The Magnificent Anderson
By Jane Crowther
Total Film: December 2013
She's the adoptive Brit who turned her back on Hollywood after The X-Files, and makes us want to believe in the gutsy characters she plays on big and small screen. Total Film meets the incomparable Gillian Anderson.
There's a well-worn adage in Hollywood that there are no great roles for women over 40. Gillian Anderson - looking even better at 45 than she did at 24 - seems to have no such problem. When she joints Total Film for coffee in a Convent Garden hotel she's rushed direct from the airport having flown in from filming new NBC drama Crisis in Chicago ("I put make-up on in the car!" she admits, ordering a strong coffee), and is currently juggling that with guest spots in hit show Hannibal, a number of indie films, an up-coming run in A Streetcar Named Desire at the Young Vic and the second series of BBC chiller, The Fall. In fact, in the decade since leaving her calling-card role as Dana Scully in the zeitgeisty The X-Files, Anderson seems to have grown stronger and more prolific in her work - playing complex, compelling woman who are not mere ciphers or eye-candy. Like DCI Stella Gibson in The Fall, an attractive, intelligent, capable woman who is as single-minded at getting her serial killer perp as she is at initiating a no-strings one night stand. As played by Anderson with a clear-cut English accent, cool stare and sensual selection in silk shirts, Gibson (carved in the mold of Helen Mirren's adept DCI Tennison in Prime Suspect) became a mesmerising appointment-to-view and can-do heroine for creeped-out viewers (also prompting Anderson to create a line of mugs and fridge magnets extolling the phrase "What would Stella do?", after seeing an internet meme dedicated to her character). The merchandise, aptly, raises funds (via powertodogood.com) for women's charity Refuge and shows how much audiences of both genders embraced Anderson's accomplished, mature and yep, sexy female protagonist.
"I think it's great," she smiles when asks about her sex symbol status as Gibson. "The fact that there's an appreciation for her intelligence and her independence. She's fiercely feminist and that's not off-putting to men. She's not a woman deliberately trying to get her way or pursue her career through her sexuality. Early on, after I'd seen a few of the cuts, I actually called the editor and said, 'Pay attention. She's going to be really good for women. Jump on the bandwagon now before anybody else does.'"
Anderson would known about being good for women. Her career breakthrough as Special Agent Scully made her a feminist icon in a groundbreaking TV show, her character a steely, bright equal to David Duchovny's Agent Mulder. "I feel that there's more of me in Stella than there was in Scully," she muses, mentioning the role she played more than a decade ago happily and unprompted. "I felt that from the moment I opened the page, I got her. She's a conundrum, which is appealing. I'm very clear on the fact that she's not me - I'm not that person. But I'm absolutely fascinated to find out more about her and how she handles certain situations."
Today, despite wearing a Stella-esque smart black mac cinched at the waist, Anderson is certainly a world away form the sternness of Gibson. Enviably fresh-faced in spite of the eight-hour flight and on a whirlwind schedule (plane, interview, meetings, school run) she's warm, funny, refreshingly candid. She shares her orange juice, confiding that 'I do have the tendency to run off at the mouth' and stows her mobile well away to stop interruptions, only looking at it very apologetically when she gets a test that 'could be an emergency' [it is of sorts, she's forgotten her sons' footie kit]. Like Stella, though, she has the unequivocal gaze and confident assurance of someone who's been around the block and doesn't waste time with pretence.
Take The X-Files, which has its 20th anniversary this year. Many an actor may discuss through gritted teeth how 'blessed' they feel to have had a star-making role (or bitch about how no one will shut up about it) but Anderson has achieved a certain peace with her red-headed special agent. In the past she has admitted to a strained relationship with Duchovny and unforgiving hours on the show but now seems philosophical about being eternally linked to Scully.
"It's been 20 years since we began [The X-Files] and 11 years since we stopped. Within those 11 years, there was a certain point, maybe three years ago, when I was suddenly able to look at it fondly,"she laughs. "Always fondly, to a degree, but I just needed the distance. I remember at various times on the way looking at things relating to it and not be able to take it in; not able to pull myself back enough from it to be able to look at it form all that it was and the impact that it had. That it was drastically different than anything else and that it was a trailblazer. But I don't think I really realised to what degree until I was further from that. And also didn't realise what a great gig it was, really how cool it was to be a part of, how cool the character really was, how cool Mulder was..." Hindsight, we suggest, it's a wonderful thing. She nods, "When actually the grass is greener."
She'll be attending New York's Comic-Con with Duchovny this year and admits that she needs to sit down and re-watch the shows to remind herself of some of those great episodes. "It's the style of writing, which is very stylised and quirky," she says when asked to pinpoint why The X-Files was such a huge hit. "For a sci-fi mythology series, we had the black-and-white Triangle episodes.. what series takes the liberties that we took? The fact that we had some comedic episodes, that some of them were shot different from others. The audience had no idea what to expect from week to week."
The long gig on The X-Files made her wary of accepting TV serials again. But The Fall was one of three projects that made her change her mind. Then came the offer to film a three-episode arc as Dr. Lecter's (Mads Mikkelson) psychiatrist, Dr. Bebedlia du Maurier, in Hannibal. "It was one of those things where I'd be in the habit of saying no, but I started reading it and then I had a couple of conversations with [series creator] Bryan Fuller, and I thought, "Actually this is really cool. And why not?" Those three episodes turned into five and it looks like Anderson could become a regular fixture. "I've been fighting really hard to continue to pop in now and then. So it looks like she's, you know, continuing," she smiles.
Filming Hannibal in Toronto, Anderson has also been commuting from her London home to Chicago for Crisis (premiering in the States in February), where she plays a corporate maven and mother of one of a group of Washington D.C. children, kidnapped to exert pressure on their high-profile parents. "What the kidnappers ask the parents to do offsets the whole country - they start to affect satellites, drones, all that stuff. It all starts to fall apart." It must be good, Anderson has singed up to "five years or something' - quite a validation for an actress who juggles her career with motherhood to two boys (four and six) and a teenage daughter.
"There are things that I wanted to do in the past that I wasn't able to work out schedule-wise," she admits practically. ""but it all comes down to the material. It comes down to whether or not I feel I've done it before. People say, "Why would you take another police role [after Scully]..." but to me they're completely different. And part of the challenge, an even bigger challenge, is for an actor to play 10 different FBI agents and make them all completely different."
Having said that, Anderson confesses that her career trajectory after The X-Files might have been very different had she stayed in L.A. Instead she moved to Britain, where she'd lived as a girl between the ages of two and 11 when her father attended the London Film School. The move gave her highly acclaimed roles in the BBC's Bleak House and Great Expectations and movies The Mighty Celt, The Last King of Scotland and Shadow Dancer. "I don't know what I would have done [in LA] but it wouldn't have been this. I wouldn't have had the opportunity to do the BBC things and also to continue to have a life in theatre. I think it's been much more possible for British actors to do it all [TV, film, theatre] than American actors for a long time - [In America] people get pigeonholed into one thing or another; there wasn't such respect for TV and we'd often turn things down to do films. So that's what's changing."
It obviously helped that Anderson can flip expertly from RP English to non-specific American at the blink of an eye (during out chat she talks in her English accent with only the flattened vowel of her pronunciation of 'process' giving any hint of her Chicago birthplace). And she seems as fascinated as anyone as to why she's 'hard-wired' to be able to switch so easily. "Someone just sent me an article yesterday about this linguist in Norfolk who'd written this article about my accent. The reason is because I made the move [to America] when I was 11. If I left England before that, I'd have had an American accent and completely lost the British. There are a couple of accents that I haven't tried that I'm a bit terrified of, and I'm not going to tell you what they are so I can pretend I can do them if someone offers me a job!"
Being offered a job doesn't seem to be something she need worry about. Coming up in 2013 she's got low-budget, Indian-set child slavery drama Sold ("I turned down something else with a director I really wanted to work with that came up at the last minute and actually paid! But it felt very important for me to stick with this."). Then there's time-travel mystery I'll Follow You Down ("really lovely film"), Mr. Morgan's Last Love alongside Michael Caine and sci-fi Our Robot Overlords from Grabbers director Jon Wright ("you can't say no to a film with Ben Kingsley!"). And that second series of The Fall, which left audiences on cliffhanger tenterhooks at the end of the final episode. So in the follow-up, what will Stella do? This is the point at which Anderson closes up. "It's still going to be in Belfast," she says carefully. "It's still cat and mouse but... I'm sorry, I can't say! And also you don't want me to. From what I've heard from [writer and executive producer] Allan Cubitt, what they have planned for the second series is so shockingly compelling that I imagine he'd be able to keep it up for more [series] than that."
So from being TV serial-shy it seems Anderson has managed to net herself a handful of on-going kick-ass roles as memorable as Scully. "The fact I'm now shooting three different TV series is kind of ironic; but they're all really good things that I have respect for and I'm grateful to be part of," she smiles, putting on the mac and getting ready to run. "And then squeeze in film and theatre in between..."