Gillian Anderson talks about playing Blanche Dubois
Having moved way beyond The X-Files, actress wins raves for London production of A Streetcar Named Desire, to be seen in Cineplex theatres Sept. 16
By: Richard Ouzounian Theatre Critic
The Star: September 13, 2014
Gillian Anderson knew in advance what a daunting mountain she was climbing when she set out to play Blanche DuBois in the Young Vic production of A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams.
"When you're playing a role as famous as this, you'd better do it big and you'd better do it right, or a lot of people are going to be disappointed," she said in a recent interview from London, England.
Luckily, no one seems to have been let down, if you go by the sellout houses and the unanimous rave reviews.
"Brilliant," "electric," "ravishing," "sexy" and "heartbreaking" are just a few of the words the besotted London critics have used to describe Anderson in this production, which can be seen at selected Cineplex locations in the GTA for one night only, Tuesday, Sept. 16, as part of the wildly successful National Theatre Live series.
Director Benedict Andrews has set the Williams classic in contemporary New Orleans and placed it on a revolving set that moves constantly throughout the three-hour show, sometimes stopping for a second, then reversing direction, to mirror the troubled mental state of the play's characters.
It's one of those shows filled with signature moments that many people know and love. The brutish Stanley Kowalski, originally played by the young Marlon Brando, screaming "Stellllllllaaaaaa!" for his wife, like Tarzan summoning Jane.
Or Blanche herself, his troubled, troubling sister-in-law, clutching desperately for romance and crying out, "Sometimes there's God so quickly."
In the end, the brutish Stanley and the bruised Blanche clash tragically, leaving her to mutter, "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers."
It might seem like a strange role for Anderson, whose initial stardom came as the taciturn Agent Scully in The X-Files and seemed predicated on how little emotion she could show in a given situation, but once she and Agent Mulder (David Duchovny) parted company, she went in a totally direction.
Her performance in Ibsen's A Doll's House earned her a 2010 Olivier nomination for Best Actress on a London stage. Combined with her recent turn in the bleak BBC series The Fall, it has earned her a powerful reputation for serious work.
Blanche DuBois is a tricky role.
"She gives as good as she gets from Stanley," Anderson says, adding that "she is the architect of her own destruction."
Whether or not Blanche is neurotic, psychotic or schizophrenic is something actresses and their directors have debated for years, but Anderson sees her with a refreshing clarity.
"She's an alcoholic. That's it. Full stop. Game over. Of course she comes to the table with a great deal of psychological frailty, but her excessive drinking only exacerbates her condition."
At the end of her rope, mentally as well as financially, Anderson's Blanche shows up at her sister Stella's tenement home in New Orleans and instantly sets her cap for Stella's brutish but magnetic husband, Stanley.
"From the moment she lays eyes on him, she knows he is her destruction," Anderson says.
In actor Ben Foster's Stanley (he's best known for his work as Russell Corwin in Six Feet Under), Anderson's Blanche "finds the man willing to destroy her."
Anderson has complex and fascinating theories about Blanche, which she justifies from a careful reading of Williams' script.
"Her sister Stella talks about her as a child and says she was always in a world of her own, always fantasizing about one thing or another. And the tragedy of Blanche is that she never got past that. The husband she convinced herself wasn't really gay, the degrading encounters she tried to pretend were more than one-night stands, the march of time she thinks she halts by putting on sunglasses and dressing in high fashion . . . all of these things are signs of her mental weakness.
"And if there is a weakness in the mind to begin with, then alcoholism will grab hold of that weakness and walk hand in hand with it until you're heading surely down the road to destruction. The tragedy of Blanche is that as the play progresses, she seems to be getting stronger, but she's only getting more self-centred and there's nothing inside for her to hold onto."
She pauses, remembering the desolate place she comes to at the end of each performance.
"There's only so long you can hold up."
Besides the power of the performances, critics and public alike have been fascinated by director Andrews' production, with its ever-turning set.
Anderson laughs when asked if it caused her any problems.
"We had it from the first day of rehearsal, so we got all of our trips and stumbles out early. I wear heels for almost all of the show. Blanche is the kind of woman who would do that, but it made my work harder.
"Still, we got used to it and it makes the whole play a more immersive experience. The audience has to watch very closely every minute to make sure they're not missing a single beat."
Another interesting aspect is Andrews setting the play in the present day, with very contemporary costumes, but not touching the script, leaving allusions to telegrams, or bandleaders like Xavier Cugat, or even phone numbers like Magnolia 9047.
"I enjoy that contrast," says Anderson. "It adds an otherworldly timeless aspect to the production and, God knows, this play has withstood the test of time.