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Gillian Anderson: intelligent life

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Gillian Anderson is back playing detective but this time, she tells Julia Maile, her feet are firmly on the ground …

Photography: Harry Borden

It seems churlish to introduce an actor of Gillian Anderson’s calibre by referring to her hair, but good grief, the woman has superb tresses. Her locks epitomise what we refer to in the Stylist offices as RPH – rich person’s hair – that perfect, bouncy blow wave sported by A-listers that we try to emulate, but rarely achieve. Impressive as it is, I’m not here today to talk about her styling. I’ve met 44-year-old Gillian at a London hotel to discuss her brilliant new five-part BBC2 thriller, The Fall, from the writer of Prime Suspect. Twenty years (that’s right, 20 years) since she first appeared as FBI special agent Dana Scully in The X-Files, she returns to her investigative roots as Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson. On secondment from the Met, Stella is helicoptered in to catch a serial killer who stalks his female victims in Belfast.

What sets The Fall apart from crime dramas such as The Killing and Broadchurch is that it’s not a whodunnit. From the outset, viewers know exactly who the killer is. And it’s not some socially awkward misfit; he’s a charismatic father of two, played by the extremely pleasing-on-the- eye Jamie Dornan (rumour has it Gillian fought for Jamie to play the role).

Two preview episodes in and I’m completely hooked. Not content with dealing with just one psychopath, Gillian also appears on screen this week as Hannibal Lecter's therapist in Sky Living’s US drama Hannibal, alongside Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelsen. Despite the US media heralding it as her career comeback, the Chicago-born, London-raised actor has worked constantly on this side of the Atlantic, with credits that include the BBC’s Great Expectations and Bleak House, plus roles in films such as Johnny English Reborn and Shadow Dancer. While her character choices mean she’s usually all-business on screen, in person twice-divorced Gillian is warm, relaxed and has a wry sense of humour. Here, she opens up to Stylist about sexuality on screen and turning down cult-hit Game Of Thrones.

Your character Stella is determined, driven and knows exactly what she wants. Is that true for you too?

I haven’t quite figured out exactly why she appeals to me so much. It can’t be that we are similar. Even if it was true, I’m not sure I could admit to it [laughs]. She’s much more reserved than I am and feels more mature, grown up and worthy of the responsibility that’s laid down before her, whereas I wouldn’t be in any way, shape or form [laughs]. I’m definitely naughty and silly and goofy and ridiculous.

Is she the most overtly sexual character you’ve ever played?

If she finds someone attractive, she has the balls to say, “Hey, you know… come on,” which I like in a woman. That’s a really, really cool thing. But I also like the fact there are consequences to that, which you see in the series. She’s definitely my most sexually confident role. I’ve played a lot of tightly wound, dark, miserable, confused, suicidal women. There might be a hint of sexuality in Johnny English Reborn, but it’s all really tightly bound up. And with Miss Havisham, I’m not sure if anything still works!

ABOVE: The truth is sti ll out there: Anderson revisits her detective frown in The Fall

Have you watched Prime Suspect and did Helen Mirren’s character, Jane Tennison, inspire you at all?

I’ve watched them all and I very much needed to know that The Fall would be shot in the same way. What’s fascinating about Tennison is she was quite self-centred and had an ego. It’s rare for such character flaws to be revealed on television, back then or even now. And in this series, there’s definitely a feeling Stella is human too.

Some of The Fall’s most chilling scenes don’t involve violence. Does that add a psychological element that more explicit thrillers lack?

I hope so. It’s funny, I don’t really watch television – I watch movies – so I have limited knowledge of whether there are other shows like The Fall out there. I just know that it really appealed to me. It’s fast-paced, but you have time to really invest in the characters. It was important for [writer] Allan Cubitt that when a girl is strangled, he wants you to feel it not just because a girl got killed, but because you know her.

Hannibal is being billed in the US as a big career comeback for you, despite your impressive body of UK work. Does that frustrate you and would you like to do even more high-profile roles?

It’s not that frustrating. I just look at it and giggle. But yes, I would. I’ve never chosen not to, I think if I decided to go to Los Angeles and sit there for a while, more high-profile stuff would come my way, but I haven’t done that. I love living in London – it’s the city I love the most in the world.

Have you turned down parts because of family commitments?

Yes, but also because I don’t like the roles very much. Not that they’re not good! Whether it’s Game Of Thrones or Downton Abbey, my 18-year-old [daughter Piper Maru] cannot believe I’ve turned down things she loves. But with a four and six-year-old [sons Felix and Oscar], I can’t justify spending that kind of time away from home, unless I’m working with Scorsese.

Does your daughter have aspirations to act?

No, she just did her first play and hated it. I’m relieved; it’s not an easy road to choose. I remember my dad sitting me down when he heard it’s what I’d decided to do. He was very concerned and told me only 5% of actors are working at any given time and I should learn word processing because computers were going to change things a lot and I would have a skill to fall back on! Which is brilliant, but what he didn’t know was that my brain just doesn’t work that way.

ABOVE: Gillian Anderson as Dana Scully (with David Duchovny) in The X Files in 1993

You have a brilliant ability to adapt between accents. Scientists say this shows a high level of empathy. Do you think that’s true?

I know I have a great deal of empathy, but I didn’t know it’s related to being able to pick up accents. I always thought it was only between British and American because of my time spent in both places, but then I realised when I’m doing interviews with Australian or Northern Irish journalists, I slip into the lilt. I can’t help it.

You’ve said in the past you have a tendency towards self-destruction, but try to maintain balance. How do you achieve it?

I do yoga and meditation, that helps. Also, I read things in an attempt to ground myself and remind me to stay in the here and now, rather than jump too much into the future of planning and organising the chaos of life. I try not to spend too much time on screens, which is a challenge today.

I heard you’re obsessed with renovating properties. Do you have aspirations of hosting a Sarah Beeny-style television show?

No [laughs]. What generally happens is I work on the house I’m going to be living in. I fall in love with it and think I’m going to live there for a long time but get bored and decide to move on [Gillian has owned 12 homes in the past 20 years, including a 13-bedroom property in Sri Lanka]. My Sri Lankan property was completely different. It was bought as an investment, somewhere my family could go on holiday a couple of times a year, or that could be turned into a boutique hotel.

What’s your idea of happiness?

I enjoy the work I do and I’m very grateful because I like being on a set. I like being part of a production and the creative process. I get a lot of enjoyment and reward from that. But I’m happiest when I’m surrounded by my kids, whether that’s in a house or a park or whatever, and there’s laughter. That brings me the most joy.

The Fall begins at 9pm on Monday 13 May, on BBC2

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