February 20, 1999
by William Leith
Most of us know her as the calm, rational FBI agent Dana Scully in 'The X Files'. But the actress Gillian Anderson has a life - and dark secrets - of her own
On the set of The X Files, at the foot of a mountain in California, Gillian Anderson is sitting on a chair, smoking a menthol cigarette, while her hairdresser Anji Bemben turns her into Agent Scully.
Anderson's hair is more unruly than Scully's. It has a natural wave. Scully, the calm, rational FBI agent, perhaps the most progressive female character on mainstream TV, must have straight hair.
Later, Bemben, who has been Anderson's hairdresser for three years, tells me, 'I updated her hair. I spend a lot of time keeping it straight. Wavy and soft is just not Scully because she's so intelligent.'
Anderson is filming an X Files episode, to be aired late in the series' sixth season, in which Scully and her partner, the intuitive, credulous Agent Mulder, played by David Duchovny, visit a woman who is an expert on dogs. The plot is classic X Files: as production assistant John Nesbitt puts it,'There's kind of a killer dog that goes around and eats people.'
As always, Mulder and Scully investigate, in a way consistent with being perfect gender role models. Anderson and Duchovny are in a stationary car. Until the director says, 'Action!', which is the exact moment they become Mulder and Scully, the two actors do not speak to, or even look at, each other.
The first time I meet Anderson, in a group of people, someone asks her how she is. She considers for a moment, and replies, 'Happy.' She is small - 5ft 3in - but holds herself well. Rather graciously, she shakes my hand and introduces herself.
We stand around, chatting. Duchovny is somewhere else; he has walked off in a different direction. These two, whose famously deep but platonic screen relationship is important to viewers, seem, in reality, to exist on different planets. Anderson tells me that her acting style is intuitive and un-Scullyish, whereas Duchovny is 'very technical'. He's not really like Mulder. After the scene is finished, Anderson stands around chatting; Duchovny watches the monitor, tenting his coat around the screen to block out the light.
We meet again in Anderson's trailer. Her silver Porsche is parked outside. 'I'm a bit buzzy today,' she tells me. 'I'm feeling restless, like I have to keep doing something. I can't sit still.' She opens her fridge, which is full of bottles of still mineral water, and gets one for each of us. She smiles, something she does a lot, and which makes her look quite unlike Agent Scully. Scully's expression is often one of perturbed calm. I ask Anderson how she normally feels. She says, 'A milder version of this. I feel like I've had a lot of coffee, which I haven't.'
In the trailer, a five-star caravan, she is playing New Age music, which comes in waves; sometimes almost silent, sometimes a loud, yet somehow soothing, crescendo.
Scully, she says, has changed over the years. The agent's movements have become looser, as Anderson's acting skill has grown. 'She's got a lot more self-confident and open, a bit brighter, a little bit more of a sense of humour.'
The X Files was Anderson's, but not Duchovny's, first big break. She auditioned six years ago, at the age of 24, and has made two dozen episodes a year ever since. She says she thinks the next season, the seventh, will be the last. 'After next year,' she says, 'we'll all be done.'
I can see how Anderson, a woman with a troubled past, might be worried about her future. Television actors don't often have more than one really good, long-running part. Agent Scully, a strong woman whose existence, dramatically speaking, does not depend on her sexual relationships with men, is a superb part.
Scully is five years older than Anderson; at the audition, she added three years to her age. (Duchovny and Mulder, on the other hand, are the same age.)
Anderson is hoping for a future in arty films - 'character-pieces'. I ask her if her punishing TV schedule, which makes it hard to do anything else, makes her impatient. She says, 'No, I was able to do something last summer, and I am doing something this summer, and, I mean, yes, I have gotten very impatient.' Her next film is The House of Mirth, based on a book by Edith Wharton.
She has recently moved to Los Angeles, now that The X Files has relocated here from Vancouver, which was a cheaper filming environment. Her four-year-old daughter, Piper, 'seems to really love the sunshine'. Another effect of the relocation is that this season of The X Files will look slightly different, with brighter natural light; more weird things will happen in the desert, and fewer in the woods.
Anderson likes Los Angeles. 'Moving,' she says, 'is not hard for me at all. I was born in Chicago, we moved to Puerto Rico, we moved to London, we moved to Grand Rapids, I moved back to Chicago, I moved to New York, to Vancouver, and now Los Angeles. Moving is not a problem. I enjoy it.'
Her smile often turns into a hearty laugh. The story of her life, she says, is: 'I started off open, I became closed, I became more closed, more closed and more closed, and then I started to open up a little bit a few years ago; I got more open and more open and more open. That's my life.'
She is sitting in a chair with a rocking facility. Mostly, she rocks, quite slowly, at an even pace. She does not fiddle with things. I wonder about the dark times in her life. I had read that, when she moved to Grand Rapids from England at the age of 11, she became unsettled, and, later, spent some time as a punk, partially shaving her head and getting her nose pierced. She was an angry kid. I'd read about scrapes with drink and drugs; someone told me that, as a young actress, she'd had blonde dreadlocks for a while.
She says, 'Moving at that particular time of my life, I was expecting it to be a much... brighter transition than it was, and I ended up feeling very closed in and misunderstood and confused.'
I ask her if the move was the cause of the trouble. She says, 'Yes. And many other things that took place around that time.'
'Just many other things that took place around that time.'
Anderson tells me that, when she moved to Grand Rapids, with her funny English accent, 'All of a sudden people are interested in me for the first time and want to hear me talk, and think I'm interesting and something to behold, and I think I started to take advantage of that attention and expect it. And then it started to fall away. And I think at that age it was a difficult lesson to learn.'
And then she says, 'Once I hit 12, late 11 or 12, some other events took place which informed my person a great deal more.'
But you don't want to talk about that?
'Obviously not, no.'
When I tell her I haven't been to Grand Rapids, she says, 'Lucky you.' Her father was offered a job there 'making industrial commercials' on film. He had arrived with the idea of 'making lots of money', and ended up making 'more money than he did but I wouldn't say lots of money'.
Anderson lived in Grand Rapids between the ages of 11 and 17. She says, 'I always still felt like I wasn't at home.' She thought she might end up as a marine biologist, or an archeologist, but auditioned for a community play at the age of 16, got the part, and 'knew from the bottom of my heart that this is what I wanted to do'. She can't remember why she went to the audition.
I ask her about the time she felt, as she put it, 'closed'. She says, 'I was very confused and very lost. And didn't feel like I had anybody to talk to. I just didn't. In retrospect, because of that, I felt like it was me against the world, in a sense.'
What about friends? Anderson says that she 'didn't really have many friends. I think... the past couple of years is the first time I've really... manicured my friendships.' She did not realise, she tells me, until quite recently, how much she needed friendship. She says, 'I've spent a lot of time in my head, in my life. I've done a lot of thinking.' Is she happy? 'Presently, I am incredibly happy, yes.'
But you've spent a long time not being happy?
She sounds like Scully, as she sometimes does, when she replies, 'That is correct, yes.' For Anderson, the state of being happy - or, as she puts it, 'to design our lives as we would like to live in them' - takes 'a lot of focus and it takes a lot of work'. Happiness is a function of vigilance, of watching yourself. You do bad things to cover up bad feelings, she says, and you somehow become attached to both, a terrible vicious circle.
As a kid, she says she was angry and frustrated 'and I lashed out in as many ways as I could. Towards other people and against myself.' Against herself? How did she do this? She says, 'Um, I'm sure you can use your imagination, but I'm not going to go into the details.'
We discuss this for a while. I talk in terms of hardening yourself psychologically. She says, 'It's not about feeling. It's about... doing... things... to harm... myself.' She talks about her 'long road' to recovery, which involved a great deal of therapy: 'Even though you stop the physical, most obvious ways, of punishing oneself, they can still take over in your mind.' The route back to happiness 'takes constant attention and work and reading and therapy and action'. It's all about 'getting to the root of the thing'.
The root of the thing? After the move to Grand Rapids, she had a lot of attention; then she needed more than she got. Something, or some things, harmed her psychologically around this time. She closed herself off and became self-destructive. Her relationship with her parents, she says, is good now, but then, 'We had ups and downs. They were worried about me, I'm sure. And frustrated by me. And I know that I have caused them both a great deal of stress.'
The acting helped. Anderson 'was on a little pink cloud for a while'. After she went to college, at DePaul University's Goodman Theater School, though, her life 'got difficult again'. She has 'a tendency to behave fearlessly, and to jump into things head first, regardless of the degree of my fear. And I act as if I am fearless, when, in fact, I am not fearless; I am afraid.' Life was 'sometimes very difficult'. She thinks about this. 'Because I hadn't really dealt with, um, anything. I hadn't really dealt with my anger, or anything. And so I, um, continually went through these cycles of self-destruction.'
She's had troubled relationships with men. She married Clyde Klotz, an X Files set designer, in a Buddhist ceremony on a Hawaiian golf course in 1994, and subsequently split up with him. (Piper is her daughter from that marriage.) Considering men, she says, 'I have, I think in the past, always gone towards dangerous characters.' She pauses. 'But I have to honestly say I am over that. I am definitely, definitely over that.'
Dangerous men? Anderson says, 'There's something unpredictable about being with somebody who is, quote unquote, dangerous. They don't quite give you enough attention, they don't quite give you enough love. You're never quite good enough. And if that's how you're used to feeling as a child, then that feels very comfortable for you in that kind of relationship.' But what are non-dangerous men like, in the wake of dangerous ones? Dull, surely? She laughs, and says, 'I'm not sure that I've actually been with somebody... I just know that I'm done with it.
'I don't know why this analogy has come to my mind,' she says. 'But, you know, somebody like Tom Cruise I wouldn't consider a dangerous man in the way that we're talking about. But, he races cars, he flies airplanes, he climbs mountains. He does all those things.' What she likes in a man is, 'a passion for being alive and living on the edge that doesn't necessarily translate into how one treats their partner'.
Right now, 'blessedly', she is single. Her relationship with David Duchovny has'grown and transformed'. Although Chris Carter, the creator of The X Files, has stated publicly that Mulder and Scully will never become romantically involved, in the recent X Files movie there was a moment when Mulder seemed to be about to kiss Scully on the lips. She moved aside at the last second, unintentionally re-routing the kiss to her forehead. On balance, the show's many Internet fans, known as the X-Philes, want the partnership to remain platonic.
To me, Duchovny had an air of being wary and self-contained. On the set, he sat in the sun on his own, wearing sunglasses, eating salad from a plastic bowl. Duchovny and Anderson both have 'stand-ins', lookalikes who stay on the set. Unlike the actors they are standing in for, they wander around together, chatting. They look more like Mulder and Scully that Duchovny and Anderson. Of Duchovny, Anderson says, 'He can be very fun and open and free, and very closed, and so can I.'
I wonder if Duchovny is the sort of guy Anderson likes. Is he dangerous? 'I think David's dangerous,' she says.
'I just think he is. I think he would have been my type before, yes. Mmm hmm. When I found that type appealing.'
Working on The X Files is very tough - they make 50 minutes of television in a week, sometimes filming 16 hours a day. Anderson filmed while she was pregnant; unlike Lisa Kudrow's character in Friends, who became pregnant when Kudrow did, Scully did not become pregnant, so Anderson had to be shot using tricky camera-work. She worked until a week before Piper's birth, and was filming again 10 days later.
'I shed a lot of silent tears... at times, all I wanted to do was quit and be with my baby,' she has said. She tries to have Piper on set as much as possible, and although she is not there when I visit, there is a pedal car parked on one side with her name on it.
Scully is a ground-breaking character. She is an attractive woman, but not a sex object, or even overtly sexual. A forensic pathologist, she examines bodies, rather than being an examined body. Like Jodie Foster's Clarice Starling, the character in The Silence of the Lambs who is said to be her inspiration, Scully is a small woman in an Amazonian role. She rescues Mulder roughly as often as he rescues her. She is sceptical of the paranormal, but not small-minded.
Anderson herself has, she says, 'always believed that more will be revealed and that we are a speck in the grand scheme of things'. At the beginning of the series, she says, 'We did a lot of monster-of-the-week episodes, and then, around the time when I got pregnant, we got into mythology episodes. And then they were scrambled up and mixed up between the two for a couple of years, and now it seems like we're going in for more monster-of-the-week episodes again.'
In the sixth season, Mulder and Scully track down an alien living in a power station, Mulder's car is hijacked by an armed man infected with a deadly pathogen, and a man who believes he can control the weather.
Anderson rocks slowly in her chair. She lights a cigarette. You can just make out the mole on her upper lip under the screen makeup. (The mole was deemed to be wrong for Scully.) We get onto the subject of happiness again. Anderson says, 'I have found a place of peace, but I don't think for a second that this is how it's forever going to be.'
For a while, during her pregnancy and for more than a year, Anderson suffered panic attacks. 'It feels like you're going to die,' she says. 'It feels like you're going insane. I wouldn't wish it on anybody. It's the worst hell.'
She says the attacks were 'to do with being pregnant, being married, being in a TV show, with the hours, with... everything. There was a lot going on.' She says that 'unadulterated panic attacks are worse than any level of depression.'
She tells me about The Vagina Monologues (last Sunday, several actresses read passages from Eve Ensler's book, The Vagina Monologues, with the proceeds going to charity. Anderson dressed in black, wrapped in a red feather boa, her hair bulking out.) She says, 'The book is a celebration of women and the most intimate part of them, plus stories about devastating rapes.'
Then she says, 'If anybody ever has had any experience that is any kind of inappropriate sexual advance, or anything, that informs one's entire life. And I don't think a lot of people realise that. How much it truly informs every waking moment of someone's life.' I say, 'What makes you say that informs your every waking moment?' (What I mean is: what makes her able to say it?)
'Because it does.'
In your experience?
'Don't talk to me about my experience. But, um, I know that it informs every moment of your waking experience.'
We look at each other for a moment. Anderson says, 'When you are a child, and grown-ups are everything, they are the gods, they are everything. And in order to feel safe in the world, a child needs to trust the adult. Whether you are five and the adult is 13, or the adult is 45. You need to feel safe. And when that trust and that safety is violated, which is what takes place when there is an inappropriate act, it... it destroys, completely destroys a child's feeling of safety and okay-ness in the world. And once you have that foundation, the rest of your life falls apart.'
She continues. 'Every interaction you have with somebody else is based on that information that you have, that secret that you have. To the point where you don't trust. You don't trust anybody. It's you against the world all of a sudden.' What follows, she says, is confusion, anger, shame, and inability to 'open up'. She tells me a story about a young boy being found in his father's bed, and being thrown out of the house. The child, in these situations, is sometimes forced to take the blame.
I fiddle with my empty water bottle. We begin to chat again. She lives by the beach, she tells me. She had told me that she likes living quietly. 'I see movies, I exercise, I spend time with my daughter, we do creative things together, and I work.' She watches TV. In fact, every Sunday night, she settles down, sometimes with friends, to watch The X Files.
It is time for me to go. Soon, she must get back to the set, and prepare to face this week's monster - the vicious dog - which, of course, this being The X Files, is more than just a dog - it is, in at least one sense, an alien presence, or possibly the dark side of the human mind.
Later, in a year or so, Anderson will have to re-invent herself as an actress. She walks towards the door of the trailer. The first thing she will have to fix is the hair. In a few minutes, she will be sitting in a chair. Once again, Anji will turn her into Agent Scully.
The new series of 'The X Files' starts at 9pm on March 7 on Sky One. The fifth series is currently showing at 10pm on Wednesdays on BBC One.
Transcript appears courtesy of Guardian Unlimited.