Gillian Anderson goes Gothic as Miss Havisham on ‘Great Expectations’
Anyone who remembers Gillian Anderson from her days as the attractive Dana Scully on “The X-Files” is in for quite a shock when they see her as Miss Havisham, the jilted bride of “Great Expectations” and one of Charles Dickens’ most unforgettable characters.
Anderson is unrecognizable: She wears a tattered, yellowing wedding dress. Her hair, matted with unkempt ringlet curls, is the wreckage of an upswept “do.” Her skin, ghostly white, is marred by cracked lips. As played by Anderson, Havisham is in a state of decay as awful as the rotting English mansion falling to pieces around her.
From “Downton” to Dickens, PBS is rolling out the period dramas of “Masterpiece Classics” at a fast clip. “Great Expectations” was designed to celebrate the bicentennial of Dickens’ birth and is the fifteenth of his novels to be adapted by the “Masterpiece” series. But unlike “Downton Abbey,” it is hardly uncharted territory; there have been several famous film adaptations, including the 1946 classic directed by David Lean and the 1998 version starring Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow. “Masterpiece” itself already did its own version, in 1999, starring Charlotte Rampling as Miss Havisham. But Anderson’s haunting physical presence, every bit as creepy as some of the aliens she used to battle in “The X Files,” may leave an indelible mark.
“The original idea was that as time went on, she starts to mold in the same way that the house does,” says Anderson, seated in the shaded garden of the Langham Huntington Hotel in Pasadena, Calif. She looks like an English rose, a 43-year-old knockout with barely a trace of make-up covering her delicate, porcelain skin. Anderson, who lives full-time in London with her third husband, businessman Mark Griffiths, and her three children, says the mold was her idea, that she wanted to look like one of those wild mushrooms with yellowing, frilled edges. She says she lives in England because she grew up there, and because London is “the best city in the world and I get offered good roles [there].”
“People said, ‘Oh, Gillian’s too young to play Miss Havisham,’” says Douglas Booth, 19, who stars as Pip, the orphan boy who is led to believe he has great expectations of becoming a rich young gentleman, courtesy of a mysterious benefactor. “But I think that’s rubbish because a batty old woman would just be senile because she’s old and crazy and she’s in this mad house. By having her younger, it’s still believable and painful and poignant. It’s much more affecting to see that this is a woman who could have had a wonderful life.”
In the story, Miss Havisham, in her runaway bitterness, sets out to ruin other people’s lives, including Pip’s, and to teach them what she’s learned: that love cannot be trusted. It’s a story that clearly hasn’t worn out its welcome. When “Great Expectations” was shown in England during the holiday season, it easily won its time slot with more than 6 million viewers, which represents 25 percent of the entire British TV audience. Said The Guardian, this production, adapted by Sarah Phelps, “is fabulously dark and grown-up.”
The darkness comes from painting Miss Havisham’s beautiful young ward, Estella, not as the perfect little girl and vision of Pip’s idolized dream, but as a lifelong victim of cruelty.
“I think it’s child abuse,” says Vanessa Kirby, 25, who plays Estella. “She’s totally suffocated, totally damaged. She’s trapped in this house, and only socializes with one boy, Pip, and then that’s taken away. We played her as a victim of child abuse, rather than portraying her as this divine creature.”
The two young actors say working with Anderson was, in a word, unsettling. “She was quite off-putting on set,” says Booth. “She did have a special room in the house, and she would just sit there and keep herself to herself, so she could maintain that aura of decay, isolation and loneliness. She’d have her lunch there. And then she’d come down the stairs, ready for the scene. In real life, she’s such a lovely, giggly, warm person, so she really just transformed herself.”
As if the dust on Havisham’s gown wasn’t enough, eco-friendly walnut dust was showered over the rented mansion, located in Northampton, in the English countryside. “And they kept constantly going around and putting in more dust,” says Kirby. Adds Booth, “We filmed three weeks there and by the end, we were literally ready to kill ourselves.”
Says Anderson, “I subjected myself to this by choice, and every aspect was enjoyable.”
She’s been married three times. Did she really relate to Miss Havisham? She laughs. “Yes,” she says. “There is an insane woman inside of me.”
Tonight, 9 p.m., PBS
Being Miss Havisham
One of the most infamous characters in all of Dickens, Miss Havisham has proven an irresistible role to actresses of a certain age — and a certain eccentric daring. While it would be impossible to quite match the gothic magnificence of Martita Hunt in the 1946 David Lean film, that hasn’t stopped other actors from trying their hand at conveying Havisham’s fascinating, twisted narcissism. In chronological order, they are:
MARTITA HUNT: Born in 1900, Hunt was 46 when “Great Expectations” was first released.
ANNE BANCROFT: Mrs. Robinson was in her mid-60s when she tackled Miss Havisham in 1998 in a blonde wig and a cigarette holder.
CHARLOTTE RAMPLING: Playing Miss Havisham in 1999 was quite a change of pace for the stunning Rampling, who was, next to Julie Christie the “It” girl of ‘60s British movies. It’s hard to hide her allure.
GILLIAN ANDERSON: Anderson last starred in the PBS adaptation of Dickens’ “Bleak House,” as Lady Dedlock.
HELENA BONHAM CARTER: Riding high from her Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for “The King’s Speech,” Carter, 45, will co-star in the newest adaptation of “Great Expectations” this fall.