Gillian Anderson’s childhood was spent in Puerto Rico, the US and England. Since then she has never lived in any one place for more than four years. No wonder she’s so elusive…
It’s a frustrating business interviewing Gillian Anderson. She turns up bang on time and alone, no entourage. She’s intelligent, articulate and unexpectedly obliging: her agent had said a photo shoot was out of the question, but after our meeting Anderson gets in touch to say she’ll do one. In fact, I like her very much. All the same, she gives little away.
In recent times she has made it clear to interviewers that she has no interest in talking about the phenomenally successful TV series that made her a household name, The X-Files. Fair enough: it’s 10 years since the show ended and there should be some sort of statute of limitations on speculating about the love life of FBI agent Dana Scully, who once had her ovaries removed by aliens only to later become pregnant by David Duchovny’s Agent Mulder. Being voted FHM magazine’s Sexiest Woman in the World in 1996 wasn’t even considered a serious topic for conversation back then. And while the lads’ mag photo shoots are a distant embarrassment, she’s still considered fair quarry by the paparazzi, so prefers not to give away too much about her personal life – the two former husbands or her current partner of six years, with whom she has two small boys (there’s also a daughter from the first marriage).
But she can also be elusive about the things you’d expect her to want to talk about. Her work for example.
Questions about a forthcoming film in which she stars, and in support of which this interview has been arranged, go nowhere because, she says, the shoot took place a year ago and she can’t remember much about it. We’ll come back to that.
So how is it then that in an interview with Out magazine published in March this year she took the bold step of admitting to several lesbian relationships? She liked the interviewer, she says, and felt comfortable with him. So it’s my fault then if I’m not getting anything out of her? Told you she was smart.
Back in 2002 Gillian Anderson was responsible for keeping me awake at night. She was making her West End debut at London’s Comedy Theatre in a play called What the Night Is For. It drew a lukewarm response from critics (‘tosh’ said The Daily Telegraph) but drew crowds of adoring X-philes, who after every performance would gather at the stage door squealing, shouting and, long after the object of their affections had gone home, conducting singalongs with an acoustic guitar. I happened to live opposite and night after night for the play’s entire run I had to endure the happy-clappy sounds of the Agent Scully fan club.
At the time it seemed like Anderson was following in the well-worn footsteps of the likes of Nicole Kidman, Gwyneth Paltrow and Madonna, all of whom had recently taken time out from glittering careers to prove themselves ‘proper actors’ by treading the hallowed boards of the London stage. Except in Anderson’s case she wasn’t just dabbling: 10 years on and she’s still here. Relocating to London was not a move calculated to boost her career: when the ninth and final series of The X-Files ended Anderson was a hot property, and had she remained in LA would likely have found herself with above-the-title billing on any number of Hollywood blockbusters. But it wasn’t what she wanted. ‘I knew that when the show ended what I wanted to do was theatre and for whatever reason I wanted to be in theatre in London rather than New York. So I came here, looked for a play and found one.’
There was, in fact, good reason to choose London, because it’s where she grew up. She’s an American, born in Chicago, but when Anderson was two her parents relocated to London where she spent the next nine years. Even after the family returned to the US to settle in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Anderson would revisit London every summer. She has said in interviews that the UK is where she felt at home; the small, conservative town of Grand Rapids, on the other hand, was a shock. She took to rebelling against convention by dyeing her hair, piercing her nose, getting into trouble at school and dating punks. She got out as soon as she could, studying drama in Chicago before moving to New York to pursue a career on stage, which after two minor roles she left behind to try film in Los Angeles. At the age of 24, after being out of work for almost a year, she auditioned for the pilot of a Fox Network show called The X-Files.
Her second play in London was The Sweetest Swing in Baseball at the Royal Court in 2004 and it wasn’t received much more warmly then her first. Happily, she triumphed in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House at the Donmar in 2009; this time the theatre critic of The Telegraph hailed her performance as Nora as ‘superb… by turns sexy, neurotic, manipulative, terrified, and in the great last act absolutely merciless’.
In the meantime, she also went about compiling a film CV leaning heavily toward the low-key and independent, including things like The Last King of Scotland, A Cock and Bull Story and How to Lose Friends & Alienate People. She has also developed a good line in quality TV dramas, donning period frocks for The Crimson Petal and the White and Bleak House, for which she was Bafta- and Emmy-nominated for her Lady Dedlock; last Christmas she was a startlingly spooky Miss Havisham in a well-reviewed BBC production of Great Expectations.
She flies to LA a few times a year, she says, to show her face and take a few meetings, but not as often as her representatives would like. She prefers to focus on her family and private life, and if living in London is not the best place to further a career in movies she considers it a worthwhile sacrifice: ‘I’m just in love with this city. I think it is one of the greatest cities in the world. There’s nothing about London that I find unappealing.’
When she first moved over she settled in the expensively chic west London neighbourhood of Notting Hill. When we meet, though, it is in the minimalist lobby of an east London hotel. It turns out she has just bought a house locally and is in the process of having it made ready. When I express surprise at the relocation, Anderson laughs and tells me it’s the fifth move in the last 10 years. In the 18 years since receiving her first X-Files pay cheques she has worked her way through 12 or 13 homes. These are not the temporary rentals made to accommodate a life spent dashing around the world on film shoots. These are houses bought, done up and sold for a bit more than she paid for them. Some become for a while the family home, some are weekend country retreats or holiday homes, but mainly what they are are projects.
She was shooting in an abandoned building in Belfast recently and the only thing she could think about, she says, was how great it would be to convert the place into apartments. ‘It’s what I do,’ she says. ‘It’s the way I get to be creative when I’m not working. I love buildings. I love houses.’
I ask if this new family home in east London is going to be just as temporary? ‘Probably,’ she replies. Doesn’t it bother her that her children might be disturbed by all this moving around? ‘Not as much as it seems to bother you,’ she laughs. ‘Piper [her 17-year-old daughter] loves it. She’s got a very good head on her shoulders and she’s very grounded. My experience is that it’s been a very positive thing.’
These days, when Anderson is not in east London she’s likely to be found in Sri Lanka, where she has another of her homes. It’s a rambling, old aristocratic residence in seven acres of grounds that had been empty for 30 years before she bought it four years ago and went to work. The idea was to run it as a sort of boutique hotel – in its newly renovated form it has 13 bedrooms, multiple living areas, dreamy verandas, his ‘n’ hers offices, a meditation loft and lush, tropical grounds – but she has since changed her mind. ‘I’m not the person to have a boutique hotel or a house that is rented out on a regular basis. I thought I could do that but then I realised it’s not me. I like to know that we’re the only people using the place.’
Instead she’s decided to put it up for sale, although the relationship with Sri Lanka is ongoing as her partner has just bought a tea plantation.
In between houses there’s the acting, of course. The filming in Belfast was for a new BBC TV series to be screened this autumn. Called The Fall, it’s a psychological police procedural in which Anderson stars as Stella Gibson, a detective superintendent with the Met, sent over to help the Northern Irish police catch a serial killer. Around the same time she’ll be appearing in cinemas in another Belfast-set thriller, Shadow Dancer, in which she plays the cold-blooded MI5 chief to whom field agent Clive Owen reports. This is the film that she doesn’t remember, but then Anderson is only on screen for three or four scenes totalling not more than 10 minutes. The film belongs to Andrea Riseborough as a young single mother living in terror of her IRA family discovering that she’s turned police informer to avoid being separated from her infant son – it’s a performance Anderson describes as ‘outstanding’.
Her supporting slot in Shadow Dancer is typical of her film work; discounting the X-Files movies, not since 2000′s House of Mirth has she had a really major role in a big box-office release. ‘Well I have had a couple of kids in the last few years,’ she says. ‘That’s taken up quite a lot of time. It’s also how much of the light of day some of my stuff ends up seeing.’ A number of the films in which she has been involved, like Straightheads (a rape-revenge thriller co-starring Danny Dyer) and Boogie Woogie (an art-world satire), largely passed audiences by thanks to limited cinema releases. ‘When one goes into a project one hopes for the best for it. You have to believe based on the script and the director that it’s going to be something people want to see. But you can never tell. Sometimes you have high hopes for something and you watch the screening of it and your heart sinks.’
Does she have high hopes for The Curse of the Buxom Strumpet? It’s a film listed on the internet movie database as ‘in development’ and it has Anderson’s name attached. ‘Oh god. Everybody asks about Buxom Strumpet. It’s a script that I was sent that already had Judi Dench and Ian McKellen attached. It’s a very funny comedic, 18th-century zombie film and I thought, yes, if you get it together and it fits into my schedule, and the script is still good and hasn’t been tampered with, and if Judi and Ian are still attached, then I will do it.’
A couple of days later we meet up again for our cover shoot. Anderson is relaxed in front of the camera, vamping, flirting and teasing. At the end of the session as she’s putting on her coat to leave, she says, ‘We never talked aboutShadow Dancer‘. I remind her that I tried and she’d had little to offer. ‘That was your cue to ask me more probing questions,’ she says. My fault again.
Shadow Dancer is released in the UK next month
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