The X Files' Mitch Pileggi at Zach Theatre
What conspiracy brought the actor back to Austin, Zach, and FBI assistant director Walter Skinner all at the same time?
On Sunday, Jan. 24, while more than 16 million viewers were getting their first look at Walter Skinner in more than seven years, the actor who's played that redoubtable FBI assistant director since The X-Files' first season back in 1994 was languishing in the ninth circle of theatre hell. When he could have been in front of some huge flat-screen somewhere on one of the coasts, basking in the glory of the much-ballyhooed relaunch of Fox TV's Nineties hit, Mitch Pileggi was instead on a stage deep in the heart of Texas, trudging the last mile of that week-before-opening marathon known as tech, when the director, stage manager, designers, crew members, actors, and every other soul bound to a show spend two consecutive 12-hour days inside the theatre hashing out every single technical detail. By the time Mark Snow's spooky theme signaled that Mulder and Scully were back on the trail of the mysterious and unearthly, the company for Zach Theatre's production of Tribes was well on its way through the second dress rehearsal run of Nina Raine's award-winning play about a family confronting what it means to be deaf. And though tech's levels of intense focus and mind-numbing tedium run so far into the red for so long that even the most patient and soft-spoken of thespians can turn into F-bomb-dropping, raging refugees from a David Mamet play, this was, unquestionably, where Pileggi wanted to be; where, as he will tell you, he needed to be: on a stage again – and not just a stage anywhere, a stage in Austin. This was home.
See, the capital city was where Pileggi cut his teeth as an actor in the early Eighties. When the 1979 revolution in Iran led the new Texas Ex to rethink work as a defense contractor (he was working in Isfahan just two weeks before the shah was deposed), Pileggi decided to drop anchor back in the city where he'd gone to college. Looking for something to do besides drive for Roy's Taxi, he auditioned for theatre – something he'd dabbled in in high school – and after he was cast in a Zachary Scott Theatre Center production of Jean Anouilh's The Lark, the acting bug bit hard. For the next four years, Pileggi was rarely offstage, taking roles in four or five shows a year: Pontius Pilate in Jesus Christ, Superstar at the Zilker Hillside Theater, Victor Franz in Arthur Miller's The Price at Zach, Amos Hart in Chicago for Genesius Players, Tilden in Sam Shepard's Buried Child (with the last two earning him B. Iden Payne Awards), along with roles in Bent, 110 in the Shade, Rashomon, and Lone Star. And even when Pileggi wasn't onstage, he was at the theatre. He got a gig cleaning the building at Zach, which led to him helping build sets, and even keeping the books. "My blood, sweat, and tears are in that building," he says of Zach's Kleberg Theatre, its only space in the Eighties. The pay was minimal (when there was any pay), and everyone scrambled to make ends meet, but the quality of the work was often surprisingly high, there was room to grow and learn and a strong sense of camaraderie and community, and, hey, it was Austin. The actor speaks of those days with the fondness that one has for a profoundly formative experience in one's past: "It was great to be around a lot of really good people and feed off of that and help that passion that I had in me really start to burn."
Having built up his confidence on Austin stages, Pileggi was determined to make his living as an actor, which in that time meant: a) working in film and TV, and b) since there was not much of an industry here then, leaving Austin, which he did in 1984. In his first years in L.A., he suffered the predictable string of anonymous one-shot parts in TV series (his list includes Ex-Boyfriend, Large Biker, and Concert Guard #2), but his career turned a corner in the early Nineties, especially once he became the staunch ally of Fox's paranormal Holmes and Watson, which provided work for nine seasons and a pair of feature films over a decade and a half. Since then, he's been about as regular a presence onscreen as he was onstage here back in the day, with recurring or regular roles on the series Stargate: Atlantis, Sons of Anarchy, Grey's Anatomy, Supernatural, and TBS's reboot of Dallas. Still, there's a part of the actor that never left Austin and that yearns to be back here, onstage, as in his salad days. He made it back once, to star opposite Cyndi Williams in Zach's staging of Terrence McNally's Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, but here's how long ago that was: three years before he ever started chasing little gray men and big government cover-ups with Mulder and Scully. So for a good 25 years, Pileggi has been angling to do another play in Austin – or to put it another way, about three times as long as he had to wait to clip on the FBI badge of Walter Skinner once again.
[By the by, of his return to The X-Files, Pileggi says, "It felt like we'd taken a long weekend, and it was Monday and we just went back to work. You walk into the room, and there's Mulder, there's Scully, and I've got my glasses on and my suit, and I'm Skinner again. It felt right, it felt normal, it felt natural. And there was so much love on that set. Everybody got along so great, and it was really cool to see and to be around."]
That Pileggi should get to revisit both the theatre that gave him his start as an actor and the breakthrough role of his career at the same time seems too perfect not to have been engineered by people in power plotting together (since, like all good X-Philes, we want to believe). But however appealing it may be to imagine Zach Artistic Director Dave Steakley and series creator Chris Carter colluding on the timetable for these two projects, it didn't happen. Steakley, who saw that Frankie and Johnny with Pileggi as he was interviewing for a job at the theatre and was mightily impressed, has been almost as eager to get Pileggi back at Zach as Pileggi has been to get here. He's looked at plays with an eye toward roles that might suit the actor and sent them to Pileggi. He did that with Tribes, with the caveat that if the play didn't appeal to Pileggi, they could look for another project down the line. But all it took was the explosive, expletive-fueled first page – much of it fired off by the character Pileggi would play – for Pileggi to say, "I want to do this."
Now, carving time out of a screen actor's schedule to do a stage play is no easy task. And both Pileggi's agent and his wife had the same reaction when he informed them that he wanted to do a play in Austin in January and February: "But it's pilot season." Translation: You could be passing up a great-paying gig just by not being around when new series are cast. But Pileggi kept insisting he needed to do this, "I need to be an actor again instead of a talking head. I need it for my artistic soul," he told his agent. To which his agent responded, "You know what? I know you need it."
So Pileggi is back on his old turf, but is getting back onstage here giving him what he needs? Or is this proof that you can't go home again? "It fills me so much," he says. "Doing this stage stuff is a different animal than what I've been doing the last 25 years. It's not like walking in front of a camera, hitting your mark, spewing your lines out, and then 'Cut.' It's hard. It's work. It's challenging me. But it's so much fun. You get to explore and do things with the character and develop relationships with other actors that you just don't get to do on [TV]. I may get some guff from producers on this, but acting for TV is like a cup of instant soup. You learn your lines, you do it, and it's over. Being onstage is like a seven-course meal. It's delicious, and it's filling, and it's complete. It's recharging me as an actor."
This return may not quite feel like coming back to work after a long weekend, but Pileggi does feel like he's around good people again, feeding off them and getting that creative passion inside him burning again. It feels enough like home to Pileggi that he teased Steakley, "One of the stipulations of me doing this is that you have to let me clean the Kleberg once a week."
Tribes runs through Feb. 28, Wed.-Sat, 7:30pm; Sun, 2:30pm, at Zach's Topfer Theatre, 202 S. Lamar. For more information, call 512/476-0541 or visit www.zachtheatre.org.