Since “The X-Files” ended, Gillian Anderson has tried to move as far away as possible from her fame as Dana Scully, the skeptical FBI agent assigned to investigate the paranormal.
In PBS’ “Bleak House,” she’s probably completely succeeded.
As the beautiful but tragic Lady Dedlock in this six-part “Masterpiece Theatre” adaptation of one of Charles Dickens’ greatest novels, only Anderson’s classic profile is a reminder of Scully.
The American actress, exquisitely dressed and coifed in high-Victorian style, her voice faultlessly English, exudes restrained grief in her role, which is pivotal to the novel’s complex plot — a typical Dickens assault on the inequity of mid-19th century British society and the cruelty of its distorted and protracted legal system.
Anderson says that from her very first reading of the script she felt that she understood Lady Dedlock.
“And as soon as the corset and the dress and the wig went on, she just kind of came to life. She was there,” the actress recalls.
“I also respond very strongly to characters I have not done before ... something I can really sink my teeth into, and what’s scary, and what terrifies me, because that’s where I need to go,” says Anderson.
To ensure a completely new experience, the actress even insisted that Lady Dedlock’s hair be dark — not the red first suggested by the producers, which might have been too sharp a reminder of Scully.
Ending her break from TVAnderson squirms around on a bed in a Pasadena hotel as she talks, trying to ease a bad back. It’s not the Victorian corsets that have caused the pain, rather the flight from England to California where she’s promoting the miniseries, which starts Sunday at 9 p.m (check local listings).
Anderson, 37, lives in London with her husband, Julian Ozanne, and 11-year-old daughter, Piper.
Her decision to move there was “definitely” influenced by her realization that when “The X-Files” was over in 2002 after nine seasons, “I knew that I couldn’t be on a set again for a while ... so I started looking for a play.”
She found it — the London production of “What the Night is For” — and has worked in theater and film since then, avoiding television until “Bleak House.”
She has several feature films due for release, including “The Last King of Scotland,” in which she plays a doctor, and Michael Winterbottom’s adaptation of the 18th century comic novel “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story.”
“I’m just always looking for stuff to change people’s minds about me,” she says. “It’s very different in England ... I’m perceived as an actor and here I think I’m perceived as a temporary television celebrity who does one thing.”
Andrew Davies, who adapted “Bleak House” for the miniseries, is delighted Anderson is part of the cast.
“I think she’s got a wonderful stillness in her performances, so that she never seems to be acting particularly,” says the British writer. “She just brought a terrific sense of tragedy to this part, a woman who has spent her life being so contained, with almost no ability to express herself.”
Anderson understands why her name is helpful in promoting the miniseries in America. But she’s also swift to note the extraordinary brilliance of her British co-stars, who play the huge variety of funny, evil, tragic, virtuous and outrageous characters — some 80 speaking roles — who are stuffed into Dickens’ novel.
Davies — who has successfully adapted the work of other classic writers, including Jane Austen and George Eliot — notes that Dickens provides a special challenge because “he produces wonderful unnecessary characters.”
Yet Davies tries to include as many as possible “because it simply wouldn’t be true to Dickens to be absolutely ruthless and go for the spine of the story and chuck out everything and everyone that doesn’t relate to that.”