Gillian Anderson is no stranger to strange worlds.
The former star of The X-Files, which became a worldwide hit and spawned two feature films, Anderson has, for now anyway, traded in Dana Scully’s FBI-issued handgun and severe suits for the tight-laced corsets and flowing frocks of such period dramas as Bleak House, The House of Mirth, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, The Crimson Petal and the White, Moby Dick, and Any Human Heart, in which she played a deliciously conniving Wallace Simpson, complete with a false nose. But it’s Anderson’s jaw-dropping turn as Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, which airs Sunday evening on PBS’s Masterpiece Classic after a three-night run in December on BBC One, that erases any trace of Scully’s bravado.
An Anderson role in a period piece seems de rigueur these days: she was also very nearly in ITV’s critically acclaimed costume drama Downton Abbey, but turned down an offer to play Lady Cora Crawley, a role that went to fellow American Elizabeth McGovern. “They’re still mad at me,” Anderson told The Daily Beast. “Every time I see [creator] Julian Fellowes, he says, ‘Why?’ I’m very finicky.”
It’s no surprise that after her legendary turn as the emotionally haunted Lady Dedlock in Andrew Davies’s 2005 adaptation of Bleak House, which earned her Emmy Award and Golden Globe nominations, Anderson has a fascination with severe or extreme characters. In Great Expectations, adapted from the Charles Dickens novel by Sarah Phelps and directed by Brian Kirk (Game of Thrones), she stars as the malevolent and tragic Miss Havisham, whose blackened heart leads her to destroy the innocence of young Pip (Douglas Booth) and Estella (Vanessa Kirby), and doom whatever chance of love either has.
There was much grumbling in the British press about Anderson being the youngest actress to play Miss Havisham, who is traditionally portrayed as a skeletal old woman still dressed in the tattered vestiges of her wedding gown, clutching at the last shreds of her youth, while already standing in her grave. (Helena Bonham Carter will play the role in a feature film version of Great Expectations, out later this year.)
“I appreciate the purists out there who have studied Dickens,” said Anderson, elegantly dressed in a flowing white blouse and gray skirt, and seated in an empty banquet room at the Langham Hotel in Pasadena. “But the facts are, from my understanding, Miss Havisham is around 50. That is not far from 43, which is what I am. They keep talking about me being the absolute youngest, when actually the actress who played her in David Lean’s version was 46.”
“I expected when I kept reading this stuff that I was going to read that she was 75,” she said of Martita Hunt, who played the wild-haired Miss Havisham in the 1946 classic. “They just have to harp on something.”
Indeed, by making Miss Havisham closer to Pip’s age, the production has heightened the sense of tension, both sexual and psychological, between the two characters. “She’s not an old crow and fawning after these children, which would end up being really creepy,” said Anderson. Likewise, an additional patina of tragedy is added to the deeply disturbed character, whom Anderson imbues with a blend of ghostly transparency and obsessive madness. Pip telling her that she could have filled her decrepit home, Satis House, with children of her own cuts even deeper—she still could choose to open herself up to love. Instead, her downfall is that she can’t let go of the poison in her heart or the heartbreak in her past.
Anderson herself is more or less a Dickens novice. Her experience of the author, who would be celebrating his 200th birthday this year, is limited to her own work in adaptations of Great Expectations and Bleak House.
“I can’t remember if it was high school or college, but I attempted to read A Tale of Two Cities and I don’t recall getting through it,” she said. “I don’t think I gave him more thought until he came into my life in this respect. One of the only things that I have regrets about in my life is my experience of school and education. I wish I had known how important it was to pay attention … My first foray into a lot of the classics has been through my work. It’s only after falling in love with the screenplay or adaptation that I’ve then gone on to read the novels themselves.”
Anderson was a bit of a teenage hellion. A far cry from the sleek and sophisticated star these days, the teenage Anderson dyed her hair multiple colors and had her nose pierced. (In an infamous anecdote, she was arrested on the eve of her graduation for trying to glue the gates of her school shut, but according to an interview in US Weekly, she got off with community service and spent a week cleaning a YMCA.) Born in Chicago, she was shuttled with her family around the world for much of her childhood: a stint in Puerto Rico as a baby, a childhood spent in London, and then, at age 11, her formative years spent in Grand Rapids, Mich., where her English accent marked her as an instant outsider.
That accent still turns up on occasion, particularly when she appears on British talk shows like The Graham Norton Show or Parkinson, where Anderson deploys the cut-glass tones of one of her well-heeled characters. On this day, however, there is not a trace of Britannia in Anderson’s speech.
“When I’m in London, my partner’s British, my kids are British, and I’m surrounded by Brits,” she said, laughing. “It’s near to impossible for me to maintain my American accent in the midst of that. My first language was with a British accent … I could understand why it would be confusing for people in the States who aren’t used to me with a British accent, but I didn’t lose my British accent until well into college. Even when I started doing The X-Files, I was only a few years away from having decidedly losing it. It’s completely natural to me. When I try, in London, to not speak with a British accent or to keep it American, I just sound like a f--king idiot. It turns into some weird eurotrash thing.”
It was Anderson who raised the specter of The X-Files during the interview. After playing skeptical FBI Special Agent Dana Scully in Fox’s science-fiction thriller for nine seasons and costarring with David Duchovny in two spinoff feature films, 1998’s The X-Files and 2008’s The X-Files: I Want to Believe, Anderson was widely believed to have finished with the character and the alien-themed franchise. Not so.
“Not at all,” she said. “If a good script comes along for another film, then I’m up for it and so is David. So is [creator] Chris [Carter]. I don’t see any reason not to do it if the script is good and Fox wants to go ahead and put the money behind it. Now I don’t know if there’s a script, I don’t know whether Fox is even remotely interested, so it’s completely out of my hands. But I’d be up for it.”
Still, the entrenchment of Scully in pop culture has had its potential pitfalls, given how long Anderson portrayed the religious medical doctor-turned-FBI-field agent—she appeared in all but four of the show’s 202 episodes—and there was the risk that the actress could be pigeonholed afterward.
“There was definitely that concern coming off the series and wanting to do as many different things as possible,” Anderson said. “There is an argument that every time I decide to do another [X-Files] feature, it complicates that even more in that it solidifies me in the audience’s mind more as that character … [But] I’m not going to choose not to do it because people might be closed-minded.”
While another possible X-Files film percolates in the background, Anderson will star in the five-episode BBC Two psychological thriller The Fall, which will be shot in Belfast beginning this month and air later this year. In the project, from writer Allan Cubitt (Prime Suspect), she’ll play Metropolitan Police Detective Superintendent Gibson, who travels to Belfast to hunt a serial killer who is striking at random. The action swivels around the lives of those enmeshed in the killing spree: the victims’ families, the murderer, and Gibson herself.
“It’s so good,” said Anderson. “It’s like a miniseries; it’s only five episodes. It’s as close to Prime Suspect as I’ve ever read, which is very exciting because that was so well done and I really like this character.”
For Anderson, who said she’d also love to do a play in New York, The Fall represents yet another opportunity to do something different, in this case, short-form programming with a limited run.
“Why there have to be so many rules about what one should or can or cannot do is just so bizarre,” she said. “This is a time for experimentation and certainly there are a couple of networks that have been dabbling in short stacks of [programming], and that’s always refreshing to hear. All the stuff that’s now being shot over in Europe instead of in the States feels like it’s becoming more international than ever.”
“Surely in the world,” she said, “there’s room for everything.”