A risky, unknown choice when hired to play cerebral, skeptical Special Agent Dana Scully, Gillian Anderson is becoming a ubiquitous pop-culture presence, cresting with her Emmy Award win as drama series lead actress with the kind of sensually intelligent aura that used to be monopolized by French actresses like Romy Schneider and Juliette Binoche.
After four years on “The X-Files,” the impact on her as an actor has been, she acknowledges, profound.
“Most importantly,” she says in modest tones via phone from the series’ Vancouver location, “the show has given me an arena to learn my craft. I came to this with no real experience on film (apart from a brief role in forgettable pic “The Turning”), and limited experience on stage.”
In polar opposition to co-star David Duchovny, Anderson entered “The X-Files” netherworld with theater training but virtually no film or TV credits.
She had played the boards of smaller New York theaters as well as venerable regional mainstays including Chicago’s Goodman and New Haven’s Long Wharf.
She was young (25) and, as legend has it, “X-Files” creator Chris Carter had to go to the mat for Anderson’s casting.
Because the TV milieu was so new to her, Anderson now admits, she didn’t realize what a training ground it could be: “Ten months out of each year for the past four years is a huge amount of time to grow as an actor, and it’s given me the continual chance to show up and learn.”
But because “The X-Files” has unwittingly ushered in an entire subculture of fans, sycophants, books, CD-ROMs, soundtracks, spoofs, conventions and drooling Web sites devoted to all that is Scully — because it’s far more than just another hour on the Fox schedule — Anderson has had to deal with a phenomenon that even most veteran TV actors never encounter.
And her best approach, she says, is “to deal with it as little as possible, and keep focused on the work.”
At the same time, surely, hasn’t the series altered her career? “You know, my manager was saying to somebody a short while ago, ‘Oh, Gillian, she’s done such a great job of balancing her life and her career.’ I looked at her and said, ‘Career? What career?’ Beyond ‘The X-Files,’ I really don’t have a career.
“I suppose part of what might be my future career,” she says, pausing for a chuckle, “is going for a kind of anti-Scully character. I’ve been able to show this a bit in two independent features that are coming out, ‘The Mighty’ and ‘Chicago Cab.’ I do have this id in me, this crazy, wild side ready to get out. It’s the side that must be contained for Scully, because even if she has an erotic scene, like with the tattooing in ‘Never Again,’ or a funny scene, like the ones in ‘Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,’ she has to control herself.’
Making the leap to the “X-Files” feature film, tentatively titled “Blackwood,” was “odd,” Anderson found, “because it was in a way the same — an episode, only a really big one — and yet different — much more detailed work, more intense emotions and action, much bigger scale. I was putting a lot of pressure on myself when we first started filming to make the performance bigger and better, because it was a movie. I was nervous, the stakes were much higher. But I learned to pull back a bit, not push the emotions and big moments so much, and keep it small and intimate.
“You can’t imagine what it’s like,” she says with some amazement, “to be used to seeing yourself on a TV-sized image for four years, and then, wham! the first time we checked out takes on the movie monitor, and here we are in a widescreen image. My heart stopped for a couple of beats. It must be like seeing your child hit puberty. It looks like what ‘The X-Files’ was supposed to be all along.”
In the week of the opening of his new movie, “Playing God,” David Duchovny was hitting the TV and radio talkshow circuit like a blue-collar workhorse, blanketing the airwaves with his laconic, flat-toned voice and ironic jokester air. But he knew, in the back of his mind, that the Rosie O’Donnells and Howard Sterns were clamoring for him because of “The X-Files.”
“Yeah,” he acknowledges by phone from his “‘X-Files” trailer, “it does tend to follow me everywhere. But I have to say that the professional existence, the money, the higher profile, the access to people in the industry — all of that is gravy compared to what’s been most valuable for me about making this show. I feel like I really, truly hadn’t acted before this series, and so this afforded me the chance to teach myself how to act. I’m serious. It’s been indispensable.
“On the other hand, outside of ‘Playing God,’ it’s been the only place I’ve been able to act because it takes so much time.”
Unlike many of the series’ key creative minds, who profess that the making of the early episodes was a process of trial-and-error, Duchovny says he had an immediate grasp of what he had to do to make Fox Mulder work as a character, and how it fit in with his own naturally ironic personality. “I immediately had an insight that I would have to play opposite the incredible events Mulder witnesses, that if I were to be the show’s eyes in a sense, I would have to stay pretty calm. If I get too crazy, nobody’s coming along for the ride.”
One side effect of Duchovny’s prominence, after a modest run of non-mainstream movies such as “Kalifornia,” “The Rapture,” “Julia Has Two Lovers” and “The Red Shoe Diaries,” has been his critics, who knock him for a seeming lack of expressiveness. “I do think that’s a misreading of what I aim for, which is irony, and a pretty strong conviction I hold that melodrama and emotional sincerity have to be earned. In life, we tend to try not to feel so much, and too much of acting is showing feelings. So, to make it true to myself, if I have to spill my emotional cards on the table, I’ll do it once an episode, say, and make it worth something.”
Duchovny has recently experienced Mulder going widescreen with the feature movie of “The X-Files,” and realizes, while talking about it, that “it’s really the first big, big movie I’ve been in. This is a big, technical, action movie, but not in the way that I’m being macho in it. It’s pretty much nonstop action, yet I don’t throw a fist. I kick someone.
Pic’s nonstop action
“Movie acting, I’m finding, isn’t more difficult that TV acting; it’s just different. With TV, it’s all about stamina, hanging in there day after day, week after week. In film, you’re waiting around, not doing anything, and you can’t let yourself get off-focus, because once you’re called, you have to have your eye on the ball.”
While keeping mum about details of the super-secret feature, Duchovny says the movie Mulder is “basically the guy you’ve known from the series, but his knowledge gets deeply changed by what he learns in this adventure, and it begins to seriously undermine his core beliefs.’
Like Anderson, Duchovny has no feature projects lined up, but when “I do, I want to make sure, first, that the script is challenging, and second, I surround myself with actors who know more than I do. Then, I’ll be all right.”