BWW Interview: Gillian Anderson Talks Stage vs Screen, Memorable Roles and A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE
The X-Files became a '90s cult classic, running for nine seasons and spawning two movies and two miniseries revivals. But since portraying FBI agent Dana Scully, Gillian Anderson has carved out a diverse career both on screen and stage.
The much-loved star spoke to BroadwayWorld about her career ahead of the National Theatre at Home's screening of the critically acclaimed A Streetcar Named Desire.
You've well and truly succeeded in breaking away from a character you played on a long-running series. When you took on such projects as the BBC's Bleak House and Great Expectations, was it a conscious decision to play roles really removed from Scully, or more wanting to play these particular characters?
The fact is I had never wanted to do television. I had always imagined myself in Merchant Ivory films, and so it was very much the case that when the series ended I was getting back on the path of what my original intention had been. But then when the BBC asked me to do Bleak House, I was completely shocked that they thought I had it in me to do a classical piece. I always believed I could, but there must have been uncertainty at that point that anyone else might believe I could.
You've played some strong and complex women throughout your career, from Stella Gibson in The Fall and Jean in Sex Education to your upcoming Margaret Thatcher in The Crown. Is character always the most important thing you look for in a project?
The thing is, if the script is not there then no matter how good a character might be in principle, the piece doesn't stand a chance. I have certainly chosen projects where I want the experience of playing a character that I haven't had the opportunity to play before, and it's a good enough script and an up-and-coming director. I've taken a conscious punt that either the director or the actors will lift the material - or, if the director doesn't really know what he/she is doing, the final product will be, in the end, mediocre.
The tone and humour of Netflix's Sex Education and the fact that it's so different from much of your previous work must have been a motivating factor in taking on the role?
Definitely. Needless to say I haven't been offered many comedic parts before and I had been looking for the right comedy for some time. The scripts were so refreshing and Jean was so different from anything I had played before, and also so complex in her own right, that when I realised what it was, I jumped at it.
Season 2 provided you with some meaty material. Do you have much input in the character's development?
I have learned over the years that unless one is an exec producer, no matter how many good ideas an actor thinks they have for their character, at the end of the day, the writer is queen (in our case) and they know best. They know the trajectory that works best for the larger arc. So I let go and trust.
Actors are often asked if they have a preferred medium out of television and theatre. Do they both come with certain advantages and limitations? Is it important for you to do theatre?
It has become very important for me. I know that I don't have the capacity to do more than one play every three years really, but there comes a point when I yearn for it. It's a very, very different discipline. There is both the great advantage of performing in front of a live audience and the somewhat divine interaction that lies there, and of course the limitations of one's courage in the face of fear. The other limitations are on a personal note in regards to kids and movement, but you make that choice when you say yes to theatre, unless you're in rep.
In television, the biggest limitation I think is time. Particularly in American TV where there is such a sense of time running out, so you make quick choices and it's hard to carve out breathing time in scenes when the clock is ticking and producers are looming. The advantage of TV is both monetary and, in this day and age with streaming services, beyond the constancy of work there is freedom to push boundaries - which is endemic to art, after all.
In the West End, you appeared in A Doll's House, A Streetcar Named Desire and most recently All About Eve. A five-year gap separates each of these productions. Was that conscious or coincidental?
Ha. Well, yes. I have huge respect for actors who do back-to-back productions, but I'm just not that animal. I feel like it costs me a great deal, not just in the time I don't get to see my kids, unless the production is in the summer holidays, but psychologically, I feel like it can take more than it gives back, depending on the production. Blanche took so much. And yes, she gave back in spades, but I'm not sure what came back was in the same order. Like she handed back the puzzle with some of the pieces in the wrong place. Night after night. But the honour of standing in her shoes far outweighs the price one pays.
What draws you to doing a play? Is it to take on such compelling characters as Blanche DuBois or Nora Helmer that you might not be able to depict on screen? Or challenging yourself as an actor?
For me, it's definitely the challenge. I had wanted to play Blanche since I was 16, and got to play her exactly 30 years later. She'd been living somewhere inside me THROUGH THE DECADES and she's still in there somewhere, even though I let her out for a while.
Streetcar is one of those plays that I don't know if you ever reach the foundation of. You just keep digging and digging. I learned not just how to walk a tightrope but how to, every night, try a new trick. Some nights, that meant lifting one's foot an inch off the rope, and sometimes it's doing a somersault, but either way there is danger and a great sense of relief and accomplishment that you didn't end up in a pile on the floor.
Screen acting has many nets, from multiple takes to fixing things in the edit or in ADR. And yes, one still bares one's soul, and at the end of the day you have no idea which take your director will use, and yes, it is then burned in celluloid forever more, but the sense of risk doesn't come close to the raw nerve of doing it before a live audience. Even though it's fleeting, it feels like that much more of a high wire act.
Streetcar was a huge hit for the Young Vic and also enjoyed a Broadway transfer. What was your experience of working on that production and with Benedict Andrews?
Both productions were an absolute joy. We transferred many months after the London production, and the same backstage team and the entire cast came with us. It felt like a blessed, blessed ensemble. The Young Vic is a fantastic theatre to work with and space to perform in, and the same is true of St Anne's, where we transferred. And it was a seamless transition, which I hear is also quite rare, so yes - the whole thing felt like it was blessed.
Were there any notable differences between the West End audience's response to the play and the American audience?
American audiences are much more vocal. Our final dress rehearsal had an audience, and everything that could go wrong did go wrong. It turned into a raucous evening indeed.
Do you have a particular process or rehearsal techniques that you use when approaching a character, or does it depend entirely on the role or the director you're working with?
I start a year earlier memorising lines in between other jobs. And I go through the whole script once and then I start at the beginning - and then hopefully, by the time one needs to be entirely off book, there are production assistants around to help run lines.
With All About Eve, the director Ivo [van Hove] likes the cast to be off book first day of rehearsal. I was intrigued by this approach, so it helped that I started that far in advance! I asked production as we got closer if there was someone who could come by a couple times a week to run it. It takes a village. And then when rehearsal starts, I'm just in it. Every day, every night (after the kids are in bed), we're up.
During Streetcar, I was still doing the school run in the morning even after and before two show days. Hopefully by the time I next do something that intense, they'll be old enough to get themselves to school!
You received tremendous critical acclaim for Streetcar. Did this bring with it a high level of pressure with your return to the stage in All About Eve? How much attention do you pay to your reviews?
The only pressure was on finding material that might remotely touch the largesse of a character like Blanche. I don't pay much attention to reviews. I do however pay attention to audience response, and fortunately the houses were full and wholeheartedly enjoying regardless of critics of Ivo's or the production as a whole. Also, the cast very much took hold of the reins and made it their own after quite a weak press night, and I think as an ensemble we felt confident in that and in what we made of it.
How hard was it to put your stamp on Margo Channing, without taking influence from Bette Davis? Did you watch the film before rehearsals or purposely avoid doing so?
I generally avoid watching other actors' performances of a character before I take on a role. It helps to carve one's own way into the text without having another's voice, inflections or take on motivation rattling around in the back of one's mind, but to discover it all for oneself.
But also, the film is very much specific to its time and place, and our production was in no particular time. Some aspects of our production were incredibly modern, but in today's world, theatre actresses don't have the power or agency they once did, so Margo's largeness I felt needed to be toned down a bit so as not to be too over the top.
As with many of van Hove's productions, All About Eve blended multimedia with live theatre. Does theatre need to adapt and move with the times more, or do you feel it's generally in a good place?
I think theatre is in a fantastic place, certainly in the UK. There's room for all of it, even the occasional Ivo tech extravaganza - whether one likes it or not.
How much of your own personality and life experience do you invest in your characters? Which of your characters would you say is the most similar to you?
It's hard to say how much of a character resides in oneself already. I mean, I'd say there's a lot of Blanche in me, but I think most people would be shocked by that because they think of me as being quite contained - more like Stella in The Fall - and yet in private, I'm really not at all. My sister recently told me that she sees a lot of me in Jean. I'm afraid she's probably right.
Female actors have often complained about the kind of parts offered to them later in their careers. It seems the roles you take are becoming richer and richer as your career progresses. Is that a fair assumption?
Certainly, when I started out, the roles for women in television were incredibly limited. I do feel that as I have aged, the roles for women have expanded considerably. I'm not sure why this seems particular to TV though. There still seems to be an issue in features with central complex female characters of a certain age.
In the age of #TimesUp and #MeToo and essentially this time for women, so many more female writers and directors are getting work, and I have to imagine that that will equate to more complex and central female characters. Just as people are no longer going to movie theatres!
What character or project are you most proud of, and looking forward, what is left on your bucket list?
I have to say Streetcar is most certainly THE ONE I am most proud of. Not least because I SURVIVED without losing my mind. BUT! I am certainly very fond of Stella and am having so much fun with Jean. What I am really most proud of, or I should say most grateful for, is the chance to move between the mediums. I can always say that I wish I were doing more films, because I love cinema so much, but the characters I have gotten a chance to play on the small screen and on stage are just... Well, I'm incredibly lucky.
A Streetcar Named Desire will be available to stream from 21 May
Photo credits: Gustavo Papaleo, Netflix, Johan Persson, Jan Versweyveld