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SFX Profile: THE X-FILES’ Other Agents

SFX #8
SFX Profile: THE X-FILES’ Other Agents….

As THE X-FILES ploughs through a triumphant third series, confirming its position as the world’s TV show, new stars are rapidly coming to the fore — and despite being more loosely sketched than Mulder and Scully, they’re quickly grabbing the imaginations of X-Philes worldwide. Chief among them are FBI Assistant Director Walter Skinner, one of the few friends the beleaguered Mulder’s got in the Bureau, and renegade agent Alex Krycek, perhaps his greatest enemy. Jim Swallow met the actors who play them, Mitch Pileggi and Nicholas Lea…

If watching THE X-FILES teaches you anything, it’s that it can be a pretty dangerous business taking things — or people — at face value. Confronting a smiling, friendly Krycek and Skinner, then, can be an unsettling experience. After all, didn’t one of these guys — Walter Skinner, played by the heartily handshaking Mitch Pileggi — shut down the X-Files? And didn’t the other — Alex Krycek, portrayed by the grinning Nicholas Lea — sell Fox Mulder down the river?

On screen these two are dark, brooding characters, with complicated motivations — you’re never quite sure if either of them are on your side, working for the enemy, or playing some private little game of their own. If they’re not the men in black exactly, they’re certainly of the darkest grey…

Of the two actors, Pileggi is probably most familiar to X-Philes across the world, first appearing in the memorable episode “Tooms,” which aired toward the end of the first season. Previously, the role of Mulder and Scully’s FBI boss had shifted between a number of different actors — Charles Cioffi played Section Chief Blevins, for instance, while Frederick Coffin provided the Mulder-hating Joseph McGrath — but eventually the producers settled on Pileggi to help them provide a more permanent figure. His character, Walter Skinner, introduced an ongoing “control” for Mulder — ranked above Jerry Hardin’s Deep Throat, who was killed off three episodes later. Pileggi is no stranger to genre fare, having recently finished work on the Eddie Murphy vehicle VAMPIRE IN BROOKLYN, and numbering SHOCKER, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD 2 and KNIGHT RIDER 2000 in his resume.

Skinner’s role in THE X-FILES grew considerably during the show’s second season, where we saw him develop from a gruff, unsympathetic character in “Tooms” to a complicated, intriguing individual, who might just be on the side of the angels. Pileggi — who’s also appeared in BASIC INSTINCT, DALLAS and MODELS, INC. — is clearly comfortable developing such a multi-faceted role.

“Chris Carter and his staff do a wonderful job writing the show, so it’s pretty much laid out right there,” he laughs. “I just say the words, though the directors let me play Skinner pretty much how I perceive him.”

When pressed to explain how he sees the character, Mitch explains that much of Skinner stems from a source very close to home. “He’s based a lot on my father,” he smiles, “who was once in a very similar position to Skinner. I remember when I was a kid sitting in his office, and watching how he dealt with his employees. I think I did it unconsciously, but my family have certainly pointed out what they see on screen is a lot like dad.”

The back story for Skinner is loosely drawn, touching on his past as a marine in the Vietnam War — experiences developed during a conversation with Mulder in the episode “Once Breath,” where Skinner describes an out-of-body experience that occurred during his tour in Vietnam “I always figured that he came up through the ranks, starting out in the field, doing pretty much the type of work that Mulder and Scully are doing now. He can no longer get too involved with all that, but I think he’s trying to direct Mulder. He’s a bit like the stern father with the disobedient son, isn’t he?”

As the series and the role have grown still further from season two, Skinner has revealed more of his own motivations in some of the more pivotal X-FILES stories. “There’s going to be a lot more stuff like that happening with him,” Pileggi says guardedly, referring to the opening episodes of season three, “but I don’t want to spoil it; Chris Carter would shoot me!”

Part of what makes Skinner so intriguing is his unpredictability. Who would have expected him to have a punch-up with Mr. X (played by Stephen Williams) in “Colony,” for example? Or foreseen his similar confrontation with Krycek in season three?

“Chris does a lot of that with his characters,” Mitch smiles. “Suddenly, something will come out of left field, and you don’t anticipate it, so it’s like, ‘Whoa!’ That’s one of the things that’s so attractive about Skinner — one episode will hint that he’s totally behind Mulder and Scully and what they’re doing, and the next time you see him he’ll disagree with how they’re doing things, and try to stifle them.”

Of course, as THE X-FILES makes clear, Skinner is, “under pressure from above, from various black ops organisations inside the government, which the Smoking Man — played by William B. Davis — is part of. He’s in a very tough situation on both sides, and though he wants to help out, he often can’t.”

Nicholas Lea, the real life face of the turncoat FBI agent Alex Krycek, clearly relishes his borderline-baddie part in the show. “It’s fun playing villains,” he smirks. “Or, at least, not squeaky-clean good guys. It’s more interesting.”

Introduced as a replacement for Scully in season two’s “Sleepless,” Mulder’ s new partner turned out to be a sleeper agent, placed by the nameless Smoking Man. He vanished after Scully’s abduction in “Ascension,” only to reappear on a murderous mission in season two’s finale, “Anasazi.” With the events of the season three openers “The Blessing Way” and “Paper Clip” now under his belt, Krycek has clearly become a fixture of THE X-FILES’ world, and it’s highly likely he’ll be back before the year is out.

Canadian by birth, and based in Vancouver, Lea’s face has cropped up on a number of American TV shows made north of the border, including E.N.G., THE COMMISH and LONESOME DOVE, and genre shows like HIGHLANDER and SLIDERS. He’ll even sheepishly admit to a part in the dreadful ALIENS-like flick EXTRO 2 [sic]. “It’s really terrible!” he winces.

Before he found fame as Krycek, however, he appeared in a small role in THE X-FILES’ first season episode, “Genderbender.” “It wasn’t *that* big,” he laughs. “Three scenes!” Perhaps not, but obviously big enough to make an impression on director (later producer) Rob Borman [sic], who recommended Lea for the role of Krycek.

Surprisingly, playing someone as unlikable as Krycek doesn’t bother Nicholas at all, despite the daunting Darth Vader reputation that’s quickly built up around the character, particularly on the Internet. Nicknames like “Judas,” “Ratboy,” and “The Weasel” are flung at him constantly, but, as he says, “I love it!”

“There are more levels to the character than just that though,” he grins knowingly, “which you’ll see as the newer shows start to come over. I don’t think that he’s evil — he’s just in way over his head. He’s doing his job, doing what he thinks is right. You’ll see, as the shows start to unfold, that he’s not quite as one-sided as he appears.”

Krycek’s nasty intentions were made clear to Lea from the beginning, though he contributed much to the character’s look and personal style himself. “There are things I did that weren’t in the script,” he notes, “and they were kept in. I did a lot of research on the FBI, and on double-agents, and I made a lot of personal choices about the guy’s past — where he comes from, why he does what he does, and why he tries so hard to succeed.”

Unlike his boss, the ubiquitous Smoking Man, Krycek seems in many ways to represent the “Anti-Mulder” — the darker yang to Fox’s yin. Lea concurs. “That’s why the character is good for the show, because he gives Mulder a natural enemy — here’s someone of around his own age who’s more of an obvious and direct rival than the Smoking Man.”

The natural antagonism between Mulder and Krycek hasn’t by any means run its course, fans will be pleased to hear, and we’ll definitely be seeing a lot more of it in year three.

“It gets much more exciting for my character,” says Lea — and if anything, that’s a bit of an understatement. After all, his last moments in “Paper Clip” see Krycek ducking (just barely) a car bomb, then running into the wilderness clutching a stolen data file from MJ-12 UFO research group. Lea hopes to see Krycek developed further on his return, and has been discussing a story thread with actor David Duchovny, who plans to write more episode outlines for season three.

“My character is swinging back and forth between the good guys and the bad guys, and I really like that — that’s how it would be in real life. I’d actually like to see Krycek save Mulder’s life sometime…”

Both Pileggi and Lea are dedicated X-FILES viewers — “I watch it every week now; I’m a big fan,” says Lea — and talk of their castmates as if they’re some kind of extended family. Lea, in particular, mentions how he and David Duchovny have inverted the Mulder/Krycek relationship, becoming fast friends in real life.

The meteoric rise of THE X-FILES caught many critics and viewers by surprise in the States, but Lea seems anything but surprised. “It’s because of the integrity of the show,” he says. “The guest actors are generally good, and David and Gillian do a great job. It’s quality, but a bit tongue in cheek as well. I’ve had good and bad experiences with producers, but working with Chris is excellent. His door’s always open, and he’s always there to talk, even though he’s incredibly busy. It directly translates into the quality of the series.

“Anyway,” he concludes, “I’m always very impressed, because Chris Carter could sell X-FILES underwear or whatever, and make a lot of money, but he doesn’t. He keeps a strict lid on the whole thing.”

Pileggi, on the other hand, is happy to admit that the success of the show caught him unawares. “I guess you’re always surprised,” he shrugs. “TV is such an unpredictable thing, and you don’t know what’s going to work and what won’t. But it’s great that THE X-FILES has become such a phenomenon — what Chris Carter is doing with it is just amazing. His ideas about where he wants to go are very clear, though sometimes we don’t find out what they are until we get the scripts to read through. It’s a pleasure to work with somebody who’s as dedicated and hard-working as he is. He’s involved in every facet of the show, from production to conventions to marketing to publicity. Everything goes through him — he’s got a lot on his plate, and it’s amazing he handles it as well as he does.”

So what’s the appeal of the show? For Lea it’s firmly based on, “the huge appetite people have for supernatural stories. People are fascinated by that sort of thing. And me, I was a big fan of TV shows like THE TWILIGHT ZONE when I was a kid.”

Pileggi tells me how he’s been a genre reader for some time, quoting Kurt Vonnegut and Robert Heinlein as favourite authors, while both actors agree that the current spate of X-FILES copycat shows, particularly some of the anthologies, aren’t up to much. “A lot of shows are trying to copy what THE X-FILES is doing, but I don’t think anyone else will be able to do it like Chris Carter does,” says Pileggi.

We talk about conventions too, both men having recently had their baptism in the world of fandom after stints on the US Creation Con circuit, and a trip to the UK for the Cult TV convention. “I’m amazed by the amount of information people can get their hands on,” says Lea, describing how an innovative fan saved the day when he had no photos to autograph by printing off a grabbed frame from one of his old movies, hastily rented for the occasion. “They’re very well educated about the people on the show.” We get to individual stand-out episodes too, with Mitch picking director David Nutter’s first foray, the THING-inspired “Ice.” “I liked ‘Ice’ because it was all shot on one location,” he explains, “and very claustrophobic. The performances were amazing, and the way it was shot was wonderful.”

And then, inevitably, we get to the most-asked question of all for X-FILES actors. So, the unexplained, UFOs, and the like. Do Mitch and Nicholas thinks it’s all hokum, or what?

“Specifically?” asks Lea. “Well, I believe in ghosts, though werewolves and genetic mutants might be stretching the point.”

Pileggi admits that, like Gillian Anderson, he’s had one unexplained experience. “It was pretty spooky,” he hints, “but I’ve never had any exposure to UFOs or the like. That said, I do believe there are intelligent life forms out there — I’m one of the few people on this show who does! Gillian does, but David and Chris don’t! I reckon it would be arrogant to think otherwise. In fact, maybe there’s intelligent life out there that’s more on the ball than we are…”

And maybe, as Mulder might continue, they’re already here…

At the start of our chat Pileggi had said he couldn’t tell me anything about upcoming shows in case Chris Carter killed him, but now that we’ve been talking I wonder if he’s prepared to relent at all. With a grin he drops a few hints about more recent third season stories, the most “can’t wait” moment — especially for fans who enjoy Chris Carter’s trademarked snappy dialogue — promising to be a confrontation between Skinner and the Smoking Man, where the former demands, “Pucker up and kiss my ass, you son of a bitch!”

I, for one, can’t wait…

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