It’s a tough life for actors — you spend years developing your craft, going out on auditions, hoping to one day get that big break. Then the big break happens, and suddenly you find yourself getting typecast for the rest of your career. The threat of pigeonholing is one that every successful thespian faces, and perhaps none more so than the ones who do science-fiction television. For every “Star Trek” regular who gets to do Shakespeare, there’s a dozen more who find it difficult to find work that doesn’t involve dilithium crystals.
So with the release of “The X Files: I Want to Believe,” featuring Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny returning to the roles of FBI agents Dana Scully and Fox Mulder, which they played for nearly 10 years on a successful TV show and in one previous film, it’s worth looking at how these performers have crafted careers that allow them to enter and exit the geek ghetto as they see fit. Any actors who are about to board a starship might want to read this safety card first:
1. Don’t be an overnight sensation. It’s easier to bounce into non-genre material if Hollywood and the public already knows you can do something else.
By the time this duo got cast on “The X Files,” both Anderson and Duchovny had plenty of interesting and eclectic work on their résumés. Duchovny first drew notice with a charismatic performance in 1989’s “New Year’s Day,” one of director Henry Jaglom’s love-it-or-hate-it talkathons. Within a few years, Duchovny was getting raves for turns in provocative and off-kilter cult sensations like Michael Tolkin’s controversial “The Rapture,” where he played a hedonist who becomes a born-again Christian, and David Lynch’s TV series “Twin Peaks,” which featured Duchovny as a cross-dressing DEA agent.
(And not all of Duchovny’s background comes from the world of acting, either. With a Master’s in English from Yale, he could always become a professor if he decides to bail on the whole movies-and-TV thing.)
While Anderson, eight years younger, didn’t come to the show with as many credits as Duchovny, she too had a diversity of experiences on her plate. Having earned a BFA in theater from DePaul University, Anderson trained for a summer with the National Theatre of Great Britain at Cornell University.
At the age of 22, she was acting opposite Brenda Blethyn on the New York stage in Alan Ayckbourn’s “Absent Friends,” a performance that garnered her a newcomer award from Theatre World. She followed this play with other theater work, which led to TV gigs; it was her guest turn on a short-lived Fox series that drew the attention of “X Files” producer Chris Carter, who fought to cast Anderson over the network’s objections. (They wanted a bigger name.)
2. Don’t phone it in. There’s a temptation, sometimes, for actors working in genre movies or TV to feel superior to the material and to play it arch or campy rather than with complete seriousness and conviction. On the other hand, you have performers like Kathy Bates and Jodie Foster, who respectively scored Oscars for giving ferocious but nuanced performances in the creepy thrillers “Misery” and “The Silence of the Lambs.”
While the haunting aura and deadpan performances of “The X Files” would often loan themselves to parody in the hands of others, Duchovny and Anderson always played the material straight, finding a way to bring the chilly minimalism that you might find in a Claude Chabrol movie to a TV series about aliens, government conspiracies and unexplained phenomena.
Their efforts paid off — both Anderson and Duchovny became internationally famous thanks to the show, and between them they scored six Emmy nominations and one win (for Anderson, in 1999) for their work on “X Files.”
3. Confound expectations. During and after their “X Files” tenure, both actors were savvy enough to pursue varied career options, making it apparent that they had other colors in their paintbox besides what millions of people were watching them do on television each week.
Anderson’s extracurricular turns during the show’s run included a powerful voice performance in the English-language version of “Princess Mononoke,” an extraordinary animated epic from Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki (“Spirited Away”); the chance to swap romantic banter with a pre-“Daily Show” Jon Stewart in the romantic ensemble dramedy “Playing by Heart”; and most notably, starring as Lily Bart in an adaptation of Edith Wharton’s “The House of Mirth” for British director Terence Davies.
Her portrayal of a 19th century woman undone by social convention drew raves across the board, with Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek calling it “an astonishing performance,” comparing one of Anderson’s glances to “a stop-motion photograph of a flower turning its face to the sun, her features register(ing) a shift from deeply troubled self-involvement and confusion to distilled, radiant pleasure.”
Duchovny explored his comedic side during those years, balancing starring roles in the sweet “Return to Me” and the slapsticky “Evolution” alongside his dramatic turn in “Playing God.” (His occasional appearances on “The Larry Sanders Show,” playing a version of himself who was hopelessly devoted to Garry Shandling’s titular talk-show host, were always a treat as well.) Once he left “X Files,” Duchovny continued to play for laughs in “Connie and Carla,” “Trust the Man” and “The TV Set,” while also broadening his horizons to the other side of the camera, making his debut as a writer-director with “The House of D.” Currently, he’s returned to his sexy cable roots (remember “Red Shoe Diaries”?) with the successful Showtime series “Californication.”
Also staying busy with a variety of projects, Anderson appeared alongside Steve Coogan in the British comedy “A Cock and Bull Story,” which deconstructed the already deconstructionist “Tristram Shandy,” and received acclaim for roles in the “The Last King of Scotland” as well as the BBC production of “Bleak House” (which aired stateside on “Masterpiece Theatre,” the veddy, veddy distinguished PBS series which she now hosts). Anderson also made her debut on London’s West End in “What the Night is For” in 2002; she’ll return there next year to star in a new production of Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House.”
The fact that Anderson and Duchovny have chosen to periodically return to the characters of Scully and Mulder obviously speaks well for the material and for their relationship with “X Files” creator Chris Carter. Because it’s obvious by looking at the fruitful and unpredictable careers of both actors that if they didn’t want to put the trench coats back on, they wouldn’t.