By Lynne Melcombe
No longer a sci-fi cult show, The X Files, with its message to "trust no one," has become a mainstream hit. Could extraordinary forces be guiding the career of star Gillian Anderson?
She had no burning interest in science fiction, no driving ambition to work in television, and she sees few similarities between herself and the character she plays. Yet, over the past three years, millions of North American viewers have come to identify actor Gillian Anderson with Dana Scully, the brilliant FBI scientist in Friday night's cult-show-turned-mainstream-hit, The X Files.
Filmed in North Vancouver, where the twenty-seven year old Anderson lives with her Canadian husband, Clyde Klotz, and their year-old daughter, Piper, The X Files is based on the premise that paranormal events - extraterrestrial visits, vampire murders, and demonic possessions - are regular occurrences. The American government not only knows about them, the show's creators suggest, but refuses to investigate officially, instead keeping reports in a secret file - hence the show's name.
As he becomes aware of bizarre occurrences, FBI agent and paranormal believer Fox Mulder, played by David Duchovny, enlists the help of the skeptical Scully in documenting them. The show's subtitle recently changed from "The Truth Is Out There" to "Trust No One", highlighting the fact that the pair's work is fraught with as much danger from truth-suppressing fellow agents as from the dark events they investigate.
Given her initial lack of interest in both science fiction and television - and if you believe in such things - it's tempting to wonder whether forces greater than Anderson orchestrated her success. Born in Chicago, and raised in Puerto Rico, England and the American Midwest, Anderson wasn't sure what she wanted to do when she finished high school. "I was interested in marine biology, geology - all those 'ologies," she says. But, like many adolescents, she was feeling a bit adrift, her uncertainty reflected in poor grades. Then, as if fate had intervened, she says "I auditioned for a play, and won a part. After that, my grades picked up, my outlook brightened, my whole life improved."
After four intensive years at Chicago's Goodman Theater School, Anderson's graduating class traveled to New York City to perform for an audience of agents. As luck would have it, someone with the William Morris Agency was impressed with Anderson's monologue, and offered to represent her if she'd move to New York.
"I had my it in my mind that I should leave on a certain day," she laughs, "but it took longer to pack than I expected." Anderson hopped into her Volkswagen Rabbit at eleven o'clock on the appointed night, and set out. "The car was packed so high that I couldn't see out the rear-view mirror," she remembers. "And when I stopped to sleep, I had to crouch up in a fetal position."
After Anderson had been in the Big Apple for about a year, doing a couple of plays and a film, a friend in Los Angeles convinced her to fly west for what turned out to be more than a fortuitous visit. "I loved New York," she says, "and I swore I'd never move to LA. But once I got there, I ended up selling my return ticket." Another year of small parts passed before Anderson received a script for The X-Files, and the rest is history - or perhaps destiny.
"I liked the premise of the show," she says. "Cover-ups like Watergate and the Iran-Contra affair prove that the American government is quite capable of with-holding information from the public "for its own good." Information about things like extraterrestrial visitors - which, in societies scattered around the globe, is simply accepted as part of life - could, Anderson concedes, cause a great deal of panic in North America. "But I don't think it's the government's job to decide what people can or can't handle. People have a right to their fears, and learning to confront them can be quite liberating." Besides," she adds, "if there are life forms on other planets traveling to Earth, they must be much more advanced than we are, which means we could be learning a lot from them. I think we should embrace that."
Perhaps more important than her interest in the show's premise, however, was Anderson's "immediate attraction to the role of Dana Scully. It was obvious from the pilot script that she was independent, intelligent, and able to stand up for herself. She's strong-willed, passionate about her work, and a completely capable partner for her brilliant male counterpart."
Although Anderson also comes across as bright, independent and capable, she sees few similarities between herself and Scully. "Scully is insanely intelligent," she says. "Three-quarters of the information in her mind will never be in mine. And she's fearless; I can't imagine going into some of the dark places she goes into. She's also quite close-minded. I act more on my intuition, and I'm more interested in the paranormal."
The actor has never experienced anything supernatural. What personal experiences does she call on, then, to help her portray a woman for whom exorcisms, alien encounters and near-death experiences are weekly events?
"Actors don't always rely on personal experience," she explains. "A lot of it is just pretending. When Scully feels angry or afraid, I can draw on experience. But with other things, it's more difficult. The dialogue, for example, is often very technical. It's hard to memorize that kind of material, and even harder to verbalize it in an interesting way."
The show's last season was so successful that The X Files has been nominated for six Emmy's, including those for best drama, writing and cinematography, to be awarded in late September. In the meantime, if there were an award for actors who face personal challenges without sacrificing professional goals, Anderson would likely be a nominee.
Shortly after moving to Vancouver to begin taping The X Files, she met Klotz. "He was one of the art directors on the show," she says. "We met in September, 1992, got married in Kauai on January 1, 1993 and conceived our daughter on our wedding day. I worked until about a week before the delivery, and had to be back at work by the time Piper was ten days old.
"Of course, no one expected that I'd need a Caesarean section," she points out. "The first episode after I got back wasn't too difficult; I was in bed for the whole thing. But the next episode entailed a lot of running and jumping. It was physically difficult, and emotionally - well, I shed a lot of silent tears. It was horrible. There were plenty of times that all I wanted to do was quit and be with my baby. But then I would have had a lawsuit on my hands, for breach of contract."
A year later, everything is fine. "I have a fabulous nanny," says Anderson, "and although I have to work ridiculous hours, one of the blessings of the show is having Piper on the set. In fact, I'm still breast-feeding." Although she wants more children, the actor is determined not to have them until after The X-Files has gone off the air. "That's hard, too," she says, "because the show could run for another five or six years, which means not having another baby for quite a while. But I wouldn’t want to do it the same way again. It was one of the hardest things I've ever done."
Anderson hopes to do feature films, work with directors and actors she admires, and maybe do some comedy. "But only classy comedy," she says, "not the Dumb and Dumber kind." As her career becomes more established, she looks forward to becoming more selective about roles and dividing her time more equally among work, family, and volunteer activities.
"Because of the hours involved," she says, "a show like this prohibits much volunteer activity beyond sending an autographed picture to a fundraising auction." She favours causes that help battered women, people with AIDS, and sufferers of neurofibromatosis. The last is a rare disease affecting nerve endings, causing internal and external deformities, increasing the possibility of other debilitating conditions like scoliosis, and sometimes leading to early death. Anderson is interested, she says simply, because "a loved one had it."
The actor is also concerned about gender inequities, especially in Hollywood. "There are huge differences in the way male and female actors are perceived," she says. "Women have to be a certain size, in order to get good roles. The only successful, larger-than-average female actor I can think of is Kathy Bates. And once women reach a certain age, they can only expect one or two good roles per year, whereas male actors can continue working regularly well into their forties.
"Then there are the types of roles available to women," she continues. "We're constantly depicted as sidekicks, ingenues, and hangers-on, rarely as independent and capable individuals. And the enormous, huge discrepancies in pay....the amounts that some male actors make are astronomically obscene." Anderson doesn't suggest that stars like Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock make little money, "but they'll never earn what their male counterparts are earning." she says. "Women in Hollywood are constantly shown that there's a difference between them and men, and that that's okay. But it's not okay."
The challenges she has faced and the commitment with which she speaks suggest that Anderson - strong, intelligent, hard working, and passionate about her work - has more in common with Scully than she thinks. And her life as an actor, from stumbling into a high school play to finding success where she least expected it, may have been more than a series of happy accidents.
It depends on whether one is a skeptic or a believer in things otherworldly.
Transcript appears courtesy of BC Woman.