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Psychologies Magazine
August 2006


I Can't Let Myself Make A Mistake

Photographs by Matthew Foxley
Styled by Karena Callen

Since leaving The X-Files, award-winning actress Gillian Anderson has returned to the UK and is proving herself to be one of our best-loved stars. Recently separated from her husband, she tells Maureen Rice how she's ready for change.

What a beautiful house! I always think it's brave when somebody well known invites a journalist into their home. It seems so exposing.

That's true. It's a balance for me between privacy and convenience. I got back late last night from a trip to Cairo with my daughter, so it just seemed easier to do it here and, anyway, it's not my house for much longer - I'm moving in a couple of days.

Are you staying in London?

Yes, we are. We've been here for four years, so this is home - for now, anyway.

You grew up in the UK until you were nine and you live here now, and your daughter is growing up here, going to school here. Do you feel more British or American?

Neither. When I'm here, I'm conscious of having an American sensibility, but when I'm there I don't fit in, I feel more British. I have different conversations here. I meet people who are intelligent and well-informed and interesting, but there's more reluctance to be personal, to discuss the ways we feel and think. But it is changing. Even in the four years I've been here I've seen that begin to shift.

Do you think - as people say - that the English are hard to make friends with?

In some ways. At first it seems just the opposite - everyone is very friendly and charming, but up to a point. It takes a much longer time to get past the surface and get to know people well. It's a great place - I love the civility and structure of it, and the way people still send thank you letters when they've been for dinner. But it's quite insular, too, quite formal. Americans are more casual and more direct, I think.

I'm glad we got the chance to meet today. I know it's not an eaasy time for you right now - you have a lot going on, a lot to deal with...

Yes, but I'm always busy. Working, travelling, moving house. That's what I do. I have a real problem with stillness. With just stopping and being quiet.

Do you medicate with activity - is it a way to get a sense of control?

Absolutely, that's a part of it, but I'm like this a lot. I've always been like this. And it's getting to the point where I really want to find a way to stop it, or to control it to some extent, because I' becoming exhausted. I'm wearing myself out.

So why are you doing it? Why is it so hard for you to just stop? What do you think will happen if you don't do everything on your 'to-do' list?

I think that there is a certain group of people like me on this planet who feel that, no matter where they are, they don't fit in. I think that leads to my constant feeling that I have to keep busy. Some of it is about creative energy and wanting an outlet for it, but another part of it is about not wanting to feel alone or empty. And party it's just our times and the illusion that if you're busy all the time you're actually accomplishing something.

You were an only child, and your family moved several times at key points in your childhood. Is it that lack of roots that gives you the feeling of not belonging anywhere?

A lot of things can give you that feeling. In my case, I was born to parents who were very young, and I don't think they were entirely ready to have a child. My dad was going to college and working two or three jobs at the same time, and my mum was working and going to school.

So they were probably very stressed.

Very very stressed. And life was quiet serious back then. It wasn't life or death but it was, 'how are we going to put food on the table?' My father worked hard, but he was oppressed by it. He found it very hard to relax and be spontaneous. He wanted a different life, and he knew that in order to get there, there were certain things that he needed to do first, whether it was finishing school or starting a particular job or building a particular business, all the time hoping that eventually there would be this freedom. But in order to get to the freedom, he needed to put his shoulder to the wheel. And I saw that work and that anxiety, and it stayed with me.

And as an only child to young parents, I'm guessing that you were like the third adult in the family in some ways.

Absolutely. A few years ago my dad told me he'd had a strange dream about me. I was directing something, and I needed film - there was some kind of film shortage, and I asked my dad to get me some. He ended up finding some and getting it, and he was meeting me on the street to hand me this package, but it wasn't me as I am now, it was me as a 13- or 14-year-old child. And he realised that this dream was the first time he'd seen me as a child, that he'd never seen me in that way before, ever. It was so strange. But that was the way he dealt with life, and there wasn't much room for me to be a child.

A lot of children who have that kind of background end up with an overdeveloped sense of responsibility. They take everything on their own shoulders.

In my case, there's a strange juxtaposition between being incredibly independent and being able to handle everything on my own - and I think that's a real part of me. It's what I project. But the same time there is sometimes this desperate need to have help and have guidance, but not being able to ask for it. And somehow I equate asking for it with neediness or failure or weakness in some way.

Yet you know that we all have needs and weaknesses and bad days. You see it in your friends and your child, and you don't think they're weak or pathetic for that - so why can't you allow the same feeling in yourself?

I think that a lot of it has to do with self-esteem and about feeling whether I deserve it or not. Somebody said to me the other day, 'It's OK to make a mistake.' And I literally burst into tears. I just thought, 'You know what? No, it's not OK.' I'm so completely fine with other people making mistakes, whether it's friends or my daughter or whoever. I love and admire artists who aren't afraid to make mistakes in public, and I find it deplorable that culturally we're so cruel and unforgiving of it. I'm incredibly open to that concept and forgiving for others, but I realise for me, it's not one iota OK.

Yet you're a risk-taker in your work: moving away from Hollywood; taking very different kinds of parts instead of trading on the success you had with The X-Files...

At the end of the series I was ready to do something else, and that was definitely on purpose. I needed to challenge myself and so something different. Much as I loved Scully, and I really did, if I had to play the same part over and over I'd probably leave the business. I need change. I understand the fear, or whatever it is, that makes some people feel they have to stay stuck in one kind of role, that they won't be acceptable in any other, but I couldn't do that.

Were you drawn to the Scully character - was she like you?

I did bring a lot of myself to her. I wanted her to be a different kind of character. It was more important to me that her dress sense was conservative and frumpy, that she was kind of awkward with that side of thing, it wasn't what she was about.

I think a lot of us were grateful to her for that. She was such a great character, and obviously an attractive woman. It would have been so easy to make her an obvious sex bomb - and I think women were just thankful that you didn't do that.

I'm glad you said that - I like that about her, too. But it got to a point where I grew in confidence in that role. Remember I was just 25 years old when I started, and at times I was really terrified. But as I grew in confidence, Scully became stronger and she got some real authority to her, and I had to contemporise her a bit, let her move on.

But Scully was always very in control, wasn't she? And it's interesting because you've had great reviews for Lady Dedlock in Bleak House and, though she's a very different character, she's also very controlled. And you hint that there are layers and layers beneath, but that you'll only let them be revealed in small touches and very gradually.

Lady Dedlock has helped people see Scully differently. My manager in the US always used to worry that people wouldn't see the acting with Scully - they'd think it was just me. But after Lady Dedlock everyone has been talking about the performance, about this sense of layers and now I'm getting more credit for it, which is great.

That sense of surface control, with hidden layers beneath. Can you relate to it, personally?

Yes. I think I have that in my character, too. To my detriment sometimes. I can be very controlled - too controlled. It spills over into my life, and that's when it gets difficult.

You're very hard on yourself. I know you've had therapy in the past. Did that help? Is there anything that can break that cycle of busyness and anxiety?

I've been asking myself a lot lately how on earth can I put a stop to this? But I know what the answers are, and it's just that I'm not willing to listen to them right now. And the answers are about meditation and about yoga. When I have been the most content and happiest in my life is when I've had a strong yoga practice, and when I've taken the time to meditate - I've developed much more stillness. And it's almost like there's part of me that has me behind bars and will not let me take the time to do that. I know I'm my own worst enemy.

Is some of this to do with issues about trust? You don't trust that the world is a safe place unless you hold it up, and you can't trust other people to take care of you. You must always take care of yourself 100 per cent of the time, 100 per cent of the way.

Definitely. But the thing is that I think that we are right not to trust the world and not to trust other people. What we need it to get to a place where you trust in something greater than the world and the people of the world. I mean the whole thing about meditation and yoga is about connecting to the higher part of yourself, and then seeing that every living thing is connected in some way. When you can tap into that is when you consequently open up to the people around you more and trust the people around you more in the right way. It needs to start from a deeper place.

You've said that being still and less frantic is hard for you. Are you drawn to other people with those qualities? Is that what attracts you?

That depends what state of mind I'm in. I have a tendency to go through my life at full speed and as a one-man band, and so I don't generally stop and take in other people enough to develop many relationships. I'm starting to regret that a bit. I want to change it. When I'm in a quiet place myself then that's when I'm drawn to people who are the same. But when I'm in my usual busy state, it can scare me. I run away from it.

You seem very self-aware. You think a lot about the way you are and the ways you interact with others. Yet you've said in the past that you're difficult to live with. What do you mean by that?

Because I barrel through life and I expect everyone around me to jump on the train with me. And I'm incredibly strong-willed and I like doing things my way - and, if I'm 100 per cent honest, part of me thinks my way is always the right way. And when you're trying to cohabit with someone or parent a child, those aren't always good qualities. There needs to be more space and time, and a willingness to hear other people's ideas and do things their way. I have to work on that.

What helps you to get through tough times such as this?

Friends... and just remembering that when we're in pain we often behave badly, but we're all just trying to do the best we can. We all have tough times, and we're all so focused on ourselves and our own stories - and we project aspects of our personality that aren't the real story, or the whole story. It's very important to remember that we're doing our best, whatever that means.

You're going through a difficult time now, with your separation from your husband. Are you going to get through that with work, too?

What's interesting is that I've been experiencing a lot of emotions lately and I don't feel like my usual running has effectly kept me from those feelings. They're coming fast and furious. But I actually feel quite good about that. If I wasn't feeling anything and I was just powering through, then I'd be more concerned, but I am brought up short often and overwhelmed by stuff, which is good. I welcome it and it's right, and part of the necessary process. But I do need to be creatively active, because, when I'm not, I get stagnant and depressed. When I'm not working, life feels harder because there's part of me thinking I'm of no use. But I do at least know all this about myself, and I am going to stop for a while.

How do you feel about the prospect of being alone again?

It's hard, it feels strange, but I think it's always good for us to spend some time alone. Funnily enough, the first night I went out with my husband, we had a conversation about how much we liked being single. We were both alone and, at that time, really happy with it - so happy we spent a lot of time discussing how neither of us could imagine wanting to live with someone again. That was our first date.

So what's next for you? How will you spend the next few months?

Well, I have to move house and I have some work to finish up. I'm doing some publicity for Bleak House - there's going to be an Emmy campaign. And I'm working on a screenplay and I really want to give that some attention. And then I'm definitely going to give myself some time. I have a very strange feeling that I'm going into a new phase of my life, and I'm meant to have some time for introspection, to think about it. It's funny, because I knew this time was coming and I loaded myself up with things to do, in anticipation of a slower period coming up. But, actually, it can start right now. I don't have to work harder in advance to get some quiet time. Stillness can actually start right here, right now.


1968 - Born Gillian Leigh Anderson to parents Edward and Rosemary Anderson in Chicago.

1970 - The family moves to London, where they stay until Gillian is 11. When they move back to the US Midwest, she is mocked for her English accent.

1990 - After developing a love of acting in high school, she graduates with a BA in Fine Arts.

1991 - Wins a Theatre World Award for Best Performance in Ayckbourne's Absent Friends.

1993 - After 'guest star' roles in low-key film and TV productions, she wins the part of Dana Scully in smash hit The X-Files after lying to producers about her age.

1994 - Marries The X-Files assistant art director Clyde Kotz. Gives birth to daughter Piper Maru.

1996 - Wins Emmy Award for her performance as Scully, followed by a Golden Globe and two SAG awards.

2002 - After separating from her husband and finishing The X-Files, she moves bck to London and begins a stint in the West End.

2004 - Marries documentary filmmaker Julian Ozanne.

2005 - Stars with Steve Coogan in British hit A Cock and Bull Story.

2006 - Announces separation from Ozanne. Is nominated for a BAFTA for her performance as Lady Dedlock in the BBC adaptation of Bleak House.

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