Given her big break in The X-Files despite studio objections, Gillian Anderson has enjoyed a slow-burning career with her latest BBC role paving the way for more television success
Steely, but with an underlying softness. A woman to make men weak, but also a feminist who values female company. Engaging, but ultimately a little cool and enigmatic. All could apply equally to Gillian Anderson or DSI Stella Gibson, the detective she plays in the BBC2 drama The Fall.
If they're a good fit for each other, it's no coincidence. Allan Cubitt, the creator of the series, started writing the screenplay in 2010 with Anderson in mind, long before she had been approached. "I just thought she was the best person to play the part as I had conceived it," he says. He sent her the first three scripts, which she liked, "so episodes four and five were written knowing she was interested. I felt more confident in that I knew she could handle the material I was writing especially well."
The series, which finishes on Monday, has been lauded for its tautness and scariness, but most of the praise has been reserved for Anderson's portrayal of Gibson, the laser-focused detective on the hunt for a serial killer in Belfast. Prime Suspect's DCI Jane Tennison had to adopt a masculine approach to get on in 1990s policing, but she opened the door; now DSI Gibson strides in, with her high heels and silk shirts, her feminist put-downs and her numerous university degrees, and manages to make her (still predominantly male) colleagues look like over-emotional, incompetent fools. Almost as soon as it started in May, and proved a commercial and critical hit, the BBC commissioned a second series.
It is the first time Anderson has taken on a serial drama since the long-running US sci-fi drama The X-Files, in which she played the sceptical FBI agent Dana Scully, the role she is still best known for. It ran for 202 episodes over nine years and turned her and David Duchovny into stars.
When the show ended in 2002, Anderson packed up her life and moved to London, where she has been based ever since. "I don't show my face [in LA] very much, and so that makes it a bit more complicated for me in terms of work," she said in 2006. "They [producers] need to see you in the press, and in their face, in meetings, auditions, whatever … [but] I'm not going to go while my daughter's in school here, in the hopes that somebody might take a meeting with me. I'm perfectly happy with it happening slow."
Anderson was born in Chicago, but her parents moved to London when she was two and she lived in the north London borough of Haringey until she was 11, while her father studied film. The family later moved back to the US and settled in Michigan. Anderson – who had been a bit of a punk at school and was once voted "most likely to get arrested" by her classmates – moved to New York to try to make it as an actor.
London, though, remained a draw (she speaks with an English accent). "Even after moving to America, I always had a yearning for England," she said in an interview last year. "I'd come back and smell the hedgerows; it always felt like some part of my insides were being pulled back here."
Although circumstances put the brakes on a Hollywood career, it isn't clear that Anderson harboured such ambitions in the first place. She has said her favourite films tended to be low-budget or foreign, "and there is no reason why I should not be true to that, simply because another side of my life has been more public than I ever imagined or wished it would be".
Many of the roles she has chosen seem to be more about fitting around family life (Anderson has three children) – she played small parts in passable British films, such as the spy spoof Johnny English Reborn and How To Lose Friends and Alienate People – but she has also lent her name to more interesting projects, such as 2012 low-budget French film Sister.
Mainly though, Anderson chose television, with roles in intelligent British dramas such as Bleak House, Any Human Heart and Great Expectations. And now The Fall, which will also be given a wider global audience after it was picked up by Netflix, the internet streaming service. In her first return to American television since the X-Files, Anderson recently joined Hannibal, the NBC drama, and will star in the upcoming US drama Crisis.
Focusing on TV may be a choice that is now looking more and more sensible. "Television is where the real stuff is happening for acting," says Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw. "There are so many things, like Breaking Bad and Homeland, where they can really – over 12 or 14 episodes – develop as an actor with a part, and they're not so hidebound by a three-act film screenplay."
Despite Anderson's initial reluctance to work in television – "I swore I'd never move to Los Angeles, and once I did, I swore I'd never do television" – it was television that made her name. Chris Carter, the creator of The X-Files, faced down executives at the Fox Network who did not want the unknown Anderson, then 24, in the role.
Carter has described the negotiations as "like fighting city hall. There was someone in charge of the network who wanted neither David nor Gillian. I had to lobby for David, but I put my foot down over Gillian and said, 'This is the person I want, and no one else'."
Carter remembers meeting Anderson for the first time at a casting audition. "She looked like kind of a street urchin – probably the best way to describe her was she looked like she could have been one of the Occupy protestors.
"She read the dialogue, and she was very, very good. She was young, but she had a poise, a gravity; she could play an FBI agent, and a believable doctor. In the end, she was a great choice." Carter cites her professionalism – "and I think this is really to do with her Midwestern background: she always showed up. Other than taking time off for her pregnancy, I think I can only remember her missing work once. She was there, doing the job."
Cubitt says the actors he likes are those who are "extremely truthful and unshowy in their work, and have a depth – they're particularly adroit at conveying thought and emotion, but without doing very much. She's an extremely still kind of actor."
Anderson is compelling to watch. In person she is obviously beautiful, but something extraordinary happens to her face on screen. Hers is an unconventional beauty – her translucent skin and almost melancholic features not really fitting the modern Hollywood mould. When looking for someone to play Lily Bart, the doomed heroine in the adaptation of Edith Wharton's turn-of-the-century novel The House of Mirth, the British director Terence Davies came across a picture of Anderson (he had never seen the X-Files). "I was looking for someone who had that kind of period look; I wanted the film to look like Singer Sargent portraits," he said in 1999. "And I saw her extraordinary face and that kind of luminosity that one associated with Greer Garson in the late 40s."
When I interviewed her, I found her warm and interesting but I can understand why other interviewers have described her as icy. The qualities that make her such a good actor – the thoughts and emotions that skate across her face – are also there in person. Ask a question she doesn't like and she doesn't hide her irritation, though she is just as swift to engage with something that does interest her.
"I'd describe her as a serious person," says Carter, who remains a good friend and is godfather to Anderson's eldest child. "She's a good mother, she's a person with good instincts about life and people and judgments. I just think the world of her."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the years of gossip and being followed by paparazzi in the wake of the success of the X-Files have left Anderson with a distrust of the media. There is a "messages" page on her website where she both responds generously to fans and occasionally publicly dresses down journalists who have annoyed her.
Anderson has hinted before at an underlying shyness, and double-edged feelings about her success. "When I started doing talk shows and interviews, I felt so out of my depth that I didn't laugh or joke because I was petrified," she said last year. "It has taken me decades to get used to the whole nature of fame – to allow myself to be myself in public."
THE ANDERSON FILE
Born 9 August 1968 in Chicago.
Career to date She began her career off-Broadway in Absent Friends, before moving to Los Angeles. A guest appearance on the short-lived TV show Class of '96 led to an audition for The X-Files; she played Dana Scully for nine years and won several awards. She had various small film parts before a starring role in The House of Mirth in 2000. In 2002, Anderson moved to London and did theatre work, including A Doll's House at the Donmar Warehouse. On British television, she appeared in Bleak House, Any Human Heart, The Crimson Petal and the White, and Great Expectations.
High point Despite Anderson being drawn to great female characters such as Lady Dedlock, Miss Havisham and Stella Gibson, none may ever match Agent Scully in public affection (she also won an Emmy and Golden Globe for the role).
Low point Straightheads, a low-budget, low-intelligence, violent revenge-fantasy film with Danny Dyer in 2007.
What she says On the roles she's most proud of: "I'd say Bleak House or Great Expectations, but I feel good about The Fall. On many levels, I feel good about her being out there, as a woman in the contemporary world of television and social consciousness. I like that she's out there."
What others say "It's quite something watching her work. She really is a consummate artist." (Allan Cubitt)