Loving the alien
Best known for The X-files and The Fall,
Gillian Anderson has long had a love affair with the stage. She discusses stepping into Bette Davis’s
All About Eve shoes with Gavanndra Hodge
From The X-files’ Dana Scully to DSI Stella Gibson in The Fall, Gillian Anderson specialises in taking spiky female characters and turning them into steely icons. As she prepares to star in a new stage adaptation of All About Eve, she tells Gavanndra Hodge about mohawks, panic attacks and why she has published a manifesto for women
Gillian Anderson is hard to pin down. Is she American or English? (Her accent slips between the two, depending on who she is talking to.) Guarded or warm? (She can be either, based on her mood.) Tough or vulnerable? (Or both?) ‘Because my parents were American and we lived here in the UK, there was always a sense of not quite fitting in. Because of that I’ve always felt a bit of an outsider. I have perpetuated that because that is what feels familiar to me, it is what feels comfortable,’ she explains.
When we meet Anderson is English and warm, talking about the birthday parties she has to organise (she has three children, Piper, 24, Oscar, 12, and Felix, 10); and although she is very petite, wearing white patent stiletto boots and slender black trousers, she exudes the commanding charisma that makes her perfect for her imminent roles.
Rumour has it that she will be playing Margaret Thatcher in an upcoming series of The Crown, the Netflix series created and co-written by her partner, Peter Morgan. No one is confirming this, but no one is denying it either.
Meanwhile, this month she stars in a new Netflix series, Sex Education, in which she plays a sex therapist who lives with her teenage son (Asa Butterfield). And in February Anderson has another plum role: Margo Channing in Belgian theatre director Ivo van Hove’s much-anticipated adaptation of All About Eve, also starring Lily James as Eve, with music by PJ Harvey. The play – a modern reinterpretation of the 1950 film, which starred Bette Davis as Channing, a blazing Broadway star who is gradually supplanted by a younger rival – is about ambition and betrayal, femininity and anger, stardom and personal sacrifice. Anderson’s is a bravura role, one that requires not just the cool intensity that we have come to expect from her, but also humour. Channing is deliciously droll, delivering endlessly quotable lines with comic precision (‘I’ll admit I may have seen better days, but I’m still not to be had for the price of a cocktail, like a salted peanut’).
‘A couple of years ago my boyfriend Pete said to me, “You know what would be a great role for you? Margo Channing,”’ Anderson says. ‘So I rewatched the film and I thought, “Oh my God, how much fun would that be!”’ Anderson, not one to wait for opportunity, discovered that theatre producer Sonia Friedman had the rights to the script and was working on it with van Hove – Cate Blanchett was set to be Channing. ‘So I thought, “Ah OK, I’ll just slink into the background.” Then my agents got a call to say that she [Blanchett] had backed out due to scheduling conflicts, and there was interest, and was I interested? So I was like, “Yes! When’s the meeting? Now?”’
Van Hove, on the phone from New York, is equally excited to be working with Anderson. ‘Margo needs someone who under- stands what the theatre is all about, someone who can carry a play, who can occupy the whole stage, and Gillian can do that; she is a fabulous theatre actress. Although, of course, she became iconic for me in the 1990s when she was in The X-files.’
There is something a little surprising about Ivo van Hove, an avant-garde director celebrated for his reinterpretations of plays and operas such as Hedda Gabler, Antigone and Lulu, professing fandom for a mid-’90s sci-fi series; but that is to forget the huge cultural impact of The X-files, its quality and its ingenuity.
The series was about two FBI agents, played by Anderson and David Duchovny, who attempt to unravel various natural and supernatural mysteries. No one expected it to become such a success, least of all Anderson, who was 24 when she was cast in the show. It was her first major role and it made her a star. She won multiple awards for her portrayal of the sceptical Dr Dana Scully, including an Emmy and a Golden Globe. But such stardom often involves sacrifice and Anderson was suffering.
The production schedule for The X-files was brutal, involving 16-hour days for nine months of the year. Furthermore, in 1994, aged 25, Anderson married Clyde Klotz, assistant art director on the series, and nine months later she gave birth to their daughter, Piper. After three years she and Klotz divorced. It was while she was pregnant that Anderson started having severe panic attacks. ‘I was having them daily,’ she explains, experiencing palpitations, numbness, ‘hallucinations, all of it’. Things didn’t get better once Piper was born. ‘I was a young mother, and shortly after that we were separating, and I was working these crazy hours. I remember periods of time when I was just crying, my make-up was being done over and over again and I was not able to stop crying.’
Anderson sought solace in meditation. ‘I went to somebody and there was a meditation we did together. We went to some quite dark places and I got to see that I could still survive those dark places, I was stronger than they were, and after that the panic attacks stopped.’
‘I was having panic attacks daily’, experiencing palpitations, numbness, ‘hallucinations, all of it’
Anderson had been having panic attacks, on and off, ‘since high school’. As a teenager she was a daydreamer and a troublemaker who felt different from her peers in Michigan because of her childhood in Harringay, having left the ‘incy-bincy flat with a bathroom outside’ that she and her parents lived in when she was 11 years old, when her family moved back to the US. ‘I started falling in with groups and trying to fit in, until it got to the point when it was like, “I don’t f—ing want to fit in. I want to look completely different to all of you, and stop staring at me because I have a mohawk.” I’d shave the sides of my head with a razor blade and dye my hair different colours.’
Anderson’s parents, Rosemary and Ed, were living in Chicago and were both just 26 when she was born. Soon afterwards the family moved to London so Ed could attend film school, while Rosemary worked as a computer programmer. ‘My parents were working very hard and would often work late. I have lots of memories of playing by myself in the back
garden and searching for friends in the neighbourhood because I didn’t have siblings.’ After moving back to America, Rosemary and Ed had two more children, a son and a daughter. Anderson admits that her adolescent waywardness might have been related to the arrival of two new babies in the house. ‘I made trouble and I got attention that way.’
Acting is another way to get attention, something Anderson learnt early on. ‘I remember being in a play when I was in primary school. I was meant to be a Chelsea fan. I started chewing gum on stage and blowing bubbles and got all the attention. I thought, “This is all right, everybody is watching me!”’ But when she reached 16 and started doing more professional productions in America, performing became fundamentally important to her. ‘I enjoyed the connection between performer and audience, the control. And I remember thinking, “I can do this. They are showing me I can do this.” It changed everything in my life, knowing I could do something. Prior to that there hadn’t been that moment yet when I found purpose and direction.’
Anderson decided that she wanted to pursue acting as a career and was accepted at The Theatre School at Depaul University in Chicago. ‘From the very start of school I didn’t go into the dorms, instead I found an apartment with a roommate in a funky neighbourhood. I was the only one who was living out of school. That is my pattern, carving my own thing. All through [theatre] school I dressed like I was a member of The Cure. That was how I was in the world, grungy, not considered, not mature. I was forthright and gutsy – I drove myself to Chicago in my dad’s VW van – but slightly falling apart.’
She always knew she would return to England. ‘My childhood here, the smell of north London, it has such a massive tug on me. I really felt, when we moved to the States, that I would eventually have a life back here.’ She and Piper moved to the city after The X-files ended its original run, and she went on to have two more children, Oscar and Felix, with her now ex-boyfriend, businessman Mark Griffiths (there was also a marriage to British documentary maker Julian Ozanne, which lasted for two years, with the couple separating in 2006).
In the UK Anderson’s career developed in a way that might
not have been expected for the golden girl of ’90s sci-fi. She took juicy roles in big-budget period dramas – Lady Dedlock in Bleak House, Miss Havisham in Great Expectations –and appeared on stage, at the Royal Court and the Donmar Warehouse. But it was her performance in the BBC detective drama The Fall, starting in 2013, that solidified her reputation as the go-to actor for female characters who are charismatic and powerful. Anderson, as DSI Stella Gibson, was imperious in her white silk shirts and high heels, unwavering in her pursuit of the serial killer played by Jamie Dornan. The screenwriter Allan Cubitt created the role of Gibson with Anderson in mind. ‘I wanted Gibson to be an enigmatic figure. Gillian is a riveting actress, but there is an aloofness to her as well. Also I was attempting to reclaim the idea of the powerful femme fatale, without the fatale; someone who is aware that her beauty can be used to help her ends. That she is unafraid of that was radical.’
Anderson was deeply involved in the creation of Gibson’s look, altering the way she thought about herself in the process. ‘What fascinated me about her, and I feel that we were able to find that in the costume design, was that the way she dressed never felt like it was for anyone else but her. I don’t think I have necessarily changed the way I dress since her, but I feel like I am certainly more conscious of what I wear and what it says.’ As a younger woman her style was ‘messy, like a discarded urchin’. She would wear oversized suits and ‘floppy dresses that I had probably stolen from the thrift store’. Whereas now her look is sleek, and she favours brands like Jil Sander, Prada and Dries Van Noten.
The Fall was about gender, power and desire; and it was while filming it in Belfast that Anderson began thinking more about the struggles that women face in the 21st century. ‘I was reading all these statistics about young girls being suicidal and having such low selfesteem and I thought, “Surely, given everything that we know, and the fact we are all having these feelings, can we not start a conversation about whether we want this and how to deal with it?”’ This morphed into her writing a book, We: A Manifesto for Women Everywhere, with her friend, the writer and activist Jennifer Nadel, in 2017. Alternating between pieces by Anderson and Nadel, it details their own personal struggles, and includes practical sections on how to deal with issues such as anxiety and low self-esteem using practices such as meditation, affirmations and gratitude lists. ‘We both know how it feels to be in emotional pain,’ says Nadel. ‘Both of us have felt lost, and found a spiritual way out. Both of us have experienced radical transformation as a result of the things that we wrote about in that book.’
Cubitt and Nadel each say that among the most impressive things about Anderson, as a collaborator, are her focus and drive. ‘I have never met anyone with Gillian’s ability to focus. And she has a certainty about things, she is not mired in indecision,’ says Nadel.
What this means is not just an incredibly long CV, but numerous satellite projects. Anderson has a line of smart, grown-up clothes that she has developed with the brand Winser London (‘I didn’t realise I was so opinionated about buttons!’). She also works for numerous charities, focusing especially on women’s rights and environmental issues.
‘Because of my work ethic and also having had such high expectations, both of myself and other people’s of me, at such
‘I am constantly reminded of the fact that I am not normal’
a young age, I think it became near to impossible for me to relax at all, to do anything that wasn’t work-related, so a lot of my later adult life has been trying to force myself to do that, and I struggle so hard, and sometimes I lose sight of it. So there is a part of me that wonders if I am slightly addicted [to work], I learnt it so young.’
The scant spare time that Anderson allows herself is spent ‘going to the cinema, to the theatre, watching documentaries’.
Piper, who has just completed a degree in production and costume design, is now living in her mother’s basement, and the two of them recently went on a trip to Amsterdam to see van Hove’s four-hour stage adaptation of the Hanya Yanagihara novel A Little Life. That might not sound like everyone’s cup of tea, but Anderson loved it. And despite all the seriousness and the self-examination (or perhaps because of it), she is good company, thoughtful and witty. She has, she says, got happier as she has got older, less self-critical, more self-accepting.
‘I am constantly reminded of the fact that I am not normal. But fortunately I have enough abnormal people around me to help me feel that it is actually OK.’
All About Eve is running at the Noël Coward Theatre from 2 February to 11 May; allabouteveplay.com
Right Anderson with partner Peter Morgan, creator of The Crown, last year. Below She will star alongside Lily James in All About Eve