GILLIAN Anderson found fame as a sceptical alien hunter on the X-Files but her discovery of period drama, and small indie film roles have brought her real contentment.
When Gillian Anderson arrives for our interview she has to take a moment before we begin. She’s moving house tomorrow and looks distinctly discombobulated. “I just need to put my mind in the zone,” she says with a polite smile. “Too many things going on.” She rests her face in her hands for a few seconds while she composes herself, takes a breath and switches on. Moving house is a stressful business, though the 44-year-old actress has plenty of experience of it.
She purchased her first home, in Vancouver, in her early twenties and has bought, renovated and sold a dozen since then: “I generally find houses that need to be done up, that have personalities that feel like they make sense for that particular time in my life.”
So what makes sense now? “The last place was a Georgian house in Bloomsbury. It was very dark and colourful and cluttered. And this one is white and, hopefully, uncluttered.” Having recently split from Mark Griffiths, her partner of six years and the father of the youngest two of her three children, it seems the perfect metaphor for moving on. Her decision to move house frequently is, she says, “part investment, part madness, part distraction, part creativity”.
When we meet – over coffee in the bar of a London hotel – she’s distinctly unstyled, unmanicured. It’s a cold, soggy London day and she’s wrapped in thick layers, topped off with a long, white coat.
She’s thoughtful, polite, warm. Her responses are full and carefully considered; she will happily pause for as long as it takes to think about an answer before she gives it. Her accent is pure boarding school head girl (she lived in England until she was 11 then moved across the pond until she was 35, when she returned to London) with just the occasional flash of an American drawl; when she says “creative process” for example.
We’re here to talk about Sister (L’Enfant d’en haut), a charming, poignant, ofttimes painful Swiss film from writer-director Ursula Meier, which follows a boy, Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein), who steals skis in an upmarket resort and sells them on to buy food for himself and his older sister Louise (Léa Seydoux). Anderson is Kristin, a middle-class mother of two who encounters Simon while holidaying on the slopes. Kristen’s existence is achingly privileged next to the mess of Simon’s upbringing, and his attempts to briefly engineer a place for himself in her family’s life are desperately sad.
As a mother herself (to Piper, 18, Oscar, 5 and Felix, 4), how was she affected by the film’s central themes of the abandonment and neglect of a vulnerable child?
“There are certain things in life that I simply will not let my brain explore. One of those things is flashes of your own children being hurt, and you train your brain to go, ‘I’m not thinking about that’. Sometimes that can happen when seeing a film that takes you down a path that is challenging in some way. I find that I do that when it relates to children and anything to do with physical or emotional abuse or abandonment, I have to consciously keep myself present with it in order to experience what the characters are experiencing.”
Simon’s is “a particular slice of abandonment”. He has a difficult relationship with his adult sister, who can’t or won’t hold down a job, but he’s so desperate for affection that in one scene he offers to pay her to let him sleep in her bed. In another he hugs Kristin as if she’s the closest thing he’s had to a mother figure.
“There’s something about the fact,” Anderson says, “that they’re in a ski resort and potentially, for a good deal of the audience, it’s going to be a familiar environment. It’s easier to step into the tragedy of the situation because somehow it’s more recognisable and accessible, with the juxtaposition between the wealth and her certain type of arrogance, but at the same time a compassion and an attempt at understanding a connection, and just the huge divide between human beings.”
Her role in the film is a supporting one, but then, she tends to choose smaller parts on the big screen, from the doctor’s wife in 2006’s The Last King of Scotland to pushy Hollywood publicist Eleanor Johnson in 2008’s How to Lose Friends & Alienate People.
Such short but sweet roles are based on a need to spend as little time as possible away from her children. Beyond that, the fact that she spent nine years, from 1993 to 2002, practically living out of a trailer on set for her role as Dana Scully on The X-Files – one of the most popular television programmes of all time and the series that launched her career – makes her a little wary of committing to long-term projects: “When I have conversations about things that are longer running or take longer to shoot, my heart starts to palpitate. I get a little bit claustrophobic around that.”
When she left The X-Files, the first thing Anderson wanted to do was a play, and she made her West End début in What The Night is For in 2002. It has been in British television, however, that she has really made her mark since The X-Files. She was nominated for a Bafta, an Emmy and a Golden Globe for her performance as Lady Dedlock in the BBC’s 2005 adaptation of Bleak House, a role which was a complete departure from her previous work and was the first of a handful of acclaimed performances in period dramas.
“When I was cast in Bleak House it was the first time somebody had come to me and said ‘we think you can do this’ and I kind of thought ‘why me? What makes you think that I can do this?’” she says. “I thought that I could but nobody else seemed to have thought that I might be able to do something like that. So I felt like I had a duty to myself to prove that this ideal that I had as a young actress, my fantasy of doing these sorts of things, that actually here was this opportunity and this is exactly what I had wished for and that I had bloody well better get on with it.”
Last year she played both wizened brothel owner Mrs Castaway in The Crimson Petal and The White and a striking Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, both for the BBC. Having spent the first ten years of her career as something of a reluctant pin-up, she now embraces the kind of gnarled, knobbly characters that wouldn’t be given a second glance by the readers of FHM. Furthermore, in accepting supporting roles she can sidestep all the fuss, all the projected glamour, that often comes with being a leading lady. “Even when I was a teenager and started to think about acting, I always imagined that what it would look like for me would involve some sort of physical transformation and having very little to do with vanity,” she says. “I think the idea of a leading lady, there’s a certain amount of vanity that comes with that, or at least an expectation of vanity.”
Vanity, in the traditional sense of the word, has never held much allure for her. She was a teenage punk and famously turned up for her X-Files audition looking decidedly scruffy. At the time Baywatch was the biggest show on television and the producers, it turned out, had pictured Dana Scully as a busty, leggy blonde.They took a gamble on her and it paid off.
Did she feel pressure taking on Miss Havisham, one of literature’s most famous characters, played by everyone from Charlotte Rampling to Anne Bancroft? “No. Maybe ignorantly, naively. I think I put more pressure on myself with things that are for big screen. I guess, having been in front of the small screen for so many years, there’s a comfort zone there, I know what my boundaries are so it feels quite safe to play there. If Miss Havisham was for the feature version instead, that would have been a situation where I might have had a few heart attacks.”
She yearns to play Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire, an idea which “absolutely petrifies” her. “But it just happens to be the one thing that for whatever reason, I’ve always wanted to do. So again, it feels like somehow I owe it to myself to continue trying to pursue that so that I don’t feel like when I’m 60 that I didn’t try hard enough or that it’s something that I regret in some way. I don’t generally linger on regret, but I think I also do my damnedest not to put things in my life that I will eventually regret.” She laughs, a laugh that seems to imply that that’s not entirely possible, but she tries her best anyway.
Every once in a while, Anderson feels a need to educate herself about what’s out there in her industry, which roles are floating around. She gets an urge to fly to LA, to take meetings and “make things happen in the way that I think I want them to happen, or expose myself in a different way or go after things”. But she’s not sure she’s really got that in her. “I’m not really that person and I never know whether it’s because I’m lazy or whether it’s because I love London, I love being here and I love everything about this city.” To give all that up to play the game in LA, “is maybe trying to be somebody that I’m not”.
Next up is The Fall, a BBC series in which she plays DCI Stella Gibson, an investigator called upon to find a serial killer on the loose. It is, she says, “the first time I’ve really jumped back into what might be considered a series. So that’s peculiar in and of itself.”
The Fall will air early next year, when she will also appear alongside Michael Caine and Clemence Poesy in Mr Morgan’s Last Love. Before any of that, however, there’s the small business of moving house, again, to deal with. We say goodbye and she heads back to her old home to declutter in preparation for the new one.
Sister is released on 2 November.