PBS’s long-running Masterpiece franchise is suddenly cool again, thanks to Downton Abbey, Sherlock, and some new dusted-off Dickens adaptations, the most recent of which features a ravishing Miss Havisham, played by Gillian Anderson. The British-American* actress, much beloved by American audiences for her stint as Dana Scully on The X-Files, previously portrayed Lady Dedlock in Bleak House. Now, for Great Expectations, she’s a white-haired wonder who wears her moldering old wedding dress as a reminder of the long-ago day she was jilted at the altar. This adaptation is a salute to the bicentennial of Dickens’s birthday, and it’ll air in two installments, the first on April 1, the second on April 8. Anderson, who nearly became a Downton resident herself, called from across the pond to chat about her latest transformation, becoming besties with the royals, and her inconsistent British accent.
You just did a royal reading of Great Expectations for Dickens’s 200th birthday.
Yes, and now I’m friends with all the royals. That was a joke. If we were friends, it was for all of two minutes. They asked me to do it, completely out of the blue, and it just seemed to be one of the things that you couldn’t say no to. Not that I would say no.
How did it go?
It was the funniest thing, because I wanted to ask the Prince of Wales if he wanted to sit down, and I was practicing how I was going to ask it, because you can’t just say, “Charles, sit down.” So that was highly amusing, figuring that out. And then what to read? I was deciding between a lot of different passages. I wanted something that would be approximately five to seven minutes long, with a lot of description and without a lot of characters, because I didn’t want to do too many voices. That might be distracting. So I decided on when Miss Havisham meets Pip for the first time, and his description of her, and the house, and all the mice and beetles crawling over the wedding cake.
Are you a big Dickens fan? This is your second role in an adaptation of his work.
You know, I have a list about as long as from here to eternity of all the things I’d like to read, and Dickens is on that list, but I’m not sure I love him above all the other classics. I’ve become more fond of Dickens since working on him, but I’m not necessarily a bigger fan of him than, say, Charlotte Brontë or Edith Wharton, who are some of my real favorites. But I am more and more a fan. He was a complicated man, and he had a certain genius.
Miss Havisham is a complicated woman. The way you play her, with that singsong voice, adds a beautiful lost-soul quality, as if she were a child who’s never grown up.
That’s an aspect of her. There’s a certain amount of childish spitefulness, too. I didn’t want her to be eaten away by resentment, because it’s not clear that it’s eaten her alive. There’s a lot more poetry to her than that, and that’s what I found in her voice after the first few readings. I thought of her like an addict. She was living vicariously through Estella. She fed on the information Estella would give her, jonesing for that fix, like it was a dose of heroin. And there was something about that state of craving, obsessing, jonesing, that makes her interesting.
Do you think she was playing a Victorian version of The Game? The way she teaches Estella to be a pickup artist of sorts, to always have the upper hand?
[Laughs.] That’s absolutely it! I think it’s all about how to break a man’s heart — to be alluring and seductive and then completely frigid and insulting. I absolutely imagined all of those things — and simpler lessons that were more about not giving, not being generous, not being kind, making fun of people. I would imagine how she would teach Estella to master that kind of control over somebody, how to walk in a room and draw them in, make them fall in love, and then treat them like shit. And she taught her that love was death.
You almost make her sound a little punk rock!
She is a little punk rock. [Laughs.] She’s got crazy hair. There’s three stages of wigs there.
A lot of people got caught up with how you’re the youngest actress to ever play her …
And yet I’m exactly the right age to play her — she’s in her early forties. People get so used to what’s come before. As much as the David Lean version was the be all and end all, that version portrays her in a much more outwardly haggard and spiteful way. Without getting into prosthetics, this is another take on how someone can age during twenty years of seclusion, with no access to light. And there’s something interesting about Pip being closer to her age once he gets older and realizing she’s subjected herself to this torture. She could have had happiness, a house filled with children. That’s the tragedy.
Have you seen the spoof where Miss Havisham’s sassy gay friend tells her to take off the dress, take a bath, and take advantage of online dating?
No! [Laughs.] But I love that! At one point, at a certain time, I would have definitely been up for spoofing The X-Files — back when people would have given a shit. You know, like an Airplane version. That would have been really funny.
People still give a shit! There’s an X-Files mash-up with Downton Abbey, since the theme songs are almost the same. Do you watch Downton Abbey?
It’s nuts, but I don’t watch anything. I don’t watch a single thing. I never have. But I’ve got friends who I respect who are obsessed with it, so there’s part of me that wants to. Michelle [Dockery, who plays Lady Mary] did something for one of my charities, so there’s a double whammy there.
You’re about to start shooting a new BBC series, The Fall, in which you would play a detective hunting a serial killer.
Law enforcement is my specialty! [Laughs.] It’s a very different character than Scully, because if it were remotely the same, I wouldn’t be doing it. But it’s actually fun to play law-enforcement chicks and keep them apart. In the first episode, there’s been a death and a son of a politician is implicated; all sorts of things go wrong in the investigation, and she’s there investigating the investigation, when she discovers links to other crimes. It’s a script as close to Prime Suspect as any I’ve ever read — not that they’re trying to re-create that. The American attempt didn’t do so good. But it’s a very compelling story, especially given that she’s British and working in Belfast.
You know, I’ve noticed you usually use a British accent when you’re interviewed by Brits, and an American accent when it’s someone from the U.S. Sometimes you slip between the two. Do you have a preference?
I don’t. It depends. You know, I’m so over it. [Laughs.] This was my first language, and someone in Tennessee convinced me that I should talk more “normally” when we moved to the U.S., and I learned how to do a Midwest accent. So I can slip into that. But this is how I learned to talk, and it comes naturally to me. I’m so sick of people talking about it! I’ve made a point from now on, even if it’s really, really hard, if I’m sitting in front of a Brit, I’m determined to talk in an American accent even if it kills me. I don’t know what it is, but I can’t fucking help it. [Laughs.] Even after talking a few minutes to my mom, this is how it comes out. I ended up in someone’s house today, she’s American, and she’s only been in England for four years, but she had a British accent, too. It’s not just me and Madonna!
*This post has been corrected to show Anderson was not born in England.