched, and her performance has an almost ethereal quality to it. "It's an interesting argument [regarding the age of Miss Havisham], because of course it's written from Pip's perspective, and when I was 12, anybody above the age of 25 looked ancient. Presumably Miss Havisham was jilted at the altar when she was 18 or 20, and it's 25 years from then." And actually, Anderson wonders "if it's not more interesting if she's not 70. Because then it's certainly more provocative when older Pip shows up." So a little cougar-ish then.
She enjoyed playing Miss Havisham more than Lady Dedlock "because she's slightly mischievous and naughty and her dialogue is more poetic. And also, Miss Havisham seems a lot more eccentric." We talk a bit about Dickens. She says she isn't more of a fan of him than, say, Emily Bronte or Edith Wharton - and her love of London. "It feels like home and it has for a long time." Her eyes light up when she talks about the flat she lived in as a child in Haringey, about the "hedge smell" of Crouch End.
She apologises but she has to go. I ask where she's off to and the gates come down again. "I have to go to a premiere," she says bashfully. Of what? "Um, not anything I'm in." I press on, and eventually discover she is going to Mission: Impossible 4, because she has "some friends" in it. Not Tom Cruise, it turns out, but a nice British actor whose name she won't tell me (I gather it is Simon Pegg). You look like you are dreading it, I say. She starts laughing and puts on her best gritted-teeth face. "I'm not quite sure why I am going, but yes, it will be fun. It will."