Actor Mitch Pileggi Opens Up The X-Files
As enigmatic, tight--lipped FBI Assistant Director Walter S. Skinner on the Fox network's hit TV show The X-Files, Mitch Pileggi never reveals more than he has to. Of course, considering that the show raises understatement to an art, that often the most important communication -- especially between the two leads, FBI agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) -- takes the form of meaningful looks and implied body language, that means he fits right in.
In fact, that low-key, I-know-more-than-I'm-telling attitude is one reason why this unlikely candidate for success has inspired legions of rabid fans (who refer to themselves as X-Philes). The muted presentation of all its way-out-there subject matter -- including but not limited to alien abductions, shadowy government hit squads, human-alien hybridization experiments by ex-Nazi scientists, maggot-ridden corpses, and murderous astral projections -- makes such stuff seem downright plausible. (And downright addictive. The X-Files is the closest thing on TV to a veinful of heroin -- it doesn't take much exposure at all before you can't imagine your life without it.)
Although his time onscreen is usually a fraction of Mulder and Scully's, Skinner is a vital component of the show's mystique -- and, as such, has inspired his own fan page on the Internet. As the link between the two rogue agents (who, fittingly, have their office in the basement of the Hoover building) and the sinister government conspiracy personified by the ominous Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis), Skinner has a front-row seat to the battle between Good and Evil few have had since Milton in Paradise Lost. It tends to make the character a little wound up. One might expect that the actor who plays him is equally strained and uncomfortable, but Pileggi is not. As a matter of fact, he's downright genial.
Pileggi, who went to the University of Texas at Austin in the Seventies and acted in local productions for four years before moving to California, talked about himself and the show while he and his interviewer, 1,800 miles apart, both watched his alma mater kick unholy hell out of Texas Tech on ESPN.
Austin Chronicle: What brought you to Austin?
Mitch Pileggi: Actually, I came to Austin to act. I'd been overseas for a while working on defense contracts and got kind of burnt out on that, so I came back to the States and was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I was in California at the time and I had friends still down in Austin, and a buddy of mine called me up and said, "There's a lot of theatre going on down here," because he knew that I had done some acting and that I liked it. I was married at the time, so I said to my wife, "Wanna go to Austin?" She said, "Sure," so we packed up our goods and went out there, and I started doing theatre at Zach Scott.
AC: What do you like about the town?
MP: You name it. Everything. There's not much I don't like about Austin. It's funny, because people talk about how big it's getting, how much it's growing, but for me it's comfortable -- especially coming from out here. I don't want to get into what I think about L.A. I feel about L.A. about the same way I feel about the Parisians. Paris is a beautiful city, but the Parisians are just... [trails off before he says something that could get him in trouble with French-speaking fans of the show]. I feel so comfortable when I come down there. The people are some of the friendliest and best people you're going to run into.
AC: Where did you work in town?
MP: I didn't work at many theatres; mostly Zach Scott. I did a play at the old Center Stage, and one summer I did the summer hillside thing at Zilker. I did Superstar, and that was a lot of fun.
AC: Actually, I understand you did quite a bit of work at Zach Scott.
MP: At one time I did the books in the morning, I was the janitor in the afternoon, and I helped build sets in the afternoon also, and then I would do theatre at night. I really liked it there, and I came back a couple of years ago and did a play there. I have a lot of ties to Zach Scott. I spent a lot of time cleaning up toilets in that theatre.
AC: How did you get on The X-Files?
MP: It was the first season that I went in, and actually I had gone in for two other roles on episodes before the first one I did. At the time I was shaving my head, and Chris Carter, [series creator, executive producer, sometime writer-director, and all-around X-Files guru] didn't think the look was right for the characters I was reading, which were both FBI agents. I came back the third time for Skinner, and fortunately my hair -- all of it, my flowing locks -- had grown back, and fortunately it worked. I did one episode the first season ["Tooms"] as a guest star, and they asked me to come back and have the recurring character the second season, especially during Gillian's pregnancy. Then at the end of the second season, they asked me if I wanted to sign a contract for six years, and I said, "Absolutely. Where do I sign?"
AC: Talk about Skinner for a minute.
MP: He's in a tough situation. There are still people who don't know which side Skinner's on. It's just that Skinner's very much by the book. He wants the truth; he wants the same thing that Mulder wants, but he has to go about it in a different way. He has a different personality, for one thing. He's very much by the book, whereas Mulder is kind of a loose wire whose methods are a lot more unorthodox than what Skinner envisions. That's where the conflict comes in. I think it's important for there to be conflict between characters, even though some people percieve Skinner as being too much of a hardass and they want him to soften up on [Mulder]. If he did, it'd be boring. You've got to have that conflict -- that's what makes drama.
AC: How about his relationship with Scully?
MP: You don't know what his feelings are about Scully. Especially with the end of the first episode this season where they have the standoff with the guns. That was actually a crushing blow for Skinner, for her to have reacted like that, because he really likes her a lot.
AC: But not in that way.
MP: There are a lot of fans who want some type of romantic thing to happen between Skinner and Scully, which I think is ridiculous. His feeling for her -- and even with Mulder -- is, even though he's not that much older, more paternal.
AC: We haven't seen Skinner since the first two episodes of the season. Why?
MP: The show has gone back to self-contained episodes where Mulder and Scully are out in the field a lot. Now that Skinner's been established as a major character, they don't want to just use him on the telephone talking to them when they're in the field. There are episodes coming up that are going to revolve around Skinner's character. In the last half of the season, according to Chris [Carter], there's going to be a lot more focus on the character. He doesn't want to have me just sitting in the office and have them call me up and have a telephone conversation. Whatever takes place, he wants it to have substance.
AC: But he will be back, right?
MP: Definitely. There's going to be some major stuff going on, especially in the second half of the season. But in the meantime, they've been having me do a lot of publicity.
AC: Does all the publicity you have to do for The X-Files ever drive you crazy?
MP: No, not really. It gets tiring. One weekend I did what they call their star weekend where they had the stars of the various Fox shows come in and do interviews all day and I did nine straight hours of interviews. You answer the same questions over and over, and toward the end I was getting so tired I didn't even know what I was saying. It's going to be interesting to see actually what I said in some of those things.
AC: How is everyone on the the show handling this publicity flood?
MP: It's kind of overwhelming, especially for David and Gillian. They have such a heavy load on the show as it is, and then having to deal with publicity. I think this is why they're having me take some of the load. Their work schedule is just brutal as it is. It's hard.
AC: You're coming back to Austin for an X-Files convention. What are the fans at conventions like?
MP: For the most part, people that watch The X-Files are extremely intelligent, and you can tell that from when you're talking to them. They're not gushing. They're enthusiastic, but they're not obnoxious, and what they have to say, as far as what we're doing on the show, is very perceptive. Some of them just stun me with the things they come up with. It's gratifying to find you don't have a bunch of numbskulls watching the show.
AC: Do many freaks show up at X-Files conventions?
MP: People don't come to our conventions dressed up as Cardassians [a race of aliens that has replaced pointy ears as the de rigueur look at Star Trek conventions]. They wear X-Files T-shirts and hats, but they don't put alien makeup and stuff like that on, thank god.... Actually, I did one convention with Chris Carter and there was one girl there who had her face painted green and she came up to ask a question, and Chris goes, "Wait a minute. Who are you?"
AC: What do you do at conventions?
MP: I spend most of my time answering questions. Some of the other people who do the show spend most of the time talking themselves, but to me it's more important to talk to the people and find out what they want to know and what interests them rather than blabber on about myself.
AC: The X-Files seems to have really struck a nerve with people. Why?
MP: The main reason for the show's success is Chris Carter. He's just brilliant. His finger is in everything. He's put his blood, sweat, and tears into this -- it's his love. That's why I think it's as good as it is. It's very, very important to him, and that makes it important to you, or anybody who's involved in the show. When you see his enthusiasm, it just makes you that enthusiastic. It's contagious. And David and Gillian do a wonderful job. I think the quality across the board really entices people. It grabs them and holds them, from the production values to the performances.
AC: The X-Files has developed some famous fans, hasn't it?
MP: There are people who really want to do the show. Robin Williams wants to do the show, Whoopi Goldberg wants to do the show, Quentin Tarantino wants to direct it, Steven Spielberg never misses an episode, nor does Barry Levinson. It's amazing the people that watch the show.
AC: Do you watch the show?
MP: It always bugs me when you see TV Guide [asking actors], "What do you like to watch?" and they invariably say their own show, but in this case I really do. It's a good show.
AC: How is it working with David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson?
MP: They're both very, very good. David's a really nice guy, and we get along great; he's got a great sense of humor, and we have a lot of fun on the set. Gillian's just a doll. I love her to death. She's just sweet as can be. Both David and Gillian are so good about when you're doing your closeup, and they're off-camera, they're very focused and right there for you, which is very important. A lot of times you'll get actors off-camera who basically just go through the motions and just feed you lines and don't put anything in it, and you have to work that much harder to make it good. It's not like that with them.
AC: And your "boss," the Cigarette Smoking Man? (Or as Pileggi calls him, "Cigarette Butt.")
MP: Bill Davis is just wonderful in that role. And the cigarette is almost like a separate character. He doesn't smoke. It was very funny because after we had been on hiatus for the summer, we came back and did the first episode, the first scene that we had was in my office, he and I, and he had to light a cigarette and smoke it. It just about knocked him out. He was ready to go down. I looked at him and he was just turning white. I felt so bad for him.
AC: Speaking as a Texan and an X-Phile (a Tex-Phile?), it's nice to have someone from Texas on the show.
MP: I'm not originally from Texas, but I sure as hell consider myself a Texan. The first day back, Duchovny had one of those little things that print stuff out on tape and he printed one out that he put up on the mirror in the makeup trailer, and it said something about "Mitch Pileggi is a something-something from Texas," so I put one up on the wall about him.
AC: Sounds like everyone gets along pretty well.
MP: I don't want it to sound like it's a Pollyanna world, but it almost is. We all get along great and have a great time. On the weekends, together, we go play softball games against some of the other shows up there, go skydiving, go out partying, stuff like that. It's a real fun situation all around, and to have it be so popular is incredible. n
The X-Files appears Fridays, 8pm, on KTBC, ch. 7/cable 2.