Los Angeles Magazine
By Nancy Griffin
Photography by Chris Buck
As Scully, she’s straight and dour; as The House of Mirth’s Lily Bart, she’s tragic.
As herself, Gillian Anderson is another species altogether - and not at all easy to unravel
Anyone on a mission to try and discover the real Gillian Anderson won't find much in the way of salient artifacts by visiting her trailer on the set of The X-Files. On a chilly early fall night, while exteriors for the show are being filmed in Thousand Oaks, Anderson lets an interviewer into her caravan between scenes to warm up and talk. Starring in the hit series for her eighth season, the actress rates a roomy trailer, but inside, it is as austere as Agent Dana Scully herself, the ultrarational scientist Anderson plays with such intelligent restrain. No family pictures. No books. No toys, Just once cute dog and a squawking walkie-talkie on which a crew person counts down the number of minutes remaining before Anderson will be needed in front of the cameras, “I like warnings,” says the actress “I don’t like to be surprised.”
As she settles into a sofa in Scully’s no-nonsense uniform of black pants and a tailored blue shirt, Anderson’s manner is cordial but wary. Her exceptionally blue eyes are attentive, but they do not exude warmth or invite one in. Her reputation for intensity and impatience has precede her. “Pay attention to her laugh,” suggested friends, who warned that Anderson is difficult to get to know. “The key to Gillian is her laugh.” Mercifully, they are soon proved right. Anderson’s walleyed Jack Russell puppy jumps up on his mistress and starts whipping around the trailer in delighted circles. She begins to laugh, an exuberant, throaty outpouring that takes its time completing itself. It is a laugh that X-Files fans have never heard. “This is Happy,” she says, cuddling the puppy. “Happy, J. Bahkti, I named her that to remind myself to be happy. J is for Josie, and Bahkti means “devotional” (in Sanskrit).
If Scully were conducting this investigation of Anderson, she would systematically compile the following forensic evidence. At 32, Anderson is a highly paid TV star with a huge international following; she’s an Internet favorite among male fans, who view her, according to one British magazine, as “the thinking man’s crumpet.” She has snared an Emmy and a Golden Glove for her work on The X-Files. A single mom, she lives with her daughter, Piper, in a Malibu home that houses her handpicked collection of modern art and photography. With a few smaller film roles to her credit, such as the decidedly anti-Scully floozy in The Mighty, Anderson will appear in December in her first leading role in a motion picture, a prestige production of Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth.
“This is Gillian’s year, and her character’s year,” says Chris Carter, X-Files creator and Piper’s godfather. Anderson’s co-star, David Duchovny, whose public profile has often eclipsed hers, will be gradually phased out of the show this season. “it works out perfectly, because she’s always had the tough role of playing the straight man,” says Carter. “She was the stick in-the mad, the anchor that kept everything from marching off too far into the paranormal”. In the episode currently shooting, Scully gets to track down a slimy, murderous half-man-half bat with her new partner, Agent Doggett, played by Robert Patrick, who was the mercurially morphing bad terminator in Terminator 2. No longer required to be the eye rolling voice of reason who sets up Duchovny’s funny lines, Anderson will spread Scully’s wings a bit. “ I welcome not being so skeptical, “ she says. “It was hard to carry that through”. She looks forward to milking what is already shaping up to be some zingy chemistry between Scully and D oggett. “He is a man’s man, an ex-copy, and he’s got that kind of edge,” she says. “And he is very protective of Scully”.
All of this amounts to what Anderson admits is a life that is “An embarrassment of riches.” But while she claims greater contentment today that she’s known before, it’s more in spite of that because of fame and worldly success. She landed on The X-Files at age 24 with little acting experience and has paid an enormous personal price while making her way to the top of the Hollywood heap-and staying there. In 1994, when The X-Files was shot in Vancouver, she married the show’s assistant art director, Clyde Klotz, gave birth to their daughter (during her maternity leave, Scully was abducted by aliens) and was back on set 10 days after her cesarean to feign an on-screen coma. Within two years she and Klotz were divorced, and two years after that the show relocated to Los Angeles. Anderson has marshaled prodigious inner resources to keep her career on track while coping with emotional disappointments and new mother hood, “ In the early years, it was to difficult,” she says. “I don’t know how many days I spend redoing my makeup because of the tears. I have processed so much stuff. I’ve grown up on this show”.
Today’s happiness represents some hard-won victories. Anderson has created a stable routing for Piper, who is thriving despite a mother who works 13-hour days. For years she has sought peace of mind by trading an eclectic spiritual path that includes Buddhist meditation. She is gradually learning to relinquish control and no longer feels she has to be accomplishing something every second. “Gillian has remarkable composure under pressure, “ says Anthony LaPaglia, who played opposite her in The House of Mirth. “She had a tremendous calming effect on me.” Anderson jokes that what passes for serenity may be partly the result of having recently quit smoking; “I’ve become dumb and can’t remember anything” Normally when I go in my trailer, I make a hundred phone calls. Now I just sit and go, “Am I supposed to be doing something right now?”
Gillian Anderson was nothing like the legions of perky midwestern actresses who inhaled I Love Lucy reruns and took bows in school musicals. She was the eldest of three children and grew in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Her father managed a film post production company, and her mother worked as computer analyst. Gillian was a lonely, serious girl who liked to dissect earthworms. She opted for a Sex Pistols adolescence, complete with Mohawk and plunging grades, worshipped punk rockers and once handcuffed herself to the doors of City High School. Even then, she was drawn to paranormal and metaphysical phenomena. “I would like in bed and get into a meditative state,” she says, “ and astral project. I remember shifting my consciousness from inside my physical being to outside, and going very slowly though the room and down the hallway.”
In The House of Mirth, her precise diction and technique recall an actress who has inspired an entire generation. “Meryl Streep had a huge influence on me,” says Anderson, “but it was more her character in Out of Africa that her as an actress. There was something about the strength of Karen Blizen and Africa and the plantation and rising above all odds-the romance of it. Possible there was apart of me that said, “Okay, in order to get to that I need to be an actress as opposed to being a plantation owner in Africa.” My grades were poor in school, and I couldn’t pay attention. I need attention. I auditioned for community play and was cast, and immediately I had found my focus.”
She studied with National Theater of Great Britain at Cornell University and picked up BFA in drama from DePaul University in Chicago, Next stop Manhattan, where she waitressed and got experience off-Broadway. Anderson had appeared on-screen only once, in a small role in the feature film The Turning, when she landed an audition for the pilot of The X-Files. “When I first met her I would call her almost an urchin.: says Carter. “She was scruffy, her hair needed a wash, she looked like she’s come right out of the Village in New York and plopped down in her funky clothes.” But her analytical toughness and glacial beauty convinced Carter that she should play the FBI agent who loves to perform autopsies. Anderson wasn’t an easy sell to network executives. “She wasn’t kittenish or an obvious bombshell,” Carter says. “I think it all cam down to how they thought she might look in a bathing suit. Of course, she’s never have to wear one.”
When the pilot was picked up and shooting began, Duchovny took Anderson under his wing while she played catch-up, befriending the camera and tongue-tripping over her scientific dialogue. Seven years later, she slips effortlessly in and out of Scully’s skin-and is looking forward to slipping out of it for good when her contract expires as the end of next season. It’s been a great ride, she says, “but there are so many other things that I want to do.” Last spring she wrote and directed an X-Files episode called “all things,” in which Scully opens up to the mystical undercurrents in her life; in one evocative scene she stumbles into a Buddhist temple. Anderson cast her friend Colleen Flynn, an actress, painter and fellow seeker, as Scully’s spiritual adviser. “You can look at this piece of work as a whisper of a lot of the things that Gillian wrestles with that are important to her,” say Flynn. “Spiritual conflict, science, surrender, judgement.”
Like virtually every other Hollywood actress over the age of 30, Anderson is frustrated by the paucity of meaty film roles for women, although American Beauty and Magnolia have given her hope. She was trilled to win the role of Lily Bart in British director Terence Davies’ House of Mirth, which also stars Laura Linney and Dan Aykroyd (with whom she bonded over a mutual fascination with crop circle). Piper accompanied her to the Glasgow location, then had to share her mother with Edith Wharton, to whom Anderson ardently wished to do justice. “I was terrified,” she says. “I set up an office in the bathroom in one of the bed-and-breakfast houses that we stayed in, and that’s where I’d study. I’d just go over the novel again and again. I had such huge respect for her writing and her genius that I didn’t want to mess up.”
WHEN SHE FINALLY RELEASED FROM THE X-FILES OBLIGATION, ANDERSON SAYS, MORE FILMMAKING WILL BE IN THE CARDS. “I’LL DEFINITELY DIRECT AGAIN, EVEN, if it means I have to make it with all women for no money and write it myself.” If good roles come her ways, she’ll continue acting, but she’s especially jazzed about spending more time exploring the art world. Her personal collection of paining , photography and sculpture consists mostly of up-an-coming artists, but she also adores the work of Brice Marden and Francesco Clemente. “There are two Clemente pieces that I saw at his last show at the Guggenheim, and I just wept,” she says. Then she adds with an ironic smile, “ The concept of having to have something is very common of r celebrities. I don’t know if I have to have-but I’d love to be able to see those pieces frequently.” The day will soon come, too, when she’ll indulge her own long-nurtured artistic aspirations, which for now are limited to scribble made on the set on the back of her script.
Since moving into her new Adirondack-syle house last year, Anderson has welcomed growing network of friends who congregate there Saturday nights. She cooks informally and lights candle. “it’s not a precious place,” she says, “It’s got a mixture of stuff I’ve acquired from all over the world, and it’s got an Asian feel to it. It’s not too big, feels cozy and has lindk nooks and crannies and lofts. It comes alive when there are people there. I can’t imagine not having that house for the rest of my life.”
Anderson says that whiled she’s open to a life partner, romance has been relegated to the category of things she’s no longer trying to control. She is not casual about relationships. “I don’t like to talk about my personal life in that way,” she says, “I mean, I work, I don’t have boyfriends. I have some really remarkable friends.” Most of the little bit of free time she has is spent trying to give Piper as normal as childhood as is possible. Over the summer hiatus she and her daughter traveled to London and reveled in riding the tube without being recognized. “I will not take her to premieres,” says Anderson. “When she’s around, I run in the other direction if I see somebody approaching for an autograph. I just don’t want her to witness me being special in any way.”
When it comes to her feelings about being a mother, she’s “way too hard on herself,” says Flynn. Anderson has suffered along with her daughter as the girl has been shuttled back and forth between her mother and her father in Vancouver. When she hangs on the X-Files set, Piper’s time with Mom is constantly interrupted by the demands of filming. The only time during the interview that Anderson’s composure cracks is when she is asked about her hopes for her daughter. “My hope for her is that she survives,” she says quietly. “That she comes out strong in this. I mean, she’s - what she’s had to endure has been a tall order. And my wish for her is that she grows up knowing how much she’s loved and loving herself to the degree that she doesn’t have to hurt herself.” Tears well up in her eyes. After a pause, she brightens. “She is an outgoing and rambunctious as a kid can be. She is very smart, very quick, and she hears and sees everything. There was one time when I was trying to get this house ready for us to move into, and in between my schedule and working on the house - it was insane - she just had a complete breakdown. And she asked me ,”Mommy, do you love your work more than me?”
The walkie-talkie crackles, and a disembodied voice informs Anderson that she’s needed on the set. “I have to go hide in the bushes with Doggett,” she says, rising and putting on an FBI agent’s expressing. She’s laughing as she walks out the door. Although Scully may finish her nine years of existence without ever cracking a smile, it’s likely that Anderson’s house will be filled with mirth. “I have a running joke with her,” says Flynn, “that when she finally gets free, I won’t be able to get her off her back porch. She’ll just be sitting out there watching her daughter play and having a cup of tea. And she’ll never want to leave.”