Gillian Anderson Lets It All Hang Out On Stage
In the new production of A Streetcar Named Desire at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn, the icy cool X-Files star cuts loose as Blanche DuBois.
by Vanessa Lawrence
W Magazine: May 10, 2016
Thanks to a little television series called The X-Files, Gillian Anderson is best known to American audiences for her work as the ever-skeptical Agent Scully, which she has just reprised in the show's reboot on Fox. Less known is the fact that Anderson, 47, got her start on the stage in a 1991 New York production of Alan Ayckbourn's Absent Friends. Since then, it's mainly British audiences who get to see the London-based actress's appearances onstage, notably in the Donmar Warehouse's 2009 production A Doll's House, and the Young Vic Theatre's A Streetcar Named Desire.
Fortunately, New Yorkers can now catch Anderson at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn, where A Streetcar Named Desire has moved through June 4th. Under Benedict Andrews's direction, the production provides a visceral, sexual, hormone-drenched take on Tennessee Williams' canonic American work. Set in a seemingly Ikea-furnished minimalist apartment, the show features a rotating stage whose every turn reveals the depths of the characters' despair, anger, and, yes, desire.
And you do really want the full 360-degree view of Anderson's Blanche DuBois, who teeters into this Elysian Fields, Louis Vuitton luggage in hand, trembling in vertiginous heels, to spin her increasingly woeful tale. When she finally succumbs to the whirling forces around her, it is with the heartbreaking resignation of a prizefighter, stopped.
You've have said that you've wanted to play Blanche for some 30 years. What made you first fall in love with Blanche, and what made you want to play her now?
When we first started rehearsal, I'm not sure I could have answered that question. When I was about 16, I had done a monologue, which it turns out I had forgotten about. So something clicked internally there, some kind of recognition. It just always lived in the back of my mind as something I wanted to do, but I'd never actually studied the play or her at all. And it wasn't until we started rehearsal, and sat down in the room with our director Benedict Andrews and started to dig into the play that I really realized how extraordinary it was, and how extraordinary a character she is. And just how much I-"identified" is the wrong word. Every time I say that to a journalist they're like, "Well what do you mean? How exactly do you identify with Blanche?" So it was, just for lack of a better word, some intuitive feeling, I guess.
That said, was there a specific characteristic of Blanche you were drawn to that you really wanted to plumb?
I actually don't know, truly. I knew more from productions I had seen over the years, I think, and going, "I want to do that, I want to do that, I want to do that. . ." than actually having read the play and gone, "I have to play this woman on the page." It wasn't until I had the opportunity to live in her shoes that I realized how much fun she is. She's obviously exhausting. It's hard to keep that up. But [she's] so much fun. I'm not a hugely demonstrative, exaggerating, loud, obnoxious person. I'm a bit of a hermit, and I prefer to stay quiet and not be seen or heard. But in this particular version of the play, I get to run the gamut of emotions and push the far reaches of every boundary and expectation of myself and the character. So that's fun and challenging and rewarding.
Since it's traveled from London to Brooklyn, are there things you've picked up on with the character that you didn't the first time around?
Well, there are a few things when we went back into it. At the very beginning, Benedict said to us, "We're not going to reinvent something. We have something that works and we're just revisiting it for this space." And actually what ended up happening was that we investigated it even deeper and stopped on moments we had never quite worked out, or perhaps worked better: "Is this really the truth of this moment or does it go back to a few pages before?" Or, "Oh, there's a dash there and I never realized I've been saying this line like this instead of the way it was originally written." So that's the kind of work we were doing. And also working on the flow of the scenes and the dynamics between the twosomes, the Stanley-and-Stella and Stella-and-Blanche, and then Mitch-and-Blanche—the peaks and valleys of their conversations, to help them be even more dynamic and interesting. And the peaks and the valleys specifically between me and Stella as well. And the emotional baggage that is heavy between us, and how it plays out and manifests in the way we communicate with each other is all on the page. But just making sure by saying the words the way we have been saying them, we're implying it the way they're intended.
Streetcar is such an iconically American play. Has the change of scenery from London to Brooklyn flipped anything differently in your mind?
It feels very much like the right space for it to be; not only being an almost sister house to the Young Vic [theater in London] in its potential, but also the feel of it, the bones of it, the brick and steel and industrial nature of it. That we're right down here in the heart of an industrial area feels fitting and appropriate. And the audiences are different. They laugh more sometimes, a lot more sometimes at different moments, so it's also riding the new information that that presents without trying for laughs in the other areas. You end up forcing things and that just doesn't fly over here. Not that we're playing the show for laughs, but it's just interesting the response a play can have in two different countries.
The physical stage: was that hard to get used? You're in tottering, wobbly heels to begin with and then you're on a moving stage. How was the adjustment period?
There was a bit of an adjustment period getting used to the revolve. We were blessed enough to have the revolve from day one of our rehearsal times. They constructed it in our rehearsal space in London and then tore it down and reconstructed it in the space. And that made a world of difference to our adaptation period. I do recall at the beginning lying in bed and my head spinning at nighttime for the first little while. But then that also happens with the play sometimes. I've had nights where I can't sleep. It happened more in London where I guess the lines, the monologues would go through my head.
That could drive a person mad!
It was slightly hellish, yeah. But that hasn't happened so much here. But there is a spinning nature to the whole production, and I think once you get into the groove of it I think your body compartmentalizes enough that it becomes this [separate] period of time.
Does the 360-degree view the audience has of you affect the way you play Blanche?
It does change to a degree because Benedict kept saying in the different spaces, "It's so much nicer for the audiences when you open up." Because I've got these long stretches of things of things to say. So I find ways to open them up to the different sides so everybody gets to see. They will be able to hear, but especially when so much is obscured, giving them the gift of also being able to actually see your face, even if just for a few seconds. So in her various monologues I've been finding things and locations I'm referring to in different corners of the theater. I'm sure on some nights, if I'm not grounded enough, it probably feels on purpose and staged somehow. If all is going well, hopefully it feels organic, and not not forced. Like, "Oh, my back's been to that corner too long!"
There is a sense that Blanche is such a sensitive person and the world has really taken its toll on her, something Stella remarks upon to Stanley. Do you think of her as a doomed person? Was she almost too sensitive to thrive in the world she was born into?
I've always imagined that she started out a soft, very feminine, Southern belle who went to a normal but upper-class school system, to the point where her projection as it would have been back then or potentially still in the South [is] that you go to school long enough until you get married, have children, and maybe work a little bit on the side, as she does as a teacher. And that she was a soft, sweet, pink-wearing, tulle and chemise-wearing girl and fell madly, madly in love and was heartbroken twice very early on-once by the discovery that her husband was gay and had been with a man before, and then that she was responsible for him blowing his brains out. And on top of the grief and the guilt and the shame, being landed with the burden of the household and its history. I think it hardened her. How can those events not harden? But I think she obviously seeks to keep pain at bay through drink and sex, and then eventually has to turn to sex to keep the roof over her head. The heart of that sensitive bird inside is so trampled on over time that it would probably be either survive and become who she is today, or kill herself.
Those are pretty awful options. You came off of season three of BBC's The Fall into this. On that show, you play the detective Stella who is such a controlled character. Blanche is much more demonstrative and flamboyant. Do you find Blanche cathartic to play?
I kind of enjoy it all. It's nice to have the chance to test the reaches of what I feel I could do, I guess. And they're very different disciplines and muscles in the body, obviously, that one uses.
Did one muscle come more easily or naturally to you?
I think it's much more natural for me to play understated characters who say more with their eyes than they do their words. And that's certainly the stuff I have chosen to do. I think I get cast for that. And certainly I'm drawn to material that isn't overblown or over-written. I prefer spare scripts in general.
You haven't been on a New York stage since 1991 [in Absent Friends at Manhattan Theater Club] because most of your stage acting has been in England. Looking back, would you have ever imagined that in America you'd be most known for something like The X-Files?
No. But also, when we were doing X-Files there were a few times when I looked into potentially doing theater in the hiatus periods and there just wasn't really enough time. I've been offered things through the years in New York. I think there was a Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Fool For Love, and various things I contemplated but nothing I really responded enough to come back over. But the whole X-Files thing completely blind-sided me.
Does it continue to?
I think it's been a big enough chunk of time that I'm resigned to the fact of it by now. I think every once in a while I'm shocked. I think I was shocked by the numbers in our recent six episodes that broke worldwide records.
Quickly to touch on the movie Sold, out now and in which you play a character based on the real life humanitarian photo journalist Lisa Kristine. Sex-trafficking is clearly an important issue for you. What was the impetus for you activism on that issue and participation in that film?
The initial impetus was actually reading the script and agreeing that I would no matter what be a part of the campaign once the film came out. But it wasn't really until I started working on the film and subsequently leading up to the release of the film that I really started to pay attention to and investigate the facts as they are today in the current world of human slavery and specifically child sex-trafficking. And so I did a lot of research and just talking to people about various organizations and the statistics, which are just harrowing, so being a part of that has certainly galvanized me.
It sounds like Blanche has been a dream role. Is it hard, after having that dream come true, to contemplate what you might do next?
I think it does, potentially. A text that is as dense and beautiful and complex and extraordinary as this is does spoil you for other material. There are actually a couple of plays that I am interested in, a couple of classics that I'm in conversations about. I do something usually once every three or four years theater-wise, so we're a little ways out, but starting that conversation. I actually think [about Streetcar], honestly, "Aren't we done?" I know that we just opened but it kind of feels like we've been doing this for a year in the past week and I'd be perfectly happy if Saturday night were the last performance. That's a terrible thing to say! But oh my god, I've got bruises on every corner of my being."