A chat with Gillian Anderson of STARZ "Moby Dick"
By Will Harris
July 29, 2011
Although arguably best known for the time she's spent playing Agent Dana Scully on "The X-Files," Gillian Anderson has also found a home in numerous period pieces and literary adaptations over the years, from Charles Dickens' "Bleak House" to Edith Wharton's "The House of Mirth." Now, she's taking on Herman Melville, thanks to a small but pivotal part of Starz's "Moby Dick," where she plays Captain Ahab's wife, Elizabeth. Bullz-Eye talked to Anderson during the summer 2011 TCA Press Tour and got a bit of insight into her character (who - we have been led to understand - has never before appeared in a film or TV adaptation of the novel), but we also checked in on the status of the next "X-Files" film as well as what we can expect from her in the upcoming "Johnny English Reborn."
Bullz-Eye: How familiar were you with the original Moby Dick novel before you took this gig?
On working with William Hurt on "Moby Dick": "He's amazing. He's an incredible actor, and it's a pleasure to watch his process. There were so many times where I was in awe as I was watching his side of the scene, or I was observing him doing another scene, and I remember at one point standing next to the script supervisor and just going, 'Oh, my goodness...'"
Gillian Anderson: I wasn't. I started reading it once I agreed to do the job and got about 1/4 of the way through. And at some point in my life, I'd like to finish it, but it, uh, hasn't been at the top of my books-to-read-list. (Laughs)
BE: During the panel, you said you've got about five minutes of screen time in the production. Seriously?
GA: (Laughs) No, I'm in it a bit more than that.
BE: Out of curiosity, were you aware that Melville's wife's name was Elizabeth?
GA: I was.
BE: I've always presumed that was not exactly a coincidence.
GA: I don't think it was coincidental. I think it was on purpose.
BE: What was it like playing Elizabeth? As mentioned, it's not one that's really appeared in previous adaptations.
GA: I mean, my understanding, from what Nigel has said in the past, being the one who adapted it, is that it was a way to bring the community that you see out on the boat. He said today that she represented all of the other women that were left behind. And that's a very important aspect of the community section of the story, in that she represents the female contingent that has their own experience when the men get on the boat and go off and their fates often follow the same as Ahab's. And, also, I think it humanizes Ahab in a way that he's not necessarily humanized in the novel.
BE: I literally didn't get my screener until I sat down for the panel this afternoon…
GA: Yeah, I don't think many people have had a chance to watch it yet.
BE: ...but I presume that the majority of your scenes are with William Hurt.
GA: Yes, they are.
BE: How was he to work with?
GA: He's amazing. I mean, he's incredible to work with because ...well, he's an incredible actor, and it's a pleasure to watch his process and watch him. (Hesitates) You know, there were so many times where I was in awe as I was watching his side of the scene, or I was observing him doing another scene, and you just couldn’... I remember at one point standing next to the script supervisor and just going, "Oh, my goodness..." (Laughs) It's just such a joy to watch that kind of craftsmanship.
BE: You've been doing this for awhile. Is that something that still happens to you regularly, where you're pointedly struck by another actor's performance?
GA: Well, I've had the opportunity to work with some really great people. I mean, Donald Sutherland was in this as well and, you know, to the same effect, I just worked with Rowan Atkinson last year in "Johnny English Reborn." (Laughs) But it's the same, in a sense, because they're masters of their craft, and that is just fascinating to observe.
BE: You're clearly pretty flexible as an actress to be able to jump from William Hurt and Donald Sutherland as an actress.
GA: (Laughs) I guess so.
BE: I see you're also in an upcoming film entitled "The Curse of the Buxom Strumpet," which intrigues me.
GA: Yes! That will hopefully come out next year. But, yeah, it's a nice variety of stuff that I get to do.
BE: Which of the adaptations that you've done have you actively gone after versus being approached for them? In other words, have there been any where you heard about the project and went, "Oh, I've got to be in that"?
GA: (Long pause) No, I think I've been approached for all of them. I just did "Great Expectations," which I’m really excited about it.
BE: Who was that for?
GA: BBC. And I think it's airing here on April 1st of next year.
BE: On BBC America?
GA: No, I think it'll be on PBS.
BE: Is there any adaptation that you haven't yet tackled but you’d like to take a shot at? Any particular character?
GA: Not really. Not in terms of television. In terms of theater, yeah. But I can't think of one in terms of the film or television medium. I'm always surprised when stuff comes to me. I think, "Oh, I like that!" (Laughs)
BE: What is it that draws you so often to literary adaptations?
GA: I get offered them. People consider me in their process, and I'm extremely grateful for that. And I have a tendency to be script-driven. My choices are based on material and what I've found is that a lot of the really quality stuff that comes my way just happens to be literary classics! (Laughs) But, you know, there's a lot of other stuff I've done as well that hasn't necessarily been in that ilk.
BE: I'm actually a fan of "Playing by Heart."
GA: Oh, really? Oh, wow! It's actually incredible how many people are. A lot of people really love that film.
BE: Well, I'm a sucker for a good ensemble comedy, and there are a lot of great folks in there. Did you enjoy working with Jon Stewart, given his limited acting history?
GA: Yeah, I did, actually. We had fun. That was before he'd even signed up for Comedy Central. He was battling that decision when we were working together.
BE: Okay, I've got to ask a couple of "X-Files" questions, if only on general principle. A friend of mine wanted me to ask about Mitch Pileggi. As Skinner, he had that blend of stern disciplinarian and father figure. What was he like to work with?
GA: Oh, Mitch is great. He's just a regular guy, and, y'know, he's very sweet, very funny. I think he enjoyed being on the series and having the opportunity to play that character, and I think he had a lot of fun with it. I think he got involved sometimes with the writers and directions that his character could go, and yeah, I think he had fun with it. He's a good guy.
BE: Did you enjoy getting the chance to revisit Scully for "The X-Files: I Want to Believe"?
GA: Oh, definitely. And well, who knows what's going to happen with the third? I know we'd all be on board with it. I don't know what the plans are, in terms of the script. Somebody's got to write one in order for us to be able to do it, and I have no idea whether or not that's in process.
BE: But you guys are up for it?
GA: Oh, yeah. We all are, and we have been. I think we've all been very vocal about it. I think as much as anything it's up to the studio as to whether they want to go ahead with it.
BE: Were you disheartened with the reception of "I Want to Believe"?
GA: Yeah, I think we were all hoping that it would've been better overall. We opened at probably the most difficult opening time of all time, against "The Dark Knight" and the whole Heath Ledger thing. It was an unfortunate opening time for us, and I think that had a big impact. But, you know, it just gives us more of an opportunity to make the next one better. If there is a next one. (Laughs)
BE: Did you enjoy the experience of being on "The Simpsons"?
GA: You know, it was such a long time ago that we did that, and it was basically us showing up for a couple of hours in a sound studio. The enjoyment more was, y'know, we didn't get to work with Marge or Bart. (Laughs) The enjoyment was more in the viewing of it when it was completed, and just the hilarity of the whole thing, you know? And it was really cool at the time to be a part of that.
BE: I know we have to wrap up, but I was wondering if you could talk just a bit more about "Johnny English Reborn." Was that a case where they approached you?
GA: Yeah, they approached me, and I've been a fan of Rowan Atkinson for a long time, and there was a really interesting cast coming together. And I found the script funny, but I think overall it was about working with Rowan and having the opportunity to observe him and to kind of stretch my wings in comedy a bit more. Ive done some, quite a bit, actually. But not on that scale. And I just wanted to see what that would feel like.
BE: Would you ever have an interest in returning to series television? I've heard that you'd been approached about working on Frank Spotnitz's new series…which may just be a rumor, but...
GA: You know, I've looked at stuff. People still send me stuff. And if the right thing landed on my plate, I might be interested in doing it. And that could be drama or comedy. It might be fun to do something a bit lighter. Potentially more short run than a long run of something, but I'd potentially be up for something if it were the right thing.