‘All right, you can take your trousers down now,’ says Gillian Anderson at the end of our interview.
Not to me, mind, but to Vanessa Kirby, Anderson’s co-star in the summer’s most anticipated theatre production, who kicks off our interview by attempting to drop her kecks to show off a recently acquired bite mark. The older, wiser Anderson – an international household name for almost 20 years – drily advises the puppyish young Kirby that she might want to wait until the strange journalist man has left before dropping ’em.
The pair became friends on the BBC’s acclaimed 2011 ‘Great Expectations’, which saw rising star Kirby playing Estella to Anderson’s poisonous Miss Havisham. But today the two of them could pass for giggling sisters, largely because Anderson is both more fun than you’d expect, and also about a billion times more British: raised in London and now resident here, she has a crisp accent that bears no resemblance to that of Special Agent Dana Scully. They ping off each other fabulously. ‘She’s the funny, dry one,’ says Kirby, cheerily. ‘I’m the overdramatic loser.’
And it’s a good job they can pass for sisters, because they’re deep in rehearsals to play the most famous siblings in the theatre canon: Blanche DuBois and Stella Kowalski, in Tennessee Williams’s iconic American tragedy ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’.
It’s the fastest-selling show in the Young Vic’s history, and a lot of that is down to Anderson’s star power. Certainly performing in Williams’s play was her idea. ‘I never actually knew why,’ she says, ‘but it’s almost as if the cells in my body knew that at some point in my life I needed to do this and that if I had not I would feel that I had failed.’
However, the very fact that ‘Streetcar’ is happening at the Young Vic, with the great Benedict Andrews directing, can be partly laid at Kirby’s door. In 2012 she starred there in Andrews’s landmark production of Chekhov’s ‘Three Sisters’. Anderson came to see it. ‘Everyone in the cast was like, “Oh, ohmygod, Gillian Anderson, she’s so hot,”’ cackles Kirby. ‘I said: “Actually, she’s my friend.”’ When she passed Anderson the director’s email address, Kirby jokily suggested she would be up for playing Stella, to which Anderson laconically replied: ‘If you can shrink a foot in height and age ten years then it’s yours.’ But after seeing a photo of the pair on a night out, Andrews was intrigued, Kirby was cast, and we can expect a slightly more imposing Stella than the usual delicate flower.
‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ is the great American playwright Williams’s greatest play: the story of fading beauty Blanche, who attempts to escape her demons by seeking refuge with sister Stella, but is instead demolished by her brother-in-law Stanley (played here by American actor Ben Foster). It is a great role, but it is not a happy one.
‘She arrives destroyed and yet she is still fighting for her own sanity,’ says Anderson. ‘She is fighting to hold on to that which is most familiar to her: class, superiority, history, family, everything that has made women feel safe throughout civilisation. She has come seeking safety and salvation and that’s the opposite of what she gets: she comes face to face with her destroyer in Stanley and this play is that trajectory.’
Andrews’s ‘Three Sisters’ famously featured a radical set. But both actors, who speak of Andrews in reverential tones (‘I don’t know if I could go back to doing a play with anyone else,’ says Anderson), stress that imposing a vision is not his aim. Instead, he tries to make an old play feel as fresh today as it did to its original audience. To this end, their ‘Streetcar’ will be stark, minimalist and staged in the round, without any 1940s period detail.
‘It’s about the clearest line between Tennessee, the actors and the audience,’ says Kirby. It’s a smash already. When tickets went on sale demand crashed the Young Vic’s website. Your best bet for getting in now is to enter the nightly ticket lottery at 5pm. When I ask Anderson what’s next, she wearily explains that she has to spend 21 hours of ‘Streetcar’s opening week recording an audiobook of her upcoming novel ‘A Vision of Fire’. She’s also starring in several TV shows (notably HBO’s ‘Hannibal’ and BBC/RTE’s ‘The Fall’). And Kirby’s star is rocketing, with forthcoming appearances in the Wachowskis’ ‘Jupiter Ascending’ and mountaineering thriller ‘Everest’). It’s almost unbelievable that Anderson, Kirby and the in-demand Andrews found time to work on a play together.
It’s still tantalisingly difficult to know what to expect from the production: though both Anderson and Kirby speak thoughtfully about their roles, they don’t bring Blanche and Stella out of the rehearsal room. But as I leave and Kirby prepares to drop her trousers, one thing’s pretty clear: they’re one hell of a sister act.
'A Streetcar Named Desire' runs at the Young Vic theatre until Sep 19.