'It kept me sane and alive': Gillian Anderson on therapy at 14, sex scenes and why she loves London
By Kirsty Lang
EVENT magazine: 5 October 2014
Agent Scully? She only did it for the money. Hollywood? No thanks, she's happier in London. And those sex scenes in BBC hit THE FALL - what's all the fuss about? EVENT meets the straight-talking TV detective set to take science fiction by storm.
There's a scene in the first series of THE FALL, the BBC's brilliant and controversial Bafta-nominated crime drama, when DSI Stella Gibson, played by the American actress Gillian Anderson, summons a young policeman up to her hotel room for sex. She spots him at a crime scene, calls him over and tells him her room number in the same matter-of-fact way she would ask a junior officer about witnesses. Afterwards, she dismisses him with same lack of emotion.
It's powerful, graphic and, I suggest, quite shocking. 'Why should this be shocking in 2014?' shoots back a clearly exasperated Anderson, when I meet her in a tiny dressing room backstage at the Young Vic Theatre in London, where she has just finished a three-month run in Tennessee Williams's A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE.
'People have one-night stands all the time. Stella is comfortable with her sexuality. She has needs and if those are met by the occasional night between two consenting adults, what's the problem?'
It's the sort of no-nonsense response you'd expect from the actress who blasted onto our screens 20 years ago as the feisty, red-headed FBI agent in THE X-FILES and who is about to publish her first novel – a sci-fi thriller called A VISION OF FIRE. Since returning to Britain from America in 2002, Anderson has established herself as one our most compelling actresses, playing a succession of ballsy women in a man's world, from Agent Scully in THE X-FILES to the tough wife of a missionary doctor in Uganda, in Kevin MacDonald's film about Idi Amin, THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND.
Her latest is the high-powered detective in THE FALL, BBC2's most popular drama in 20 years, which returns this month for a second series. A psychological thriller about a serial killer in contemporary Belfast, the first series won plaudits for its creepy, tension-building plot. But there were also complaints about the violence against women.
I had gone to interview Anderson with some trepidation, having been warned that she can be frosty and hates being asked anything personal. Perhaps she is more comfortable with women, but for most of our interview I found her to be warm, funny and quite open. There are definite no-go areas when she clams up with a frosty determination, but there is part of her that clearly likes to shock.
Two years ago in an interview with the gay magazine OUT, Anderson spoke about having had a lesbian love affair, saying, 'I was in a relationship with a girl for a long time when I was in high school... I'm old enough to talk about these things now.'
When asked today why she had chosen to reveal this, her answer is illuminating. 'She had died of a brain tumour a year earlier and I had never really spoken about her. (Anderson's younger brother also died of a brain tumour, three years ago, which 'had a profound effect on all of us. It did make me change priorities and realise life is short.') She was a beautiful person who was very meaningful in my life and I wanted to honour her instead of hiding my experience. There was a point years after we had split when she phoned to tell me to say she had been offered a large amount of money to sell a photograph of us together and had chosen not to do it. It was a very big decision because she really could have used that money.
'I felt it was very important to take the onus off that type of relationship, to say this happened and I feel no shame about it.'
Later in our conversation she mentions that her sister is over visiting from the U.S. with her wife. Although she doesn't say it, I am sure that talking about her own lesbian relationship was Anderson's way of paying respect to her sister's life choices as well.
Given that Anderson has had two husbands and another long-term relationship with the father of her two sons, she is clearly more inclined towards men, and they like her too.
In 1996 she was voted the world's sexiest woman. At 46 and a mother of three children, she is still incredibly attractive, with mesmerising blue eyes and a pale, freckled face you can't help staring at. She's tiny but with a perfectly proportioned hourglass figure.
Her oldest child, 20-year-old daughter Piper - an art student in London - is from Anderson's first marriage, to Clyde Klotz, an assistant director she met on the set of THE X-FILES. The father of her two sons Oscar, seven, and Felix, six, is the British businessman Mark Griffiths. He made his money in wheel-clamping and had previously been linked to Spice Girl Geri Halliwell.
In between, Anderson was with film-maker Julian Ozanne for three years. After an idyllic honeymoon off the East Coast of Africa, the couple tried for children but she had a miscarriage and an ectopic pregnancy. It was widely reported that the marriage officially ended only after she became pregnant by Griffiths, but since this is one of Anderson's no-go areas, I don't pry.
She met Ozanne at a dinner party in London just after leaving THE X-FILES. She had come to Britain to do theatre and wasn't planning on staying permanently until she met him. They married in 2004 and lived together in Notting Hill.
These days she has moved to another part of London and tells me very firmly that she's single but has a very good relationship with the father of her two sons, who lives around the corner.
For most of the Nineties, however, the man she was most associated with was the actor David Duchovny, Agent Mulder to her Agent Scully in THE X-FILES. It was a relationship that crackled with sexual chemistry on screen, and their fans have always been convinced that there have been close encounters of the bedroom kind in real life. Anderson has been quoted as saying, 'It's a nice idea but it's never going to happen.' To me, she says they're still very close. 'The filming days on THE X-FILES were long and gruelling, so the cast and crew became like another a family.
You'd think it would be the ambition of any young actress to be in such a popular TV show, but Anderson says she never intended to work in television and only auditioned for THE X-FILES because she was out of money and desperate (she described the pay disparity on THE X-FILES as 'massive', revealing that she received half the salary of her male co-star). 'I had a very negative opinion - and rightly so - of TV at the time.'
When I ask her about what that early celebrity was like she says, 'For most of the time we were protected by the fact that we were living and shooting in Vancouver and it wasn't until I moved down to LA and started to be recognised in restaurants that I realised I was famous.
'I cannot imagine what it must be like for young and impressionable actors getting into the business today with the whole tweeting thing, members of the public snapping you on their phones, the fact that anyone can post a picture of you sitting in a restaurant. There is no privacy any more.'
Does she suffer from that these days? 'There are moments in stressful situations when you are travelling with your kids or you are in the park drying their bums and someone is taking a photo of you on their phone. Nowadays everyone becomes a member of the paparazzi.
When I ask her if she regrets moving to London after THE X-FILES, as if she'd stayed she might have become a major Hollywood star, she hoots with laughter but never answers the question.
She says she moved to London because she wanted to act in plays here. 'I loved being in London. But what I loved the most was the "moment to moment" focus that takes place in live theatre.'
Since then Anderson has carved out a formidable reputation on the British stage and screen. She has been in two award-winning BBC adaptations of Dickens novels, playing Miss Havisham in GREAT EXPECTATIONS and the haughty Lady Dedlock in BLEAK HOUSE, as well as the ill-fated socialite Lily Bart in Terence Davies's masterpiece THE HOUSE OF MIRTH.
Her run in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE was widely acclaimed. Her dressing room is crammed to the rafters with huge bouquets of wilting flowers, messages of congratulations from family and friends – and her children's drawings are pinned up on the mirrors.
Outside the theatre posters champion Anderson's 'utterly compelling' 'five-star performance'. The theatre's publicist tells me in hushed tones that it was the fastest-selling show in the venue's history and sold out even before it opened. It's a testimony to Anderson's huge popularity and her skill as an actress.
On the night I watched the show, Anderson's performance as the alcoholic Southern belle Blanche Dubois was electric and the play sizzled with the sexual longing Tennessee Williams intended it to have.
'It was exhausting because I was on stage for three hours - but also wonderful.'
She says the only way to understand Blanche Dubois is to see her as an alcoholic. 'She comes to the table with a great deal of psychological frailty, but her excessive drinking only exacerbates her condition.'
Anderson is unhappy when she finds out I only saw the opening night. 'It got much better, tighter' she assures me, before joking that one of the hardest aspects of playing Blanche was having to negotiate the revolving stage while tottering about in impossibly high heels. The night before her photoshoot with EVENT, she cut her leg on stage during a violent scene, proof if we needed it of her commitment to her craft.
Killer stilettos are also part of her look in THE FALL. As DSI Stella Gibson, Anderson gives Helen Mirren's DCI Jane Tennison from PRIME SUSPECT a run for her money. She plays a super-cop who clicks down the corridors of Belfast's central police station in her heels, terrifying male colleagues with her confident sexuality and incisive brain. She's been brought in from the Met to solve a series of murders that conform to a pattern: all the victims are young, attractive brunettes with good jobs.
Unlike most TV murder mysteries, we know whodunit. Played by Jamie Dornan, who is poised to become a huge star after being cast in the much-awaited film adaptation of the EL James bestseller 50 SHADES OF GREY, the killer is a good-looking, married bereavement counsellor with two children. He has a lot in common with the policewoman who is hunting him.
Anderson has been gushing in her praise of Dornan, saying that he is 'very funny and good at telling stories. He's a good mimic as well. He's a lovely lad. 'On the first series, people said, "Who is this guy? Is he an ex-model or something?" Now people don't want to talk to me about THE X-FILES. They only ask about Jamie Dornan.'
But when I ask about working with him, she replies cautiously, 'We will be sharing some screen time later in the series but that's all I'm prepared to say.'
Did she tease her co-star about his appearance in the sexy bonk-buster? 'No,' she replies with an irritated and condescending look. 'My understanding of that shoot is that the director Sam Taylor Wood - because she is an artist - approached it in a very quiet way.'
As the serial killer in The Fall, Dornan is also called upon to do a fair bit of tying up and bondage, but that's where the comparison ends. There is nothing submissive about Anderson's female detective. The series was created by Allan Cubitt, who wrote PRIME SUSPECT 2, and there are parallels between Anderson's Gibson and Mirren's Jane Tennison. They are both controlling, straight-talking characters.
But Anderson says there are also big differences. 'Jane Tennison is tortured. Stella isn't. Jane is a drinker, she has a neediness for a man's attention and is always getting into awkward relationships. Stella is much more in control and self-sufficient. What they do have in common is a big ego. They both think they are the only people who can solve a crime.'
The first time Anderson saw Prime Suspect, she was living in Los Angeles working on The X Files. 'Helen Mirren presented me with one of my first awards and I remember standing on stage, dumbstruck by meeting her.'
It's clear that Anderson likes to be in charge. 'Ask anyone I work with and they'll tell you I'm OCD about my schedule. I even colour-code it.'
Whenever she takes on a new role, Anderson lays down her conditions right from the start. 'I say this is it: I am coming home for the weekends, half-terms, parents' evenings... I must have time for my children.'
She prefers doing plays during the school holidays so she can spend time with her children during the day. But the Young Vic extended Streetcar's run by two weeks and it ran into the beginning of term, meaning she could only see her two boys at the weekends. But, she says, 'I have a great nanny and they have a great, very present father who they love being with, so that helps a lot.'
Before doing Streetcar, Anderson spent five months commuting between Belfast, where The Fall is filmed, and Toronto, where she appears in another serial killer drama, Hannibal, for the American network NBC. 'I tend to go out to film in Belfast or the U.S. for no more than four to five days and then come home. I learned that lesson working on The X Files when my daughter was little.'
She enjoyed getting to know Belfast and believes the setting brings something extra to The Fall. 'We are so used to seeing London in police dramas - in Northern Ireland there is a definite and palpable edge in the air all the time. Also, we are not used to seeing Belfast outside the context of the Troubles.'
At a time when so many British actors are playing American roles on U.S. TV, Anderson is probably the only actor who can claim to be genuinely bilingual - or bi-accented.
Born to American parents in Chicago, she moved to the UK as a toddler. She spent her formative years at a primary school in north London before the family moved back to the U.S. when she was a teenager, where she had to learn to speak American for the first time in her life. When she was 14 she had therapy and although she won't go into the details she has said that 'it kept me sane and alive. I seriously needed it.'
She slips effortlessly between the two identities - British and American. However, when it comes to politics she still has a foreigner's perspective. 'I tend to follow what's happening in America. That's where I vote, not here.
'There is a lot about British politics I don't understand. But my kids are British and this is my home. I can't ever imagine moving back to the U.S. permanently.'
Amid her hectic schedule, Anderson has found time to write a novel on her transatlantic plane journeys. A Vision Of Fire - out this week - is a sci-fi thriller co-written with American author Jeff Rovin.
Anderson says she is not a fan of science fiction but a friend thought she and sci-fi geek Rovin should try and write a book together. The book is a page-turner with a strong female protagonist, a brilliant child psychologist who works in the world's trouble spots.
'That was my idea,' says Anderson. 'Jeff is probably the world's greatest expert on science fiction but I came up with the main character because ultimately I want this to be made into a film, so I was writing a character for myself.'
There are parallels between Anderson and her protagonist. Both are competent and ambitious single mothers who manage to combine an exciting international career with being good parents.
Anderson says she wanted to create a character who 'is my age but not stuck in any of the stereotypical aspects of how women are usually portrayed. Caitlin is raising a deaf child on her own but she is also at the top of her field. She manages to balance these worlds while remaining level-headed and capable.
'She balances these worlds while remaining level-headed and capable. She's not an alcoholic and she's quite happy being single.'
There's no reason to think that Anderson won't enjoy the kind of success with her book that she has done with everything else in her career. For the moment she's happy with a foot on each side of the Atlantic, weighing up her options. 'I have also been extraordinarily lucky at this time in my life to get plenty of offers of work. Right now in America there is an influx of TV series led by women of a certain age. On the one hand it's great on the other hand it's slightly tokenistic.'
She gets animated on the subject of female directors and can't understand why they don't get more work. 'I recently shot a series in the U.S. called CRISIS. I was in hair and make-up and this woman in her 50s came in and introduced herself as the director and I nearly fell off my chair, it's so rare.'
'I honestly think there is an assumption that women are not as competent.' So it's sexism pure and simple? 'Yes, I believe it is.'
Anderson has railed against the 'intolerable' sexism women still suffer from men in everyday life, saying it's 'built into our society - it's easy to miss and it's easy to get used to it - the expectation that if a woman is wearing a short skirt she is asking for it.'
Given that The Fall is about a serial killer, a voyeur who stalks his prey for days and steals their underwear, what does Anderson feel about the levels of violence against women on television?
'I wouldn’t have done this series if I felt the violence was gratuitous,' she says. 'We get to know and like the victims, we see the grief and devastation it causes their families. I think it engages the viewer with the wider issue - there is a huge amount of violence against women in the world today and most of it is committed by men...'
Unshockable, uncompromising and unafraid to deal with the dark side of humanity - it seems THE FALL got the detective it deserves.