From The X-Files to The Fall, and Streetcar to War and Peace, Gillian Anderson is busy. She tells Rachel Cooke why it keeps her sane – and why being a single mother of three suits her fine
Of all the truly famous actors I have ever met – by which I mean those whose faces have appeared, bus-sized, on posters on Sunset Boulevard rather than among, say, the pages of the Radio Times – Gillian Anderson is by some distance the cleverest at interviews. Is it a performance, the way she appears so sane and normal? Or is she really sane and normal? Impossible to say, though I have my suspicions. All I can tell you is that, tiny in her jeans and boots, she radiates a certain surprising solidarity. You’d call it sisterliness, if that didn’t sound so my-pal-the-Hollywood-star deluded.
The first thing to note is that she arrives alone, having walked to the hotel – an unflashy place in an unexpected part of London – from her home nearby. The second is that she does not wear sunglasses, which is probably why no one bothers her, and when she asks for coffee her request comes with no boring rigmarole in the matter of soya, fat, caffeine or anything else. Order placed, coat and bag plonked on the sofa beside her, she turns to me. “Yes,” she says. It’s not a question. It’s not even a starting gun. The word is directed at herself: an acknowledgement, apparently, that she made it out of the house successfully. It is Thanksgiving; she failed to get an Ocado slot; she had a turkey and three children to wrangle. Right. I gaze at her perfect skin, unable to suspend my disbelief. One of the more unnerving things about Anderson is that no photographer has ever done her justice; in the flesh, she is 10 times more exquisite than on the page – today, as I now point out, being no exception. “Ah,” she says, tugging her hair. “I did a shoot yesterday. I had a blow-dry and I didn’t take off the make-up properly. That’s all this is.”
She is here ostensibly to talk (she sounds, by the way, more English than ever) about the BBC’s forthcoming series War and Peace, a lavish affair in which she plays the socialite Anna Pavlovna Scherer – and at first we do discuss why she was drawn to the production: not only were Paul Dano, who plays Pierre Bezukhov, and Stephen Rea, who appears as Vassily Kuragin, already attached, but its writer is Andrew Davies, in whose adaptation of Bleak House she was such a mesmerising Lady Dedlock. But she wraps this up pretty swiftly, reluctant to stake too much of a claim on it: her part, as she points out, is only relatively small. Besides, even had she been playing Natasha Rostova herself, War and Peace would barely be the half of it. Anderson keeps up a frantic pace, her diary bulging like an overdeveloped muscle. Very soon the series that made her famous, The X-Files, is making its comeback to TV screens: she shot it last year, just before she went to India to play Edwina Mountbatten in Gurinder Chadha’s new film The Viceroy’s House. Next week she flies to Belfast to begin filming the third series of The Fall for the BBC, after which she will travel to New York, where she will reprise her stunning turn as Blanche DuBois in last year’s acclaimed Young Vic production of A Streetcar Named Desire. And then there is the book about female empowerment that she is currently co-writing with the activist Jennifer Nadel, with the somewhat gnomic title WE.
Was it odd returning to The X-Files? After all, she spent so long trying to escape Agent Dana Scully, upping sticks to London in 2002 and taking on a series of deliberately different roles in independent movies (The Mighty Celt, A Cock and Bull Story). “I was ambivalent about the idea at first,” she says. “In its old incarnation, we used to do 24 shows a year. But I can’t do that any more, so it only became a reality once the networks started to be a bit more lenient about the number of episodes they were willing to air. What was weird once we started was that it was both strange and familiar. We’re both a lot older now. I used to be able to run forever, but now I’m, like: my legs aren’t working. The physical side was… challenging.” She and her co-star David Duchovny are closer than ever – in the old days they used to drive each other a bit mad – but still, it was an “emotionally complicated” shoot for the simple reason that it meant being away from home for so long. Her two younger children are seven and nine.
This time around she wore a red wig to play Scully: “I was told my hair would fall out if I dyed it and then went straight back to blonde for The Fall.” And now she perks up. Anderson, it seems, is rather obsessed by DSI Stella Gibson, the blonde in question. “No!” she cries, when I ask if she considered leaving The Fall after the last series (one might imagine that a show based around the activities of a serial killer could reach its natural end when said psychopath is in custody, having confessed to his crimes). “It’s my favourite. It has just been so huge for me. I find it so compelling and mysterious.” Not only would she like to make a fourth series, but she regards the controversy that has trailed it – the notion, held by many, including me, that it is in the business of glamorising violence against women – as the sole creation of the Daily Mail. “It’s unfounded. It’s not gratuitous in any way. Rather, it points to the fact that there is still so much violence against women in the world. There are so many other series that are drastically more violent and gratuitous than ours, but they get less attention for it because it’s in the context of, say, vampirism. Ours is so real, and its characters so recognisable, that it gets under the skin.”
As it happens, her forthcoming book will, among other things, tackle the “low self-esteem” that too often results in women staying quiet about abuse. “It’s a book about facing oneself,” she says. “It’s about working through things in one’s own life in order to be of better service out in the world. And it’s about the community of women, too: the fact that there is so much competition and judgment and negativity out there, especially on social media, when we should be turning to each other, helping each other to find our voices.” Far too many women, she thinks, are inhibited by fear. Is she one of them? “I have at times felt paralysed by fear, yes. Whether work-related or life-related. What I do know is that if I don’t get up when my alarm goes off, if I stay in bed even for an extra five minutes, I will be in trouble – my worries will take over. I’ve got kids to get me up, but I know that if I didn’t, my head might start spinning, and that affects every aspect of my life: how I relate to my family, how I move out into the world, how the expression behind my eyes in the photo shoot is.”
She is “terrible” at holidays. “I keep myself busy because when I stop, that’s when I get in trouble. That’s what I’ve learned. But then sometimes it’s important that I force myself to stop, because what am I running from? It could be that I’ve got huge grief left over from the death of my brother [her younger brother, Aaron, died in 2011 of a brain tumour at the age of just 30], or that something from my childhood is niggling at me, or it could be that because I am 47 and know how challenging it is to get work as you move close to your 50s, that much of my perpetual movement is about the fear of it [work] stopping. Then again, maybe that’s just a good business decision on my part. Either way, I need to get at the truth of it.” She would like it to be known that the way she sees her success, and the way the public does, are two entirely different things.
How does she feel about her age? Her world is crueller than most when it comes to the passing years. “One goes through stages. I did a job once where I felt like the oldest person in the make-up trailer, and I literally cried for two days afterwards. I was grieving my youth, wondering where it had gone. I didn’t even feel like I was present when it was there. It is really shitty. But then it becomes about embracing what you’ve got, and so much is great about this age.” Would she ever fiddle with her face, which (I peer closely) seems actually to move? She laughs. “No. But I did a shoot yesterday where the lighting wasn’t particularly becoming at the beginning, so then it was having a conversation about that. It wasn’t about giving a false impression. It was about not highlighting all the bits that are, well… you know.” A friend recently had surgery: “Someone I hadn’t seen in a while, and it was clear she’d had some work done, and it was so hard to know what to say. You can’t say anything. And I can’t help wondering where the end of this is. Eventually doctors will invent procedures that don’t look unnatural, and then will it be OK? Is it the act itself [that we object to], or the fact that it doesn’t look natural?”
She has long had a particular fantasy: “When I see grey hair, I feel comforted – and part of me can’t wait for my hair to be grey, to be beyond that middle bit when people still… judge. But the flip side of that is that there is a moment where an actor makes a conscious decision to go grey, and I can’t imagine how humongous that leap must be, because it changes the landscape entirely. I have to assume that, at a certain point, the proposition will present itself to me. Maybe there’ll be a period when I’m not getting work as a blonde because blonde doesn’t work with the amount of wrinkles I have, and then I’ll have to go grey to get work. Maybe it will be as simple as that.”
And so to her private life, which is not simple. This is the third time I’ve talked to Anderson. When we met first, she was with Julian Ozanne, the journalist turned bio-fuel entrepreneur. But she seemed distracted and, sure enough, their marriage lasted only 16 months. The second time, she was pregnant with her second child by the businessman Mark Griffiths (she also has a grown-up daughter with her first husband, Clyde Klotz, a production designer on The X-Files), and spent quite a lot of our lunch together urging me to have children, too. Now, though, she is single again – a state to which she might possibly be rather well-suited. She seems so much more content than in the past.
“Well, yes, I am content,” she says. “I don’t feel anything is lacking in my life. I certainly don’t sit on bar stools, pining. But the fact is I just haven’t met anyone [she and Griffiths separated in 2012], and I don’t know where people do meet people.” Oh come on, I say, clicking my fingers. I could find you a boyfriend in an instant. “No, you couldn’t!” she shrieks. “The thing is that there are needs and there are wants. I have a list of needs and I will not compromise about those.” She sighs. “But aside from that… I don’t meet anybody! It’s not like I meet people, and they ask me out, and I say no. It’s not even like I meet people and I don’t give them enough attention. I just don’t meet them at all. I’m either on a plane, or on set, or with my children. There have been people in my life who’ve tried to set me up, and if a friend said: ‘I know someone amazing’, I would show up. But here’s the thing: I’ve got three children. It’s a big ask.”
How long has she been on her own? “That depends. I haven’t been in a relationship for a couple of years. But I’m not anxious about it, nor am I interested in starting to see someone who doesn’t fit. People go: ‘Oh, he’s so cute.’ The trouble is, I’m not interested in looks at all.”
On the page, this could sound sad: the desperate loneliness of the red carpet. But don’t be deceived. Anderson is grinning as she talks, and rolling her eyes, and generally hamming it up. My hunch is that her needs are being met. She needs to work, and when she’s doing that, somehow everything else just falls into place.
War and Peace starts on 3 January at 9pm on BBC One. The X-Files returns to Channel 5 soon