The award-winning actress discusses the return of Dana Scully in Fox’s beloved supernatural series and her epic battle to be treated equally on the show.
Gillian Anderson was just 25 years old when she walked into a Los Angeles office to audition for the role of Special Agent Dana Scully, a medical doctor and FBI agent tasked with using hard science to disprove the alien conspiracy mumbo-jumbo of her partner, Fox Mulder.
David Duchovny—then 33 and known mostly for hosting Showtime’s cheesy erotic drama Red Shoe Diaries—charmed producers first (“he was so intelligent and wry,” remembers Danielle Gelber, Fox’s former director of drama development). He’d already landed the role of Mulder by the time he first read lines with Anderson in a hallway outside the offices of Fox network execs.
“I have only a very vague memory of him. I remember the hallway quite well!” Anderson says, phoning from Los Angeles the morning after the Golden Globes. “But I don’t know what I thought of him. He was very charming, I do remember that.”
She pauses, then remembers something else: “But I think he’d just been charming to another girl right beforehand.” How very Mulder, I say, as Anderson breaks into guffaws. “Yeah. I think I went in a little bit wary of his charm.”
Anderson and Duchovny’s legendarily potent onscreen pairing—rife with sexual tension yet ambiguous enough that a simple embrace could leave fans swooning for days—has been the object of heated obsession for decades, ever since The X-Files, a show that transformed serialized TV and elevated the potential of genre storytelling, premiered in 1993.
Tales of alien abductions, malicious government conspiracies, shadowy figures, and a plot to take over Earth drove the series’ “mythology” arc, in which Mulder (a believer) and Scully (a skeptic) hunted down the truth about what really happened to Mulder’s missing little sister.
But it was the unexpected magnetism between Anderson and Duchovny that truly gave the show its rabid appeal.
“The chemistry was there from the first day they ever appeared together in [Mulder’s] office,” series creator Chris Carter tells me. “It was not apparent until that first day that these two people were gonna click. The chemistry you can’t manufacture. It was just total luck.”
The success of Fox’s six-episode X-Files event series, which premieres with an episode written and directed by Carter on Sunday, hinges in part on whether that chemistry—and the excitement and anguish of watching the agents, clearly two halves of a whole, engage in the will they/won’t they dance—can be reignited again, nine seasons, two movies, and 25 years of X-Files history later.
At the time of her audition for the pilot, Anderson had but a few screen credits to her name—few enough that she didn’t know what a “mark” was, she says, or really, how filming worked. She cringes remembering her performance in the pilot.
“I don’t knoooow if I handled it gracefully,” she says between self-deprecating laughter (her infectiously goofy laugh has its own special place in X-Files history as a notorious instigator of crew-wide giggle fits). “I just remember yelling at people a few times, which I don’t normally do. It was pretty stressful back then. The pressure was humongous for the show. It wasn’t popular yet, it was costing a lot of money, we were shooting ridiculous hours. Twenty-four episodes [a season] and there was barely enough time to change clothes before having to get back to set to say another six paragraphs of medical jargon. It was a lot.”
By the show’s fourth season, however, Anderson had struck gold, taking home both an Emmy and a Golden Globe for her work as the breathtakingly brilliant scientist. Scully had become a shoulder-padded feminist icon at a time when few women like her were lead characters on TV. She was fearless, complex, and minced words for no one. Her story arcs carried weight equal to Mulder’s. And, despite her petite size, Scully was never intimidated by men.
But while Scully asserted her authority at every turn, Anderson found herself fighting just to stand on (literal) equal ground with her male co-star. The studio initially required Anderson to stand a few feet behind her male partner on camera, careful never to step side-by-side with him. It was another three years before Anderson finally closed the wage gap between her pay and Duchovny’s, having become fed up with accepting less than “equal pay for equal work.”
“I can only imagine that at the beginning, they wanted me to be the sidekick,” Anderson says of Fox’s curious no-equal-footing rule. “Or that, somehow, maybe it was enough of a change just to see a woman having this kind of intellectual repartee with a man on camera, and surely the audience couldn’t deal with actually seeing them walk side by side!”
She laughs again, this time at the absurdity of the notion of Dana Scully as anyone’s mere sidekick. “I have such a knee-jerk reaction to that stuff, a very short tolerance for that shit,” she says acidly. “I don’t know how long it lasted or if it changed because I eventually said, ‘Fuck no! No!’ I don’t remember somebody saying, ‘Okay, now you get to walk alongside him.’ But I imagine it had more to do with my intolerance and spunk than it being an allowance that was made.”
The work Anderson put into securing equal pay back in the ’90s seemingly came undone when it came time to negotiate pay for this year’s event series. Once again, Anderson was being offered “half” of what they would pay Duchovny.
“I’m surprised that more [interviewers] haven’t brought that up because it’s the truth,” Anderson says of the pay disparity, first disclosed in the Hollywood Reporter. “Especially in this climate of women talking about the reality of [unequal pay] in this business, I think it’s important that it gets heard and voiced. It was shocking to me, given all the work that I had done in the past to get us to be paid fairly. I worked really hard toward that and finally got somewhere with it.
“Even in interviews in the last few years, people have said to me, ‘I can’t believe that happened, how did you feel about it, that is insane.’ And my response always was, ‘That was then, this is now.’ And then it happened again! I don’t even know what to say about it.”
She stammers for a moment, at a loss for words. “It is… sad,” she finally says. “It is sad.” (Anderson and Duchovny ultimately took home equal pay for the event series).