Gillian Anderson walked into the room, shook my hand, and sat down next to me for what would be one of her many interviews that day. She was taking her Sunday off from work on The X-Files to talk about her latest role in Terence Davies' film adaptation of Edith Wharton's novel The House of Mirth. In it, Anderson exquisitely brings to life Wharton's tragic heroine Lily Bart, a ravishingly beautiful socialite ultimately defeated by her inability to choose between her heart and society's expectations of her. The film also features Eric Stoltz, Anthony LaPaglia, Laura Linney, and Elizabeth McGovern.
When I told Anderson this interview would be running in Back Stage West, she smiled, let out a sigh of relief, and said, "I tried to talk about acting in the last interview I did, and I could see [the reporter] thinking, OK. Next question. She just did not want to hear it." Anderson proceeded to let down her guard and speak candidly about acting and the insecurities that come with the job. The 32-year-old actress apparently considers herself a performer, not a celebrity—in the trenches, continually trying to challenge and prove herself.
A 1990 graduate of the Goodman School of Drama at DePaul University in Chicago, Anderson moved to New York soon after and quickly landed her first major break as the replacement for Mary Louise Parker in Alan Ayckbourn's play Absent Friends at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1991. Anderson's performance earned her a Theatre World Award. She also appeared in the Off-Broadway staging of The Philanthropist.
In 1993, after moving to Los Angeles, Anderson heard about an unusual TV pilot called The X-Files that was looking for its female lead and landed an audition. The show's creator, Chris Carter, knew the moment she walked in that he had found his leading lady. What the then 24-year-old actress didn't know, at the time, is that she would become famous worldwide for her part as smart, level-headed FBI agent Dana Scully and that she would still be playing this role eight years later.
Though she surely could have taken on lucrative feature film roles during her summer hiatuses, Anderson has instead spent much of that time—with the exception of doing The X-Files movie—working on smaller projects that have allowed her to stretch outside of her X-Files character. Her credits include Playing by Heart—an ensemble drama with Sean Connery, Gena Rowlands, and Anthony Edwards—small roles in The Mighty and Chicago Cab, and now The House of Mirth, in which she finally gets to truly shine in a character quite different from Agent Scully.
Back Stage West: From all the accounts I've read about you doing The House of Mirth, it sounds like it was almost a matter of fate for you to work with writer/director Terence Davies. I understand that he had never seen The X-Files and had no idea who you were, but that one day your picture came across his desk and your face immediately struck him as the perfect embodiment of Lily Bart. Can you sum up the rest of the story?
Gillian Anderson: A couple years ago, after I did a movie called Playing by Heart, I was given by the cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond, as a wrap gift, a beautiful hardbound copy of The House of Mirth, the novel. It was just completely unexpected but much appreciated.
The following year I was in London. I had four days there, taking no meetings. I just wanted to relax, and one of my agents called. I'm in a cab, and he's talking to me about meetings, and I said, "Look. Please, no. I'm not taking any." He said, "Well, there's this one, this obscure director. You'll never have heard of him. His name is Terence Davies."
I had been a fan of Terence's work [Distant Voices, Still Lives]. There was one film, in particular, The Long Day Closes. Aspects of it moved me to tears at the time. There was just something about the emotion in his camera work that really affected me. So hearing my agent mention his name, I said, "Sure. I'll meet with him." And then he said that it was for The House of Mirth. It was so weird.
So we set up this meeting at the Covent Garden Hotel, and I sat in this funny little library with him and the executive producer, Olivia Stewart. It was just this meeting. I mean, I can't tell you how many meetings I've had. Meetings are a dime a dozen.
And then Terence flew out to Los Angeles because he was interested based on that meeting. We met in a hotel room at Shutters, and I read with him for the role. And between the time that I had this meeting with him in London and the time that I met in Los Angeles, of course, I had read the script and was very strongly affected by it, and the thought of him doing this project was very attractive to me. I didn't realize, at that time, that he hated flying. He never flew, and yet he was coming over to Los Angeles. And this was something that he had been working on for years. I wasn't sensitive to any of that. Here I was, just reading for a director I had a great deal of respect for, but I didn't know that this was what would get me the role.
So many times you read, and then a week later you hear about it. Basically, we read together for this, and at the end of the meeting Terence says, [in a very proper British accent] "Would you like to play Lily Bart?" [She giggles]. I said, "Yes. I would love to," and I was honored.
BSW: What is it about your character, Lily Bart, that fascinates you most?
Anderson: The journey that she goes on. No matter how many times I read the script, tears came to my eyes. There was just something about it that was so tragic. The way that Terence was able to transfer the novel to film, I think he did it very, very well.
BSW: What can modern-day film audiences get from this story, which, in some ways, feels so distant from how we live today?
Anderson: The more I think about it, the lesson is about following our hearts and not our egos. In those days, a hundred years ago, the focus was, even more so than today, on how you looked and what you wore and where you went over the summer and what fan you held and who you sat next to.
BSW: Sounds a lot like certain lifestyles in Hollywood, actually.
Anderson: Exactly. It does and it is, and that's where so much of the focus is in our world now—whether it's designer this or designer that, everything is about possession and material importance. And in a powerful way, the film addresses this, in terms of our focus.
Lily is presented with an opportunity to marry for love or marry for money, and she can't bring herself to do either. It's because she can't bring herself to do either wherein her ruin lies. Even though she is taking a moral stance not to marry for money, the curious thing is that she's not completely taking the high road. Yes, she learns some lessons. Yes, she manages to let go of a good deal of ego in the process and come to terms with certain things. But the real high road would have been to follow her heart fully, which is to be with Lawrence, the man she loves.
I honestly believe that our focus, back then and today, is in the wrong place in this Western world. As long as we continue to put our focus [on material wealth] and not on the heart and in compassion for others and in the wealth of love and giving and understanding, we will continue to be faced with the same dilemmas that Lily is.
BSW: Speaking of following your heart, it seems like that's how you've led your career in recent years. With the success you've had on television, you could be playing much more high-profile film roles, and yet, with the exception of The X-Files movie, you've instead gone after much smaller fare. Will it always be a matter of following your heart when it comes to future work?
Anderson: To the best of my ability. That's another element of this movie that I think is very important—which is, Regardless of how one would do it better, it's always to the best of her ability. Lily can do about as much as she can do at any given time, but she makes a lot of mistakes.
I love seeing films or participating in films that allow for that much of a human element, where people are allowed to make mistakes, and you see them making mistakes and struggling and pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and trying again. And, very often in films, that's where it stops. You see them learn that lesson. I love when it happens over and over and over again, because we do that. We keep stepping in the same potholes over and over again.
I know you asked another question—what was your question just now?
BSW: About following your heart.
Anderson: Yeah. I think, still today sometimes, following our hearts can seem like the hardest possible path. But I know from my own experience, and also from the experience of others who have done just that, in a less public arena, that the benefits are so much greater. The benefits of living a life where you are being fulfilled on a heartfelt level is so much more fulfilling than doing things solely for social standing or for financial standing.
BSW: With all of your fame and success, do those things sometimes cloud your view of why you became an actor? How do you stay engaged in your craft with those kinds of distractions?
Anderson: Let me tell you something. I had been waiting to be done with The X-Files so that I could get back to the craft. And something just happened, which is extraordinary, which is that Robert Patrick [Terminator 2] has come onto the show, after working on 50 films where he's gotten to work on the craft. And he has come in with that experience and expected that, and that is something we haven't been doing from the beginning, in terms of taking the time with beats of the scenes—just taking the time with it.
We get so wrapped up in the hours, and thinking we've got to get this done—everybody has been afraid of rehearsals, afraid that it was just going to cost, in the end, so much money because we'd be going into overtime. And thank God we're doing it anyway, and we're finding a way with it, because it's been extraordinary. I feel like this is what we're supposed to be doing. We're not just supposed to show up and know the characters so well that we can react to it, but also to really engage in the rhythm of each scene and the beats of the scene and the complexities of the characters. So we're doing that now, and so I feel like I've got a new job. I'm kissing the ground every day I go to work now.
BSW: As much as it sounds like you're enjoying working on your series right now, would you ever consider doing another television series again?
Anderson: It's going to be a long while before I do one again. I mean, I never say never, but who knows? I mean, if I did anything, and literally I'm talking 30 years from now, it would be something like Larry Sanders. I'd rather do something funny. One-hour drama is the hardest job there is—not in the world but in this business. The hours and the energy and the rush—it's hard. So I'd do a half hour, but it would have to be funny and smart and fewer hours a week—not 80.
BSW: Do you feel like audiences have seen only a fraction of what you have to offer as an actress? Is there so much more that you hope to express through your acting?
Anderson: Yes, there is, and I will, slowly but surely. This has been my path so far, and I've learned so much about the business and about the craft and about life, but there's a lot more.
BSW: From what I've read, there was a lot that terrified you when you began working on The X-Files—you didn't know the rules of working in front of a camera, you thought you were going to get fired every time Chris Carter huddled in a corner on the set to discuss something with the producers. Do you still have fears when it comes to acting, or have you conquered them?
Anderson: When I initially go into something, I get afraid. That's just been my experience. I get afraid that I'm not going to be able to find my way with it—find the character. But it can't stop you. There are so many opportunities to be afraid in all areas of our lives on a daily basis, and we cannot allow fear to be a ruling factor in our lives. The minute that it does, that's the minute we end up like Lily Bart.
So there are things that I know to do and things I know to tell myself and practices that I have to stave off those fears. And then you get into the rhythm of something, and it starts to feel OK, and you find your place, one hopes.
And then there are other things to get afraid of. When the film sees the light of day and you see yourself up there for the first time, it's not something I enjoy. There's a lot of letting go that takes place—a lot of letting go and just trusting. I mean, no matter what happens, I never regret doing things, and the process is the most important aspect of it, and the rest is just letting go.
BSW: Too many times, actors get affected by the negative aspects of this business—by the rejection, the criticism, the judgment—and forget to trust their talents and their instincts. What is your advice for staying focused and ignoring that rejection?
Anderson: The thing in this business is that no matter what stage you're at—no matter whether you're doing theatre, dinner theatre, independent films, or big films—rejection always comes into it because we are putting ourselves on the line—physically, emotionally, and psychologically—every single minute that we are creating.
As an actor in the audition process, I think that pounding the pavement, so to speak, is there in our business to build up our strengths because, day in and day out, most of the time it's, No, No, No, No, Maybe, Maybe, Maybe, No, No, No… You have to build up a thick skin, because you have to be able to trust that this one's not meant for you. This is not what you're supposed to be doing. It's essential to find the positive reasons why we did not get what we felt we deserved.
We always think, as human beings, that some objective, some gig, some role is meant for us that we're supposed to have, and when we don't get it we get angry. We get disappointed. We beat up on ourselves. The important thing to remember is that we are given only as much as we can handle at any given time, and we are always exactly where we are meant to be. It's important to open our eyes around us and to see what those things are—to look to our right and to our left at the people in our lives, at the situation that we're in, at the job that we're having to do part-time, and see where we are needed and what the reason is that we didn't get this job. The best news, of course, for us, we think, is that there's a better role around the corner, and oftentimes there is.
I don't know how many times I've not gotten something and thought, Oh my God, I can't believe I didn't get that job. And then, as a matter of fact, it went straight to video. As a matter of fact, I hear that it was a nightmare to work on. As a matter of fact, a week later I got a job that was the biggest blessing of my life. Those opportunities to see that perspective of things are all over the place, and that is the only place to be in this business. Because otherwise we are going to allow it to pull us down to a place that we do not deserve to go as human beings. BSW