'I Finally get to Play Blanche'
By Mark Shenton
The Stage: July 24, 2014
Television, film and stage star Gillian Anderson tells Mark Shenton about her fascination with A Streetcar Named Desire and how she was determined for the new Young Vic production to go ahead - even if she got sued by NBC.
Gillian Anderson was destined to play Blanche DuBois. "I've never actually known why, it's just been a given," says Anderson, explaining that she knew she would play Tennessee Williams's lonely, isolated heroine in A Streetcar Named Desire one day.
"It's just been there somewhere, even though I've never studied the play. But one of the monologues was familiar to me when I re-attacked it this time, so I think at one point I must have done it somewhere, perhaps as an audition speech. But I've never studied the play, and I don't known that I've seen the film - I know images from it, but I'm not sure that I've seen the whole film. But I've seen about four productions of it and the play has always been in my consciousness to do. I haven't known why, but I assumed I would know when I got there."
As we meet in the final stages of rehearsals at the Jerwood Space, three days before the company moves on to begin the tech and then performances at the Young Vic Theatre, has the strange lure of the play finally been explained?
"I certainly do know, working on it now, not just what an extraordinary piece of writing and a construction it is, but also more specifically in terms of Blanche herself. It is almost revealing too much to admit how many similarities there are, or why there is a kinship of some kind, with Blanche - though not necessarily in all of the obvious senses. But it might raise a couple of eyebrows."
As a globally recognized celebrity from her long stint on The X-Files, as well as many other film and TV roles including Great Expectations and The Fall (both for the BBC) and the series Hannibal and Crisis (both for NBC), she has faced the inevitable battle to keep her private life private, and is understandably reluctant to make too much of any personal connection to the role.
But there are other reasons too: "I'm wary of either jinxing it, or sounding pretentious by saying that I understand her - also, it gives the critics the opportunity to say, 'well, you certainly do not!'"
But if past press interviews have led me to expect someone who (according to one) had a "reputation as a tricky interviewee", Anderson absolutely isn't. She's open and charming, frank and easy to talk to.
She is also immaculate and precise in her choice of words, and keen to share the convoluted story of how this production came about.
It was ultimately at her own instigation, which also demonstrates something of her confidence, given her relatively limited theatrical experience. She began her professional career on the New York stage fresh out of drama school in 1991, but since then has worked on stage only in London in four plays since she moved here nearly 13 years ago.
"I've been talking about this play for years, and in between other work I've kind of nudged in areas and we've called to find out if the rights to the play were available. Someone I know told me about a very old friend of theirs who they knew from school that was just going off on his own after working as a partner to a big West End producer, and thought we could do something together. His name was Joshua Andrews, and we sat down for lunch. He had a list of plays and actors he wanted to work with in future, but I said there's only really one conversation we can have - if this isn't the next thing I'm making happen, it is going to be another six to eight years before I could make it happen again. I knew the rights were becoming available, so it was potentially a good time, and I said to him, 'Can you help me make this happen?'"
They embarked on a journey together to find a theatre, constrained by another condition set by Anderson, which was to do it in the round: "I'd always just had this vision that at the point when I do it this is what it will look like, with people sitting all around, so I was pretty much not able to engage in any kind of corner-station that involved a traditional or proscenium arch."
she's obviously got a determined streak, and it runs a lot on instinct. The next occurred around her choice of director. "I saw Three Sisters at Young Vic, directed by Benedict Andrews, and we started a conversation and Skyped. He was very interested. We began looking at theatres and started with the Trafalgar Studios, as it was the only other place that could potentially do it in the round besides the Cottesloe or Donmar, which has already done the play recently. We were waffling and waffling, then Benedict needed to take another job and that time period fell out. Then I did [the TV show] Crisis, and jumping off of doing that, I met another producer who said, 'What about the Yougn Vic!' It was like being hit over the head - why the hell hadn't I thought of it before? Partly it was because I'd brought Josh on board, even though from the beginning I kept saying to him this is not about profit. He had to understand that even if we ended up at a hole in the wall to make this happen, it was about the space. So this other producer then said let me call David [Lan] at the Young Vic and see if he is interested. Two seconds later he responded - he was and it al happened right there."
Even the dates miraculously fell into place, though initially there was a potential problem. "There was a whole drama with NBC and not being able to release me because there might have been a second series of Crisis, so we couldn't announce it and all kinds of stuff that people don't know about.
"But I was so determined that this was going to happen that I said I know this is crazy and I might get sued by NBC, but we are doing this at this time and nothing is going to get in the way, especially after David contacted Benedict and he was available."
In the end, Crisis wasn't renewed for a second series, "so it all worked out."
It certainly took some determination to make it happen, and speaking days before her first performance, I suggested she's entering the home stretch: "that's one way to look at it!" But another challenge of the process has turned into a virtue: they've rehearsed the play on the actual set that has been brought into the rehearsal room. "Because it is in the round and revolving, it was essential that we got to be on the actual ship - our little rectangle of life - from day one."
She's also full of praise for her director.
"He brings the whole company with him in a very muscular way, but not ego-centrically - he's a very good listener and very compassionate, so even the smallest roles are swept into the whole. He's never too busy on one of the larger roles or too busy in his own mind not to be completely present and take on board and listen to and work with all the characters, which is very admirable."
As a working mother (her two sons are five and seven), she says she has just had the kids "full-on all weekend, and part of my brain is saying, 'you are supposed to be with your face in the script this entire weekend before the tech, and what the fuck are you doing? Football'. But maybe I needed the break. We rehearsed all day on Saturday til six, so maybe having that evening and Sunday off was okay, to be a mother and not be completely obsessive, and by having that balance, trust that it will make a better Blanche."
Her sons are too young to see the show, but she says: "I might bring them at one point so they stand on the revolving set. And over the weekend I took them to see How to Train Your Dragon 2 at IMAX, and as we drove by the Young Vic and I realised where we were, I said to them, 'Boys, that's where Mummy will be working' - They showed no interest at all."
And that's as it should be. Talking of fame, she says, "Friends and family are more important than any slice of fame you get. If you are in a position of being famous at any given time, it is still old friends and family that you need. It's not just about being grounded, but the consistency of knowing that, no matter what number you are on IMDB, that doesn't matter to the people that truly love you, and will be there no matter where on that graph you end up."
She knows of what she speaks, having been cast as Special Agent Dana Scully in The X-Files when she was 24 years old, two years after moving to New York and getting her first job in Manhattan Theatre Club's 1991 production of Alan Ayckbourn's Absent Friends.
"Mary-Louise Parker had dropped out to film Grand Canyon, and they basically hired me with no experience whatsoever really because of my accent."
Having been brought up in England from the age of two to 11, she has a nearly impeccable English accent - only stray words are pronounced with an American slant. When she was cast she'd been waitressing "at a couple of different low=end places", and the job "came completely out of the blue - it was very fortunate and terrifying, but I learnt the discipline of theatre very quickly"
She adds: "Lynne Meadow, who directed it , was appropriately harsh with me at times about the necessity for timing and rhythm, which is important period, but especially comically, and also about my impact on the rest of the company so that I was not acting in my own vacuum."
Theatre, she thought then, was going to play a larger part in her life than it did. "Growing up in London, whether I knew it or not at the time, I had a peripheral sense that it was possible and that theatre was part of what you did as an actor. It was part of your curriculum and it was always going to be that thing I continued to go back to as British actors do."
But then it took many more years - The X-Files would run for nine seasons, from 1993 to 2002 - for her to come back to theatre, and then it also brought her back to London. She was cast in a new play by Mike Weller called What the Night is For.
Her passion for theatre was reignited, leading to jobs at the Royal Court and Donmar Warehouse. At the Royal Court, she performed in another new play, Rebecca Gilman's The Sweetest Swing in Baseball, and at the Donmar she appeared in A Doll's House.
She says that the classics have proved more satisfying.
"Not that new plays can't be exceptional and dense, but these are great plays for very specific reasons, and having an opportunity to jump in and immerse oneself in theatre that is so complex, and where every moment has its beginning which may be pages and pages back, is fantastic.
"It has made me potentially be more discerning in the future - after delving into a piece like this, it's really the only way to go. With this much complexity to the characters, it's all about digging and digging."
She's enjoyed the journey: "From the very beginning of the birth of this particular take on it, from my first inkling to where Benedict has gone with it, it is so much to do with unearthing the truth in it.
"That's been the primary goal, not to highlight for mass audiences the fact hat I finally get to play Blanche."
Seizing a famous role
"I was reading some Stella Adler stuff about A Streetcar Named Desire, and she goes into this riff about Hamlet and how in England specifically every actor needs to do Hamlet. She wasn't talking about that in relation to this, but it was the first time I thought that there is that, isn't there? But it hasn't been about that for me - it isn't a role that I felt any responsibility to get to, as it might be with Hamlet for a guy."
The difference between working on stage and television
"The stage is not about being able to make quick decisions - it's about really funneling into the right decisions for every second that transpires. That's where the real work is. It's easy for TV to just grab at a bunch of moments and call them something - you do it all the time - but that is not for this."
3 top tips for aspiring actors
1) Dealing with disappointment
"No matter what area of the acting life one chooses to step into, 90% of it will be disappointment in one way or another. you have to find a way not to be knocked by it, and trust that for whatever reason it wasn't meant for you - either it was an opportunity for someone else who needs it more, or there's another job around the corner. There have been periods where I've been off when a family member has fallen sick, and were I working I wouldn't have been available. There's a higher order and reason behind all this.
2) Being prepared for auditions
"I've learnt how nice it is from being on the other side when I've been in casting table able to look in actors' eyes because they are off-book, or off-book to the degree that they're not tied to the page. It's really refreshing and disarming to be able to look in the full face of the person in front of you. When I listen to directors and producers talk about the person they've cast, they also talk about the fact that they really liked the person. If you're going to spend next three to six months with them, you want htat in the people you hire. So that also plays into it."
3) Dealing with fame
"Don't believe any of it. It is fleeting, and you want it to be fleeting."