19 Nov 2010
Gillian Anderson: 'People are pigeonholed too much'
The actress best known for playing Scully in The X Files tells Ceri Radford why she was drawn to the ambiguous role of Wallis Simpson in Any Human Heart.
If Any Human Heart, William Boyd's classic novel, which the author himself has now adapted for Channel 4, can be said to have a theme, it is that a person's identity is complex and changeable.
"I am all of these different people. All these different people are me," says Logan Mountstuart, the protagonist, looking back at younger versions of himself in the dramatisation.
As I sit opposite Gillian Anderson, who is part of the programme's strong and starry cast, the observation seems particularly pertinent. The 42-year-old actress is difficult to pin down. She has posed in her underwear for FHM magazine and acted Ibsen, she has personified the feisty, post-feminist woman as Agent Scully in The X-Files, and been a model of brittle, aristocratic restraint in the acclaimed BBC adaptation of Dickens's Bleak House.
In person, she is warm, self-assured and evidently happy with her unconventional career path. "People are pigeonholed too much, it's too easy to put people in their little boxes," she tells me when we meet in the distinctly unglamorous offices of a PR company, above a fish market in Soho. "If I identify with a character on a gut level then I feel like I can play it. It's about imagining the character, whether it stays two-dimensional or if it becomes three-dimensional and you think - I recognise you."
This, she says, is precisely what happened when she saw Boyd's script for Any Human Heart. She plays Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor - just one of the many historical figures who crop up in a fictionalised context in the novel.
Boyd's aim, in his own words, was "to write the complete story of one life that covered most of the 20th century", and the inclusion of an implausible array of real people - from Ian Fleming to Pablo Picasso - adds a layer of irreverent wit to the work.
"I'd been asked to do Wallis Simpson a couple of times before, but for whatever reason, it didn't appeal to me. This time, though, it was different. I'm a big fan of William Boyd's work and the script speaks for itself," she says.
As she speaks, her accent veers curiously between English head girl and Hollywood star, reflecting her mixed upbringing in both the United States and London, where she now lives. This may have helped her to play the part of a woman with a dainty foot on each side of the Atlantic; a stylish American divorcee whom Edward VIII gave up the throne to marry.
"The dynamic between them was just fascinating," Anderson reflects. "Watching the old footage, Edward looked like a five-year-old boy when he was made king. It appears as if she (Simpson) very much has the upper hand; she's the wit, the talker and the personality. He stays very quiet."
Anderson's Wallis certainly comes across as forceful, charismatic and just slightly unsettling, with her harsh black hair and piercing stare. She is an ambiguous figure in the book: Mountstuart is sent to spy on the Duke and Duchess during the Second World War; they charm him but then turn against him when he refuses to co-operate with them in rigging a murder trial. The question of how far the Duchess takes her revenge is never quite answered.
This plotline - though dramatic enough - is just one small strand in the almost farcically tumultuous story of Mountstuart's life. Sam Claflin plays the young hero in his Oxford years, Matthew Macfadyen takes him into middle age, through love, fatherhood, war, the New York art scene and scandal, while Jim Broadbent is the same character as an old man, who gets tangled up in Left-wing terrorism before retiring in France.
The love of his life, Freya Deverell, is played to sultry perfection by Hayley Atwell, while Kim Cattrall is Gloria Scabius, just one of his many lovers.
As in any adaptation, a certain compression of the story is necessary - something that Anderson vigorously defends.
"Boyd was faithful to himself. The series is a very different entity from the book - they're incomparable," she says, slowly but decisively.
As befits a lad's mag pin-up, Anderson is extremely feminine in person: long, tousled hair, petite figure, huge eyes. But she sits like a man, with her legs apart and her hands clasped in her lap.
Although she has read Any Human Heart, she says that sometimes she deliberately avoids the book that an adaptation is based on, because she doesn't want to be "that pedantic person who's pointing out all the discrepancies. I can be very opinionated as it stands." She is, but not intimidatingly so, at least as an interview subject. She is quick to laugh and faultlessly polite.
Having attended a screening with Boyd, she says that he was "ecstatic" with the result - and, unsurprisingly, she shares his enthusiasm.
"It captures the passage of time. It's got a slowness to it that I don't think people are used to on TV but I hope they get the point of it. There's a poetry there."
Having said that she no longer wanted to do television, after spending most of the Nineties playing a hugely famous, small-screen UFO-spotter, Anderson now embraces the medium. She feels that it has lost "a certain stigma" for actors, who can range freely between film, television and the stage.
Not that she seems particularly bothered by the idea of stigma. As a serious actress with an Olivier nomination for her West End role as Nora in The Doll's House behind her, you might expect her to shudder at the mention of being voted FHM's Sexiest Woman in the World in 1996, following a racy photo shoot. Instead, she hoots with laughter.
"I did the interview for that over the phone and I was in flannel pyjamas. I thought it was the funniest thing. It had no relevance or reality in my life whatsoever."
Male attention, though, is something that she was inevitably already accustomed to. Many actresses - most famously Gwyneth Paltrow - have spoken out about a "casting couch moment", when it becomes clear that more is expected of them than their acting.
Anderson remembers shooting a commercial with a producer who offered to introduce her to an agency, on a certain condition.
"I was 17 or 18," the 42-year-old reminisced. "There was a guy - one of the producers - I didn't really know what was going on. He invited me to a dinner for the producers, he wanted to put me in touch with an agency in Chicago and he gave me a piece of paper that had his room number on it - it was very very clear that if I wanted that connection in Chicago I had to come to his room."
Needless to say, she declined. The actress said that this sort of experience had not been part of her life for a long time. "I don't think anybody would dare," she said. "I think everybody is afraid of me!"
Again, the memory makes her giggle rather than grimace. I ask her if she ever doles out worldly wisdom to Piper Maru, her 16-year-old daughter from her first marriage to art director Clyde Klotz. (She also has two young sons with current partner, businessman Mark Griffiths). "The advice I would give my daughter is that she should celebrate her youth and take advantage of all the choices she has - they're a gift and a blessing."
This seems typical of her world view: upbeat and unabashed. She says that she feels as if her career is "just getting started" and that she isn't daunted by the idea that the sort of strong female roles she is drawn to may dry up. Besides, she has already imagined a life without acting.
"A couple of times I've felt like quitting. If I get the feeling that something I've done is a crock of s---, some role that I've done is really crap" - she declines to elaborate - "sometimes that propels me to think I might as well just throw the towel in and be a farmer or something."
If Any Human Heart is anything to go by, she won't be feeding chickens any time soon.