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.'

It’s been 10 years since Anderson turned in Scully’s FBI card after nine phenomenally successful seasons of The X-Files, but it’s what she did next that best illuminates her tendency to swim against the tide. With Scully behind her, she took off for London in search of the kinds of roles she had always desired. She had already impressed critics with her flair for character acting in the Terence Davies film adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. Back in England, she promptly disappeared from Hollywood’s radar (save for a brief return to The X-Files for a lackluster 2008 movie), and cycled between ambitious stage roles, such as Nora in A Doll’s House, and career-defining turns in sumptuous costume dramas, including Lady Dedlock in the brilliant BBC/PBS adaptation of Dickens’s Bleak House and Wallis Simpson in Any Human Heart. In Michael Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, she played a comic version of herself.

Now comes another Dickens serial, with BBC’s adaptation of Great Expectations set to air stateside on PBS. Anderson stars as Miss Havisham, the bride that time forgot, consumed by loss and resentment, surrounded by her stale, mouse-eaten wedding cake and dried bouquet. It’s a role freighted with precedent -- including Margaret Leighton, Anne Bancroft, and Charlotte Rampling -- but Anderson brings new emotional depth to the part.

In Britain, where it aired in January, much was made of 43-year-old Anderson’s relatively young age. She says that playing the character as an older woman risks losing the pathos. An old lady in a wedding veil is a gothic crackpot; a middle-aged woman stuck in the past is tragic.

“I’m aware that there’s mixed conversation about my age and about the way I chose to play her,” she says. “I have a weird relationship to all that stuff. I get a little grin about it. I feel a smile coming on, and I wonder how much of that is a pleasurable ‘fuck you.’ ”

This brings us back, in a roundabout way, to the punk spirit that possessed her as a teenager and which, she suspects, is still guiding her. “I don’t think I’ve ever followed convention by choice,” she says. “By default, maybe, but not by choice.”

She has noticed a schizophrenic tendency in her roles that reflects contradictions she sees in her own life. She says she sometimes has trouble connecting the woman who walks around London “all in black—black pants and a Rick Owens jacket” with the woman who turns up for photo shoots “with blond, wavy hair and tight jeans and high makeup. It’s like, What the fuck? I need to decide what’s going on here before I subject the rest of the world to it. ”

Given the dualities that have illuminated her personal and professional life, it makes sense that the only role Anderson has truly aspired to play is Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire -- the ultimate vehicle to explore the way we create fantasies about the world and ourselves. “I guess there’s some kind of identification there, or a thought that I have something to give,” she says.

But Anderson has another play in London next spring and frets that she might be too old to play the role before the right opportunity comes along. “I feel I’m ready—I’m absolutely terrified at the prospect of it, but I do feel ready,” she says, before adding that the ideal Stanley would be Ryan Gosling. “Can you imagine!?”

Last September, Anderson’s younger brother died of a brain tumor at the age of 30. He was a Buddhist, and Anderson says the grace and spirit with which he approached his death has gifted her with a powerful legacy, one that has helped her resolve her own conflicting identities.

“He left me with a vigilance for the truth in my life and a conscious, active shedding of everything that feels contrary to me,” she says. “There was an extraordinary period of time where we all got to be together for the last couple of weeks, and it had a sustained and profound effect on my life.”

Great Expectations premieres April 1 on PBS.

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