Gillian Anderson on the Future of 'The X-Files'

Actress discusses the finale, getting back into Scully's mind-set and how the show feels different over a decade later

Gillian Anderson discusses the return of 'The X-Files': "we said yes after we were sure there wasn't really an interest to do another movie after so many years. If we were going to have a conclusion to the whole story, this was going to be how we did it." Credit: Brinson+Banks/Redux

When The X-Files ended its first run in 2002, Gillian Anderson was over it. "I needed to dig a deep ditch for anything X-Files-related to go into," she says with a big laugh. "It took a while before I could talk about the show with a sense of appreciation and wistfulness."

She was 33 at the time of the original series finale and had spent the majority of her adult life playing FBI Special Agent Dr. Dana Scully, the impassive, skeptical voice of reason in the fantastical world of her onscreen foil, Agent Fox Mulder (David Duchovny). Throughout nine seasons, including two after Duchovny left, Anderson faced off with campy Monsters of the Week and, in "mythology" episodes, the dreaded Smoking Man and his apocalypse-engineering Illuminati cronies. Ultimately, the experience left Anderson in a creative identity crisis. "I remember looking at the back of an in-flight magazine at some point and seeing an ad for the X-Files box set," she says. "I had such a weird relationship with it, I thought, 'Don't I know that from somewhere?' But at the same time I thought, 'That's me. Why am I on a box set?'" She laughs.

Anderson is now age 47, lives in London and feels at peace with Dana Scully. In the years since the show ended, she appeared in several TV series, notably Hannibal and The Fall, as well as in movies and onstage. Today, she's in Belfast, where she's co-writing a book, WE: A Manifesto for Women Everywhere, with broadcast journalist Jennifer Nadel. Its title is befitting of her X-Files character and her so-called "Scully Effect," the notion that the character inspired young women to pursue jobs in science, medicine and law enforcement.

This year, Anderson returned fully to the world of Agent Dana Scully in a six-episode run of The X-Files, which found Mulder and Scully at odds with villains old and new. The finale, which aired last night, found Scully in the position of reshaping the world, and it harkened back to the show's edge-of-your-seat heyday. Its opening credits sequence promised "This Is the End," but as is the way of series creator Chris Carter, who wrote and directed the episode, the installment left many questions. To find out just how much of the truth is still out there, Rolling Stone spoke with Gillian Anderson about why she wanted to return to The X-Files and how it left off.

David Duchovny once told me that after he left The X-Files, he felt he had to prove to the world that he could play someone other than Fox Mulder. Did you feel that way, too?
Yes. I needed prove that both to myself and to the outside world. But pretty soon after I moved to the U.K., I was offered a role on the TV series Bleak House, based on Charles Dickens' book. I was shocked that they were offering it to me. People in the U.K. look at acting differently than they do in the U.S.; Helen Mirren and Judi Dench have been flitting back and forth between TV, film and stage for years. There's no differentiation. They approached me, "Well, we've seen [your work] and we think you can do this." And I assumed they would be in the American mindset of, "Well, surely you can only do Scully."

Were you apprehensive about returning to the show now?
No, not because of the character. This last year in particular, I've been in a stage production of A Streetcar Named Desire, which has been a dream of mine for 30 years, and I got to play Stella Gibson, who's a favorite character on a British series called The Fall. The combination of those things felt kind of like a shield, almost, against falling backwards into Forever Scully-dom.

What were your apprehensions then?
I had apprehensions that it would suck [laughs]. And even though there's a lot of fans, what if, actually, they don't want it back as bad as they think? Or what if we don't give them what they really want? The ratio of failure was extreme.

It was a big ask of Chris Carter to develop it, present it and tell the story in a way that appealed to fans. He had to figure out where Mulder and Scully are now, the way we're talking about current issues, the elements that we bring in from past episodes, how to maintain the flavor that we used to have, the mixture of the monster and mythology episodes. Luckily, he figured it out perfectly. But he could've made some wrong decisions along the way and taken it in a completely different direction.

If you were in charge, how would you have handled the pressure of bringing back the show?
If I had been at the helm, I would've said "We were at the forefront of television back then. We should begin the next wave." I say that not knowing what that would be, or even what that would look like.

It was Simon Pegg who said to me, "That is not what the fans want. They want exactly what you gave them before." And lo and behold, that's exactly what Chris did, because he knows these things and I don't [laughs].

What was it about Chris Carter's scripts made you say yes to returning?
We said yes before seeing a script. It was on the notion that it was a good idea, and that it was something that would be welcomed. Also, we said yes after we were sure there wasn't really an interest to do another movie after so many years. If we were going to have a conclusion to the whole story, this was going to be how we did it.

You've said that, as an actress, finding the Dana Scully character again was difficult. How did you ultimately do so?
It was a weird mixture of accepting that she was different because she's older, while at the same time embracing the elements that made her who she was before. There's a youthfulness to her. She's girlish in a different way than a lot of the women that I've played since. So it wasn't until that hit me over the head, and I tapped into that aspect of her – mixed in with her maturity and her hyper-intelligence – that I finally felt like I had found her again.

Was it fun revisiting Scully during these six episodes?
It was actually pretty tough. There was a lot of stuff going on at home in the U.K. in my personal life that was very difficult to not be present for, so it was a tough shoot. I'm very good at compartmentalizing; I learned that early in the first run when I had a kid who was in my trailer and I was on set [laughs]. And for all those years, it was going back and forth between filming scenes daily and then being "mommy," switching on and off. But when you're so far away, it can be really challenging. When real life is so much more important than anything that you're doing in the world of make believe, it causes angst [laughs]. I felt a mix of "Ahh, we're here," and, "Damn, it couldn't have been any other time?"

Looking back on these episodes, I can recognize the good of it and the fun. It was great to be working with David again and, now that we have a friendship, it makes it easier for us — and I'm sure for everybody. With Chris and the writers who we'd worked with before and some of the same crew, it's the same as it ever was. "I've been out of the house for 17 hours, and now we're going to do it again and again and again." The older you get, the more you start thinking, "Man, I'm too old for this shit."

"This is the first time that working with David feels like two friends working together."

You and David Duchovny had a strained relationship on-set in the Nineties. When did that change?
I think a lot of it has to do with time and perspective and maturity. We were shoved down each other's throats for so many years and we didn't have a choice. Now, we're together by choice. That makes a difference. When we look back, I think we remember only the good stuff from the old days. We don't really focus on the difficulties we had. In retrospect, one thinks back and gets to laugh and go, "Oh, my God. Can you believe that happened?"

That, compounded with the time that our relationship has grown in between – the times we've seen each other and been there for each other and supported each other – it's the first time that we're going back really feeling like we're two friends working together. We're making the decision to work with a friend rather than a stranger or a coworker that you don't particularly know very well.

Now that you have played Dana Scully again, what do you think of the character's legacy? She set the mold for many strong, female TV detectives that followed.
It had to be someone, right? The way the landscape looked at the time that The X-Files started, it was just pathetic. If it wasn't going to be Scully, it had to be someone. So the fact that it was her and that I got to bring her to life is pretty darn cool.

The thing that continues to boggle my mind is that kids of all ages are discovering not just the show but are discovering her as a role model. Young girls today look at her as if she were current, which is a very curious thing. So that's also pretty cool, too.

Scully also paved the way for Stella Gibson, your character on The Fall. The last series finale was intense. What have you been filming this time?
It's a lot about the after effects of what happened in the last scene of the last season. One would think, "What could it possibly be about if that has happened?" But you've got [creator] Allan Cubitt at the helm, and he just knows how to write good drama. So we've got five-and-a-half hours of very interesting, unpredictable shit happening. That's about all I can tell you.

Another television show you appeared in after The X-Files was Hannibal, which ended last year. You're in the show's final, stinging scene, in which you're about to eat your own leg. Do you feel that was a fitting end to the show?
If you talk to the diehard "Fannibals," they would say it wasn't a fitting end, because they'd never want it to end. But for me, to be part of that finale with that leg on the table, is just insane and it perfectly fits the mind of [creator] Bryan Fuller. There's been a lot of talk of the show getting an afterlife, coming back on another channel or outlet. That would be interesting, but Bryan Fuller is becoming busier and busier by the week, so I don't know how that would ever manifest itself.

Getting back to The X-Files, what are your thoughts on the finale? What do you think happens?
I think Scully saves the world? She certainly is the only person on the planet who can save the world, but it's a cliffhanger. I hope people like it.

"I don't know if this is the end. I mean, it's a nice idea that we could carry on. But ... there would have to be some pretty extraordinary circumstances."

What was the wrap party like?
[Laughs] It was fun. They were serving mini-burgers and that there was a huge spaceship above our heads. I stole a pillow from a couch that had "The X-Files" written on it.

So, is this the end?
[Singing, à la Jim Morrison] "This is the end." [Sighs] Oh, I don't know. I think we ended it in a way that it could go one way or the other. It all depends. I mean, it's a nice idea that we could carry on. But I live in London. I've got three kids. I have other commitments to other shows. David is doing a TV show for NBC [Aquarius]. There's a lot of things that aren't conducive to a long-running or even one more year of a running, multiple-episode TV show in the mix. So there would have to be some pretty extraordinary circumstances.

But maybe. Maybe the success that we've had thus far with the six episodes is enough for extraordinary circumstances to present themselves. You never know.