The actor formerly known as Dana Scully is now a self-help guru. How did she beat self-doubt and her ‘intolerant’ inner voice?
Anderson was born in Chicago but moved to London aged five, while her father attended film school in the city. When she was 11, the family moved back to the States, to Michigan, but continued to spend summers in London, and by her early teens Anderson was rattling off the rails. Punk rock, drugs, an addict girlfriend and a much older boyfriend all featured heavily in her adolescence, and her classmates weren’t wrong when they voted her “most likely to get arrested”. On the night of graduation, she broke into her school to try to glue the locks shut, and was charged with trespass.
She has been in therapy since the age of 14, and the book is interspersed with personal passages on her own experience of mental-health difficulties. “There were times,” she tells me, “when it was really bad. There have been times in my life where I haven’t wanted to leave the house.” But there’s a bit of a dance between disclosure and discretion, because whenever I ask her to elaborate on the personal vignettes in the book, she shuts down.
I kept hearing myself say, ‘I’ve got to slow down, I’ve got to slow down, I’ve got to slow down’
The book contains enough 12-step-style advice to make me think addiction issues went beyond teenage experimentation for Anderson, and when I say so, she nods. Could she say a little more? “No.” After 24 years in therapy, and writing the book, I’m guessing she has a good idea where her problems stem from, but the question receives a chilly, “Pourquoi?” There are “quite a few”, she says, but “I would have put them in the book if I wanted to talk about them out loud.”
Her first husband was a Canadian art director she met on the set of The X-Files and married at 25. Their daughter Piper was born a year later, but the marriage was over within three years; her second marriage, in 2004, to a journalist and producer, ended within two. Months later, she announced she was pregnant, and had two sons – Oscar, now 11, and Felix, nine – with a British businessman, before they split up five years ago.
I’m curious about how a single mother who has been working flat out for 25 years (she was back on the X-Files set nine days after giving birth to Piper) can even find the time to practise all the spiritual techniques her book recommends.
Why has she always pushed herself so hard? “Well, the bigger-picture part is that I’m responsible for quite a lot of people financially, so it’s that. But it’s also a little bit of fear of what happens when one slows down. When I think about an empty period of time, fear comes up. I’m quite good at being on my own, so it’s not necessarily fear of myself, but probably fear of facing those things like: why do I drive myself so hard?”
Does she really compile a list of things to feel grateful for every day? “Yes! I do a gratitude list every night. I mean, it’s in my head now, but I go through stages where I think I’m just complaining all the time again. It’s too floating in my head, it needs to be on paper.” Complaining all the time is “probably one of the things I struggle with most. I suffer from great intolerance. Such intolerance of so much.” Such as? “Oh, intolerance of myself. Intolerance of situations. Intolerance of people on the street. Intolerance of whatever. So I have to constantly settle myself down from the state of being aggravated.” With Hugh Bonneville in Viceroy’s House. Photograph: Kerry Monteen/Pathé I try to picture her stropping about, grumbling about roadworks or noisy neighbours, and find this image easier to conjure than the new-age version of her intoning, “My name is Gillian Anderson, I am a good and kind person.” She has a steeliness about her that I really like, but whether it’s proof of the success of her spiritual techniques or indicates the limits of their powers, I can’t decide. She certainly feels like someone in full control of herself and her life, and if this keeps her at a slightly cool distance, it is also rather enviable. She says she used to be pitilessly intolerant of her own physical self, but won’t elaborate on how that manifested itself, because she refuses to allow herself that line of thinking. “I will not go there. I simply will not allow it any more. Because the things that we might be critical of ourselves about actually don’t matter. The only thing that really matters in terms of our peace of mind is our peace of mind itself, and how we react to things. All I know is that when I meditate, one goes beyond the physical, and it is possible to tap into a sense of absolute contentment and joy in that place. So if that’s where you’re starting, then actually none of this,” and she gestures to her body, “means anything, really.”
How is it possible for a working actor to liberate herself from concerns about physical appearance, when her existence is so entwined in it? After eight seconds of silence, she replies: “I don’t know. I mean, as I get older, I imagine the roles that I’m able to get are going to change. There will be a certain point where I’ll make the decision to go grey, you know. There might be a certain point where I decide that it’s silly for me to continue being blond when I’m in my 60s. I’ve also always wanted to direct, I’ve also always wanted to be an artist. Maybe when the kids are out of college, I can decide to downsize and go grey and get less work.”
The art of acceptance is one of her new book’s biggest themes. As someone who is terrible at it, I’ve never been sure how realistic an ambition true acceptance really is. “Well, there’s an opportunity for fear around every corner, fear of the future, fear of what if,” Anderson says. “But the acceptance of wherever we are, whoever we are, is freedom. So, you know, I can sit and bemoan the fact that I don’t get the same roles, or bemoan the fact that my skin is starting to look like chicken skin, or bemoan whatever it is. But that’s not reality. That’s fighting reality.”