The truth is out there

In the 1990s Vancouver became a significant centre for TV and film production—for a time it was dubbed Hollywood North—and in the spring of 1997 our house-sitter Laura McFadzean, who lived down the road and helped run Liz Bell’s modelling/acting talent agency, mentioned that the movie people were always looking for new faces and suggested I try out for a cameo role on The X-Files. They wanted a defecting scientist with a thick Russian accent and Laura thought that because I spoke a bit of Russian I might fit the bill.

Turned out they wanted a real Russian, so I didn’t get the part, but they liked the audition and asked me back to try for a part as an English scientist who speaks Russian. I didn’t get that either, but didn’t expect to: I had no experience and it was a very competitive market. I kept going to auditions that spring and summer for little TV and movie roles that Laura thought would fit me (loony professors, mysterious witnesses of extraterrestrial events) and had no luck with any of them until the X-Files casting people asked her to send me as a possible for a one-scene role as a visiting Scandinavian expert on extra-terrestrials on a panel at the “Massachusetts Institute”.

I  read it straight (no Scandinavian accent), up against what seemed like half the professional acting talent in the city, and, surprise, was called back for a second audition. By that time the competition was down to two, series producer-director Chris Carter was on hand to help decide, and by the time I got home they had phoned to say I had the job. I think it was the hair that did it.

The one-day shoot was on location (as we movie people say) in Port Moody. Since the part involved me speaking more than three lines (it was actually 12) I was officially classified as a Principal Actor, paid a suitably inflated fee, and given my own trailer, complete with my character’s name on the door (Dr. Per Lagerqvist).

Well, it wasn’t the whole trailer: it was divided into three separate rooms, each allocated to one of the three speaking members of the panel. Still, it was more than I expected. I thought I’d be shoved into an aromatic communal dressing-room with the extras. As it was I had my own day-bed on which to rest and study my lines, my own wardrobe with all my assigned clothes neatly hanging waiting for me, and my own bathroom.

A quick trip through makeup and onto the set. This turned out to be the Port Moody Council Chamber, which also functions as a theatre and had been converted for the occasion into a lecture hall, filled with 160 miscellaneous extras (at anything up to $105 per extra per day, plus a crew of about 30, plus the abundance of food that was  provided, plus the cast of high-priced talent, this was clearly not a cheap scene).

From look of the script I imagined we’d be through the whole thing in an hour or so: it was a five-minute scene in which panellists enthusing about the abduction experiences of a “Patient X” (that’s also the name of the episode) have cold water poured on their theories by Agent Mulder. So much for what I knew. 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 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, the late 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 long-shot, in extreme close-up. “Okay, new deal,” he 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. Kicking it in the ass was the term Manners used. It was his mantra. “Let’s kick it in the ass” is inscribed on the Kim Manners tombstone that featured in a 2016 episode of the revival season of The X-Files.

For the show’s star, David Duchovny, it was just another day on the set. On screen, he’d 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 panellists 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 opened the scene involved 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 year Susan and I spent at Cambridge (I mentioned that she was an aesthetician, and he looked a bit startled—that’s what Americans call the people who work in beauty parlours—until I added something about philosophy of art).

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). He 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 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 only caused one actual retake, though twice I had to restart a scene as the cameras were running. 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. Still, people were very complimentary, and I’d do it all again in a heartbeat (as we say on Entertainment Tonight). Fat chance, of course, but great memories.

The episode was broadcast on March 1, 1998. It made me, briefly, a celebrity: I had mail from as far away as Germany. My colleagues were suitably awed (most of them, that is: “you were just being yourself,” said Patricia Graham, a senior editor at The Sun, always practical and direct, maybe because she came from a legal background).

For a while, I toyed with the idea of making bit-part acting a real sideline (as I said in a piece in the paper, if you extrapolated my one-day fee into an annual salary you could hire three senior editors at The Sun and have enough to spare for a senior reporter) and over the following months I went out on many auditions and won several increasingly prominent roles: lead in a low-budget movie about a psychiatrist who was killed by his patient, a juicy week of work as Hollywood starlet Mischa Barton’s ballet-master in a high-budget kids’ movie, and tiny parts in both the X-Files spin-off series, Millennium and The Lone Gunmen.

 The Lone Gunmen was my last adventure in professional acting. I blew a line so badly—to the point of self-cutting, or stopping acting before the director called “cut”, one of the few unforgivable sins on-set—that I could barely meet the eyes of my fellow cast members. Clearly, this was not for me. In any case, I was increasingly finding myself at auditions up against actors who needed these jobs for economic security—actors I had reviewed, actors I respected. I was just there for the excitement, the worst kind of dilettante. The only reason I was getting these parts was the look. Time to move on.

 

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