TO THE X-FILES SET, A STAR IS BORNE
February 28, 1998
The truth is out there all right and, to be truthful, I think it was the out-there hair that clinched it.
The X-Files people were looking for someone to play a visiting Scandinavian lecturer at a forum on extraterrestrials. I seemed to fit right in.
Our neighbour Laura, a TV and movie booker with a Vancouver talent agency, has been pushing me for months to try out for small parts on locally made Hollywood shows.
I do, it's true, have a performance history. I was in a school production of Macbeth with David Frost in 1956. I directed the first English-language production outside London of Samuel Beckett's Endgame in 1958 (at the University of Nottingham). The Vancouver acting community is still recovering from my years as a theatre critic. And I've done radio and TV chitchat for years.
But to all intents and purposes, my practical experience in the theatre is nil.
That didn't bother Laura. "You're a natural," she said. "They're always looking for new faces." Not to mention (she was polite enough not to) new hair.
I auditioned last year for an X-Files role as a Russian-speaking abduction victim (no luck, though I didn't mind - when the show reached the screen the role had become voice-only). I tried for Millennium and for a movie of the week. Nothing.
Then came Patient X and the tiny part of Dr. Per Lagerqvist.
The way Laura tells it, the X-Files casting people asked her to send me as a possible for this one-scene role. But when I got there, a bunch of professional actors I recognized from my reviewing duties over the years were up for the same scene.
I did it dead straight, no accent, and told myself to chalk up another one to experience.
But the next day, Laura phoned to say I'd received a callback. This time the competition was down to two of us, series creator Chris Carter was on hand for the reading, and by the time I got home Laura had phoned to say I had the job.
Well, big excitement. They called me in for a costume fitting the next morning (grey suit? black suit?) and my one-day shoot (as we movie people say) took place on location (as we movie people say) a month ago in Port Moody.
Talk about starting at the top - since the part involved more than three lines (it was actually 12, but they're really short lines), I was officially classified as a "principal actor" and given my own trailer (as we movie people call it), complete with my character's name on the door.
Well, it wasn't the whole trailer: it was divided into a number of separate rooms, each allocated to one of the speaking members of the forum panel (the others were Barbara Dyke, who had read with me at both auditions, and Ron Halder, whom I remembered reviewing back in the '70s when he became a Vancouver Playhouse leading man straight out of drama school).
Still, it was a lot more than I'd expected - I thought I'd probably be shoved into some communal dressing room with the extras. As it was, I had my own day-bed on which to rest and contemplate my lines and character portrayal, my own wardrobe with my assigned clothes neatly hanging waiting for me, and my own little bathroom.
So this, I told myself, is what stardom is like.
The set was the Port Moody council chambers, which also function as the Inlet Theatre, converted for the occasion into a lecture hall. Every seat was filled -- 160 miscellaneous extras: clearly, no expense is spared by these X-Files people.
From the look of the script, I thought we'd be through the whole thing in an hour or so - it's a very brief scene in which the expert panelists have cold water poured on their enthusiasm by Special Agent Mulder.
So much for what I know.
My wardrobe/make-up call was at 11 a.m., and we didn't wrap (as we say in the movie business) until 8:30 p.m. That included a one-hour lunch break at 5 p.m. (we movie folk always call the first meal-break of the day lunch, even if it's taken at midnight).
Talk about pampering, talk about being put at ease -- I even had a stand-in, who sat at my place so the camera people could do their measurements while I stretched my legs between takes ("Did they bring you up here from L.A. for this?" one of the extras asked me during a break).
Getting such a close-up look at the sheer professionalism of what was going on gave me, I have to say, a new respect for the quality of work that goes into creating an hour of network TV entertainment in 10 days.
This was a place where calm, efficient creativity was happening at speed. Performance was just another element in the mix, like script and lighting and camerawork, and no one expected anything but consistently polished delivery. That's the reason for the pampering; that's why they want you at optimum ease.
The director, Kim Manners, a relentless dynamo with a pictorial vision that wouldn't quit, shot the scene over and over again, from every conceivable angle -- over shoulders, from below, in longshot, in extreme close-up. Kicking it in the ass was the term he used.
"Okay, new deal," Manners would cry, and they'd promptly rearrange the furniture and reposition the cameras. I lost count of the number of full-scene takes we did, but I'd guess it was at least 40.
The experience changed the way I watch TV: the next weekend, watching a Manners episode of The X-Files, I spent most of the time counting the fast-cut camera angles that give the show its visual vitality.
For the show's star, David Duchovny, it was just another day on the set. On screen, he'll seem to be wearing a smart suit, but below the forum table, where the camera couldn't see, he was wearing his shirt-tails loose over blue jeans. He was relaxed, almost nonchalant (like his delivery), kibbitzing from time to time with Manners and the crew, and making small talk with the panelists around him.
Someone told Duchovny it was my first experience at movie acting, which indeed it was, and despite what the gossips might say about his reputed brattiness, he was graciousness itself.
Part of my little speech that opens the scene involves the term "ontological shock" and I joked to him that he and I were probably the only people in the place who knew what that meant (I only knew because I'd asked my nearest and dearest, who has done post-graduate philosophy, to explain it, but I thought Duchovny's university background would probably make him au fait with the lingo).
He laughed and said that was probably true, and dismissed the term as a big-sounding phrase for a simple idea.
Later, as we sat in our canvas-backed chairs between takes (his chair had his name on it; mine simply said CAST, but you can't have everything, at least not the first time), we talked about philosophy and the inflated uses of language.
Duchovny mentioned a prof who'd once brought a recording of a heartbeat to class, which got us on to a recent solo ballet that Mikhail Baryshnikov choreographed to an amplification of his beating heart (ballet -- now we were getting closer to a topic I knew something about).
Duchovny mentioned a recent New Yorker article we'd both read about Baryshnikov, in which Baryshnikov had talked about spending time with Rudolf Nureyev. He was clearly intrigued by both Baryshnikov and Nureyev and their total dedication to their art form; I was able to give him some personal stuff about the two dancers and it was all quite jolly.
I wasn't always word-perfect -- I probably offered every permutation on my words known to lexicography - and late in the proceedings there was a spell where I began to feel my lines actually drifting away from me.
I had to restart a scene a couple of times, but I only caused one actual retake. The adrenaline jolt of embarrassment at blowing my lines in front of 200 people who were all being paid to listen hard produced a subsequent sequence of word-perfect takes.
The cheque arrived from Laura two weeks later. Let's just say that if I were to extend that one-day rate into an annual salary, I'd be worth any three senior editors at The Sun, and probably a reporter to spare.
Patient X is due for broadcast Sunday at 9 p.m. Even assuming I haven't bitten the dust of the cutting-room floor, my contribution is (as we English thespians say) just a spit and a cough, so be sure you see the first 10 minutes. After that, I'm history.