By Freya Hill
"She's one of the toughest people to interview," my best friend whispered to me as she slipped a copy of How to Lose Friends And Alienate People into my quivering hands. It was five minutes past six on a Monday evening and I had just received an email from my editor asking me to interview Gillian Anderson in approximately twelve hours time. Questions poured into my head - what exactly do you ask a woman who's earned a sky high reputation as Agent Scully in The X Files, who's starred as Lady Deadlock in a Charles Dickens re-run, who's now promoting a film in which she stars as head of an intelligence agency? Apparently anything; it turns out that she is a woman who likes to talk.
Currently in Sydney, Anderson has just attended the premiere of her latest project, Johnny English Reborn. It is a film that sees her star alongside comic genius Rowan Atkinson. I asked which excited her more when she read the brief: the words 'spy thriller with international assassins eliminating a world leader' or 'the most unlikely intelligence officer to hide from a cock up made 8 years ago'. "The idea of me being the head of the MI7," she chuckled delightedly, "That notion in itself brings me to tears of laughter."
Never mind Rowan Atkinson, I can't help but think that Anderson must be a comic genius herself. The (presumably black) humour she finds in being head of an MI unit is quite something, while her reaction also betrays that she has considered the comic value of her role from a personal perspective. If her approach to the script was that tantalising, I imagine that her performance will be even more so. Anderson in a James Bond spoof? I couldn't decide which her fans would love more: that or the discussion of an X Files 3 movie. The latter is apparently in the pipeline, although nothing has been directly confirmed.
"Would you like to take centre stage as the female equivalent of Bond?" I proposed, half expecting her to bluntly say yes; she seemed to be woman who knew what she wanted and wasn't afraid to voice it. "I'd love to," she answered, and just like that my suspicions were confirmed.
The more I spoke to Anderson, the more apparent it became that she was not just another hack-eating actress whose conversational style was like wrestling with a crocodile. She is passionate about the stage and creatively inspired by the talents of others. Her lack of certainty when asked which was her favourite out of film, theatre or TV confirmed that she really is a woman committed to each of her Golden Globe and Emmy award winning roles. She simply refuses to give one role higher priority than another. Fame is not what gets Anderson out of bed in the morning: "I enjoy photo shoots with talented photographers because it feels like we're creating something together with an artistic spec," she explained. Generally speaking, however, Anderson has a pretty dim view of the publicity - the majority of photoshoots and interviews - that goes with her job: "I show up and do it, but I much prefer to do the work." Needless to say, I quickly steer the conversation away from the subject of interviews.
As I begin to delve into Anderson's career as an actress who had played characters from A Doll's House all the way through to Bleak House, she initially greeted my questions with some caution. It was only some way through our conversation that she began to feel more at ease, at which point she committed to explaining some of her more abrupt responses. Pertinent to our photoshoot, I ask her whether she considers fashion to be purely superficial or if it is, in fact, a personal reflection of character. Despite her initially hesitant and somewhat brusque reaction, Anderson eventually softened to let her more considered opinions flourish. "For a long time I have thought about it (fashion) as a vain thing, and I think that's why I haven't paid a lot of attention to it, " she began. Five minutes later, she concluded effusively: "I love the architecture of clothing and couture." That moment could have summed up the entire interview.
From her role as Mrs. Castaway in The Crimson Petal and the White, a miniseries exploring the dark life of Victorian sex and politics, it is clear that Anderson does pay a lot of attention to fashion when it comes to her career. "I like to spend time on set. I like to spend time involved in the process of putting together the look and the clothes," she explained, fondly going on to reminisce the set of Great Expectations, a set that was as elaborate as you are probably imagining. As for personal, contemporary fashion, she took a great deal longer to divulge where she sources her style. "I don't deliberately go out to shop," she admitted, although she did name check Viola, 25 Connaught Street and William Vintage. The last of those is owned by a close friend of Anderson's. "He's such a great guy for women, he knows what makes a woman look good and feel good about herself". Behind the strengths that you might expect of such an acclaimed actress, Anderson also showed a surprisingly modest, humble side. I spoke to her about the time that FHM named her 'The World's Sexiest Woman' and she set the scene for me: "When I was doing that interview for FHM I remember sitting on the bed and wearing flannel pyjamas." Although she was told about the title that she had just been awarded, Anderson remembers thinking, "I didn't know what that meant. It didn't feel like it was related to me."
It almost did not come as a surprise when she went on to agree with me that she was quite the feminist - although her hesitation and subsequent conditional response added weight to the retraction she had previously expressed to the media. "I would say so - but many many connotations." Her honesty about her acting anxieties did shock me. I never imagined that such a talented woman could be so unnerved by her own line of work. "There are some actors who can go back to back in theatre and do a six month run, and I have so much respect and admiration for them... I get really nervous." You had absolutely no reason to believe she was lying; stardom has obviously left certain areas of this woman untouched.
When we came to the end of the interview, I felt genuinely intrigued to hear the answer to our ultimate question. "Gillian Anderson," I said, "what is your FAULT?" After that now-familiar moment of hesitation (or, perhaps, consideration), she answered, confident, strong but with that characteristically worried air: "Guilt." It was an answer she felt was best left unexplained.