A full 23 years after making its debut, Chris Carter’s cultural phenomenon The X-Files returned to Fox this year with a limited six-episode series, reuniting David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson for the first time since 2008’s The X-Files: I Want To Believe feature film. In late May, with Anderson and Duchovny on opposite sides of the country—she off-Broadway in a revival of A Streetcar Named Desire, which wrapped earlier this month; he in Los Angeles having wrapped a second season of Aquarius—the two stars gathered once more by phone.
In a wide-ranging discussion, they touched on how the show always felt owed an afterlife, recalled meeting each other for the first time, and hesitated when I asked about where the show might go from here. At Fox’s upfront press call in May, Fox TV Group chairmen Dana Walden and Gary Newman said the conversations had started with Carter, Anderson and Duchovny for a new order of episodes. Not so, Anderson told me. “I’m open to the conversation, though they haven’t come to us yet.” Added Duchovny: “The question becomes, if we were going to move on, how do we make it work even better? … How do we make this interesting again for all of us?”
Even for the most optimistic X-Files fan, the return of the show this year felt like a surprise. How long have you all wanted to bring it back?
David Duchovny: I can’t really say that I’ve wanted it to return, necessarily. I guess I just always assumed it would. I mean, when I left the show after eight years I had hoped and assumed that we were going to continue doing movies; that was always the thought behind it. It was just a sense, I guess always, that the show was not going to end in a normal way that shows end—that there would be some kind of an afterlife—and we just always talk about it. We always talked about the possibility of coming back, and what to do next, and who wants to do what. But after the second movie opened against The Dark Knight, and it was kind of a doomed enterprise in that way, I think we assumed it was dead. As television rearranged itself over the last 10 years, the idea of a season changed from 24 episodes, to 6, 8, 10, 12, or whatever. It became apparent that we could exist there, at least temporarily.
Gillian Anderson: In my head, at least, was the fantasy of maybe doing three movies. I don’t know where that came from, but it was a shame the second was handled in the way it was. We knew we wanted to continue the conversation and try and trump that experience. The truth is, in no way or shape am I built for a 24-episode season anymore. But the idea of doing a small pack, and realizing that our series works best when we have an opportunity to show all the elements of it, which you can’t fit into a single feature, suddenly it could be allowed to be all those things it is at its very best.
The landscape of television has changed, and the world has changed too, hasn’t it? You both played an excellent gag about the technology on Jimmy Kimmel’s show, and certainly this season dealt with cybersecurity and the way the Internet works now.
Duchovny: I honestly think the writers’ time is best spent not even concerning itself with the kind of questions about how the show exists now, because I feel like every 10 years or so people like to run around proclaiming that the world has changed and technology has changed us. And the fact is: we’re still humans. Our human nature is exactly the same as it was 500 years ago, let alone five years ago. And that’s really what the show concerns itself with; human nature, and possibility and the freedom to wonder and wander.
Still, we’ve lived with these characters for 23 years now. They’re not where they were when we first met them.
Duchovny: That’s the toughest question for Gillian and I, and probably the hardest thing to gauge going in. Mulder always had this gullibility and boyish wonder that I find hard, in my 50s, to act and make believable. That required recalibration, because the character, as written, doesn’t really change all that much.
Anderson: Exactly. Arriving at this character, and figuring out what part of a 50-year-old Scully still exists in this world, that’s the challenge. [At the start of the season] there’s a little bit of a distance between them, and she’s gotten on with her life, so there’s a certain sense of resolution, longing and melancholy. But a lot of Scully’s personality will always remain, and it wasn’t, actually, until I tapped in less to her seriousness and more into her goofiness that I found her again.
In that way, you’ve both found opposite ends of the spectrum.
Duchovny: I don’t know any other actors who have been faced with these kinds of questions. It’s a very interesting thing to keep coming back to something you started 23 years ago.
Anderson: I didn’t notice, though, until I sat down and watched this series, that I’m holding Scully a lot lighter and allowing her to take herself less seriously. That’s an interesting thing to observe and not realize you were doing until after the fact. And was that the appropriate approach? Well, clearly it has to be, because of the way we’re doing it, but there’s also that relationship of thinking one is doing one thing, and then observing it from the outside and realizing that it might be something else, and maybe that’s OK too.
Duchovny: It has to be, as you say.
Has your work outside The X-Files changed the way you play these characters now?
Duchovny: I think so, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that the specific characters I’ve played have had an influence on Mulder. It’s more the experience, and if you go back to when we established these characters in 1993, it was maybe my second or third job. It was Gillian’s first or second. We were as green as green can be, so we were figuring out how to work. And it’s never good, at this point, to think you’ve figured out how to work, but we certainly know a lot more than we did back then. So in that sense it would definitely affect things, in a wonderful way, to be able to come back again to these characters we established when we didn’t know what the hell we were doing, and to bring to bear what’s happened in the interim on them.
You may not have known what you were doing, but on top of great writing, it was the chemistry between these two characters, and the way you played them, that made the show more than genre television. Was that an instant thing?
Anderson: I feel like the chemistry was there from the very beginning. That was the foundation of it. After so many notes asking us actors to take looks at each other—after doing that I don’t know how many billion times—you start to get the idea that this was what they were playing to. Certainly, they exacerbated that beyond what probably felt comfortable as actors at the end of every scene, but I think that helps you solidify the chemistry.
Duchovny: That word always perplexes me, because Gillian and I never worked on our chemistry. We don’t come in, in the morning, and go, “How’s the chemistry? I really need some coffee with my chemistry this morning.” It’s really a mutual respect and enjoyment of acting with one another. What exists in the writing, as well, is that these two people are true partners and they complete one another intellectually and emotionally. Chris always used to say that Mulder and Scully were one person when they were together… by which, I assume he meant they were Chris Carter. I do think that’s very romantic, when you have a man and a woman treating each other as equals. And not just as equals, but as necessary components of one another. Without the other, they fall as people, as entities, as investigators. It’s highly romantic and yet not sexual, though there’s a lot of tension.
Anderson: They have a clear depth of caring about one another, and that’s what really gets people. They care about one another’s welfare, and so even if they’re at odds in their beliefs, their caring transcends that, through all nine seasons.
Do you remember your first meeting?
Anderson: In the beginning of the casting process, when we were at network, David was cast and I was among a number of actresses being tested alongside him. They were looking for a match of which two looked right together, who worked best together, et cetera. We didn’t know each other at all, but for some reason there was something in the room between the two of us that wasn’t there with others. To a degree, you can manufacture that as actors, and you have to most of the time, but for some reason there was something tangible and palpable that existed between us, right then.
This latest season included a little comedy, a little mythology, a little horror. Did every episode feel completely different?
Duchovny: I would say that was the interesting challenge of returning, because in a full season, even if the writers had different voices, the directors were also rotating and so there was a continuity there. With this, it was almost like you had little movies, and the director became the keeper of the tone of the piece.
Anderson: I think over time we’ve learned how to interpret the different writers, and that it’s not appropriate to play a Darin Morgan script in the way that Chris would write you. So in the end, we almost become different characters.
Duchovny: Yeah, you become the Darin Morgan Scully or the Darin Morgan Mulder. With this season, we did two very dramatic and introspective Chris Carter episodes where Scully is reiterating that she can’t live with this man, and Mulder can’t find his mojo and doesn’t do what he does anymore. And then finally he finds something that sparks in him again, and he’s going to go do it. But now we’re doing a Darin Morgan episode, where I’m playing that same beat but I’m playing it moronically and comedically, and Gillian is doing that as well. It’s almost impossible, but very interesting and challenging for us.
Anderson: Because we built that road way back, the fans know the variables and they welcome them and accept them as a part of what The X-Files is. It would be interesting to see if our show would attempt to do that today from the get-go, and how that would be possible.
Duchovny: I don’t know what other show is like that. I can’t think of any other show that is tonally as expressive, or variable. And I think it organically became like that. It wasn’t something we were doing in the very beginning, but it slowly happened like that over time, and the show became this thing.
At the upfronts last month there was talk about this continuing. That afterlife you spoke of at the very start; is that still there? Is there still unfinished X-Files business?
Anderson: For me, it was important that I thought of this season as being just these six shows when we were doing it. The long insanity of the schedule [demanded it]. I’m open to the conversation, though they haven’t come to us yet. I have no clue when they’re going to. I’m getting on with the rest of my life and I’m booking other jobs, so if it is indeed something that they would like to continue, then that conversation will need to be had. And I have no idea when that will be able to take place at this juncture.
Is there a sense from you of wanting to do more, though? Has this season increased the desire?
Duchovny: I don’t know… I’m pausing, and I don’t know why I’m pausing. I would say, I guess what we found with this season was that it’s possible to still get it. It doesn’t not work. And then the question becomes, if we were going to move on, how do we make it work even better? That’s a question we’d want to ask. This one was, “Phew, we can do it. I guess it did work.” But now it’s like, now what? How do we make this interesting again for all of us? And it is a joy to play, as difficult as it can be. There are days, I’m sure, where Gillian and I would rather go to work and not have to think about it, but ultimately that’s what keeps us alive; these people, those artists, and the chance to be able to use our brains and think on our feet to do the show in that way.
Anderson: David and I have solidified and intensified our friendship and our working relationship since the series ended, so it really is just going back and choosing to work with somebody, and feeling like we are doing something that only the two of us have the experience of. We’re there for each other, and enjoy that in and of itself. It was something I looked forward to with this series, and something I would potentially look forward to doing again. It’s a nice thing to have in one’s life.
Duchovny: I agree with that, and it’s going to sound really pedestrian, and not at all lofty, but when I think back to the beginnings of the show, and what I thought acting was—what I thought I could do as an actor—the gift this show gave me was having to go to work. Having to work as hard as we did, every day, for 14 hours a day, over 10 months, for five years in a row. That was a gift in that I took myself to school, and taught myself how to be an actor. For both Gillian and me, it was really sink or swim at that point, and to be able to do that with great material, and talented people helping us along… it could have gone in another direction, so I’m thankful, I think, just for the hard work that it was in the beginning, and the appreciation it gave me for what I do. It didn’t kill us, anyway.