Gillian Anderson: ‘The gender pay gap is still a very big problem’

Gillian Anderson on The X-Files return, wage inequality in Hollywood - and her mixed feelings about appearing on Top Gear

The truth may be out there but Gillian Anderson isn’t interested. Best known for her role as sceptical (and smouldering) FBI Special Agent Dana Scully in The X-Files, a worldwide hit through most of the 1990s, people still want to share their supernatural experiences with her today.

“It’s the story of my life!” she says. “Just the other day someone who had read a science fiction book I have co-written wanted to talk to me about how what happened in the book had actually happened to him. So yes, people want to bend my ear every once in a while.”

Ever had any close encounters of your own? “I have been asked that thousands of times,” she sighs. “But any time I ever answer that question it ends up being the headline and then it gets carried in a tabloid and there’s really no point in engaging in a conversation about it. That’s not going to be your headline I’m afraid.”

There’s no point in talking about it. That’s not going to be your headline I’m afraid

Anderson, 46, was born in Chicago but moved with her family to Crouch End when she was two. They stayed until she was 11 before returning to Grand Rapids, Michigan, but she has always considered the UK home and lives in London. “It feels more familiar than the States,” she says. “I’m still moved by the city. It’s the smell of hedgerows, the history and architecture, and the sound of a British accent.”

Anderson herself speaks in cut-glass English but is bidialectal, able to switch between two accents, particularly useful for someone whose career bridges both sides of the Atlantic. Why did she want to become an actress? “It’s the only thing I can do, that’s why I do it,” she replies, matter-of-factly.

The X-Files changed TV, setting a trend for well-written, well-acted shows that led to the landscape we have today. Television also offers a fertile ground for strong female characters, of which Scully was a pioneer. “I have been extremely lucky,” Anderson says. “In television the trend has been around for a good decade. There are a lack of three-dimensional female characters in film and that continues to be difficult to crack. But in TV there seems to be a plethora of opportunities.”

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Perhaps, but most seem to be snapped up by Anderson herself. She plays the canny cannibal’s psychotherapist Dr Bedelia Du Maurier in Hannibal and chases another serial killer around Belfast as DSI Stella Gibson in The Fall (main picture), opposite Jamie ‘please don’t typecast me as Christian Grey’ Dornan.

She also performs in the West End, most recently as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire and she hopes to take the production to Broadway soon. But when will there be the time? Rumours about a reboot of The X-Files were apparently confirmed in January when Fox announced talks were underway between Anderson, David Duchovny, who played perennially spooked spook Agent Mulder, and the show’s creator Chris Carter.

“Umm we’re still talking about it,” Anderson says. “Everyone is hoping it will become a reality. At this juncture it’s still a work in progress. I don’t think anything has been signed. Everybody who’s interested is 100 per cent interested. It’s a very different situation once you jump into a negotiation with a network, especially one like Fox. Negotiations take months so at that point it is out of our hands.”

At the Oscars, Patricia Arquette used her acceptance speech to demand wage equality in the industry. During The X-Files’ original nine-year run, Anderson was paid significantly less than Duchovny and only received equal pay for the second spin-off film I Want to Believe. Although she does not refer to the new X-Files explicitly, you don’t need to be a conspiracy theorist to imagine she is referring to current contract negotiations when talking about Arquette’s speech.

“Yes, it is still a problem. In a very, very big way, including something recent and unconscionable, which I really can’t talk about but yes, it is still alive and well. There was a period of time in the 1990s when it was appropriate to talk about it, and there was a period of time in the 2000s when people still wanted to talk about it. Most of my reaction was, ‘Yes that happened but that was then, this is now.’ But the fact is, it’s not just then – it is also happening now.”

There are a lack of three-dimensional female characters in film and that continues to be difficult to crack

Anderson’s latest film sees her step back towards sci-fi in Robot Overlords, a British feature about a group of kids who turn out to be our only salvation from global robot domination. “As with most good science fiction tales, there’s generally a sense of impending doom,” says Anderson, who plays the mother of the lead character. “I don’t get the chance very often to play a soft character,” she continues. “I’m often cast as quite hard, intelligent bosses, whether it’s MI5 or MI7 or the Met. Or the FBI.”

Anderson has just finished work on Andrew Davies’ abridged adaptation of Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace but her most recent TV appearance was as a Star in a Reasonably Priced Car on Top Gear, a week before Jeremy Clarkson got suspended for punching a producer. Anderson did not escape the experience unharmed.

“I have not recovered from spending three hours in that car,” she grimaces, having had to treat her shoulder with heat pads, ice and constant painkillers after she kept having to turn awkwardly to change gears. “It’s frozen, which means my arm will not bend a certain way so I am constantly reminded about my three hours on the tarmac at Top Gear. But it was totally worth it. It was so much fun.”

As a fan of the show would you be sad if Clarkson was no longer involved in the programme? “He can’t not be part of the show. He makes the show. It’s an unfortunate situation but the show is as popular because of his inappropriate behaviour both on and off camera.”

Anderson’s impressive lap time was the fastest any celebrity has recorded in “mildly moist” conditions. So besides acting, something else she is good at is driving.

“Yeah,” she laughs. “I could be an Uber driver.”

Robot Overlords is out now in cinemas