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Chasing after aliens, occult killers and your missing partner can really get a gal down. Especially after nearly eight years.

So Gillian Anderson, who plays ultra-brainy FBI agent Dana Scully on television's long-running supernatural drama The X-Files, was elated when British director Terence Davies chose her to star in his film adaptation of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth.

The assignment involved carrying practically every scene of the sumptuous-looking period piece and dealing with the most harrowing emotional disintegration, all while wearing the constricting corsets of a century ago.

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But when you deal with monster slime week in and week out, almost anything can seem like a tonic.

"I feel like I got off easy, because this particular novel is like having character Cliff Notes," says the petite, 32-year-old redhead, looking the polar opposite of an Edwardian society woman in black slacks, short boots and a violet sweater. "I mean, Edith Wharton spells it out -- psychologically, emotionally, on all levels -- beat by beat by beat. So it felt like this was the easiest possible role I could have chosen, in some ways."

This is what's known in the acting trade as extreme modesty.

"I think she's in every shot of the film except nine," says Davies, the cinematic essayist of such autobiographical art films as Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes. "I'm incredibly proud of her performance, the ability to chart that very hard line from frivolousness through to genuine tragedy. I think, at the end, she really does achieve a tragic quality, and I'm immensely moved by that."

In The House of Mirth, Anderson plays Lily Bart, a young New York society woman of 100 years ago on the hunt for a rich husband. Complicating Lily's quest is her love for lawyer Lawrence Seldon (Eric Stoltz) who, though a member of her social circle, is not quite wealthy enough to qualify as marriage material. Unable to act on either her heart or her cunning, Lily finds herself increasingly compromised and, ultimately, ostracized from the only class she knows how to live in.

In such novels as Mirth and The Age of Innocence, Wharton proved an astute chronicler of the genteel-yet-cutthroat manners that both powered and restricted the Gilded Age's highest echelons. As Anderson, a long-time fan of the author, notes, Wharton's cultural insight was matched by her psychological acumen.

"Her characters are so complex, hand-in-hand with the fact that at this particular time, everything was hidden behind a mask of congeniality and social graces," the actress says. "You could not say certain things, you could not say what was on your mind, everything was restricted and restrained. Plus, you've got corsets on, and you had to breathe in a particular way to be heard! Everything was not as it seemed, and that's something Terence directed us through very well in this movie.

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"Lily's plight is a moral dilemma. It's about whether she makes a choice of the heart or a choice of money or higher social standing or whatever it is. Being alive today, and particularly in this business, there are a great deal of parallels to that. But I think that it is a human dilemma that she is faced with, and that we are faced with every single day, from how we treat somebody in a room to how we react to homeless people. It's about making the right choice, it's about making decisions that are from here [points to heart]rather than from here or here [points elsewhere]"

Anderson goes on to contrast and compare the choices that limited women like Lily a century ago to the much wider -- but still ethically challenging -- range of options women enjoy today.

"The easiest parallel would be me choosing, as an actor, to do films that move me and I think are socially conscious movies, as opposed to those that could make me more money," says Anderson, whose only big feature has been the 1998 X-Files movie spinoff (other film credits include The Mighty and Playing by Heart). "I happen to be in an incredibly fortunate situation right now, so that's easy for me to do. But in all of our lives, on a daily basis, we are presented with opportunities where we can do the right thing.

"One thing that I think is part of the extraordinary complexity of this role is that, not only do we see Lily struggling between marrying for love and marrying for money, but she's not choosing either. That is the tragedy in this, she can't bring herself to do one thing or the other. And I think that we have that experience in our lives very often, when we're just stuck in this place."

Spoken like someone who's just seen her long-time television co-star, David Duchovny, negotiate a cushy deal that resulted in more money for returning to The X-Files for a seventh season while only having to appear in a handful of episodes. That left Anderson, who is contracted to remain on the show through next year, to carry the brunt of the narrative continuity from episode to episode. While Duchovny's character, Fox Mulder, has been in the custody of abducting aliens, Scully has been partnered with a new agent, John Doggett, played by Robert Patrick.

"I've only seen David a handful of times since the beginning of the season," Anderson notes. "There are about six episodes that he's involved in now that we're reaching the end of the year, but it's odd. I mean, it's like I've taken on a lover in a sense; there's another man living in the house, you know what I mean? We haven't had a lot of experience where it's the three of us, but I'd be lying if I didn't say that it's a little awkward. But," she adds with a coy smile, "we're all adults."

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Anderson does admit that the change has revitalized the show, and that by shifting the role of the experienced believer in paranormal phenomena from Mulder to former designated skeptic Scully, what had become an increasingly rote activity for the actress has been agreeably freshened.

But despite having remained intriguing for far longer than most television dramas have managed, Chris Carter's series is clearly due to end sooner rather than later. And while the probability of more X-Files feature films looks fine to Anderson, she is preparing herself for the end of the TV-series grind.

Well, sort of.

"The idea of actually having long stretches of free time sounds really good," says the actress and divorced mother of a 6-year-old daughter. "I also love the idea of going back to the theatre. But I want to focus on doing a couple of films a year and working with people who I've always wanted to work with."

The Anderson who will one day come out of The X-Files will be, in many ways, the polar opposite of the woman who started the show. Born in Chicago, Anderson spent her childhood in London, and went totally punk in adolescence upon resettling in the United States, in Grand Rapids, Mich. Voted both class clown and most likely to be arrested by her high-school classmates, the rebellious teenager wore safety-pin jewellery, multicolored spiked hair and a perpetual scowl.

But she also got interested in community theatre, which led to college-level acting courses back in Chicago. There was time spent in the New York stage world, then a low-budget movie, The Turning, brought her to California.

Still packing quite an attitude, Anderson went into her first X-Files audition with a theatre snob's utter ignorance. And not just about what show creator Carter was trying to get at.

"I was totally clueless, in so many ways, about television," she says. "I did not know what a pilot was. I did not know what going to network was. I did not know that television series had seasons -- I knew nothing. But the most important thing that I didn't know was how lucky I was. I thought that people got on shows that were picked up all the time."

Now that she's made Scully the model for every capable modern woman in the network universe, the camera-savvy, fully professional, parenthood-oriented Anderson still feels lucky -- and, ever humble, ready to learn more.

"Through many series of falling on my ass, I've learned a lot of lessons," she says, with a smile, but in a no-joke tone. "I think that there's always room for improvement and change. And I hope to God that there is some day when I'll be able to look at something I've done on screen and can go, 'Hey, I am so proud of that.'

"And I'm sure there will be. But I've yet to see it."

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