Forget the 'X-Files': Gillian Anderson, one-time ‘world’s sexiest woman’, is about to tackle Ibsen in a new West End production of 'A Doll's House'
The first surprise is Gillian Anderson’s accent. I have heard about how she can slip from English to American as effortlessly as silk runs through fingers. Indeed, by way of research, I have watched her being interviewed by Jay Leno (for whom she adopted an American accent) and Michael Parkinson (an English one). I even know how and why she does this – she lived here until she was 11, moved there until she was 35, then, five years ago, came back to live here. Still, nothing quite prepares you for sitting opposite FBI Special Agent Scully and hearing the head girl of Cheltenham Ladies’ College.
The second surprise is how insouciant and unguarded she is. She has a light and breathy laugh, more a catch in her voice, and a friendly and confiding manner, again in contrast to the humourless and sceptical Scully. This guilelessness is also unexpected because her relationship with the press has not always been cordial – the paparazzi in LA used to ram into her car deliberately so as she would have to get out and exchange insurance details. Yet here she is sitting in a London bar at eight o’clock at night telling me about where her 14-year-old daughter goes to school, how she has been enjoying taking the bus to rehearsals for her new play and, well, how she had to cajole her partner into having sex with her. No, really.
Also, I ought to describe her. She is much shorter than you imagine, 5ft 3in, and yet not short looking – in proportion, I mean. She has slightly sad, downturned eyes, a mole above her puffy top lip (one that they used to cover up on The X-Files) and a tattoo on the inner part of her wrist, Asian lettering that is something to do with yoga. With her long, blonde hair tumbling down against her black top (she is also wearing a black skirt and black calf-length boots which she tucks under herself as she sits) she looks immaculate – half a pint of velvety Guinness.
You would not guess she was a 40 year-old with three children, the youngest six months old. And yet she says other mothers in the park aren’t intimidated by her appearance so much as appalled at how scruffy she is. ‘They look at me like, “Doesn’t she have mirrors in her house?”’ Yeah, right. I should say something about her work, too, or rather her reinvention from the glamorous star of a hugely popular and long-running TV show about alien abduction to a highly respected stage and film actress. Although she returned to TV for her Bafta-nominated performance in the BBC’s Bleak House (and, if the rumours are true, will do so again as a villain in Doctor Who), she has also been discriminating in her choice of film roles, favouring the intelligent and stylish, such as A Cock and Bull Story and The Last King of Scotland, over the commercial (even if she did manage to slip in an X-Files movie last year).
The rehearsals, by the way, are for Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, a new version that opens at the Donmar Warehouse later this month. Anderson plays the lead, Nora; a woman who leaves her husband and children after having her feminist consciousness raised (when first performed in 1879 it caused a great scandal). While Anderson cannot empathise with that aspect of the play, she says she does appreciate the feminist arguments and understands the emotional journey Nora takes. Also she does know what it is like to be patronised and objectified by men (as Nora is in her Doll’s House) and she knows, too, all about the responsibilities of motherhood.
Her first child was with her first husband. She divorced him, married someone else and divorced that one 16 months later. Her two youngest children are with her partner, the British businessman Mark Griffiths (he made his fortune working in the private parking and wheel-clamping business). Earlier tonight she was having a battle of wills with her two-and-a-half-year-old son Oscar, who didn’t want to eat his supper. And thanks to her six-month-old son Felix, she was, as usual, up at 5.30am this morning.
‘He wakes three times in the night and once I’ve settled him, it is more or less time to get breakfast ready for Oscar. I used to do yoga a lot but I don’t seem to have time anymore. You would think that I could work in an hour somewhere, but I can’t. I don’t want to eat into the time I spend with the children. Then I have to be out of the house by 9.15 to get to rehearsals for 10.’ A pause. ‘When I start work on a play I do behave as if I’m about to fall off the side of earth. Sometimes my heart stops. It’s absolutely terrifying. It’s a big play and I’m in every scene but one.’
She keeps her energy levels up by taking a nap at lunchtime, she says. ‘I used to find it impossible to sleep during the day but… I’ve never done a play with little ones before. I did film very soon after my first child, 10 days, after a c-section, five days after coming home from the hospital. It seems crazy but at the time I thought, “OK this is my penance for having got pregnant when they had invested so much in the show and me”.’
That was in 1994 when The X-Files had only just completed its first season. She thinks if it hadn’t been for the chemistry between her and her co-star David Duchovny (who played Agent Mulder) she would have been sacked. ‘They would have loved to have punished me but they realised there was steam picking up. I thought they were overreacting but now I see it from their perspective. I would have been bloody p---ed if I had been them and had cast a girl, against my better judgement, who got pregnant after the first season.’
They got the green light for the play a year last February. ‘I had decided I wanted to get pregnant in February… oh my God, I’d forgotten about this! I’d just got back from India and was going straight into filming The X-Files movie. I knew that I wanted to have the baby at a certain time because there was another film I wanted to do after that. Yeah, so the perfect time was February and…’ She puts her hand over her mouth. ‘I was bloody lucky, but I was also determined because I didn’t want to be too nauseous by the time we had finished filming The X-Files. And I’d worked out the amount of time it took me to get big last time.’
So she’s not a control freak then. ‘Oh dear, I am aren’t I?’ She laughs. ‘The first two weren’t planned.’
Did she and her partner synchronise diaries for when she was ovulating? ‘Not quite, but it is hard work when you decide to plan it. It can get very unromantic, especially when you are working 16-hour days. You get home at 3am and say, “OK, we have to do it now.” “But it’s three o’clock in the morning!” Then when you wake up it’s: “What? Again? Before I go to work? Oh no”.’
Having had a peripatetic childhood herself, with all the insecurities that come with that, does she worry about her children having the same? ‘I moved a lot for university and work. But I never thought it was a negative thing. I thought how lucky I was to have had formative years growing up in London. A lot of Americans never set foot outside America. It can be an inward-looking country.’
Gillian Anderson was born in Chicago and, on balance, she feels more American than British. ‘But even on the phone my accent will change. Part of me wishes I could control it, but I can’t. I just slip into one or the other. When I moved to the States I tried hard to cling on to my British accent because it made me different.’
But presumably by then she was getting noticed for her looks? Wasn’t that difference enough? ‘Not in my teens. I was either a nerd or… I never thought about clothes until I was 15, when I dyed my hair and wore pointy red shoes to be different. I was never the pretty girl. I was always somewhere at the back.’
So when did she start to feel confident about her looks? ‘It took until the sixth season of The X-Files, when a new hair person came on and said, “Are you sure you want to look like that?” and I said, “What’s wrong with it?” She said I think we need to straighten your hair, you look dowdy. The pastel suits. The plaid suits, the horrible hairstyles. It had never occurred to me. To go from that to the cover of magazines made no sense to me. In my twenties and thirties I just kept thinking “I am really pulling the wool over people’s eyes. When am I going to be found out? I’m not good enough”. All that self-depreciating stuff. I remember a cover shoot for Jane magazine, feeling such low self-esteem, so much self criticism that I wasn’t able to get out of myself and join in. Last year I came across that photo shoot and saw this really pretty young girl with short hair who was toned and thin and I know I was thinking I was too fat at the time, tormenting myself. And yet there were these lovely pictures. I thought “how much time have I wasted in my life beating myself up about how I look?”’
In 1996, she did a cover shoot for FHM which proved to be something of a landmark in the lad’s mag market. The editor came up with the idea of having a cerebral woman posing provocatively on the cover. Sales broke all records and the approach has been much imitated since. When I tell her about this ‘Gillian Anderson factor’ it is news to her. ‘Really? But now I’m 40 that is nice to hear. I remember doing that first interview for FHM – I was in Vancouver wearing flannel pyjamas with cowboys on them. My hair was messy and I didn’t feel sexy at all. I felt exhausted, my daughter was downstairs and there I was being told I was a sex object. I laughed out loud. It’s an odd one. I can see the funny side of it now but part of me, the feminist side, did worry about how I could justify it.
'In my younger years I was very naïve. I did a lot of shoots. I probably shouldn’t have because they were embarrassing or in bad taste. It took me a long time to be able to step back and say “that didn’t feel right inside. I didn’t realise I had the choice”.’ The year of that first FHM shoot the magazine’s readers voted her ‘World’s Sexiest Woman’. But this also led to insecurity and a need for reassurance. ‘I was always being asked why I got that job? Fox Television wanted a buxom, leggy blonde and they got me. I never thought about it till this minute, but it must have added to this feeling of being found out.’
I ask about the time she dug her heels in when she discovered the salary of her male co-star on The X-Files was twice hers. ‘It made sense at the beginning because he had been cast first and had a body of work already whereas I was plucked from obscurity. Also I was being paid more money than my parents or I had ever seen in our lives. [Her father worked in the film industry on the production and editing side.] So I felt very lucky, then after three years I was like, “Know what? This isn’t working for me anymore”. I made a stand and the gap in our pay closed. Was it sexism? Maybe. It’s like the way we were directed by the studios, I was to walk behind him, never side by side. I mean, that is f---ing priceless when I think about it now. When we would get out the car and walk towards the house I would have to be behind him, even though I had equal dialogue.’
She also says now that she feels she didn’t allow herself to enjoy her fame as much as she should have done. ‘For the first five years of the series we were up filming in Vancouver and I was hardly ever in LA. I didn’t really know anyone. The first year, I married a Canadian and had a child. If things had happened differently I might have gone to the fashionable parties in LA, might have ended up with a different life. But I didn’t, I ended up with a responsible life very quickly, and my only priority when I wasn’t working was to make time to be with my child. I got hugely controlling and hugely anal. All my spare time was spent either exercising, painting our house, or being with my child.’
Was the time she spent with her daughter relaxing? ‘No, it was pretty intense. Whenever we were together my brain was going at a thousand miles an hour in other directions. It trained me to be vigilant with my down time. I still have a hard time with it… Everyone in my life…’ She trails off. ‘It’s a joke. I have to work hard to be relaxed.’
Might there be aspects of her character that would make her difficult to live with, even if it weren’t for the demands of her work? ‘Oh, oh I see, I’m sure, yes, I can’t pin it all on work, yeah, I could make a huge list of things that make me difficult to live with.’
She has described herself as an angry teenager, one who pierced her nose, had a Mohican haircut, and was voted ‘Most Likely To Be Arrested’ by her classmates at high school. It was prompted by the move back to the US, which left her feeling lonely and the odd one out. It also created an abiding sense of impermanence, as though nothing in life was dependable. She began seeing a therapist around that time and has continued seeing them off and on all her life. ‘Yeah I still see a therapist. Not as regularly as I used to, but yeah. I find it essential to have someone out there who is not interested in saying the right thing, someone who is blunt and honest with me about their perception of my behaviour. Otherwise I’d just rely on my own opinion of myself, or what my partner said, and that would be too close to home, especially if he said things that were painful to hear.’
She thinks her anxieties are rooted in her childhood. ‘There are patterns in my life, aspects of my personality that are still there and were there as a child, my mother always said I was single-minded. There was no compromise with me, she felt powerless as a parent.’
Meaning? ‘I don’t think I ever needed parental approval. I want to do this NOW and I am going to do it. My mum says she didn’t know where I got this attitude from, this idea that I could do anything I set my mind to. Now I am more aware of my own fallibility. When I was 16 I directed a play and I wanted to do everything, from the lighting to designing the programme. Now I have taken a play on and I am scared s---less. I tell myself everything will be OK then my brain will start asking “but what if it’s not OK? What if you go blank on stage? After all, I am 40. Will the lines still be there? What if my memory goes?” I have anxiety dreams where I show up for the first night of a play and I haven’t been at any of the rehearsals. I feel like I’m not prepared enough.’
Blimey. But fair enough. She has experienced panic attacks during performances, and once nearly had to walk off the stage at the Royal Court. Yet she seems to be drawn to that which frightens her the most. Rather daffily, she now hunts around for some wood to touch because she has said she thinks the play will be OK. ‘F---! There has got to be some wood I can tap… Some wood… Tap.’ Her hands flap like trapped birds until she finds a wooden window ledge. ‘Sorry,’ she says, looking relieved. ‘Tapping wood is a big deal for me.’