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Times Magazine: Playing with Fire

Times Magazine
Playing with Fire
Grace Bradberry

Gillian Anderson is in her trailer wrestling with a punch bag. It stands on a spring-loaded base, next to the exercise bike, and for some reason she considers it to be in the wrong place. She is not happy about the lighting either – the power is off, and the place is lit only by dim, yellow emergency bulbs. “Ambience is everything,” she quips, poking her head around the door to call for help. Finally she sits down and discovers a rip in her shirt, just beneath the arm. “Sorry….” she says distractedly, tugging at the scratchy blue threads. “There’s something very strange going on here.” Then she laughs.

I had expected many things of Gillian Anderson. Aloofness. Caginess. Even hostility. But one thing I did not expect was giddiness. It is so much the reverse of what she projects on screen. As Agent Dana Scully, her character in The X-Files, she rarely smiles, let alone laughs. There is sexual tension, but it is of the buttoned-down variety – Scully never flirts.

It’s early evening when we meet at The X-Files set, on a dusty ranch owned by the Walt Disney Company. It is north of LA, in a remote canyon beyond the San Fernando Valley. Signs at the entrance threaten trespassers. The X-Files crew have set up by a ramshackle wooden house next to a lake. Anderson has already been transformed into Scully – her naturally unruly amber hair has been dragged straight and she wears a black trouser suit. A production assistant interrupts her conversation with her hairdresser to introduce me, and my first thought is that she is small (5ft 3 in) and extremely beautiful.

She apologizes for the fact that I have been “waiting around so long with so little action,” and looks around for another chair. Then she films a scene with a burly man, who is so familiar towards her – putting his arm around her at the end of the shot – that I assume she knows him well. But as she walks towards series creator Chris Carter, her back to the actor, she smiles and cringes. The man, it turns out, is merely a bit-part actor.

“He told me some stuff he shouldn’t be telling anybody, says Anderson, as we walk back towards her trailer. On the way, she talks about how she used not to drink any coffee, but now has the occasional decaf. She took it up again because after she quit smoking in May, she began sucking lollipops and now wants to substitute decaf for candy. The punch bag is another way for “getting out the extra stuff,” of which there is a lot right now: “I would slam my head against the wall if I didn’t have to worry about bruising my forehead,” is how she puts it.

Professionally, though, it is restraint that has again defined Anderson’s work. She has delivered a revelatory performance in Terence Davies’s masterful adaptation of the Edith Wharton novel The House of Mirth (On nationwide release from Friday). As Lily Bart, a beautiful but impoverished socialite trying to put aside her emotions as she searches for a wealthy husband. Gillian Anderson brings a combination of poise, self-containment and intensity. When she smiles, it is a deliberate act, produced for decorative effect. As the film takes a dark turn, Anderson becomes stiller than ever. There has been talk of an Oscar nomination for Gillian Anderson. And why not? Before Boys Don’t Cry, Hilary Swank, crowned as Best Actress in March, was best known for a stint on Beverly Hills 90210. Anderson, on the other hand, already has an Emmy and a Golden Globe Award for her portrayal of Scully in a series that has won critical acclaim. She has also appeared in Peter Chelsom’s The Mighty and Playing By Heart.

As a teenager, Gillian Anderson was a punk – a fact that has turned into a cliché since she hit stardom – and despite the New Age music that periodically rises above our conversation, she still loves the release of more anarchic music. “I recently went to a [Red Hot] Chili Peppers concert, and I was like a good little celebrity, standing to the side of the stage. And I regret not being in the mosh pit and I wish that I’d just f****** gone down there. Right now I want to be in a perpetual mosh pit.”

This was not what Terence Davies perceived in her when he met her at London’s Covent Garden Hotel in the summer of 1998 when she was on holiday in England. Having only seen photographs of Anderson, and never having watched The X- Files, he perceived in her a modern-day Greer Garson, with the luminous beauty he wanted for Lily Bart. Gillian Anderson, in turn, was prepared to break off from a holiday in London to meet Davies because she had loved The Long Day Closes, the director’s evocation of his deeply troubled childhood in Liverpool. Davies subsequently flew to Los Angeles to hear Anderson read. Afterwards, Davies, known for his eccentric manner, offered her the part in the most formal terms

Despite being set in turn-of-the-century New York, it was shot in Glasgow (a City she scoured for low-grease restaurants). Anderson read and reread Wharton’s novel, making copious notes on her script, constantly fretting that she would reproduce Scully in Lily Bart. “Every once in a while I’d see something and go, ‘Oh was that the way Scully would be?” I’m so bloody judgmental,” But Scully never seems to fall in love, nor does she descend on a tragic spiral. This time Anderson was able to draw on some parts of her life that just don’t get plumbed in The X-Files. “I can say that I have experienced that depth of love and yes, I am sure that an aspect of me drew on that,” she acknowledges. “The wretchedness certainly I have felt at times in my life.”

In one of the most powerful scenes, Lily Bart and the man she really loves, the equally impoverished Lawrence Selden, steal some time together beneath a tree. They merely touch hands, then kiss, but the charge between Gillian Anderson and Eric Stoltz, playing Selden, is greater than if they had made love. Anderson agrees: “There’s an element of awkwardness, and there’s an element of exposing oneself so tremendously in a way, even though we’re all corseted up and everything,”

Intimacy and touch are not easy subjects for Gillian. When she first arrived on the set of The X-Files, aged 24, she found the physical contact of the crew hard to take. I’d always been such a private person, such a loner, and such a non-physical person, and all of a sudden hair, makeup, wardrobe were here at the same time. At the beginning, I couldn’t take it. I think I had some tantrums… somebody would come from behind and brush my hair and I’d literally be like, ‘Ugh’, I felt violated, it was that strong. It must, from the outside, have looked as if I was just a spoilt bitch. And I probably was.”

For whatever reason, Gillian Anderson spent most of her adolescence feeling alienated. She has given a variety of explanations, but has never been specific about the troubles that beset her. From the age of two to 11 she live in London, where her father took a course at the London Film School and a variety of jobs. Her mother operated computers at the Daily Mirror. Then an old child (her brother and sister are still teenagers), she lived in flats in Clapton, Haringey and Crouch End. She smoked for the first time at eight behind the railway line, and hung out with the local children. “There was a crowd that was really rough and would beat up on people, and I went in and out of being one of them, and one of the ones beaten up by them.”

When she moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, “My accent was so thick, they couldn’t understand it,” she says, falling into a mimicry that could bag her a job on East Enders. She was admitted to a high school for highly motivated children – “I swear to God the only reason they accepted me back then was because I had a British accent.” But the initial interest generated by her north London intonation soon fell away.”I think I was disliked a lot When I was younger I think I showed off and I fed off the attention. And to a certain degree that has been satiated in this job, just in doing what I do. I think it’s enough that I don’t need to then push it.”

Then, in her mid-teens, she got into an alternative-music crowd and acquired a boyfriend ten years older. “We were an active, known couple in the scene. And he was in a band.” It was at this time that she dabbled in pain-numbing behaviors. Alcohol? Drugs? Anything that you can think of, some more than others, and some for longer periods than others,” Her one moment of mainstream triumph was when she mounted a production of Edward Albee’s A Dog’s Story, and won an interschool best actress prize. “I was the girl with combat boots and hair dyed pink, a nose-ring and dresses that were way too big stolen from thrift stores,” she says. Couldn’t she at least have raided the local department store? “I should never have said that,” she says, half -wailing, half-laughing and covering her face. “I didn’t want anything expensive, It wasn’t of interest to me.”

At 17, she left home to study drama at Chicago’s DePaul University, deliberately eschewing the student dorm to live in a low-rent artists’ district. She is still in thrall to some of the problems that plagued her as an adolescent. She has been in therapy in every city that she has live in, including Vancouver, where The X-Files was first shot, and now Los Angeles.

At one point I mention her temperament, and she corrects me and says it is much deeper than temperament. “My life has been devoted for a long time to – it’s a very dramatic word but I have to say that it’s true – survival. It’s so easy and sometimes so welcome to take another path and to just go downhill.” What ultimately precludes any self-destructive binge is her daughter Piper, now six, the product of her marriage to Clyde Klotz, a set designer whom she met during the first season of The X-Files. They were married after three months, and subsequently separated.

“People would say, ‘You’ve had such a whirlwind life, y’know. The show, the pregnancy, the divorce’. And I’d be like ‘Yeah, and so?’ It was only afterwards that I thought, ‘Holy mother of God’.” The pregnancy causes consternation among the show’s executives. There may even have been people wondering why she didn’t have an abortion. “I think there were people who wished that I had. I am prochoice but I knew that I could not do that. I know that there were people saying, ‘Why the f*** didn’t she use a condom?” Her ambition did not run to abortions. “A