January 12, 2003
Note: Scroll down to the bottom of the page for a list of Gillian's music picks.
Sue Lawley: My castaway this week is an actress. Her childhood was a checkerboard affair. The early years as the only child of an American couple in London, the rest as an elder sister in small town America.
Acting was her lifeline and in her 20s she moved to Hollywood in pursuit of the dream which had seduced and deserted many before. For her, it came true. She landed the part of Agent Scully in "The X-Files," glamorous epitome of rationalism in the face of the inexplicable.
Now, the series that made her name and her fortune behind her, she is ready to prove her talents as an actress of range and versatility. She received great praise for her performance as the doomed society beauty in the film "The House of Mirth" and is currently to be seen in the West End in an intense two-hander, "What The Night Is For."
She's had good reviews, the play less so. But then, as she says, "I have had a tendency all my life to climb the highest mountain first." She is Gillian Anderson.
S: You've also had a lot of luck too, Gillian. I 'm thinking of your landing the part of "The X-Files" - huge stroke of luck because your casting was entirely an act of faith on the part of its creator, Chris Carter, wasn't it?
G: That is correct. At the time, he was going against form and really stuck his neck out for me based on his determination to have the character portrayed in the way that he saw her and not in the way that Hollywood wanted her to be.
S: But he saw her - Agent Scully - didn't he, as this smart, slick suited, sensible shoes, nice glossy bobbed hair ...that wasn't what you looked like at all when you went for the audition.
G: No it wasn't, actually, and the very first time that I showed up at the audition, I showed up in jeans and long, scraggly, almost dreadlocked hair and after the audition they said, "Okay we want you to come back for another audition and when you come back next time, could you please brush your hair and wear a suit or something?" Which, of course, I did.
S: So you just turned up for this audition thinking "Well hey, here is another one, I'll have a go" and suddenly found this guy, Chris Carter, saying "You're what I want." That must have been quite stunning.
G: It was but I had no clue, not only what I was getting myself in for but what I was actually doing. I mean, I was going in for an audition for a television pilot. I didn't even know what pilots were. I knew absolutely nothing.
S: As you say, it was a pilot. Even when you got the job, and I think you got it on a Thursday and you were filming by Saturday, it needn't have been bought.
G: No, or picked up or continued for nine consecutive years.
S: Little did you know what you were getting yourself in for. There you were, taken up for the next nine years, ten months a year, sixteen hours a day. You had no idea.
G: No clue. It was a rude awakening at one point.
S: Rude? Wasn't it welcome?
G: Oh absolutely. Well, the welcome aspect of it was the fact that I was employed. But before you even go in for your final audition, you have to sign a contract which states the amount of money that you are going to make for the next five and a half years and that you are going to be, if they choose to, working for five and a half years and you don't have any other choice, you can't get out.
S: So it's a big deal at age 24 to sign away the next five and a half years of your life, isn't it?
S: Well, we are signing away the rest of your life on a desert island here. We are going to cast you away and you have only these eight pieces of music for company. Tell me which is the first one.
G: So hard to choose. I am such a big music person. It was really hard. And there is a little bit of irony in every choice despite the fact that they've had a huge impact on my life. The first one I have chosen is the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want" which not only was something that I listened to quite a lot in the trailer going through hair and makeup in the wee hours of the morning, and we would blast it in there as we were getting ready while we were shooting the series, but also the irony of the fact that, at times, when there were other things that I wanted, whether it was about my career or in things in my personal life that I thought that I had to have or I wanted, that at the end of the day you can't always get what you want.
S: You'll be glad to hear that I'm not going to ask you if you believe in the paranormal, however, the reason "The X-Files" was so successful - and it was a phenomenal success in so many countries around the world - is that a huge number of people do believe in the paranormal. I read that some 60% of people in the U.S. believe in alien abduction.
G: Is that true? I didn't know that.
S: And I think a very small percentage believe they have been abducted by aliens already. But that is the truth of it, isn't it? It fed straight in to that kind of fascination for the spooky.
G: I think so, I mean other than paranormal spookiness. I think that there has definitely been a climate for being shocked and scared. You know, where people will go and see all the Halloween movies and stuff like that. It boggles my mind.
S: Good job, you were the rational one of the duo. Agent Mulder was the one who believed in...
G: Yes, but what is interesting too is that it can't help but infuse your life with an aspect of its paranoia and negativity even though it's just...
S: It really got to you, didn't it?
G: I think it would get to everybody! I mean we're working in Vancouver, where there is very little sun for much of the year, and we are working in ridiculous weather for ridiculous hours and we are dealing with half dead evil demons all the time. How can sixteen hours of your day... I mean, how can that not affect you?
S: For the rest of us who aren't moved by the paranormal, what we were really moved by was the fact that you and Mulder never got it together. One critic said it was the longest suspended kiss in television history.
G: No, in the very end we did. Oh yes. We had a baby together. You missed a large plot point.
S: Good heavens. Well that really did write it off for good. It is finished.
G: It is finished. There is a modicum of hope that there will be feature films, that we will do a second. I actually really like the idea of coming back every few years and having a reunion and revisiting these characters.
S: You must feel quite proprietorial about the role. It is yours, isn't it?
G: Oh yes. There is no... YES!
S: But the irony is, of course, you never wanted to be in television. Film and theatre was what you wanted to do. That is a huge irony.
G: It is. It's hysterical actually. I was quite elitist about it all actually. It was like, "Okay, I haven't been working for a year, I guess I will go in and audition for a television series."
S: It wasn't because you didn't want to become, which is what happened of course, public property. That is what happens with television.
G: At the time, I don't think that I had that kind of consciousness.
S: But when it did happen, you didn't like it, did you?
G: No. The whole media thing, it just cheapens one's life.
S: If that is how you feel, why was it then that you did some quite provocative pictures earlier on. We are not talking centerfold Playboy...
G: No, no, no. We are not talking about that. Well, it was a couple of things. In the first season, I got pregnant. When that was done, it was a conscious effort for me to say, "Kkay, there is another side to me. I am not just this dowdy..." There was that. And there was also, I have to admit, as aspect of no forethought and I look at these pictures now - people hand them to me outside the stage door - and I am just, "Oh God!" I mean, absolutely dreadful.
S: Tell me about record number two.
G: Number two actually is a Joan Armatrading song that was very alive in my life as a child and this has always been one of my very favorite songs of hers. It is "Save Me".
S: Gillian Anderson, what we find fascinating about you is that we can claim to have given birth to part of you, as it were, not exactly birth but you spent nine, ten years of your life here in London. Where did you live and why?
G: When we first arrived, we lived in Clapham Common and then we moved to Crouch End where I spent those formative years.
S: And why were you here?
G: Well initially, as the story goes, my Dad wanted to go to a film school. And he asked my Mother, when we were living in Chicago after I was born, whether she wanted them to move to London or California and she said London. And they ended up falling in love with the city and staying and staying and staying.
S: So you were at school first, as you say, in Clapham and then in Crouch End. Presumably then, you spoke with an English accent.
G: Yes, it was my first language. I think it was a very different British accent then than it is now. I think it was much rougher and more unintelligible.
S: How? What do you mean?
G: I think I probably talked really fast and mumbled and spoke with a higher childlike voice.
S: So were you one of the girls and boys, as it were, or did they think you were a bit odd because you had American parents?
G: I was considered a Yank and I was proud of it because of the fact that, when we would go back in the summertimes and visit family, we went back to these places full of candy bars and sunshine and everything seemed absolutely magical and so I was like, "Here I am!"
S: But then when you went over there, because you moved when you were ten or eleven years old, your father got a video business, I think, in the States. Again, you land up there being a kind of outsider in the school in America because then you've got the English accent.
G: At first, I think, they embraced me because they thought it was quaint or attractive on some level. But then I started to take advantage of that, that I was getting all this attention. I was expecting that kind of attention from people and after a while they said, "bugger off."
S: What, you were a show-off?
G: Yes, I have always been a show-off.
S: What form did it take when you were ten, eleven, twelve and crossing the Atlantic?
G: Oh, you know those things that kids do, stealing, lying, cheating...
S: Of course, the other interesting thing about that period in your life is that you were an only child for thirteen years and then your parents got back over there, started making a bit more money, and decided to have more babies. That must have been a bit of a shocker!
G: It was a bit of a shocker. All of a sudden, after being an only child for that long, when these two new little slugs that are taking all of the attention and all of a sudden I am cleaning up toys after them and babysitting them at the drop of a hat. It caused some rumbling inside, I think.
S: I want to talk about the rumbling inside but let us pause for some music. Number three, what is it?
G: It's actually a band that just over the past few years, five-six years, has become probably my favorite band. There is an energy to their music which has its roots inside my rumblings and that is Radiohead.
S: Radiohead and "Exit Music for a Film." Let us talk about the rumblings then, Gillian. What form did they take first of all?
G: I had moved from my experience of a large, vibrant, vital, passionate city to a small, in my perception, boring Republican town and I started to realize that the way I felt, expressed myself most of the time, was through dressing a certain way, listening to a certain kind of music, and expressing my contempt at the time for what felt like a very rigid straightlaced American right wing small town.
S: So you went punk essentially?
G: I did.
S: What did you look like?
G: Well, you know, I got most of my clothes from thrift stores. And I wore black pointy boots with Oxford buckles and I had different colored hair and, at times, I shaved the sides of my head and I had a nose ring that I got one summer when we were in London when, I think, I was 14. And I was one of those kids that walks down the street with her boyfriend with a 3-foot Mohawk and when somebody walks by and you know they are going to turn around behind you and stare at you, so you turn around and give them the finger. Going smash dancing, staying up late, and taking a lot of things that you aren't supposed to at that age.
S: Apparently you also went into therapy at 14. Was that because you got into drugs or alcohol or promiscuity? What was it?
G: Many many dangerous things. And I needed somebody's help so that is where it began.
S: Did it help?
G: Yeah. I am still alive. And there have been many people along the way in the forms of therapists and spiritual guides who have helped me along this path.
S: Does it go on? Do you still see such people?
G: When I need to, yeah. There are certain times in one's life, if things surface from time to time, that you have to confront and deal with in order to live a, hopefully, peaceful and joyous life.
S: So you are saying that this was something more than normal teenage rebellion. It is something that ran a bit deeper than that. There was a self-destruct button in there.
G: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, absolutely.
S: And without the therapy, you would not be here you have implied.
G: I don't think I would, no. At some stage along the way between then and now... I really don't think...
S: What was the worst point? What age were you?
G: Oh, there were so many, but that happens! And people deal with it in different ways. People numb themselves out in different ways. And people destroy themselves in different ways. I have very strong opinions about that.
S: And did your success, I mean once you hit the X-Files, as we say you were 24 years old and we've been talking about you between the ages of thirteen and twenty four...
G: The answer is no. I know what the question is going to be and the answer is no. Success has nothing to do with happiness. Success has nothing to do with ridding oneself of one's demons.
S: But it didn't bring you any kind of calm because it brought you security?
G: T hat kind of security is not real security. It's got NOTHING to do with material things.
S: And have you found it yet?
G: True happiness? There have been moments in my life of real... Yes, I wouldn't be able to say that if I hadn't found it. That's from my own personal experience.
S: Record number four.
G: This is a song that has always been profoundly moving for me. It's Nina Simone's "Strange Fruit."
S: It is an extraordinary piece, isn't it?
G: So extraordinary. First of all, her voice is just... it's such a remarkable and moving instrument that she has. Anyway.
S: Anyway, back to your life. Acting, I suggested in the introduction that it was a kind of lifeline for you. I mean, there is some truth in that, isn't there? Became this kind of constant for you.
G: It did. When I was in high school, I wasn't a particularly good student and it was very difficult for me to concentrate. Consequently, my grades weren't very good. And it wasn't until I discovered at sixteen, I think, theatre - I had started doing an internship and working in a community theatre - and it wasn't until I was cast in something that all of a sudden, it was like somebody had struck a match in me or turned a light bulb on inside and it was an extraordinary turning point for me just in terms of my feeling like I had a voice in the world and there was something that I could do and enjoyed doing it.
S: And you went to theatre school in Chicago. And that was quite competitive, apparently, because you could be chopped out at the end of each year if they didn't think... so it was a group that got ever smaller. What sort of things did you do there and how did you manage to cling on?
G: We studied acting. I mean it was a theatre conservatory at the Goodman Theatre School in Chicago and we did productions and we did movement classes, voice classes, we also had some academic stuff which was relatively insignificant, I think, to all of us at the time.
S: But you felt you were in the right place. It was a fit. It couldn't have been anything else. Acting obviously was, you felt, what you were around for.
G: Yes. Yes.
S: Then you pursued it to New York. Pounding pavements in New York.
G: At the end of the school year, we went to New York and did monologues. I had written a monologue, I think, about my father - something about a park bench, I don't remember. There was an agent from a very good agency there who basically sat me down and said, "Look, if you will move out here we will represent you." And so I packed all my stuff up and I drove out in my Volkswagen Rabbit one night starting at 11 o'clock and I found my way alone across the country to New York."
S: How far is it? Hundreds of miles.
S: And did you have anywhere to live when you got there?
S: And you did some waitressing because the parts weren't exactly flowing thick and fast.
G: Not at all, they weren't. In retrospect that's not incredibly true because of the fact that within a year I got work.
S: But not so much work that you didn't up and off to L.A. because that is where eventually you went and decided to pound the pavements again.
G: Yes. I wasn't intending to move there. I was intending to visit a boyfriend and ended up selling my return ticket and putting everything in storage.
S: It is fate you see.
G: Yeah. Fate and destiny.
S: Record number five.
G: Number five is a Schubert piece that I have loved for many years that just moves me to years and that's a good enough reason to have it on a desert island where I need to be crying alone. It's "Death and the Maiden".
S: You made "The House of Mirth", film of the Edith Wharton novel... you played the doomed heroine, Lily Bart. Again you were chosen, apparently, because it's creator, Terence Davies, wanted you. He had spotted you and he wanted you.
G: Well, what was so bizarre about that was that he had never seen any of my work. And he wanted to meet me based on a photograph of a character that I had played who was a middle-aged biker alcoholic. And that was a still from the film.
S: Amazing because he wanted you to play this beautiful society Edwardian lady. But he was right. You did look wonderful in those Edwardian clothes. Did you feel right? You looked right.
G: I have always connected with that time on an emotional and psychological level.
S: And did you see parallels? I mean, again, Lily's life story is very much about a gallant but flawed woman trying to navigate her way through life. It's about survival and, of course, she doesn't survive.
G: Well I have no doubt that, as artists, we choose subject matters to dive into - whether it's as a painter or as an actor - that have some resonance in our lives. It is not lost on me that a lot of the projects that I have chosen to be involved with are about women who struggle in some way with themselves and their minds.
S: There is something there - not going under with the weight of life.
G: Yes. Exactly. And hopefully, at the end of the day - not in Lily Bart's case - but rising above and pressing on. I have such a huge amount of respect and appreciation for people who are survivors, who succeed. Who, against all odds, press on through.
S: Record number six.
G: The title of it is "Love is Everything" because I believe that. Love is everything. At the end of the day, if we are talking about the difference between being sucked under and being able to rise above, this concept suddenly comes into play very very strongly.
S: So we come to your play currently in the West End, "What The Night Is For", Gillian. As I said in the introduction, the reviews haven't been great, but it's really the play itself rather than you and your co-star, Roger Allam, who have taken the critical stick. Again, it is this climbing the highest mountain first. You didn't exactly choose an easy option to come straight into the West End in an intense two-hander.
G: I know. My whole life is riddled with choices like this.
S: But what's it like after that first night, obviously there was such a build up to it and then the reviews don't quite come in as you would like them to. That must be incredibly dismaying.
G: I don't know about incredibly dismaying. I think that, we've chosen to do a play which we knew would cause some unsettling of some kind being done here in London, just in terms of the subject matter and how uncomfortable it can make some people feel.
S: Nostalgia about old loves? Why is that difficult?
G: No, we are dealing with some hard truths about whether one is happy or not in one's present relationship. And if one goes to the theatre, after 30 years of being married, with their spouse and they haven't been happy for 18 of those years but are sticking with it because it is the thing to do, then they are going to be sitting next to their partner feeling a little bit uncomfortable.
S: So there is an element of some problem page therapy going on there. And you think, do you, you seem to imply that we Brits are not up to taking this.
G: Possibly. But what I do think is that the kind of dialogue, within the body of the play that deals with these issues, is not as readily discussed or had in Britain as it is in America. Therapy-speak and truth-speak is much more readily available to the individual, it's on the tip of the tongue for most people.
S: And what about the whole experience for you of being on the stage?
G: It's been absolutely extraordinary. The rehearsal process was absolutely creatively invigorating and what is fascinating, regardless of all that, is negotiating the playing, and night after night with the audience. Negotiating that other living, breathing, being in the theatre.
S: E xactly, and that is what is so different from doing either film or television. This is an ongoing sustained performance which changes every time because you've got this other organic thing...
G: And also changes dramatically. The show is very very different night after night, it really is. Just the thrill of moment to moment creative juices running through your being with other people up there on the stage and it is exhilarating. There is nothing like it in film.
S: Record number seven.
G: I've had this album for a couple of years but this particular song is very poignant in my life right now and very romantic and melancholic. It's Roberta Flack's "Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye."
S: There is a lot of talk of romance in the soul going on here. Does that indicate there's something going on? Someone around at the moment?
G: Umm, yes.
S: Or have they just said goodbye.
G: Next topic?
S: I see. Okay.
G: But thank you for being so intuitive.
S: What about your family? What about the mother and father who put up with this rebellious, difficult, punk daughter? Are they delighted and proud that you found fame and fortune?
G: I am sure yes, they are. I am sure that they are delighted and happy that it didn't end up - that at no stage along the way did I not only give up my dream but also give up all hope of existence, period. I am sure that they are quite thrilled to have a daughter who is alive and kicking away.
S: So you are a woman who has learned to be self-sufficient. You have learned to deal with yourself and the vicissitudes of life so far anyway. So, you are going to survive in this desert island, aren't you?
G: Oh, absolutely. I'm actually very very good in these kinds of situations. I know how to build fires and shelters and take care of myself in that way.
S: Unless, of course, you are abducted by enemy aliens of some kind.
G: I have no doubt that, after a few years on the desert island, I will be praying on a daily basis to be abducted by something and it won't matter what size, shape, or form it takes.
S: It will teach you to make a mockery of them all of these nine years, huh? Tell me about your last record.
G: The last record is one of my favorite artists of all time, Jeff Buckley. This is originally a Leonard Cohen song. It is "Hallelujah".
S: Now, Gillian, if you could only take one of those 8 records to your desert island, which one would you take?
G: Jeff Buckley's "Hallelujah". Definitely, I think.
S: Now, what about your book? We give you the Bible, it's there on the sand, and the complete works of Shakespeare waiting for you. But if you could take one book, which one would you take?
G: I would take a book by Eckhart Tolle called "The Power of Now" that basically speaks to how happiness can only be found in this moment.
S: And what about your luxury?
G: Some kind of recording, a vocal recording of both my daughter and my love reading self-written stories and poetry to me that I could listen to whenever I wanted.
S: Gillian Anderson, thank you very much indeed for letting us hear your Desert Island Discs.
G: Thank you for having me. It's been a great pleasure.
Transcript appears courtesy of the BBC's Desert Island Discs.