Gillian Anderson and Jamie Dornan are sitting side by side in a restaurant booth in south London. Both have been enjoying high-profile moments in their careers in the past few months, Anderson playing Blanche Dubois in an acclaimed production of A Streetcar Named Desire at the Young Vic and Dornan at the centre of the hype surrounding the film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey, in which he will star as sadomasochistic businessman Christian Grey.
Back in 2013, though, in the Belfast-set BBC Two murder drama The Fall, the pair were hunter and hunted, lead detective and serial killer, locked in a struggle of converging obsessions – his with having absolute power over young, dark-haired, professional women, and hers with stopping him from killing again. Here in real life, with the second series soon to begin on BBC Two (a chilling trailer was released in July), they’re finishing each other’s sentences and answering questions for one another with an easy rapport.
I ask Anderson what it is about her character, the Met’s DSI Stella Gibson – seconded to Belfast – that would make a fellow officer in the show say to her: “You have no idea what effect you have on men.”
“I’m not sure I’ve ever asked myself that question,” she says, laughing.
“Go up in that corner and ask yourself, then come back and tell us…” says the 32-year-old Dornan, who plays family man and murderer Paul Spector, “ ’cause I wanna know.”
She thinks for a moment, “Um… I remember thinking that was a shocking thing for me to hear, as Stella. I think she wouldn’t be interested in men finding her attractive; she’s only interested in the ones she finds attractive enough to find her attractive enough to satisfy her fleeting needs. I don’t think that she gives a s—.”
Her fleeting needs. Gibson’s sex life was just one aspect of The Fall that got people talking. In the opening episode, Gibson pressed her hotel room number on a hunky cop she had just met, for a night of sex, then admonished him afterwards for failing to keep his emotions in check. Later, she was informed that he had been killed by a gunman in front of his marital home. “Anything else?” she replied.
Gibson’s desire for, in Anderson’s words, “a little tension relief” is a touchy subject with the actress. “It always surprises me when interviewers want to talk about Gibson and sex and her picking up this guy. Why is this so shocking in our society, when it’s 2014, that a woman clearly chooses to be single, and has a desire to have a one-night or two-night stand? Why is it shocking that a professional woman of a certain age should do something like that?”
Anderson herself is single, although she has been married twice and has three children, Piper, 20, from her first marriage, and Oscar, seven, and Felix, six, from a later relationship with British businessman Mark Griffiths.
She thinks the focus on sex in The Fall “ends up colouring everything else, so it becomes a sexual landscape. There is so much more to this drama.”
It’s true. The emphasis on character, the treatment of grief, the attempt to “keep the victim alive in the drama”, in the words of its writer Allan Cubitt, and the determination to show how easily evil hides itself in society all give it depth and power. The sexual landscape of the series is, however, impossible to ignore.
It gives us a serial killer who enters the homes of his beautiful victims dressed like the man from the Milk Tray adverts; crime scene photos in which one victim, after being tenderly washed by her killer, is reposed in positions that one might find on a mildly kinky blog; apparent sexual tension between murderer and lead detective; and, in the first scene of the first series, the viewer introduced as voyeur (and potential murderer) via a lurking first-person camera shot observing Gibson through the closet doors of her bathroom.
The Fall excels at crossing boundaries. It’s what makes Cubitt’s drama one of the most interesting pieces of television in recent years. The programme repulses us at the same time as seducing us, drawing us into its ethical paradoxes. Is it misogynist? How close do Spector’s images of bodily subjection come to being murder porn?
When I ask Cubitt about this later, he says: “If there are people who think The Fall is misogynist, then that’s an abject failure. I’d be mortified if I thought there was anything remotely pornographic about those images. You’re faced with the dilemma of how far do you go with that posing. I’m aware that individuals that perpetrate those crimes will sometimes pose their victims in unbelievably degrading, abject, disgusting fashion. I didn’t feel that I would want to do that.”
Anderson responds vehemently when I suggest The Fall might be seen as a glossy and glamorous treatment of violence against women. “Those are such provocative words to use. What’s glamorous? The victims just happen to be – some more attractive than others – but just normal girls. They’re not dressed in short skirts, some of them are in flats and not heels; in their lives, they are lawyers, they’re not…”
“They’re not pole dancers,” says Dornan.
“Yeah, they’re not,” says Anderson. “So how is that glossy and glamorous?”
I suggest that the director is, from the first shot, casting the viewer in the role of voyeur.
“Yes, well he is… [But] you’ve got someone cleaning the f—ing bathtub! How is that glamorous? Yes, it is voyeuristic, and yes you are seeing a woman, there is a sexual element to it. But it is not glamorous.”
This is the exchange, I think, that Anderson is referring to later when she says: “I am going to trust that you are not the type of writer who is going to say, ‘She shot back at me from across the table with her steely blue
The 46-year-old Anderson does not have steely blue eyes. Her whole being is in her eyes. Emotions scud across them like weather fronts. They show her feelings updating in real time. They are, I suspect, what allow her to play characters – from Agent Scully in The X-Files to Dr Du Maurier in Hannibal – with such restraint. Even if she does nothing at all, her eyes will tell the whole story.
Gibson, meanwhile, may just be the most intriguing female cop in a British drama since DCI Tennison. (Cubitt wrote Prime Suspect 2). It was Dornan, though, who was Bafta nominated for his terrifying, immersive performance as Spector. I ask him if he’s comfortable with the idea of playing a sexually attractive serial killer, and if he’s aware of playing it like that.
“I don’t think he is playing it like that, he just happens to be an attractive man,” says Anderson.
His own answer is a symphony of hesitation: “I’m not… there’s certainly nothing… I’m not trying to… there’s no conscious decision to… sex anything up. I think he’s written as very charming, and I’ve always tried to play that. I think that’s essential to him.”
With this and Fifty Shades, however, Dornan does seem to be making a specialism of playing sexual sadists. What is it about him that producers are seeing? What is it that he is bringing to those roles?
“I have absolutely no idea. I don’t know. I don’t… I don’t know.”
These answers stand out because Dornan is naturally so voluble. They give the impression that he is a man who doesn’t like to acknowledge his own attractiveness. It’s surprising given that he is a former model who in those black-and-white Calvin Klein ads of the 2000s presented us with one of the most recognisable oiled torsos in the world. When I ask what he took from modelling into acting, he laughs and says: “Patience?” But he goes on: “It sounds stupid, and if I read this myself, I’d think, ‘Nonsense, what a prick,’ but – honestly, I think there’s an element of understanding the camera, whether it’s a moving camera or a still one.”
There’s an odd thing about Dornan. He wears his handsomeness so casually that you forget instantly. Instead, he radiates warmth and humour. When he says he was never interested in seeing fashion shots of himself, you think, of course he wasn’t; when he says he’s sports mad, you think, of course he is. It’s not just his beauty that is complicating the role of Spector, however. The killer is also an apparently loving husband and father, as well as a bereavement counsellor. Dornan enjoys these aspects of the character. “It’s nice for me playing him because, well, at the time I couldn’t relate to being a father, but I can now.” (Dornan’s first child, a daughter, with wife Amelia Warner was born in November last year.)
“It humanises him for me… If you only ever saw him inside the sickness of his mind, the audience would never be on his side, and I think that’s the most chilling aspect of it. My intention, and Alan’s intention, is that the audience is in a way gunning for him in the end, I mean…” he says, laughing, “I hope he gets away with it. I feel that, and I know that other people feel that, not just friends of mine.”
This is exactly the kind of uncomfortable viewing experience that The Fall provides, and discussing it takes our conversation into difficult areas. Anderson talks about the impact that pornography is having on children. Both say that they found the recent celebrity nude photo scandal terrifying, and Anderson says that she still believes television is one of the things that is destroying society. “TV and computers are separating us from having intimate relationships with other human beings. That’s not to say there is not value in television, but the percentage that is of value compared with the amount that is complete crap, the ratio is just off.”
On BBC Two, however, we’re about to see if The Fall can live up to its startling first series. Cubitt has directed it himself this time and says that it will be less voyeuristic and that Dornan “is going to deliver something special” as Spector, who at the end of series one apparently announced an end to his killing spree in a phone call to Gibson from a bridge over the Lagan river. During that call she shocked him by revealing that she knew much more about him than he thought. The sexual tension between them will be a big part of the new series, he says. In one of the most charged moments of the first series, for an appearance on a television appeal Gibson painted her nails the same shade of red as Spector paints the nails of his victims, knowing the killer would see it. There’s still time for us to disagree about how clear a sexual signal this was.
“Whether it’s arousing him sexually or whether it’s sparking a memory of his mother slapping him across the face when he was two years old, whatever. The painting of the fingernails is not necessarily a sexual flag. It’s a psychological device,” says Anderson.
That was what she said later. Her first response was more succinct: “She knows that’s what makes him go doiiiiing.”
The Fall series 2 begins on BBC Two on Thursday November 13 at 9pm