September 30, 1996 in Features

Brains And Beauty Gillian Anderson Isn’t Your Typical Prime-Time Tootsie, Which Has Made Her Perfect For ‘X-Files’ Role

Justine Elias New York Times
 
Tags:profile

Gillian Anderson’s job can be a foul, dirty business: she performs autopsies on otherworldly corpses, wades through rivers as she searches for clues. And all the interesting people she meets end up dead.

Her boss thinks she’s weird and tries to undermine her by losing the paper work on her most important cases. Lately her young daughter has been getting into the act, running around the work place, waving a severed, decomposing hand.

“Now that’s scary,” says Anderson, who shakes the disembodied hand without batting an eye. It’s an ordinary day on the set of “The X-Files,” and her 2-year-old daughter, Piper, has been exploring the prop truck again.

Anderson plays Dana Scully, an FBI agent and pathologist who investigates bizarre, possibly supernatural phenomena on “The X-Files,” the hit Fox television show that recently won five Emmy awards, for writing and technical achievements.

For the first time, Anderson herself was an Emmy nominee, for best actress in a dramatic series, a significant event for someone who only five years ago was juggling shifts at a Greenwich Village restaurant and appearances in Off Broadway plays.

As “The X-Files” starts its fourth season, on Friday night at 10, Anderson is a full-fledged television star, finally on equal footing with the show’s male lead, David Duchovny, who has often been a magazine cover boy but has yet to be an Emmy nominee.

Her character, one of the coolest, most competent professional women ever portrayed on television, believes that there is a scientific explanation for all the strange deaths and visitations she encounters.

And even if Agent Scully’s credulous partner, Fox Mulder (Duchovny), could convince her that the culprits were extraterrestrials, vampires and slime monsters, Scully would probably see them as mere slime that broke the law. Lawless, amoral behavior really ticks her off.

“She is way too smart for anybody’s good,” Anderson says of her heavily credentialed character. “She’s also got a medical degree and a graduate degree in physics. There is nothing that this woman doesn’t know.”

Focusing on what Scully knows, rather than how she looks, is something that Chris Carter, the show’s creator and co-executive producer, had in mind when he first presented his idea for “The X-Files” to Fox executives in 1993.

Although Anderson had only one television credit to her name (a guest appearance on the short-lived Fox series “Class of ‘96”), she made it through a grueling series of auditions.

Duchovny, who had appeared in the movies “The Rapture” and “Kalifornia,” was cast first. Fox was willing to take a chance on a less experienced person to play opposite him - provided, Carter recalls, that the new face came with a “Baywatch” babe’s figure.

“I had to fight for Gillian,” says Carter. “Not because of her youth or relative inexperience, but because she didn’t fit the network’s or the studio’s idea of the prime-time tootsie. She didn’t have the usual assets they thought of in a TV man-woman relationship.”

Anderson, a slender, red-haired 27-year-old who stands about five feet tall, has nevertheless become, as one British reporter put it, “the thinking man’s crumpet.”

Despite this sort of attention, she has managed to keep a low profile living here in Vancouver, where the series is shot. This wasn’t the case when she was a teenager. Born in Chicago and reared in England and Puerto Rico, Anderson was, as she puts it, an adventurous punk with a Mohawk haircut by the time her family settled in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Her mother, a computer analyst, and her father, a film post-production supervisor, encouraged her interest in theater. By the end of high school, she was writing and directing plays, as well as acting. She then studied at De Paul University’s Goodman School of Drama in Chicago.

After graduation, she moved to New York, where an agent had promised to represent her. She did land a couple of commercials (which were never broadcast) and a couple of challenging stage roles, in Alan Ayckbourn’s “Absent Friends,” at the Manhattan Theater Club, and Christopher Hampton’s “Philanthropist,” at the Long Wharf in New Haven. But she supported herself mainly by waitressing at Dojo, a student hangout on St. Marks Place.

In 1991, she moved to Los Angeles to pursue television and film work.

On a television series that proclaims “The truth is out there,” Anderson’s directness has become as much a hallmark as the paranoid characters and offbeat comedy. The next step for her, she says, is feature films.

“The problem, as always, is time,” she says. “After the first season, I was pregnant, and after the second, I wanted some time with my family. But now I’ve got things figured out, and I’m ready.”


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