Interview by Jack Smith
When your day job involves coping with aliens from other worlds and supernatural phantasms and unraveling murky conspiracies extending to the highest levels of government, there’s nothing like unwinding from work behind the leather-wrapped wheel of a 300-horsepower, 175-mile-per-hour Porsche Carrera — which is what Gillian Anderson, who plays Agent Scully on Fox’s The X-Files, is doing this afternoon. More precisely, she’s accelerating down the straightaway of the Road Atlanta racetrack in Brazleton, Georgia, and she’s flying.
Up ahead, the road loops back 180 degrees to the right and her feet dance over the pedals as she performs the racing maneuver known as “heel and toe”: she stabs the brake with her toe, simultaneously hitting the gas with her heel while her left foot depresses the clutch, and downshifts into third gear seamlessly. As the Z-rated Michelins scrub against the tarmac it occurs to her passenger that though he’s taken “hot laps” dozens of times with professional drivers, it’s the first time he’s done it with an actress at the wheel.
But of course, Gillian hadn’t signed up for the Porsche Driving Experience to practice parallel parking. Earlier that day — the second of the two-day curriculum — she’d watched as race driver Hurley Haywood demonstrated the physics of high-speed cornering. Still, it is one thing to watch a professional — in this case, the winningest endurance driver in history — do it, and quite another to keep the throttle pressed to the floor when the landscape is flashing past and lateral G forces press your helmet against the side window. “Forget instinct,” Haywood had said. “At high speed, your natural reaction is the wrong one.”
Gillian doesn’t falter. The engine now reverberating through the cockpit, the canary yellow Porsche snaps through the apex of the turn, the tachometer hastens towards the redline, and we rocket into the next straight as if on rails.
The actress smiles as she shifts back into fourth. “I’ve always liked high-performance driving,” she says gleefully, in case her passenger hadn’t noticed. He had. He’d also noticed that, in her racing helmet, form-fitting white knit top, and slacks, she looks much younger, much more vulnerable, than on TV. What, he wonders, were the executives at Fox thinking eight years ago?
Gillian Anderson wasn’t sexy, they said. She looked too sensible, too cerebral. The Anderson that Fox executives had in mind for the TV series was Pamela Sue, or a reasonably pneumatic facsimile thereof. Fortunately for Gillian, the network and discerning sci-fi viewers everywhere, the last thing X-Files producer Chris Carter wanted was another blonde bombshell; to the contrary, he wanted somebody who radiated intelligence and integrity. Somebody, in fact, like Gillian Anderson.
Eight years later, Gillian and co-star David Duchovny have become cult figures, with an international following that cuts across lines of gender, age and social strata. Scarcely a day goes by that their fictive characters are not celebrated, analyzed and debated in the press. Are Scully and Mulder metaphors for our times? Where do they get their clothes? When are they going to kiss? In 1998, the year X-Files: The Movie came out, Gillian Anderson was splashed across more magazine covers than supermodel Cindy Crawford; as a cover girl she trailed only Monica Lewinsky.
By now, Gillian’s adoring public know her more intimately than they do their next-door neighbors. They know, for instance, that she’s a Leo, willful and driven to succeed; and that she’s married and divorced; and brings her 6-year-old child, Piper, to the set almost every day; that she is given to causes, especially those to benefit the underdog; that her belly button is pierced; and that — according to Cosmopolitan, her favorite “late-night” look is dark, smoky eyes paired with pale lips. Add to these the fact that, according to Dave Parsons, who runs the Porsche school, she’s a pretty good driver — which is a good thing, since Gillian loves speed.
After all, this is a young woman who owns not one, but two Porsches: one, a retro-styled, mid-engine Boxster which she keeps at her home in Vancouver, British Columbia, the other a 911 C-4, the all-wheel-drive Carrera coupe that she drives in Los Angeles. Thus, as she explained at dinner after her first day of instruction, she’s been looking forward to this occasion — the Porsche Driving Experience — for a long time.
“You know how it is when you first get a Porsche,” she says, with a self-deprecating laugh as she pulls the canary yellow Porsche into the pit lane and climbs out to watch as the next flight of students — four to an instructor — rockets past. “You drive it as fast as you can. Sometimes I would just take off and drive at one in the morning.”
Yet as a typical Leo, she didn’t want to just drive fast, she also wanted to drive skillfully, to be in control at all times. “In Vancouver, I hired an instructor to give me private classes in high-performance driving. We took the car out onto the highway early in the morning when nobody else was on the road and just let it rip. But there’s only one place to put that into practice, and that’s on the track. But I was always working; I couldn’t fit it into my schedule.”
Ultimately, it wasn’t racing and fast cars but something far more serious — an invitation from Congress — that prompted her to travel east. “From Georgia I’ll be heading to Washington to address Congress on neurofibromatosis, an incurable and debilitating disease that usually attacks children in early adolescence,” she says. “It’s more widespread than Muscular Dystrophy but most people aren’t even aware of it. So I’m hoping to raise people’s consciousness about it.” It was a happy coincidence that, with several days free between filming and the Washington date, she would finally get the chance to hone her high-speed driving skills. But as Gillian allows, “I didn’t know what to expect when I got here.”
For the other students, some of whom have been racing for years, the Porsche school is unlike any other they’ve attended. “Most racing schools use mini–Formula One cars built strictly for the track,” says Parsons, who founded the Porsche program. “Often it’s a fantasy experience, with little or no carry-over from the racetrack to the road. We take the opposite approach; we teach high-performance driving from the perspective of the real world. Our goal is to help students make the most of what a Porsche has to offer.”
The two-day course includes morning and afternoon sessions that begin with short talks on weight transfer, threshold and trail braking, understeer and oversteer, heel and toe shifting, and cornering lines, after which the students head to the track to put theory into practice.
Of course, says instructor Pierre Savoy, the real test lies not on the track, but on the road. “Public roads are far less predictable than the racetrack. On the track, the drivers are all going in same direction; they’re all highly trained; they’re driving the best-prepared cars; and they know what the other driver is going to do. That’s not so on the highway. You have people with different levels of competence going in every possible direction in cars and trucks of various sizes that should not always be on the road. And you never know what to expect.”
After two days of intensive training, Gillian wouldn’t disagree. “When we practice a ‘brake turn’ from 90 miles-an-hour on the track, it’s much the same as driving along the highway when a car suddenly stops or swerves in front of you. You have to know how to brake or avoid it without losing control. I’ve also learned where to keep my eyes; it’s not enough to see what’s happening in front of you, you have to anticipate what’s going to happen next.”
“Driving takes a tremendous amount of concentration; it’s a lot more work than acting. For me, acting isn’t about thinking. It’s emotional. It’s something that just flows. But when I’m driving, I have to be thinking all the time, and like the instructors say, your natural instinct is not always the right one.”
Rising and pulling on her helmet for another series of laps, she concludes, “Actually, when I think about the way people drive, not paying attention, I think most of the time most of us are just plain lucky.”
How sensible. How cerebral. But we still think she’s sexy.
Transcript appears courtesy of BRNTWD.