The award-winning actress talks about life, death and her most challenging year yet
We're sitting in a hotel restaurant in London. Gillian Anderson has been on PsychoIogies' cover twice before but we've personally never met, though anyone watching us - the kisses she greets me with, the relaxed way she wants to know how things are in my life - would be forgiven for thinking we had.
The last time we spoke to the 44-year-old, Chicago-born actress was two years ago, and things were very different for her than they are today. Then she seemed happy with long-term partner Mark Griffiths, with whom she has two young sons. But within a matter of months they would separate, and her younger brother Aaron - who suffered from the rare condition neurofibromatosis - would die from a brain tumour aged only 30. When I ask if she feels like she has been assaulted by a barrage of emotions she laughs, telling me I don't know the half of it, that there‘s so much more going on in her life at the moment than I am aware of. An admission that makes the strength, serenity and calmness that she radiates both admirable and inspiring.
Next month sees Anderson take the lead role in The Fall, a five-part Belfast-based BBC thriller where she plays Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson. Does she feel she is at all like her character, who is smart, brave and ballsy? 'Well, probably yes,' she laughs, adding 'but I like her a whole lot more.'
I've seen the first episode of your new thriller The Fall and thought it was brilliant.
Really? It's so hard for me to tell what people are going to think so I'm relieved to hear you appreciated it. But you couldn't say anything else really, could you? [Laughs] Sometimes people will just say, 'I saw it' then won’t say anything else and I'll be left reading into that, thinking: what might they mean?
What did you like most about your character, Stella?
I aspire to be more like her. Stella‘s so 'in' her body and comfortable with who she is. She has a very strong sense of how that manifests in the way that she dresses. and she's very smart. Plus, she's nice to people. I just think she's great. I think she's going to be good for women.
I was going to kick off by asking you if you're happy at the moment, but I know that's a difficult question given the personal trauma of last year.
I'm complicated at the moment. This feels like a period of being tested, in so many areas of my life. So what I'm trying to do is accept where I'm at, not run from it, and sit with the discomfort. I have a tendenecy to keep myself busy or do other things just to avoid those feelings, but actually it's really important I think - or so I've heard and learned - to allow yourself to be uncomfortable rather than trying to always fix it in some way or find other distractions. So yes, it's a really uncomfortable time, but I know that things will start to shift and there will be happier times ahead. l’m not unhappy, there's just a huge amount on my plate right at this moment.
How did you start to cope with your brother's death?
Grief manifests very differently for everybody. For some people it's instantaneous, for others it takes a very long time. For some it comes out in adverse ways, for others it suddenly appears six years later when they're driving down the street. I go through bursts of it. My brother was a very spiritual person and the way that he dealt with his impending death was with a huge amount of grace and peace of mind. He was a practising Buddhist, so even when he did have fear, he would use it as an opportunity to move beyond it. lt was a very big lesson for all of us.
Did you feel that you took away something positive from the experience?
A huge amount. And I felt strongly that the lessons I was learning that time shouldn't go unlearned or be short-lived. There was a point between him being diagnosed and when he died where he was better than he had been for a very long time and I can‘t help but thinking why didn't l use that time? Why didn't I fly him out to wherever I was or why didn't we go here and do this and that? There's a lot of deep grief around not having taken advantage of that time or having got to know him better. But part of what he taught us is that it’s all right. Whatever it was, or however it was, is all OK.
ls it difficult dealing with grief while trying to be strong in front of your children?
At the time, I didn't let them see me grieving. Most of my grieving took place when I was with him, in Michigan, separate from my boys. I felt that there was no reason to take them. There were a couple of times that I was on Skype with them and they’d ask to speak to my brother, but I’d say he was asleep. He looked so different than how they knew him, I think it would have been quite disturbing for them to have seen that. I didn't want that to be their final memory of him. My daughet joined me there, as she is older and was close to him. It was an incredibly challenging time for her too.
What rule did you take on in your family during such a time of personal crisis?
l seemed to change roles when I was there. As the body reaches the end of its life. there are a lot of things that are uncomfortable to witness - things that happen to it that normally you‘d never get to see. When I first got there at the end, I was skirting round the outside of all of that because of my discornfort with it, and it was very important that I moved beyond that. So I decided that I was going to be the one who was going to cut his nails and massage his feet - because they were unbelievably swollen and full of fluid from the steroids. So I cleaned him and fed him, and I'm so glad I decided to be the one to do that - those were the closest and most intimate times that I had with him, sitting at his feet for hours.
Recently you've separated from your partner Mark too - you must feel somewhat exhausted with life?
It just feels like it is that time. Practically everybody I know is being asked to step up the plate.They're facing more challenging things and events - more levels of challenging things in their lives than they ever have before.
Are you angry that all this has landed in your lap in a relatively short space of time?
Should I be angry? [Laughs] I'm very aware of the different stages of grieving and yes, one of those stages that I've been through, I suppose, is anger. l think sometimes when we get angry it’s almost like grieving for trouble-free times. We can’t believe that alI these things are happening at one time and there's a certain amount of purging that happens in that process. lt feels like, 'are these lessons ever going to stop? How much more can I take?' But the fact is that we can take more. I've been told that we’re never given more than we can handle at any one time and that everything is put in our path is an opportunity for growth. That is really hard to remember sometimes when were in the middle of it - we can feel assaulted and that our lives are falling apart - so it’s important to step away from it, too.
How do you step away from it?
There's meditation that I do - it's almost like I remove my conscious thought from inside my body. I remove it from having the perspective through my eyes. I take that perspective up and out of my head, out of my body, almost so it's in space, and somehow separating myself that way and looking down on it gives a different perspective to the whole situation. It's difficult to remember to do it but everytime I do, I feel some relief. There have been times over the past year where l have woken up with so much anxiety and fear and worry. And nothing changes by me residing in that place. So by being able to take myself out of that fear, things are still going to go on as they are going to go on, but at least I'll have a more comfortable ride of it.
You mentioned your daughter, she's 18 now - how does that feel?
She is! [Laughs] lt feels really good, you know. Our relationship just gets better.
Do you see much of yourself in her?
Yes, I do. I don't think about that aspect of it really, though. The only time I do is when I see something that she does and I think,'Oh no, poor her. I do that and she’s got it! She has to contend with that too!'
What do you love most about being a mother?
What I'm really appreciating lately is just watching their personalities grow. Watching who they're becoming. When they really start to communicate with each other and with other people. l enjoy that. Being a parent can be so stressful and infuriating and sometimes - just sometimes - you really want to strangle your children, then the next second it's all disappeared. My four-year-old Felix has a tendency - I don’t know how he does it - but sometimes in stressful situations when he can see that I'm frantic, out of the blue he'll look at me and say, 'I love you mummy' which immediately takes the stress away.
You've spoken before of your fear of not being good enough especially at work, do you still feel that way?
I think l've got better at being aware of what my abilities are, but that's not say that any time I get a new job and I'm in the first couple of days I don't still feel that kind of abject terror that l‘m about to fail. Because I do. I'm sure there's a necessity for it. l think that particular kind of fear probably makes me better, makes me work harder. l think that fear is quite common for people in general, especially actors. To feel like, at some point, people are going to find out. I think it's part of the human condition.
Has fame taught you any lessons?
I think what it's taught me is that a famous person is no better than a non-famous person [laughs].There is absolutely no difference between somebody who's on the cover of a magazine and somebody who's not. In the same way there is no difference between that somebody who is not and somebody who might be sleeping on the streets in Calcutta.
Was it harder in the earlier days to grasp that?
Something that happened early on for me was that my daughter's father was an art director working behind the scenes of The X-Files, and because of that I got to see the underbelly of the series, which was a huge team of people who were being worked to the bone to get this behemoth on the air with not much reward apart from being able to say they worked on a successful series The success of the show had as much to do with their contribution as anybody else’s. And that was a very important lesson that has really stuck with me since. I think the understanding of that really helped me stay grounded at a time when I could easily have got more heady with success.
What do you think you have learned about yourself as you've got older?
That there is always work to be done. That - and I've heard this before said exactly this way - that the older I get, the less I know. l really feel that l'm only just beginning to scratch the surface. I've been trying and investigating and looking and working on myself for, seriously, decades. There's always more to be done. And even if we can’t see immediately what the so-called ‘reward‘ is for the work, it has resonance and it reverberates and can touch other people even when we don’t know it. And that’s what it's all about. As much as it's about ourselves, for me it's about how I can be a better person to be of service to other people, whether my loved ones or strangers.
The Fall will air on BBC2 this spring
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