The Double Life of Gillian Anderson

3.13.2012

By Aaron Hicklin

For nearly a decade, as Scully in the 'X-Files,' she was one of TV’s hottest commodities. Now, she’s remade herself in a series of demanding stage roles and smart TV dramas, such as the upcoming adaptation of 'Great Expectations.'


Photography by Roger Erickson

Gillian Anderson remembers being struck by a magazine article in which a woman in her late forties escapes the constraints of marriage and motherhood for a solo vacation -- “to somewhere like Italy.” There, she finds herself at a dinner party among guests she does not know. “She decided that she wasn’t going to mention she had kids,” says Anderson in an accent that skitters pleasantly between British and American. “It was fascinating to read. It changes the energy of the conversation if people are talking about their kids -- it puts you in the room as this wildcard, and people look at you like you don’t understand, and how would you know?”

Anderson, who has a 17-year-old daughter from her first marriage and two young sons with her current partner, has spent a lifetime feeling like the wildcard in the room. As an actor, she is used to projecting herself into other lives, but questions of identity color her life, too. She recalls moving from England to Michigan, when she was 11, and discovering that she was no longer part of the tribe. “Going from London to a small Republican town like Grand Rapids was quite a shock,” she says. “I thought it would be a place of sunshine and happiness and candy bars.” In high school, she was voted “Most Bizarre” and “Most Likely to Be Arrested.” Both descriptions, says Anderson, contained a kernel of truth, “based on how I chose to look, dress, behave, you know—the relationships I was in at the time were freaking people out.” Invited to elaborate, she begins to list them: “I was in a relationship with a girl for a long time when I was in high school, and then I was in a relationship with a punk rock drug addict who...”

Wait, a lesbian relationship? “Yeah, yeah, well it’s... You know, I’m old enough that I can talk about that,” she says, before resuming her list: “And then I was in a relationship with somebody who was way, way older than me. Everything that that kind of anarchistic attitude brings—the inappropriate behavior it leads to—was how I chose to be in the world at that time, which was, you know, not what people did.”

Much of this has been written before -- how she dyed her hair purple, how she glued the school gates shut on graduation night, the drugs and alcohol -- but her lesbian romance is something new. Understandably, she is wary of making a big deal of it, precisely because it is a big deal for so many people. “If I had thought I was 100% gay, would it have been a different experience for me?” she wonders. “Would it have been a bigger deal if shame had been attached to it and all those things that become huge life-altering issues for youngsters in that situation? It’s possible that my attitude around it came, on some level, from knowing that I still liked boys.”

Anderson says she has had relationships with other women, but they have been the exception, not the rule. She is, of course, aware of the lesbian fan base -- in a 2007 episode of The Graham Norton Show, a popular U.K. talk show, the mischievous host invited her to read aloud from a lesbian foreign phrase book, to which she gamely responded, “Lick my clit,” only to realize that Norton intended her to deliver the phrase in German. But for many of those fans, it wasn’t Anderson they were responding to; it was Dana Scully, the FBI special agent she played in an oversized trench and sensible shoes on The X-Files.

It’s clear that Anderson doesn’t want to make more of her admission than it warrants, but it goes to the heart of the instincts that animate her life. Like the woman in that magazine article, Anderson is aware that what you choose to say about yourself, and what you leave out, has consequences. And because of her adolescence in Michigan, she is perhaps more interested in upsetting convention. It must be the ambition of any number of young actors to find themselves in one of the biggest-rated TV shows in U.S. history. For Anderson, however, The X-Files was an aberration.

“I think I always felt that I was going off track,” she says. “I had a very negative opinion of television, and perhaps rightly so at the time.”

In today’s celebrated age of TV drama, it’s easy to forget how slim the offerings were in 1997, when Anderson beat out the likes of Melrose Place’s Heather Locklear and pioneer medicine woman Jane Seymour to win a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama Series. But The X-Files was an anomaly that helped change the perception that TV was inferior to film. It would take The Sopranos, which first aired on HBO in 1999, to raise the bar further: Today, it often seems that television is where the real talent and creativity lies.

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