Gillian Anderson's Ferocious Turn as Blanche DuBois Has Been 30 Years in the Making
One of the most-anticipated theater performances of the year has arrived in Brooklyn.
by Richard Lawson
Vanity Fair: April 29, 2016
When I went to St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn on a recent sunny Monday afternoon to interview Gillian Anderson about her upcoming must-see run as Blanche DuBois, in a highly lauded London transfer production of A Streetcar Named Desire, there was little indication of the whiskey- and perfume-scented hurricane that was about to blow through. Crew members were putting things together-chiefly the stunning rotating set that acts as both canny staging device and metaphor for a swirling, unknowable mind-though their work was surprisingly quiet. The production, directed by Benedict Andrews, uses modern furniture and sleek lines, not your usual Streetcar aesthetic, but what rages around all those IKEA trappings is as primal and elemental as Tennessee Williams gets.
And Anderson, petite and friendly and measured when we spoke in a little side room antechamber at St. Ann's, was, of course, nothing like Blanche, Williams's most indelible creation, an addled, broken, toweringly tragic anti-heroine. Which makes Anderson's performance, a breathless and breathtaking piece of finely tuned melodrama, all the more impressive. Blanche is something of a Mt. Everest in the theater world, a perilous undertaking that many actresses feel a kind of calling to attempt at least once in their lives. I was curious if that was the case for Anderson, who's enjoyed over two decades of critically acclaimed success in television and on the London stage.
"Blanche was in my acting plan for 30 years," she told me plainly. "I've wanted to play her since I was a teenager." Her experience playing the character, first in a sold-out, extended run at London's Young Vic in 2014 and now until June in D.U.M.B.O., has been so enriching, though, that she worries it's maybe ruined her for everything else. "You kind of feel that you can't go backwards in terms of degree of genius," she said with a laugh. "So it really does feel like, where does one go from here? And does that mean that you're primarily sticking within the classics and the odd contemporary play that blows everybody's mind? And if that is it, do I then start making the list as a 47-year-old, 'O.K. so how old approximately is Hedda [Gabler], how old is Lady Macbeth?' Do I need to start mapping that out?"
I was curious how Anderson maps out her somewhat peripatetic career, switching between stage and screen, from the U.K. to the U.S. She told me that a good deal of her decision making comes down to practical things like being near her three children, who live in London, but there's also the all-important matter of material ("Logistics has a lot to do with it, but bottom line is material"), and of the intense commitment that live theater requires. "I've been asked to do plays next year already," she said. "But I'm not that person who can do six- to twelve-month runs, or who can do a play every year. I just don't have that in me. I generally only do a play once every three or four years."
She's plenty busy in television, anyway, recently reviving her most famous role as skeptical F.B.I. agent Dana Scully in six new episodes of The X-Files, and having just wrapped shooting Season 3 of the grim British cop-vs.-serial-killer drama The Fall. (Speaking of serial killers, there was also her turn as a loony psychotherapist on NBC's cult favorite Hannibal.) Despite the sometimes light, playful tone of the new X-Files episodes, this is all pretty dark stuff, but none more so, in some ways, than Blanche's descent into madness and ruin.
Anderson told me that she sees both a timelessness and a timeliness in all that aching despair. "One of the things that Tennessee wrote about is the innocent and the poetic, the sensitive of the world. The bombardment upon them from society at large. That has only increased over time, with technology and with what we as humans are expected to endure on a daily basis."
That's a heavy bombardment to endure night after night-watching Anderson power through the three-hour-plus play is exhausting and rattling in the best kind of way-but Anderson has already survived it in London, and now, two years later, seems ready and eager for her New York run to get underway. Imagining that she might need the occasional break from being inside Blanche's roiling, reeling head, I asked her if, with her limited downtime, she'll be getting up to anything fun or relaxing while in the city. "My kids are going to come out a couple of times," she said. "And I think we'll probably end up doing some of the things that I never even did when I lived here. We might go up to Rockefeller Center, or the Empire State Building." Nice, normal, happy stuff, and many miles away from the horrors of Brooklyn-I mean, Elysian Fields.