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Given the perpetual seriousness of Agent Dana Scully, it should have come as a surprise to no one when Gillian Anderson made the post-X-Files decision to step into deeper dramatic waters, appearing in a London production of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House as well as television adaptations of such literary fare as Charles Dickens’ Bleak House and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. But appearing in Johnny English Reborn? Now that was unexpected.
Anderson’s latest role, which finds her working closer to anticipated form, is Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, which airs on April 1 and 8 as part of PBS’s long-running series Masterpiece. The A.V. Club spoke with Anderson during the Television Critics Association press tour in Pasadena, where she discussed the non-event of being the youngest actress ever to play the part, her occasional comedic efforts, and her legacy as an X-Files writer/director.
The A.V. Club: This is not your first time around the block with PBS: You’ve built a pretty decent history with the network, both as host of Masterpiece as well as a performer. Do you have a personal background with public television?
Gillian Anderson: I do, in that I’ve been a regular viewer for years. I’ve always held PBS on a very high pedestal from when I was little, so it’s been a pleasure and a dream to be able to work with them.
AVC: And now you’re getting to play one of literature’s most famous spinsters. How was that for you?
GA: [Laughs.] It was cool. I’m cool with that.
AVC: You’ve done Dickens before, with Bleak House. Do you have a particular affinity toward his work, or was it simply a part that was too good to resist?
GA: It was a part that was too good to resist. Yeah, I wouldn’t say I particularly have an affinity to Dickens above any other classical writers. But it’s one of those things where, if the script is good, you can’t say “no.”
AVC: Miss Havisham’s certainly an iconic character. When it comes to Shakespeare, many actors say that they like to think that someday they’ll have a King Lear in them. It’s not a precise comparison, of course, but does the same hold true for you and Miss Havisham?
GA: No. [Laughs.] Nope. I didn’t really have that experience. Because she wasn’t part of my college curriculum and she wasn’t a part of my childhood reading lists, she wasn’t really in my consciousness. I was talking earlier, in fact, just in terms of my education, where I paid attention and where I didn’t pay attention, and how much I would’ve liked to have had more of a literary experience when I was younger, that I wished that that was more a part of my schooling.
AVC: That being the case, presumably you at least had the advantage of feeling less pressure to deliver in the role than someone who’d studied Dickens her entire life.
GA: Yeah, I probably would’ve been more paranoid about it if it’d been a part of my life or a part of my background in some way. It probably would’ve been more of my own pressure, anyway.
AVC: You’ve gone on record as saying that you’ve never seen any previous production of Great Expectations. Given how many there have been over the years, did that surprise you when realized it was the case?
GA: It did, yeah. When I started to get asked about it, I started to realize, “Wait, I haven’t seen any of them…?” [Laughs.] And then it reached a certain point when it became important not to see them, because I didn’t want to be influenced by anyone else’s performance.
AVC: You’re apparently now officially the youngest person ever to play Miss Havisham in a film or on television.
GA: Yeah, except that in David Lean’s version, the actor [Martita Hunt] was 46, so it’s only three years difference. Three years! What’s the big deal? [Laughs.] A lot’s been made out of it, but I don’t really understand what the big deal is.
AVC: Did you go out of your way to make her seem older when you played her, or did you try to focus more on the eccentricities of the character?
GA: If they had wanted the character to be older, presumably they would have cast an older actor to play the character. So I didn’t feel like that was one of my agreements. And I guess that, as with anything, the objective is to try and understand and absorb the role in the story and the character and try to find where you understand her. I guess one of the first things that I do is to rely on that first impression or instinct, that first voice I hear in my head. I know quickly during reading it if it’s something I feel like I can do or not, if I recognize or understand it. And then it’s just a matter of building it up from there.
AVC: You had a hand in helping to design the look of Miss Havisham in the production. Was it nice to have that kind of say in the visual aspects of the character?
GA: Yeah, it was. … I had a similar experience when I did The Crimson Petal And The White, where the costume and the wig and the makeup is so much a part. It’s a bit more extreme than you might be used to in a contemporary piece, and it’s nice to be a part of that creative process. It was very important to me to have that particular hair color, the mixture of white and grey, and also that it was locks, smooth in the front and then a rat’s nest in the back. [Laughs.] It’s important in terms of the perspective you have of her.
AVC: And it only took about two hours each day in makeup?
GA: Yeah, which I guess also surprises some people. But I knew that our intention was not to make her older, so I knew there wasn’t going to be any latex work that we’d have to do, and I’d worn wigs before, so I knew generally how long that process takes.
AVC: The last time you were at the TCA press tour, you were talking about being in Moby Dick for Starz. This time, you’re here for Great Expectations on PBS. In between, however, you starred in Johnny English Reborn.
GA: [Laughs.] I did. That was something where they approached me, and, you know, I though the script was funny. But the cast was also interesting, and—well, really, it was about working with Rowan Atkinson. That, and getting the chance to do a bit more comedy. It’s not like I haven’t done comedy, but I’ve never really done it on that kind of scale. I recently did another film, Mr. Morgan’s Last Love, with Michael Caine and Justin Kirk. I knew there was a light comic element to the character, obviously, from having read the script, but I didn’t anticipate that it was going to be quite as much fun as it was. Justin and I played brother and sister, and we developed a very fun kind of repartee, with a lot of ad-libbing and stuff like that. It was very nice and refreshing to do something like that in the midst of all of this heavy-duty stuff. [Laughs.]
AVC: As you say, you’ve done your share of comedy, but you’ve done comparatively little in the grand scheme of things. Did you dabble in comedy at all when you first started out?
GA: Well, I did a little bit of comedy in college. I did A Flea In Her Ear when I was at DePaul. And… what else? You know, a lot of people forget that there were a lot of comedic X-Files episodes. So that also was a place where I got to explore that side.
AVC: Was stepping as far away from sci-fi after The X-Files a conscious decision, or was it always going to be an exception rather than the rule?
GA: I wasn’t interested in sci-fi to begin with. But after The X-Files was over, yes, it was a conscious decision to step away from the genre.
AVC: Would you consider revisiting the genre at this point, given how long it’s been?
GA: Sure. If it was the right project.
AVC: What were your thoughts on the way “All Things…” [the only X-Files episode written and directed by Anderson] turned out?
GA: Um… I was happy that it had an essence of what I was intending. [Laughs.] It veered quite a bit from what my original intention for it was, just by the nature of having to—when I had originally written it, there was a woman early on in the script who walks in front of Scully’s car, and she ends up therefore not driving in front of a semi. And then this woman walks past her, turns around, and winks at her. That was the only time that she showed up in my script. But when I started to work on it with Frank [Spotnitz], there needed to be more of a supernatural than a spiritual element. My episode had more of a spiritual element to it. So she became a throughline that carried you through the whole thing, where Scully sees her and is led by her. All that stuff kind of felt a bit over-the-top from what my intention was. And there were a few things that, by the nature of television and editing all that kind of stuff, developed that I wasn’t crazy about. But the overall experience was a good one.
AVC: The episode was relatively late in the run of the series. Was it a case where you’d wanted to try your hand at writing and directing but just couldn’t get it worked out until then?
GA: No, it was a weird thing where people had asked for a long time because… David [Duchovny] had directed a couple, so people had asked if I wanted to, and it never occurred to me. Even though I knew that I eventually wanted to direct, it had never occurred to me in terms of The X-Files. And then finally I thought, “Well, why don’t I? Do I have any ideas?” I remember asking myself that question at about 11 o’clock at night, and I realized there were two images that had stuck with me. They were unrelated to the show, but it was a starting point, these two ideas. And I started to write the outline there and then, and I wrote the entire outline just sitting there at that moment. It was like it had been sitting there waiting for me, going, “Hello? You can let me out now!” [Laughs.] And I presented it to Chris [Carter], and he liked it and said, “Well, if you succeed in writing an episode and we like it, you can do one. And then we can talk about you directing it.” And then it went from there.
AVC: It’s pretty well-documented at this point that the status of any future X-Files films remains up in the air, and given Chris Carter’s reign over the franchise, there may be no point in asking you this, anyway, but are there any aspects of Scully that have yet to be explored that you’d…
GA: No point in asking. [Laughs.] I just have no interest in choosing her journey, and I never have, really. They did a great job directing her from the beginning, and I was always happy to go whichever way the wind blew her.