After a lifetime of anger and anxiety, the actress Gillian Anderson says she is at last feeling happy. Not that you'd know it. John Preston has a close encounter with Scully of The X Files
My interview with Gillian Anderson gets off to a far better start than I could ever have anticipated. When she comes into the room, an elegantly assured if slightly breathless figure, she marches up to me and tilts her cheek to one side. After a moment's hesitation, I kiss it.
Is this to be the start of a deep and enduring friendship? If so, there are some awkward obstacles to be negotiated first. Chief among them is her new film, Straightheads, in which Anderson plays a woman called Alice who is gang-raped and ends up ramming a loaded shotgun up the bottom of one of her assailants. At the screening I went to, the audience watched it in a state of mounting disbelief and then reeled, still dazed, out into the night.
What I really want to know is what possessed her to do such a film, but this, I fear, might be to undo our promising start. Instead I ask a question that is practically mandatory on these occasions: 'What was it that attracted you to the role of Alice?'
Anderson sits and regards me, a shade suspiciously, through unblinking cornflower-blue eyes. 'I think it is a very poignant comment on the dilemma women find themselves in,' she says. 'And not just women. It's as though people increasingly feel that the only way they can vent their anger and frustration at their powerlessness to do anything about what's going on is through violence.'
'But isn't it just saying that revenge is not only desirable, but even necessary?'
'No!' says Anderson. 'It's not saying that at all. My character is completely f—ed by the end. Emotionally, I mean. She's not redeemed in any way by what she does.'
By now Anderson, who's famously combustible, is already starting to smoulder round the edges. 'I don't understand why you're asking me this. I mean, in the film Man on Fire why didn't anyone ask Denzel Washington what it was like to stick a bomb up someone's arse and then explode it?'
'I have no idea,' I say truthfully.
'Exactly! Well, this is no different to that. Except that he's a man and I'm a woman. That's what makes it interesting.'
Somehow the coffee table that we're sitting either side of seems to have grown a good deal wider. In an effort to narrow it, even slightly, I ask if she enjoys doing interviews.
'Well, it's an incredibly twisted relationship, isn't it? I mean, everything is filtered through the ego of the interviewer. I can say things to you and you can go away and put them in any order you like and create a completely different impression.'
She gives a heartfelt-sounding sigh. 'Sometimes it just makes me want to give up. Still, I'm a lot better at them than I used to be. When I started on The X Files I had no idea at all. When people used to ask, as they always did, "Do you believe in aliens?" I literally had no idea what to say. I used to go, "Um… could you repeat the question?" I found the whole process incredibly traumatic.'
By the time Anderson became special agent Scully and began investigating extraterrestrial goings-on, she'd already created quite a stir among the earthlings. When she was a child her parents moved about a good deal, shuttling back and forth between England and America. Anderson grew up both furiously energetic and – a good deal of the time, it seems – just plain furious.
'When I look back, there are various things I did that make me cringe. But then I'm sure that in my sixties I'll look back at how I am now and also cringe. I just think that's inevitable. What was weird about my childhood was that nobody else in my family was remotely like me. They were incredibly laid-back, but I was just like this ball of fire. I asked my mother about it recently: where did it all come from? And she said, "I have no idea. We just sat back with our mouths open and watched you go."'
Reputedly, Anderson spent her prom night in jail, but when I bring up the subject she swats it away with an imperious wave. 'Let's just skip the whole prom-night thing, OK?'
What is beyond doubt is that when she started The X Files, aged 24, she had no idea what she was letting herself in for. 'I spent nine years on a film set,' she says, her voice rising sharply on great gusts of indignation. 'Nine f—ing years! To begin with it was all right, but gradually it all became incredibly gossipy and incestuous. It's like living in this disgusting microcosm when everything becomes condensed like that.'
'But surely you must have quite liked it to have stayed that long?' I suggest. Once again, it rapidly becomes clear that I've said the wrong thing. Anderson sweeps her hair back, revealing a glimpse of tattoo on the inside of her wrist, and looks at me in astonishment. Her eyes are now open very wide indeed.
'What are you talking about?' she demands. 'I couldn't get out of it; I didn't have a choice. I had to sign a contract for five and a half years before I even went to my last audition – when I didn't even know if I'd got the part. Back then I was all innocent and I thought, "Wow, that sounds wonderful." But then, when I started, I realised I'd be in a Canadian wood working 16 hours a day for nine months a year. And the reason I stayed so long was because the only way I could get more money was to commit myself to doing it for another couple of years.'
Stuck up in the woods above Vancouver with her hair dyed red and the mole above her mouth obscured by make-up – the producers thought it unsightly – Anderson had no idea that the show had become so successful. 'I remember once I went on a break and I had a really hard time spending money on flights – I just couldn't bring myself to waste my wages on that kind of luxury. So I decided that I'd do some interviews for the show while I was away. That way, the production company could pay for my holiday. So I basically worked on my only f—ing time off, dragging my husband and child to God knows how many f—ing countries. One of the stops was in Australia and I showed up in this shopping mall in Sydney to see 15,000 people there. I couldn't believe it.'
When she did finally manage to leave The X Files, Anderson vowed never again to go anywhere near a long-running television series. 'I knew that I'd want to act again, but I didn't want it to mirror that form in any way. Unfortunately, I ended up doing this terrible f—ing cheesy game show called Hollywood Squares. It just made me want to throw up. You know, yurghh!' Here she gives a lengthy and extremely lifelike impersonation of someone being sick.
'As a result, I ended up moving to London, which has probably not had a hugely positive impact on my career. I suppose I did burn my bridges in my way and it's possible that people in Los Angeles may have a grudge against me. But I suspect the truth is that they just don't think about me at all. I certainly don't regret moving to London. Apart from anything else, I've never been a particularly ambitious person – again probably to my detriment. If projects come my way, I'll look at them and come to a decision. But I never read the trade papers, or try to find work for myself, or call up agents, or do any of that stuff.'
'So you mean you'd never do another big American series again – no matter how good the money was?'
'Oh, shut the f— up!' she cries. 'Are you kidding me? My God, I don't even watch television. I don't like television. I never have liked it. The whole concept of sitting down in front of a TV feels like one of things that's destroying society as far as I'm concerned.'
There is an air of barely restrained hysteria to Gillian Anderson. She's like a gyroscope that's spinning frantically away, but always a little off-balance. Only the slightest nudge, you feel, would be enough to send her out into the stratosphere. As she acknowledges, she's extremely impulsive – a characteristic inherited, she reckons, from her grandfather, Homer, who once bet someone in a bar in Kentucky that he'd marry the next girl who walked into the place; he did and they went on to have nine children together. This impulsiveness makes her prone to throwing herself at things and – by implication – people without giving too much thought to the consequences.
'I go through periods when I feel confident and then I'm apt to be impulsive. But then I go through other times where I lose that confidence and I just feel like a total hypocrite. For a lot of my life I've had this feeling of something being wrong. It's hard to describe, but it's like having a sense of dread from the moment I get up to the moment I go to bed. There's this constant feeling that an accident is about to happen, or that I've done something bad that someone is going to find out.'
What makes Anderson particularly distinctive as an actress is that this uncertainty often finds its way into her performances. In The House of Mirth (2000), in which she played Edith Wharton's doomed heroine, Lily Bart, tides of conflicting emotions seemed to run back and forth across her face. The same was true of her performance as Lady Dedlock in Bleak House (2005) – you could clearly see through her icy exterior to the despair beyond.
'The roles that come to me tend to be complex women who have big secrets or are leading double lives. But then those are generally the only sorts of parts that interest me. Although I don't consciously seek out roles that mirror what's going on in my private life, quite often I'll be reading a script and I'll laugh out loud at how relevant something is to my own situation. It feels like this big cosmic irony.'
As you might expect, Anderson's private life has been fairly complex. By the time she settled in England, her first marriage – to Clyde Klotz, an assistant art director on The X Files – had ended in divorce. They had a daughter, Piper, who is now 12. In 2004 she married Julian Ozanne, a documentary-maker, but this marriage came to grief after just 16 months. Last November she gave birth to a son – Oscar – fathered by Mark Griffiths, who has the dubious, if undeniably lucrative, distinction of running one of the largest wheel-clamping companies in London.
Partly as a result of years of therapy, and partly because of her current domestic circumstances, Anderson at 38 is, she says, feeling happier – and more relaxed – than she has done in ages. 'I've forced myself into a bit of a quarantine with the birth of my son. For the past year I haven't really worked; I've just sat on the couch and stared at him. At times I've thought, "What the f— am I doing? Why aren't I being creative?" Then I pause, and remember that I've been creating another life, and that's quite enough to be going on with.
'That said, I'm doing a couple of films this year. The odd thing is I turned both down last year because I didn't want to do them. Then when they asked again I had another read, and decided I liked them after all.' She shrugs, apparently puzzled by her own nature. 'Must be my impulsiveness again, I guess.'
The publicist comes into the room to say that our time is up. Having started with a kiss, I'm curious to see how our interview will end. Anderson stands up, comes out from behind the coffee table and then coolly extends her hand.