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The Pale Blue Eye
The Pale Blue Eye, 2022(Film still)

Gillian Anderson on Motherhood and Being a Cultural Icon

As her new murder mystery The Pale Blue Eye arrives on Netflix, Gillian Anderson discusses why women couldn’t be flirtatious in the 1830s, her directing ambitions, and juggling two versions of herself: actor and mother

Lead ImageThe Pale Blue Eye, 2022(Film still)

What’s it like to be Gillian Anderson in 2023? In 1993, aged 25, the Chicago-born actor solved her first UFO-related case as Agent Dana Scully in The X-Files, a series that spawned 218 episodes. Now a 54-year-old Londoner, Anderson has reached new levels of TV royalty. In the past decade alone, she’s had significant, if not lead, roles in The Fall, Sex Education, Hannibal, American Gods, The Great, The Crown (for which she won an Emmy in 2022), The First Lady, and even more episodes of The X-Files. In movies, she’s been directed by the great Belgian auteur Ursula Meier; on stage, she’s led All About Eve and A Streetcar Named Desire. When Anderson is recognised on the street, it could be a mystery for Mulder and Scully: what does that squinting stranger know her from?

After all, the 2023 version of Anderson is also an online icon. On Twitter and Instagram (her bio for both is ‘Shag Specialist’, referencing her comic turn as Jean in Sex Education), she promotes vital PSAs (she’s a staunch activist) and viral FYIs (she also posts objects that look like penises), while she hosts a podcast dedicated to amplifying minority voices called What Do I Know?! Beyond that, she’s a fashion designer, a novelist, and no doubt more. “If I’m going to leave the comfort of my life with my children,” Anderson says, “it’s getting more and more necessary that it interests me.”

I’m speaking to Anderson at London’s Corinthia Hotel in November 2022, letting her know that the article will run in January 2023, and the opening sentence will pretend it’s 2023. The idea, I explain, is to avoid repeating questions about The X-Files, and to discover a portrait of her near-future by the end of the interview. Cheerful and jokey, she’s up for the challenge, but protests my description of her “Goop empire”. “It really isn’t a Goop empire,” she says, unimpressed. “It doesn’t feel at all like an empire.”

Officially, we’re discussing The Pale Blue Eye, a gothic-horror feature written and directed for Netflix by Scott Cooper. Adapted from a 2003 Louis Bayard novel, the 1830s-set murder-mystery follows Augustus Landor (Christian Bale), a moody detective barely capable of hiding his demons, and his sidekick, Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling – allegedly replacing Timothée Chalamet), a military cadet whose tell-tale heart is about to be awakened. Together, they investigate a number of dead bodies, including one which had its innards poetically removed.

Anderson enters the slow-burner as Mrs Marquis, described in Bayard’s novel as “rabbity” (she also doesn’t know what that means); on screen, she’s a rule-breaking, perhaps rabbity, fancily dressed woman who speaks her mind, much to the despair of her reserved husband played by Toby Jones. “At that particular time in history, a woman wouldn’t be as forthright as Mrs Marquis is in her flirtations,” Anderson says. “But also the degree to which she takes control of situations.”

Without giving too much away, The Pale Blue Eye adopts a patient rhythm so that its eventual Suspiria­-esque freakout cuts deeper, especially with Mrs Marquis revelling to the side. “In a supporting role, the challenge is to come in and act like you’re in the same film as everybody else,” Anderson says. “Costumes help inform a character. But Scott imposed a vision on the landscape with an almost painterly brush. You sensed what he was trying to create the minute you stood on his set.”

During press for Thor: Love and Thunder, Bale admitted he was unsure if his super-serious comic-book villain fit in with the rest of the film. Was she tempted to do a Christian Bale to Christian Bale? First, Anderson asks me what Thor: Love and Thunder is, then she shakes her head. “It helps to visit the set a couple of days early to soak it up, and look at what’s being shot on the monitor. Sometimes directors send you assemblages so you can see what they’re doing.”

Before directing, Cooper was an actor whose second screen credit was as an angsty teen in Rush, a season seven episode of The X-Files. Does Anderson recognise parallels between Cooper’s scrabbling schoolboy character and the young Poe of The Pale Blue Eye? “There’s definitely a [shared] element in the darkness and murder,” she says. “When we started doing The X-Files, it was so dark, they thought there was something wrong when the dailies went back, because the DP was using our flashlights to light the scenes, and that had never been done before. And this film feels so stark and bare. It somehow feels like the beginning of America. Which obviously is appropriate for Poe.”

Also in season seven was All things, an episode written and directed by Anderson. Containing a Scully-focused storyline with Buddhist themes and a Moby soundtrack, it’s practically a film by Anderson. While she dismisses my suggestion of writing and directing a Scully movie like Ricky Gervais did with David Brent, Anderson informs me of her first-look Netflix deal: “It’s mostly producing things for me to act in.” Although she reveals her planned slate includes TV and film (she’s a huge Ruben Östlund fan and asks if I’ve seen Triangle of Sadness), no specifics can be shared yet, even though we’re pretending to speak in 2023.

After a pandemic full of binge-watching, what do people recognise Anderson from on the street in 2023? “Why 2023?” she says. “Oh, because of your angle. What I’m still amazed at is people coming up to me and saying they’ve started watching The Fall, which was years ago. But because it’s on Netflix, people are still finding it.”

Anderson, a professional who knows not to break an embargo, doesn’t want to give a slew of exclusives simply because a journalist has an odd interrogation method. So the only hint about her upcoming “entrepreneurial-type stuff” (her words) is that it’ll be announced in the next year and won’t involve music – a nod to my question on why she released a pop song, Extremis, in 1997, and will never again. “But my day job is as an actor.”

As 1997 was the year of “all things”, I ask Anderson if she’s written any scripts since then. “I optioned a novel [called The Speed of Light by Elizabeth Rosner],” she says. “I worked on it for 15 years between jobs, not to act in it but to direct it. In the end, the script was 80 per cent there, but I realised: in order to properly do this, I have to stop acting for a year-and-a-half. And I can’t do that yet.”

So that’s what it’s like to be Gillian Anderson in 2024? “Maybe! But I don’t want to direct until my kids are out of high school, because I’ll be so all-consumed with it. It’s a huge responsibility. I’m not sure I have it in me to direct and be a parent. Maybe I’ll wait until I’m in my sixties before I direct again.” She adds, “In 2024, I’ll still be living the two versions of me. The version that is the actress, and the version that is the mum. I don’t think that’ll change.”

The Pale Blue Eye is out in select cinemas and is on Netflix now.