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[Warning: Spoilers ahead from season two of Netflix’s The Fall.]
It took five episodes of The Fall, the BBC’s psychological serial killer drama acquired by Netflix for U.S. audiences, for Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson) to catch the scent of family man and professor-turned-murderer Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan), and the second she did, the season came to an end.
For viewers who were waiting and hoping Stella would succeed in getting the bad guy, well, they had to wait a little bit longer. The true cat-and-mouse nature of Paul and Stella’s relationship did not start in earnest until the second season, and for the majority of the series overall, he was the one with the upper hand as he prepared for the possibilities of being tracked down with Stella jogging to catch up.
“The thing about Allan’s writing is that the pages are imbued with the pace and the tension and it’s like nothing I’ve ever worked on before. Just what’s on the page in itself tells you exactly what to play. And even though it doesn’t tell you in detail, it’s just somehow there. It’s a vibe,” Anderson tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I don’t know how he does it. I don’t know how it’s so full.”
Below, Anderson talks with THR about the dark and twisty dramatic second season, including how it has affected her as a woman and an actor.
Writer Allan Cubitt has acknowledged that it took a little while for him to start writing a deeper look into Stella, but the second season definitely spends more alone time with her. How collaborative was the process in fleshing out her world this season?
The first season was pre-written where I was asked to jump on board after it was half written, so I wasn’t in a position that early on to pitch him. Between the two seasons we met, and he’s very open to ideas and talking through things, and I may push some ideas more than others, but at the end of the day, Allan goes away and he does what he does best and figures out the best trajectory for all the characters, and by the time I end up seeing it again — as what happened last time — what I end up reading may or may not include some of those ideas, but whatever he has come up with is exactly what needs to happen! It’s clear that he has taken it through, and that’s what he’s extraordinary at: character development and plot and relationships and tension. And there were so many surprises in reading the second season, and I was very happy with what was on the page in front of me.
His scripts are a gift, and for whatever reason I completely feel like I understand Stella — from the moment I open the page. Obviously it’s my interpretation of her, but it’s almost like I feel it’s an alchemic process, and I am pasting these pages on my body (laughs), or taking it in in ether. There has never been a second when I thought, “She wouldn’t do that,” or “She wouldn’t say that,” or “How about we try this?” So me showing up is about servicing [Allan’s] creation.
What were some of those things that surprised you the most, and did your approach to playing Stella change with the various new nuances you learned about her in the second season?
No, I think my surprises were more in relation to Paul, not Stella. The development of the relationship between Paul and Katie — and how he faked being the killer with Stella, and also his outward curling rage against Stella, and the leak in [his] house. It had less to do with Stella’s trajectory; I didn’t feel like there were any surprises there based on the conversations that we had already had.
You mentioned that you understand Stella; do you feel like you’ve learned anything from her?
I do feel like she has awakened a comfortability with my sexuality and with myself as a sexual being as a woman. You know, I identify myself as heterosexual, and I’m not saying that I’m suddenly promiscuous (laughs), but I’m just saying that somehow, because she is so comfortable with that in herself, I felt like in the playing it, it awakened something and gave me permission to be comfortable with myself as a woman.
She is complicated, and you know from watching the second season there are oddities there. She’s not 100 percent honest; she lies a couple of times in this second season; and she makes choices that perhaps are not to her best interest and not necessarily professional … and yet, all of those aspects of her, and her failings and her foibles and her quirks and sometimes her real warmness that I think she comes with, you take as a whole of her, and somehow — I do anyway — forgive those aspects of her. Because there are bits of her that are so great, I forgive the [mistakes], and so I think it’s allowed me to also accept all that I come with and be less judgmental and self-punishing about the areas of my life or are of me and my personality that might be easier to judge negatively.
Talking about some of the unprofessional decisions Stella makes means we have to talk about Jim Burns and Tom Anderson.
Jim’s relationship with her is not professional! (Laughs.) With Anderson, even though I knew that was coming based on the things I had discussed with Allan, it’s kind of shocking. And it’s slightly like, “Whoa, wait, really? Is she going to do this? Why? What does it mean? What is it in her that needs that, and why this, now?” And also, just in terms of what the consequences might be. In this particular instance, I think she knows he’s not married, but have they discussed whether he has a girlfriend? And forgetting that, there are professional implications, and she doesn’t seem to care that [others] might know. They show up together! They arrive together in the same car! There’s no shame there; there’s no desire to hide it. She’s allowing him to be complicit. You know, she lies to [Jim] in the beginning and says “Anderson’s wearing a mask” and implies that she didn’t know he was an attractive young man [when they first met and she selected him for the case], but she knows that he knows. And they’re both comfortable with it. She can tell that he’s agreed and will participate in this venture.
Do you consider that a way for her to take control and own a situation, considering the lack of control she had at many points with Paul?
Yes, yes, definitely.
One of the most compelling parts of The Fall‘s second season is the anticipation of what Stella will do if and when she finally gets to confront and arrest Paul. There is some back and forth of him taunting her, and then there is that intense interrogation scene. Can you pull the curtain back a bit on your process for that relationship this season?
It’s all separate. Until we’re in the room together, which doesn’t happen until the end, all of that stuff is stuff that we’re doing on our own [because] it’s in scenes where we’re shooting separately. So whatever is transpiring is really transpiring between the actor and the scripts and Allan.
Specifically in the scene where Stella is trying to get him to confess, there is a lot of restraint on your part to just have her sit and listen and show emotions on your face rather than get physical.
As a detective superintendent, it wouldn’t have been appropriate for Stella to get physical. But she also knows exactly how she needs to play it in order to get him to deliver what she needs him to deliver, and that happens. She also can’t go, “Woo-hoo!” when that happens. She realizes she’s walking a tight rope, and he knows that she’s walking a tight rope, and he’s willing to jump on it with her. But you also get the sense that when they’re talking about control, which they do, and he think he’s still in control. He’s not in control [initially] and yet to a degree he is in the next few scenes because of the ultimatum that he gives in terms of seeing his daughter [to reveal what he did to Rose]. And that’s a big decision for her to make: to concede that to him in the hope of finding somebody who might already be dead. That’s a bit power play, and so I think because of how she balances that scene and how carefully she takes that, it enables the relationship to go further.
At what point in the season do you think Paul got under Stella’s skin the most?
Definitely when he read her diary and then he writes that entry about her relationship with her father — that moment — and then when he’s across from her and is asking questions about her father. That is her underbelly right there.
The worlds you’re diving into on television right now — The Fall but also NBC’s Hannibal — are such dark, psychologically complex, but also very violent ones. What is it about that genre that keeps drawing you to it?
I don’t feel like that aspect of it has anything to do with it, to be honest. I was drawn into The Fall because of how great the character of Stella was and how extraordinary the writing was, but it could have been about anything. Hannibal is too dark for me! It is. If I’m going to watch some of my scenes, I need to have my finger on the fast forward [button]. I literally am not that person. But what I am interested in there is I know the genius of [showrunner] Bryan Fuller and how extraordinary it is, what they’re creating in an artistic vein. And the opportunity to work with those three fine actors — and also when you’re offered Hannibal Lecter’s psychiatrist, that’s a difficult thing to say no to! (Laughs.) So, it has more to do with all of that then any draw to the darkness because I’m not drawn to darkness at all.
In saying you’re not drawn to darkness, does that apply to projects you are behind the scenes of as well, or do you approach what you will act in differently from what you may want to direct?
I have a strange relationship with the whole directing thing. Because I have this project that I’ve been working on for probably half my life, I need to carve out space so that actually gets done. I have been asked to direct other projects, and I’ve said no, but if there was something that upon looking at it I immediately knew how I would shoot it and felt like I could commit the time and energy it takes to be a director, which is different than being an actor, then I would. But it is a completely different path, and I don’t think that I could also be in the thing that I am directing — unless it was a character that was so under my skin already that it was a no-brainer.
The Fall season two is now streaming on Netflix.
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