“I’ve been unusually busy for the last few years,” says Gillian Anderson. The 47-year-old, London-based actor isn’t exaggerating. In 2014, she was nominated for a Laurence Olivier Award for her performance as Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire at London’s Young Vic Theatre (her second nomination). Then there are her roles in the critically acclaimed dramas Hannibal(as Hannibal Lecter’s psychiatrist) and The Fall (as a Detective Inspector tracking a misogynistic serial killer). This month, she’ll return back on television in two very different settings: first as Anna Pavlovna, a 19th-century Russian society hostess in the BBC/Weinstein Company co-production of War & Peace, and then as Dana Scully, the character who made her famous 20 years ago, in the new season of The X-Files.
Born in Chicago and raised in London and Michigan, Anderson speaks with a neutral mid-Atlantic accent over the phone. Soon, she’ll move to New York to resume her role as Blanche, this time at Saint Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. She’ll have one week to rehearse with the rest of the original cast before opening in April.
EMMA BROWN: How did you get involved in War & Peace?
GILLIAN ANDERSON: I was offered the role and I knew that Paul Dano and Stephen Rea were already attached, and Andrew Davies had done the adaptation. I read it and it happened to fit into my schedule, so it was a no-brainer. It seemed like it was going to be a pretty awesome production. I have a really small role in it. It’s a huge cast and they all spent many months in many countries. My character Anna is a big part in the novel but a small part in this production. I was on set for a little over a week. I had about six days free and I did three days in one country and then a month later I did three or four days in another country. It was all I could fit in, so it was perfect. I was in the middle of shooting Hannibal. Or there were two things I was doing simultaneously and it was smack in the middle of the two.
BROWN: Had you read the novel? I have to admit that I skipped a lot of the war bits.
ANDERSON: Not when I was younger, but I did for the piece. The way the war bits, as you call them, have been shot for this is extraordinary—some of the best early war footage that I think I’ve ever seen. Really moving and powerful.
BROWN: I didn’t realize the director was so young.
ANDERSON: He’s so young! It’s extraordinary what he’s been able to create with this really mature and brilliant work. The stakes are quite high…it’s War & Peace. [laughs] It’s a massive story that a lot of people feel very strongly about, so I imagine the pressure must’ve been quite huge, not only to do it justice, but also to create something that feels like it’s identifiable and relatable in this time. He absolutely has done that.
BROWN: When did you find out that you were going to reprise your role as Blanche in Streetcar in the U.S.?
ANDERSON: We’d been working on it before we ended the run in London. We were in discussions with Saint Ann’s, and other theaters too. There were a few theaters that were interested. The particular nature of our stage and its revolving set meant that there was really only one theater that could take it, which happened to be Saint Ann’s Warehouse and their new space. Once it was determined that it could actually fit in that space, that was when the real discussion started about how and when. It was still under construction while we were in discussions so it was up in the air for a while.
BROWN: I heard that you always really wanted to play Blanche since you were young. Is that true?
ANDERSON: Yes, it is. I’ve wanted to do it since I was about 16. I’d been in discussions at various times during my career about putting it together, and I’d spoken to the Tennessee Williams estate for a long time about it. It was definitely a passion of mine. Our producer Josh[ua] Andrews was interested in working on something with me, and I was like, “Well, this is the only thing I want to do. If I’m going to do theater, I have to do Blanche next or I’m just going to end up being too old to play her.” I only do theater usually every three or four years. So he said, “Okay, let me see what I can do about that,” and it was a mixture of that conversation and another I had with another producer who had suggested the Young Vic. I was interested in doing it in the round only, and the Young Vic is a very malleable place and space, and I have a wonderful relationshipwith their director. It also happened to be where I’d seen some of Benedict Andrews’ stuff before, and he was my first choice of director. I had already had conversations with Benedict about doing it, but we hadn’t found a theater yet, so he had to go onto other stuff. It wasn’t until we decided on the Young Vic and looked at dates that were available that we re-approached Benedict. It all came to together in a beautiful way.
BROWN: Revisiting a part like Blanche after some time has passed, is there a temptation to approach it completely differently?
ANDERSON: I think you’re always trying to find new stuff for characters that you get to come back and play again, especially where theater is concerned. You rediscover things on a nightly basis. But I think we found our stride with it and all feel strongly about the production we delivered. Certainly the reaction from the people who saw it both live and in the NT Live filmed version of it felt strongly about our adaptation. A lot of people said it was the first time that they liked it or that they got Blanche or really were immersed in the tragedy of the story and characters. I don’t feel like there is a sense that there is anything we need to change about it. We’ve got the same cast. We’ll be doing the same things, hopefully.
BROWN: Do you feel like a play gets better towards the end of a run?
ANDERSON: Not necessarily. I’ve seen plays and I’m sure I’ve been involved in plays where you’re just dead tired by the end of it, you’ve gotten into a rut or a feeling of phoning it in. That can certainly happen. I’ve seen productions where it feels like the actors are just tired and want to go home. That is one of the challenges doing theater—especially a long production—how to keep it alive for yourself and the audience. Sometimes having a big amount of time is a gift, because by the time you’re at the end of the run you feel like you’ve figured it out finally or discovered everything you can about the character. Sometimes that’s not the case. I haven’t had this experience, but I’m sure with a production that’s not particularly well received or mediocrely received, it must be incredibly challenging to get up and keep doing it. There have been plays that I’ve done where the matinee has got only a few people in the audience, and it’s like, “What? Why are we doing this!”
BROWN: Blanche is such a famous character, and you’ve wanted to play her for so long, how did you perception of her change while you were playing her?
ANDERSON: I’d never actually probably studied her. I’d done a scene or two from the play when I was younger, and I guess something about her must’ve triggered an interest and passion early on, but I’d never properly studied the play. I didn’t really have an appreciation for the genius that was Tennessee Williams. It wasn’t until we got in there with Benedict that he really showed us a way into Williams and the complexity of his stories and characters, and how he interweaves them on so many different archeological, geological levels. It wasn’t until we properly started the rehearsal process that my mind was blown wide open and I got to understand the depths of who she was.
BROWN: Have there been any other characters whom you’ve wanted to play for such a long period of time?
ANDERSON: Maybe not such a long period of time. There are a couple more that I’m interested in. I always had a fantasy of doing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfwith Philip Seymour Hoffman. That’s the play and the duo I’m interested in exploring at some point. I think that once you do something like Williams, and you work with that kind of text, it kind of ruins you for future projects. You can’t really backtrack after that. There’s a very narrow margin—there’s quite a lot of them, but it does focus your mind and you end up in the realm of classics and the rare occasion of a new play that is as powerful and momentous an experience as that.
BROWN: Have you ever played a character that you felt was particularly difficult to understand or empathize with?
ANDERSON: Only once have I taken on a role where I felt that I didn’t quite understand her, but I said yes anyway. I don’t think I’ll ever do that again. I will only take something or agree to do something that I feel like I understand, and inherent in understanding is empathy.
BROWN: One of my favorite characters that you’ve played is Lily Bart in The House of Mirth. Is there any one character that you feel particularly close to?
ANDERSON: Stella, who I play in The Fall, is a character that I feel very, very close to. I really enjoy spending time in her shoes. And Blanche. I think those two women have been my favorites. For Lily, I was very young and it was the first time that a director [Terence Davies] was taking a risk with me. There was a lot of nervousness for me in that, and trusting that I could do it, trusting him. It wasn’t an easy shoot. My discomfort with myself, I feel that it’s present on screen, but ironically I feel that there’s something about the discomfort that adds to it. At the beginning, I’m not sure if I felt that way, but in retrospect, it probably does on some level.
BROWN: Have you felt as uncomfortable in a role since then?
ANDERSON: There have been a few on the way. I really, really don’t like first days, and sometimes the first couple of days. Sometimes one can recover from that and sometimes one can’t, and it adds a level of insecurity. Sometimes I struggle to watch stuff that I’ve done and sometimes I don’t, and I’m sure that my judgment is based on whether I feel like I accomplished what I set out to accomplish. When I’m inside the character, I feel like I’m a different person, and then when you see that character on screen and I see that it’s me, I find that disappointing.