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Gillian Anderson Remembers Her First Big Break as an Actress

Gillian Anderson is starring in two TV series (NBC’s “Hannibal” and Netflix’s “The Fall”), and just published her first novel, the supernatural thriller “A Vision of Fire.” Back in 1991, she was just as good at multitasking when, waitressing at three restaurants, she was cast in off-Broadway play “Absent Friends” at City Center Stage — and earned her first review in Variety.

How did you end up in New York?
I came straight out of college. For graduation at DePaul University in Chicago, I was given my parents’ old VW Rabbit. It took me so long to pack up all my junk that I set out by myself on my journey to New York at 11 p.m. — not advised. I pretty much drove straight through. I remember my futon was strapped to the roof. I was smoking in the car, and I realized all the embers were going up, and if the futon caught on fire, the whole car would burst into flames. So I smoked with the windows rolled up.

Was this your first acting job?
It was my first break. Mary-Louise Parker was originally cast, but she got the movie “Grand Canyon” and left. I was waitressing in the East Village and at a greasy spoon and a fancy restaurant. I was terrible at waitressing at the fancy restaurant. I can handle 30 tables with fast service, but not two tables at a high-end place.

What do you remember of the show?
Because I grew up in the U.K. I could do a British accent, but they were taking a very big risk in hiring me. I had no experience. I had only done a few plays in college. It was a very steep learning curve under (director) Lynne Meadow. I was 22, somewhat lackadaisical and probably very self-obsessed, and wasn’t as mindful of the importance of timing in a comedy.

What did you do after it closed?
I went back to waitressing. I remember serving somebody a plate of food, and him saying, “Weren’t you the girl who won the Theatre World Award for the play you did off-Broadway. What happened?”

And then?
It felt like months and months, and one day, I landed three jobs. Because I was greedy, I took two — a play, “The Philanthropist,” and an independent film shot in Virginia. At the play, I met a young man who I moved to Los Angeles with. And while we were together, I auditioned for “The X-Files.”

What advice would you give yourself looking back?
I think I was pretty hard on myself. There were definitely periods that I felt discouraged. It felt like it was endless rejection. But if I look back at everything I accomplished in a short time, it’s pretty cool.

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