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December 10, 2015

The Sleuth Is Out There

For the upcoming X-Files reboot, Gillian Anderson dug deep to recapture the compelling Dana Scully, And for a cable simulcast of War and Peace, she channeled the Tsarist upper-crust, Classic or contemporary, this actress is on the case.

Mike Flaherty
  • Stephen Busken

When it comes to her career, Gillian Anderson is refreshingly frank.

What did she first think of an X-Files reboot? "Not much," she deadpans from behind the wheel of her car, waiting outside a London school to pick up one of her three children.

Actually, her kids' schedules — she has two sons and a daughter — helped explain her dispassion. During a summer 2014 sit-down, the show's creator, Chris Carter, had pitched something akin to a full season of the sci-fi smash. But Anderson could commit only to as many episodes as could be shot during her kids' summer break, which amounted to six.

Those half-dozen hours, which have set the show's original fans — and new Comic-Con devotees — agog with anticipation, will debut on Fox in its most prized timeslot, following the NFC Championship game on Sunday, January 24.

When she was cast in 1993 as the now-iconic FBI agent Dana Scully opposite David Duchovny's Fox Mulder, Anderson was the very definition of a no-name talent. Since then, she has largely steered clear of the series as a viewer, though she recalls dipping back into season one some 10 years ago at the behest of daughter Piper.

"That's about as green as somebody has ever been on TV," she says, laughing at her younger self. Five years later, Anderson would win a lead-actress Emmy for her work.

As she revisited the characters during an eight-week shoot in Vancouver this past summer, she was startled — not by the logistics of scheduling, but rather by the challenge of re-inhabiting Scully. She realized that she'd entombed the character in a kind of mental "cryo lab" since last playing her in a 2008 X-Files feature film.

"I didn't realize how frozen she was. I'd forgotten the specifics of her personality and where she fit in my head. I thought, I should have taken notes and filed them somewhere under, 'Upon playing Scully again, do A, B and C"

It's probably not surprising, given that since the series' sign-off Anderson has dipped into a diverse gallery of characters.

While toggling between film and television in the U.K. and the U.S., she's chosen both contemporary and classic material: NBC's short-lived Crisis (2014) and Hannibal (2013-15), as well as BBC-produced adaptations of Charles Dickens's Bleak House (2005) and Great Expectations (2011).

More recently, an ambitious adaptation of Tolstoy took her to Russia. War and Peace will debut January 18 as an eight-part event series, airing simultaneously on Lifetime, A&E and History; it will also air on the BBC in the U.K.

Anderson appears as Anna Pavlovna, a society woman of the Tsarist era. "She's a pivotal character," the actress notes. "She opens the novel, and some of the action plays out in her salons. We shot many scenes in the main living area of the Catherine Palace [in St. Petersburg]."

Has this diversity of roles been by design? "It is really how things have come my way," Anderson says. "I don't have a tendency to chase things. It's got more to do with getting to do it all, to have a good mix between film and TV and theater, and contemporary and classic. I'm lucky to be able to flit between those things."

Her most substantial post-Scully gig has been another television sleuth, Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson, in The Fall, a BBC-Netflix drama that's part police procedural and part psychological profile of a serial killer and the intriguing Stella.

"She's as much a mystery to me as she is to the audience," says Anderson, "and I appreciate that, especially when so much is in the trailers before we even see [a show]. That she remains so elusive is rare."

Upon wrapping season three of The Fall — which shoots in Northern Ireland — Anderson will head to New York to reprise her stage portrayal of Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, which broke box-office records at London's Young Vic in 2014.

If it all sounds like Type-A striving, Anderson won't disagree. "I'm never relaxed. That's my biggest problem."

Her problem, our pleasure.

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