When actress Gillian Anderson landed the role of Agent Scully for the Fox television series X-Files she could not have foreseen that within two years she would become an internationally known cult phenomenon. Clearly uncomfortable in the public eye, the Emmy Ward-winning actress happily admits she would rather be anywhere than in a hotel room flogging her latest movie, House of Mirth, a period drama poles apart from Agent Scully. Anderson talked candidly to Paul Fischer in Los Angeles about acting, stardom, X-Files and politics.
Gillian Anderson is an actress who says what she thinks. Refreshing in a town governed by rules of publicity and conformity. But Anderson, who was reluctantly spending half of a sunny Los Angeles Sunday afternoon promoting her new film, happily admits that she doesn’t give a toss about her own self-image in an industry obsessed with beauty. “Life’s too important and time is too precious”, the outspoken star exclaims. My time with my daughter is more valuable to me than spending two hours in a fucking spa. Half the time when I walk out the house, I don’t look at the fucking mirror, and I get to work, and oops, you’ve got stuff in your eye and whatever. Who cares?” Certainly not THIS TV and film star. As for taking time off to do publicity, she shrugs it off as a necessary evil. “Acting is definitely the only reason I do what I do, because it is what feeds my soul and this other stuff is bullshit. I don’t want to be here on a fucking Sunday morning sitting here. I don’t want to be promoting this film, but I do it because one does. I also want people to see it and Sony has been so supportive and so I want to do something for them”.
The film in question is a period drama, House of Mirth. Adapted from the Edith Wharton novel, the film revolves around Lily Bart, played by Anderson, a ravishing socialite at the height of her success who quickly discovers the precariousness of her position when her beauty and charm start attracting unwelcome interest and jealousy. Torn between her heart and her head, Lily always seems to do the right thing at the wrong time. She seeks a wealthy husband and in trying to conform to social expectations, she misses her chance for real love with Lawrence Selden.
Her quest for a husband comes to a scandalous end when she is falsely accused of having an affair with a married man and is rejected by society and her friends. For Anderson, many of whose big screen outings have been cameo roles in smallish films, playing Lily afforded the actress to prove her diversity after eight years of Scully, “because really what people know me as is that character, and I think that audiences don’t quite know whether I can do anything else. So there is a definite, conscious attempt to show that I CAN do something else”. With House of Mirth, Anderson agrees that she has leapt from one extreme to the other, though cheekily concedes that “there are a lot of extremes that I have yet to divulge, but this would be one of them”.
Despite House of Mirth being a period film, Anderson says that there was a lot about Lily with which she could identify. “There are certain aspects of her JOURNEY that I identified with, but I was also struck by the tragedy of her dilemma and just not being able to make a decision one way or the other. I didn’t actually realise, until after I started reading the novel again, that she’s quite conceited and self-obsessed, which I hadn’t gleaned initially from the script or from my memory of the novel. So I felt that was important to add to the character, just in terms of the particular arc that she takes and the lessons that she learns. I like seeing characters in films learning something”.
Anderson relishes playing strong women who transform themselves, and no doubt feels constrained by her better-known television alter ego, a character that some may consider a hindrance to how she is perceived in Hollywood, “because people are so SURPRISED by this movie. It doesn’t piss me off as much as it does my manager but I’m starting to get the idea people don’t KNOW, don’t EXPECT it and wouldn’t ASSUME I could play a drug addict for instance”.
Anderson is now shooting the eighth year of X Files, and one wonders whether the star feels that enough is enough now. “I reached that point years ago, but I’ve been on contract, so I haven’t been able to do much about it,” she candidly responds, although she DID sign up for an extra season. “I didn’t have a choice if I wanted to be paid appropriately”. Yet, though eager to move on, Anderson has no regrets. “I have learned an extraordinary amount through this experience of exploring a character over such a long period of time and having that much work time, constantly working and working on the craft has been invaluable”.
Anderson DID meet the father of her daughter while shooting the series initially in Canada, and these days, bringing up her daughter is far more of a priority than the celebrityism with which she is reluctantly dogged. But she manages to deal with fame in a practical way, she says. “I just don’t show up to stuff. I’m invited to so much in a year, it’s ridiculous and none of it interests me. If it’s something for a good cause or if it’s something I need to promote, that’s one thing. But it takes up so much time and energy to focus on stuff that is superfluous”.
Yet she tries to read what is written about her, because the actress thinks “it’s important to know what has been said and how it’s been interpreted, to know how one is being perceived, so that you can counterbalance that”. Asked how she thinks the media perceives her in general, the actress has no idea. “I don’t really think people quite know what to do with me. Also, out of all the interviews I have ever done, there have been TWO that I felt had any resemblance to me as a human being”.
A staunch Democrat and pro-choice advocate, Anderson is ferociously passionate about the state of contemporary politics in America, and admits to being “desperately frightened” by the current presidency. “I’m so angry I want to throw something”, but remains optimistic as she brings up her daughter “in a safe atmosphere, far away from the current political climate”.
Gillian Anderson is passionate about her acting and more so about motherhood “which has obviously changed my priorities”. Not necessarily wanting to impose all of her values on her child, Anderson quietly concludes that she hopes to teach her “just about staying true to herself, following her heart and respecting herself. Wherever that leads her”.