Fame came early to Gillian Anderson, but this Hollywood émigrée is happier as a Victorian madam than she was as a sci-fi pin-up
It’s a cold, wet, early morning on “Blue Monday", supposedly the most depressing day of the year, at a photographic studio in a cul de sac next to a decrepit garage in Dalston, east London, and I'm awaiting the arrival of a 5ft 3in, twice married mother of three, a once world-famous television star whose conversation has been likened to “wrestling with a crocodile". Oh dear. She’s also posed in knickers for a lads’ mag, been voted the world’s sexiest woman, won an Olivier nomination for her performance as Nora in Ibsen’s The Doll's House, and a Bafta nomination for her part as Lady Dedlock in the BBC's 2005 dramatisation of Bleak House.
Gillian Anderson arrives from her home in west London dead on time, perky professional, and, dare I say it, enchanting, relaxed. Now 42, she’s been in therapy since she was 14, “but everyone talks about that, so let’s not” and agrees she's a control freak. “But I’m getting better, letting life unfold, and practising spontaneity. I could easily jump on a plane this afternoon and go somewhere. I no longer worry about the future, although I had a moment last year when I woke up and realised for the first time I was getting old. I feel that whatever transpires, good or bad, I’ll handle it. A few things are going on right now that I can't talk about - those challenges that visit everyone - and I find it important to stay grounded.”
That wasn't easy when, in 1993, she was cast as Agent Dana Scully in The X-Files, sci-fi mumbo jumbo about liver-eating serial killers, vampires and aliens, that, much to her surprise, became a worldwide hit for nine years. "Success is a blessing and curse. I was 24 when it started and couldn’t even walk out of my door without being photographed. By the grace of God I don't have that experience today but I honestly don't know how celebrities sit down and are trusting enough to hold a civil interview. Many times I’ve thought, ‘What a lovely person’ and then they write something nasty. You have to be careful what comes out of your mouth. So I tend to be boring and not express anything of myself that can be misconstrued. I insist I’ll never do another interview, And then I do. Sorry, off I go on tangents.”
Don't worry, I say. I won't mention you're a bird-brained actress who can‘t keep to the point. She laughs, but she’s guileless enough to spill tedious platitudes about “the work”. “It’s bizarre,” she admits. “You focus hard on a job; it becomes sacrosanct and then you have to explain it in three days of absurd publicity. You need a sense of humour. Actors are easy meat. Anything you say can be seen as pretentious.”
Let's tread easily, then, about The Crimson Petal and the White, a four-part dramatisation of a critically praised 2002 literary epic - 864 pages - by Michel Faber, that is set in 1870s London and explores the murky world of Victorian sexuality. It’s a psychological thriller in which Anderson plays a brothel owner Mrs Castaway, the madam of Sugar (played by Romola Garai), an adept young prostitute who has a relationship with a rich businessman (Chris O'Dowd) and enters London society. “I learnt a lot from the novel. I had a strong visual idea of what Mrs Castaway should look like and had so much fun building her character on at physical level, from the threads up. She wears this ox-blood red velvet cape that fastens in the middle, with trinkets on it, I’ve played monstrous women, ‘bitches’ for want of a better word - but this is the first proper one. Perhaps because it's a different era and she has such complexity it allows her to be sympathetic as well.
“I want my career to be more interesting. I’m slightly stuck in a cardboard box, and fight hard to get out. I sometimes become frustrated and think of throwing in the towel when l’m doing a crock of s**t. All the interesting stuff l’m offered comes from Britain. There’s a broader understanding of my capability. They don’t know what to do with me in the States because they don’t realise I'm a character actress. They wouldn't for a second imagine I could play Wallis Simpson [as she did in Channel 4's Any Human Heart last year] or Mrs Castaway.
“I’d probably be more ambitious if I lived in Los Angeles, but that’s not really my place. I've thought of doing another TV series, something with dark humour. I can be good at comedy I did Boogie Woogie [a 2009 comedy about the London art world], which didn’t see much of the light of day, and I’ve made Johnny English Reborn [to be released later this year] because I wanted to work with Rowan Atkinson.” We discuss comedy. “Do you know Joan Rivers? I find her humour mean-spirited. Let’s move on.”
She was born in Chicago but between the ages of two and 11 lived in Crouch End, north London, while her father studied at the London Film School and her mother worked as a computer analyst for Lloyds Bank. When they moved back to the United States, to Grand Rapids, Michigan, they had two more children. “I was incredibly jealous. I needed to express myself” So at 14 she put a stud in her nose and a punk musician boyfriend in her bed, and dyed her hair red. “I was quite wild, promiscuous, drinking a lot. I was lucky to come out the other side.”
Her original ambition was to be a marine biologist, but she became side-tracked into studying theatre in Chicago before going to New York to work off-Broadway, where she won a best actress award in Alan Ayckbourn’s Absent Friends. She was offered the part of Scully by The X-Files’ creator Chris Carter against the wishes of the network, who wanted a big-breasted blonde. “That’s the only way they knew how to market television, but I‘m not a bimbo, so I said take it or leave it. No one expected The X-Files to be popular.”
When we first met 15 years ago, she’d just been voted “World‘s Sexist Woman” by FHM magazine. “I was baffled," she laughs. “I was playing a character I thought was dowdy. Then I got pregnant [to The X-Files’ assistant art director Clyde Klotz, with her daughter Piper, now 16] so I was fat as well. Later we got a new stylist who insisted, ‘Honey we have no change your hair’. She made us more contemporary and took us out of pink polyester. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but it dated the show and added to the weird cult.”
Then she became a warning to aspiring actresses. “FHM, a magazine I’d never heard of, took pictures: we did the rubber suit, black and white checked thing, black lane. The photographer had lots of photographs of jazz greats for a book he was doing and I thought he was a real artist. He asked me to pose on a bed l and because I was young I went for it. I didn’t think it would have an impact. I’m still very naive. I’ll leave the cynicism to you.”
Obviously she’s romantic. After her first marriage broke down she married a journalist, Julian Ozanne, in 2004. They divorced two years later and she was soon pregnant by a businessman, Mark Griffiths; they now have two sons. “I don’t know if I’m bad marriage material. I’ve thought about it. I’m the common denominator in two divorces. My current relationship seems the way it’s meant to be. Part of me worries that if we marry a switch will be turned on inside me and I’ll go, ‘Aah, I’m trapped. I have to get out.’”
After The X-Files she says she was a bit snobby about television and wanted to return to the theatre, which is one reason she now lives in London, “I don’t watch much television. I record programmes and stack them in a suitcase full of DVDs that I carry wherever I go. That’s sad, but I do watch when I decide it’s OK – it might be three years from new. I’m constantly thinking about doing more theatre, particularly when I see a good play. I have a couple of ideas, but I like to wait two years between parts because that’s all I can handle. I have to park my fear. I find it absolutely terrifying, have panic attacks, and wonder why the hell I’m doing it. It’s almost as if you’re never left off the hook: panic lingers over my shoulder.” So why suffer? "Because there’s nothing like it. I can walk on a stage and feel so emotional I start crying. I don’t know why It’s not ego. It feels like the antithesis, Ego is squashed all the time. But I’ve never been worried what people think of me. Well, I don’t think have.”