She was once voted the world's sexiest woman. Now Gillian Anderson has set tongues wagging by attending a glittering lesbian ball. She talks to Eleanor Mills about her new thriller, her passion for London - and why she enjoys a complicated life. Portraits: Harry Borden
It was the most glamorous party of the summer. For the first time a high-profile, women-only showbiz do gathered Britain's most successful ladies under the aegis of a glossy magazine to mingle, chat and giggle. In a white-leather tuxedo, Mary Portas, Queen of Shops, proudly showed off her pregnant partner, Melanie Rickey, while lesbian literary royalty in the form of Jeanette Winterson and her new belle, Susie Orbach, Princess Diana's therapist, hung out with Emma Freud and Hollywood stars, including Gillian Anderson.
After the paparazzi blitz that accompanied her every move as the iconic Agent Scully in the 1990s global sensation The X-Files, Anderson is wary about treading the red carpet with its accompanying publicity. These days, she shuns glitzy Los Angeles for what she calls an "unfashionable" part of London, from where she shuttles up and down to a country pad in Wiltshire in a huge Land Rover Discovery. Workwise, she has gone more low-key and upmarket, appearing in highbrow British dramas for the BBC – as an acclaimed Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, a haunting Lady Dedlock in Bleak House, and arty movies. So why did she so uncharacteristically decide to set tongues wagging by slipping into red satin and silver Louboutins for the Tatler lipstick-lesbian ball? Is there something she's trying to tell us?
Anderson laughs, her tiny frame lighting up with merriment, her chameleonic grey-blue eyes sparkling. "I just thought, what the heck!"she says in a surprisingly upper-crust English accent (how she sounds, apparently, is all to do with whom she is talking to: in London she sounds posh, in Chicago, midwest American). "I laughed so much that night, it was just pure joy. It was entirely women, which was fun; the atmosphere was great; there were the most delicious hors d'œuvres; I had some wonderful conversations. I spent most of the party laughing and standing out on balconies while people were smoking cigarettes..."
There is one of her trademark long pauses, in which she seems to be thinking up a particularly apposite final line. With great drama she says: "It was nice..." – which is a bit of an anticlimax.
Despite not drinking ("It's so much easier, you know you won't do anything stupid"), she has fallen in with a new social set. "It came about because of Emma Freud," she tells me, confidingly. "I've recently become friends with this group of women writers: Emma Freud (wife of Four Weddings and a funeral writer Richard Curtis), Emma Kennedy (an actor and writer) – a mixture of comedians and writers. But Emma Freud has been helping me with a screenplay called Speed of Light that I've been working on for the past decade...she's put a chunk of really generous time into it. So when she kept saying, 'Come, it'll be fun,' I thought, 'Well, I am about to leave town for seven or eight weeks, so why not?' "
But is there a deeper message here? Was this a way of coming out as part of the society Sapphic sisterhhood? Another laugh. "I don't mind that at all, but I didn't know there was any fuss about any of it, that's all gone straight over my head. I wasn't trying to tell anyone anything. I was just hanging out with friends."
Anderson's appearance at such an occasion on the weekend of Gay Pride comes hot on the heels of her admission to Out Magazine earlier this year that she had had a lesbian relationship during her punk phase while she was in high school in Michigan. A fellow guest at the ball says there was lots of chat about that during the evening from other women (around two-thirds of the guests were gay and Anderson was seen as a prime catch).
"Oh yes," Anderson says candidly. "I was talking to Out about gays and choice, and the view that you can just choose not to be gay in some way. I decided to talk about it now because someone with whom I was in a relationship a couple of decades ago – a woman – passed away about a year ago. I was talking about her and, in the context of the gentle conversation we were having, I thought I would say that I have had a couple of relationships with women, but that wasn't my experience because I did have a choice. I always knew I still liked boys. Being gay was never something that I identified with 100%, because I knew that for me it wasn't the only way. And I haven't spoken up about it before because there isn't the same fear and stigma now that there was. But she had just passed and I just wanted to speak about it in a matter-of-fact kind of way."
She tells me that she has been a patron and fundraiser of the Trevor Project, an American telephone hotline set up by a gay producer – a friend of the lesbian actress Jodie Foster – whom she knew from The X-Files. The organisation runs a 24/7 service Stateside for teens confused about their sexuality.
"I've always supported the Trevor Project. There are so many teenagers confused about their sexuality and I've been aware of the need for being open about fluid sexuality. I can't even imagine what it's like growing up knowing that you will be rejected by your parents or closest friends if you come out. It must be so terrible if there are good friends you have swum in front of, or stayed with and changed in front of, knowing that when you come out you are making a decision to lose friendships because they'll be so uncomfortable with what's going on underneath."
I ask if that's more of a problem because of the strength of the Christian Right in America. Fixing me beadily, she says firmly: "The answer is yes!" She believes we need to have "a more nuanced conversation about sexuality now and its fluidity". By way of example, she point out that in Sri Lanka, where she spends a lot of time (and, indeed, throughout the Middle East and South Asia), you see young men walking down the street holding hands. "I am unbelievably open-minded and not homophobic, but it's still a shock because it's such an unusual sight for us to see straight men behaving like that."
It is strange that Anderson is suddenly being so open about these aspects of her world and her past because she is, as she tells me when we talk about her recent venture onto Twitter (almost 20,000 followers so far), "a painfully private person and very controlling". Her nine years in The X-Files, when she was one of the biggest television stars in the world, has made her so paranoid that she won't even tell me roughly which area of London she lives in. "I live in neighbourhoods where there aren't paparazzi," she says firmly. "I had loads and loads of that in America and lot when I first came over here. It's not so bad now, there's not so much scandal in my life and I'm not Keira Knightley and I don't court that kind of attention or do stuff which ends up in the press or puts me on the radar." Apart from going to the women-only ball, of course, I quip. She gives me a stern look. Oh, but the shutters can come down fast.
Anderson enjoys being contrary and contradictory. Talking to her is strange: long pauses, then great dollops of words, then reticence. Her charm has laser-like intensity: when it focuses entirely on you, it is mesmeric. But it is impossible to predict what will set her off; or shut her up. As a teen in straight-laced middle America, she had purple hair, wild tastes in lovers and was voted Person Most Likely to End Up in Prison by her schoolmates. Perhaps the transition from Haringey, north London, to Grand Rapids, Michigan, when she was 11, was what made her an outsider; she admits to always feeling like "a wildcard". Having been suspicious of mainstream television, she ended up as a star of The X-Files. Then she walked away. I'd guess she prides herself on being somewhat schizophrenic in her tastes and choices. Those chameleonic qualities I'm sure make her a great actress – she can speak volumes with her eyes. But it makes her rather luvvic and brittle in the flesh (physically, she is tiny, bird-like, a classic Hollywood lollipop).
When we talk about her forthcoming movie, Shadow Dancer – a thriller set in Belfast and based on the book of the same name by Tom Bradby, the ITN political editor and friend of Wills and Kate – she says the key to her character (a female MIS boss) "was the walk". It needed to be butch and masculine, belying her attractive physique. The film, centering on a single mother from an IRA-supporting family pressured to turn informer or lose her child, was hailed as a brilliant slow-burner by critics at the Sundance Festival. (I just found it slow.) Though Anderson's role is essentially a cameo, she was cast before Clive Owen and Andrea Riseborough, the main stars. The producers probably thought they needed some box-office magic.
Anderson is an odd person: alternatively warm and friendly, then flighty, nervy. Her conversation stutters; one moment she is all ums and monosyallabic, the next on a rather peculiar riff about, for instance, the hugging "movement" ("When people put up signs saying 'I will give hugs'," she explains helpfully) or the behaviour of people in cities.
"Something that fascinates me no end is how we exist side by side with human beings on the planet with no interactions; how we can be in a city, in a crowd, at a concert with people all around and have no interaction... We've decided that is the way you exist on this planet, but I love it when you go to a small town, or a small island and everyone talks to you.
"I'm talking about looking another human being in the face and saying, 'Hey' and smiling. I love it when you find yourself in an elevator, or on the side of the street, or at a concert and you do have interaction with another person who is there, solid and present, in their own life. When you acknowledge another being, it's magical..."
She talks rather a lot in this vein; therapy speak about "living in the moment". She believes passionately that technology detracts from that. "I've only just gone on Twitter. I've resisted it because when I talk to someone I want to be talking to a particular person, tailor my comments to them. And I have nothing to say about the state of the world, the thought of that just makes me cringe. Also, I always want to simplify my life – not add another excuse to be on my BlackBerry rather than looking at the world around me, being fully there, looking at the trees. It's particularly true when I'm with the children..." Anderson has three children: Piper, 17 (from her first marriage to an assistant art director on The X-Files), who has largely stayed in Vancouver with her father, although she is at an English boarding school; and two sons, Oscar, 5, and Felix, 3, from her relationship with Mark Griffiths, a British businessman (he made his fortune in wheel-clamping).
I ask if she has a partner at the moment. Her answer is peculiar. "Um...yes...umm...umm..." There is a long pause. "Say yes," she stutters finally.
Is this one we know about, I say, the father of the two youngest children, of a new one? "Umm, no, no... why do you ask me?" she counters.
Earlier, we had been talking about her summer plans when she tells me that what really spells holiday for her is "four or five days with me and my girlfriends, no kids. That time with the girls is just divine, reading books, sitting in the sun, it's just heaven". I say that I wonder if she has a new partner because she hadn't mentioned her chap in relation to the holiday plans. "But I've been doing those girlie holidays for the past three years," she says. So she is still with the father of her two youngest children? "Yes, yes," her eyes dart away, she shifts uncomfortably in her chair. It is clear that this topic is being closed down.
Trying another tack, I ask why, when she stopped doing The X-Files after nine series, and had enough money to live anywhere she liked, she decided to return to London. This is obviously easier territory. Anderson relaxes and becomes enthusiastically girlish as she talks about the city that has always meant home. "It's not an accident that my two little ones were born here. I grew up in London, we still had a flat in Haringey for years, even after my family moved to the States. We used to come back in the summer and spend time here and, even after moving to America, I always had a yearning for England." She pauses, leaning forward and fixing me with an intense blue stare. "I'd come back and smell the hedgerows; it always felt like some part of my insides were being pulled back here."
Crucially, London was also where she had always pictured herself as an adult. "When I was 16 we were here visiting and we went for supper with neighbours in Haringey. They were a very international couple and they had this glorious flat – Victorian, I think, but it felt Georgian – with stripped floorboards and art that they'd collected on their travels, kilim rugs, exposed fireplaces, bright colours, very north London... It epitomised for me how I saw myself as an adult and how I would be."
When she left The X-Files, Anderson decided she wanted to do a play in London and bought a place here. Indeed, it transpires that property is her real passion. "I love buildings. I love their personalities," she says. "I buy places and do them up, and then I need another project. It's part investment, part creative endeavour." But she'd had three houses in London before she remembered that there had been a plan.
"I suddenly thought, what was my original idea? These three interiors I have done have not followed that initial dream of being a grown-up living in London, so I moved from Notting Hill to this area." We are speaking in a glorious house in Fitzroy Square, W1, which is home to the Georgian Group. "That mix of antiques and modern style works best in Georgian houses."
Anderson has also just renovated an old colonial house in Sri Lanka, which she is now trying to sell. "I thought I might turn it into a boutique hotel or smart rental, but then I decided I don't want to be a hotel-owner or the person the tenants call because the roof is leaking. I really am a property wheeler-dealer."
It's not just London's architecture that appeals, although every day on the school run (her children go to private schools) she makes sure she looks up to admire the buildings – it's also the social mix. "London just continues to surprise me," she says. "I'm impressed with how quickly things get done in terms of transportation here compared to America." That is certainly a surprising take on our metropolis. "It's also fabulously shocking how much green there is for such a densely populated urban city. And I love how many cultures there are living on top of each other. You get that to a degree in New York, but not in Los Angeles or the American midwest.
"London is a great place to raise kids. My daughter chose to go to boarding school at 14 and she now cannot wait to live in London. Her choice of university is going to be based on that, she's fighting at the bit to be living here in a flat. She and I go to so many shows, plays, theatres together. We really have that in common, taking advantage of all the city has to offer. And I love London's proximity to the rest of the world."
Anderson pauses, looks at her watch and yelps. "Four minutes and the traffic wardens will have me. Come, let's walk together to the car." She begins to chatter away chummily about text parking and what an improvement it is on feeding money into meters. I warm to her – there can't be many A-listers who are so au fait with the ins and outs of our capital's parking horrors.
Collecting up the clothes she'd brought to the shoot – a black-and-white spotty Brora shirt, a tight black skirt – she is now back in her civvies: a long navy-blue gypsy skirt and a cream Chanel-esque coat. Her feet are tiny in wedge silver sandals. "Mostly I feel freer here," she confides. "Freer to be whoever I want to be on leaving the house every day..."
Scully may be long ago, but she is still haunted by The X-Files. Suddenly an image of Anderson as Miss Havisham, the jilted bride, unable to move on, comes into my mind.
Shadow Dancer is released on August 24