TO PARAPHRASE WHAT STEVE Martin once said about comedy, paranormality isn't pretty. Just look at the Vancouver, B.C., set of The X-Files, Fox's macabre, Friday-night hit series about two FBI agents who tangle with extraterrestrials, vampires, serial killers, satanists, mutants and (no surprise) nefarious government officials.
It's sometime around the witching hour, midnight, and a wearying 13 hours after the shooting day began. Cast and crew are filming a scene in an abandoned mental institution that serves, for this episode, as a prison infirmary. Agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny, 35, suave and somber in a dark suit), and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson, 27, a redhead with laser-intense azure eyes) discover a fresh corpse--murdered, perhaps, by the ghost of a former death row tenant. The script calls for the corpse to be covered with maggots. Ick.
X-Files creator and executive producer Chris Carter, 38, who also writes about a third of the series' scripts (including this one), has hired a self-described "maggot wrangler" to handle the squirming extras. She arrives on the set with a plastic bowl containing a slab of liver and hundreds of feasting bugs, which are gingerly dropped all over the upper body of a stuntman playing the corpse. "The smell of death," Carter announces grimly.
Anderson joins the crew in a chorus of Eeeeeeeughs! Duchovny merely squinches his mouth like a little boy tasting cod liver oil.
Suddenly, Anderson notices a maggot crawling toward the stuntman's eye and calmly plucks it off. "Nobody else jumped to it," she explains. Bugwise, Anderson is something of a pro: In a past episode, she ate a live cricket. "They spent thousands of dollars making a fake one," she says. "But I'd seen this guy named Enigma who was in the show eat 200 right in front of us, so it seemed silly not to try one."
For many X-Files fans, a first taste of this strange, compelling show has led to addiction. Always scary, often creepy and sometimes just plain mysterious, The X-Files has grown since its 1993 debut from a cult favorite into a mainstream phenomenon. The series was Fox's top-rated program the week of its Sept. 22 premiere, kicking off a third season with its largest audience yet (30 million). Like Star Trek, X-Files has spawned novels, comic books, T-shirts (emblazoned with the show's motto, The Truth Is Out There), coffee mugs, conventions and Internet bulletin boards. (Online fans call themselves X-Philes.) Though the script isn't finished, there's an X-Files film planned. Good bets to attend the premiere: avid fans Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Whoopi Goldberg and Steven Spielberg.
While the show's bizarre plots reflect Carter's entertainingly paranoid vision--inspired, he has said, by the '70s occult series Kolchak: The Night Stalker--much of The X-Files' appeal, and edge, comes from the onscreen chemistry between the stars. Fox Mulder, played by Duchovny, is an FBI agent obsessed with Things Beyond the Pale ever since his kid sister was whisked away by aliens. His FBI superiors, concerned that he has gathered too many moonbeams in his jar, have teamed him with Dana Scully, a forensic physician and professional skeptic played by Anderson. They become allies, but never lovers. (About the names: Fox, as any X-Phile knows, was a boyhood friend of Carter's; Mulder was the maiden name of Carter's mother; and Scully comes from Dodgers announcer Vin Scully.)
Series creator Carter couldn't be happier with his cast. Anderson, he says, "has an intensity that makes her perfect as Scully." And Duchovny? "A clear, quick mind, an intelligence beyond book smarts," says Carter. "And a tremendous amount of personal magnetism."
Off-camera, Duchovny is deadpan, but not nearly as poker-faced as his character. (On break while shooting at a rented house, he sticks his head through the fronds of an outdoor plant and murmurs in his best Arte Johnson impersonation, "Verrrrrry interestink. But stupit!" )
And Anderson, one of the most coolheaded heroines ever on a TV series, is all maternal warmth off-camera. Between scenes, she beelines for her trailer, where a nanny helps her care for Piper, her 1-year-old daughter. "Hello, baby," she coos as Piper toddles toward her. "She loves the crew," adds Anderson. "It's like having dozens of mommies and daddies."
While baby-at-play sounds emerge from Anderson's trailer, you're more likely to hear CDs of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Boxing Ghandis rattle Duchovny's. On his way there between scenes, he pauses to sign autographs. A little girl cries out, "Hi! Hi! My mom wants to know if you're married!"
"No," he answers. As she scampers off, he wonders aloud, "Pretty dicey question. I wonder where Dad is?"
Duchovny spends most weekends with his girlfriend of more than two years, actress Perrey Reeves, who played a vampire on an episode last year They met in May 1993 while shopping a Fred Segal's in Santa Monica. Duchovny couldn't decide between a gray suit and a blue and asked her for advice. (She told him to buy both, and he did.) When Reeves is at her home in L.A. and Duchovny is stuck in his rented duplex in Vancouver, his closest companion is Blue, a border collie-terrier mix.
Duchovny isn't crazy about the 14-hour days he puts in shooting The X-Files, and he admits that the attention of fans has made his life "a bit more enclosed, a bit more insular." On the bright side, Duchovny concedes, is the fact that he is now being deluged with scripts "in all genres." Plus he has some new, famous friends--like Garry Shandling. They've been basketball buddies since June, when Duchovny taped an episode of Shandling's talk show parody, The Larry Sanders Show. "He has a good outside shot," says Shandling, "is aggressive on the court and plays without pants."
Duchovny's sister Laurie, 28, a teacher at a private school in Brooklyn, doesn't think her big brother has changed that much. "The fame rolls off him," she says with a laugh. "He's still a horrible dresser." A Manhattan native, Duchovny is the second of three children born to Amram Ducovny, 57, a publicist, now retired, for the American Jewish Committee (he dropped the "h" in the family name), and Margaret, 55, a Scottish-born elementary school teacher in Manhattan. They divorced when he was 11. Two years later, Duchovny, always a good athlete and student, won a scholarship to New York's elite Collegiate School (the same school JFK Jr. attended). One of his classmates was Jason Beghe, now also an actor and still a close friend. "I was the gregarious one," recalls Beghe. "David was the one who applied himself."
Duchovny went on to Princeton, where he majored in English literature and then pursued grad lit studies at Yale. But "he always used to describe everyone there as gargoyles," says his sister, and he soon preferred hanging out at Yale's famous drama school. At the urging of buddy Beghe, already an actor, Duchovny tried out and was hired for a Lowenbrau TV commercial. As he began to study acting, Duchovny says, "I realized I can have all these emotions, and I don't have to suffer from them."
Soon he had quit graduate school to try acting full-time. At first, he seemed to specialize in small, offbeat roles, including a born-again insurance salesman in The Rapture and transvestite detective Dennis/Denise on Twin Peaks. Odd clothing turned out to be crucial at his 1993 X-Files audition. Because Mulder is seldom seen out of his suit, "I told him to wear a tie," says Carter, the series creator. "He showed up in a tie with pink pigs all over it. I think that got him the job."
If Anderson seems more down-to-earth, she also has her "whimsical, mischievous side," says her costar. A decade ago she was a genuine punker, hanging out with rock musicians, her hair dyed and nose pierced. (As she has put it, "I was confused.") The oldest of three children, she was born in Chicago but spent part of her childhood in London while her father, Edward, studied at the London Film School. When she was 11, the family relocated to Grand Rapids, where her father, now 51, runs a movie postproduction company. Her mother, Rosemary, 51, is a computer analyst. As a girl, Anderson thought of becoming a marine biologist but got into acting on a lark, when she tried out for a community theater group.
"Being with Gillian was like going to a surprise party," says Ric Murphy, one of Anderson's teachers at DePaul University's Goodman Theater School in Chicago (she graduated in 1990). "Gillian had an eight-line part in a French farce but turned it into a star role just by the attitude she brought to it. She has an incandescence."
Executives at Fox initially wanted someone with less radiance and more vavoom as Scully, but Carter insisted that she had the no-nonsense integrity the role required. Then, just as the show was taking off, Anderson married Clyde Klotz, the series art director at the time, and soon became pregnant with Piper. (They now share a three-bedroom Vancouver home.) She worried she'd be dropped from the series, but Carter stuck by her again. "Part of the show's success is the audience's investment in these characters," he says. He created an alien abduction that kept her off-camera long enough for labor, delivery and 10-day maternity leave. Now "I can't imagine not having Piper," says Anderson, who chose Carter to be her baby's godfather.
Both stars say Carter is the soul of X-Files. "I'm a nonreligious person in search of religious experience," explains Carter, who sat in on a nightlong peyote ritual for one X-Files story line. (He's constantly scanning newspapers and magazines for inspiration.) "The main misperception about me is that I'm some sort of a sci-fi maven," he says. "I still think of myself as a 38-year-old surfer."
Carter grew up in Bellflower, a blue-collar L.A. suburb, and by 12 he was hooked on surfing. After high school, he studied journalism at California State University at Long Beach, close by the ocean, and wound up writing for Surfing magazine in San Clemente. In 1987, he married screenwriter Dori Pierson, who encouraged him to try his hand at scripts. Neither she nor his old surfing pals expected X-Files. "We used to spend a lot of time in the water philosophizing," says Sam George, now editor of another wave catchers' magazine, Surfer. "You wouldn't have thought he'd start some show about a renegade FBI agent and space aliens. There's something going on in the back of his head."
And late one night it plays out in an abandoned mental institution in Vancouver. By the time the maggots have done their scene, it's getting to be slaphappy time in Creep City. Between takes, Duchovny sneaks away and returns with a handful of white rice from the production caterer's stash. He flings the larva-like grains at Anderson, who shrieks and jumps back. Duchovny bursts out laughing. "This," sighs an exhausted Carter, "has been a really fun evening."