CULVER CITY, Calif. — David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson look a little skeptical.
As Agents Mulder and Scully on The X-Files, the actors spent years exploring fictional conspiracies and mysteries. But now they have walked into one of the strangest places on Earth.
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It's the Museum of Jurassic Technology, a shadowy building in an otherwise banal business district, where the peculiar, unlikely and doubtful are showcased with sincerity and reverence.
Their latest X-Files film, I Want to Believe, opens Friday, and the museum's weirdness sets the appropriate tone. While The X-Files, in its nine seasons on TV and as a 1998 feature, mostly dealt with aliens, monsters and conspiracies, the Museum of Jurassic Technology highlights superstition, pseudo-science and, in some cases, madness.
Both tread the vacillating line between doubt and imagination, where an escape from the realities of the actual world can be found.
Duchovny stands before a glass case where a quintet of small dishes of silvery powder sits on a revolving tray. A plaque identifies them as 1.) Possession, 2.) Delusion, 3.) Paranoia, 4.) Schizophrenia and 5.) Reason.
"This is the actual manifestation of those things," Duchovny says with amused matter-of-factness.
A little doubt and paranoia might be in order for those behind the film right now as its debut follows The Dark Knight's record-breaking opening and stunning momentum.
Even before the Batman movie proved its power, one of the biggest mysteries surrounding the X-Files movie was whether Mulder and Scully still had what it takes to draw in an audience six years after the show went off the air.
When the first X-Files movie made its debut in theaters in June 1998, the TV series was at its peak, and the film went on to gross $189 million at the worldwide box office.
But by the time the series wrapped in 2002, the labyrinthine alien-invasion plot at the source of the show's popularity had become a confusing muddle, and Duchovny had dropped out to appear in only a handful of episodes in the final seasons.
I Want to Believe— a title taken from the phrase on a UFO poster in Mulder's office — actually has nothing to do with extra-terrestrial visitors. It's a self-contained story in which Mulder and Scully re-team with the FBI to help track down a series of kidnapped women. It includes bizarre medical experimentation, a psychic disgraced priest (played by Scottish actor Billy Connolly) and in a hat tip to die-hard fans, an exploration of the romantic attraction between Mulder and Scully.
Keeping it straight
The series creator and film director, Chris Carter, has expressed interest in future X-Files films that revisit the old mythology. But even his stars acknowledge a need to reboot with this movie — re-energizing old fans and hopefully creating new ones.
"What behooves us all is to treat this ourselves as a stand-alone situation and not have any gross expectations," Anderson says. "If we're lucky, and it does really, really well, then that could potentially lead to future conversations" about more films.
As Duchovny puts it: "When we went off to publicize the first film, our agenda was to try to let people know that they didn't have to know all about The X-Files to see it. And that was (baloney), really," he says, making Anderson burst out laughing. "But in this case, it's actually not."
The actors are sitting in a small theater on the second floor of the museum, beside a gallery filled with paintings of dogs from the Soviet space program of the 1950s. (Russian scientists and dogs play a supporting role in the new movie, coincidentally.)
As the baffling exhibits around them prove, people like to have their heads spun.
On television, The X-Files was the forefather to the elaborate plot puzzles of such shows as Lost and Heroes.
But what starts out thrilling can easily turn frustrating, as Duchovny and Anderson eventually learned.
Even they couldn't keep it all straight — and still can't. While discussing which parts of the new movie shouldn't be spoiled, they note the surprise appearances of certain familiar faces.
As Duchovny asks whether even that much should be revealed, Anderson replies that fans couldn't tell who. "It could be anyone," she says, "Who knows that it's not (villain) Krycek or something?"
"Because he's dead," Duchovny points out.
"Oh, is he?" she responds, and they both laugh. "I never knew even when we were shooting it, so I'm no different now."
Stepping out of character
In the years since The X-Files ended, Anderson, 39, and Duchovny, 47, have gone on to other well-received projects. She has appeared in the film The Last King of Scotland, the BBC miniseries of Charles Dickens' Bleak House and is host of PBS' Masterpiece Classic, while he is now famous for the lothario screenwriter Hank Moody in Showtime's comedy Californication.
Both say success in other roles has soothed the chafing they felt after 202 episodes playing Mulder and Scully. "I was quite vocal about the fact that I needed a break," Anderson says.
"I think anybody would feel that way," Duchovny agrees.
Neither professes to be personally interested in the supernatural, but as they tour the museum, their personalities emerge. Duchovny is the joker, while Anderson seems charmed by the strangeness.
Anderson marvels at a wall of horns and antlers — elk, deer — with one single cone of hardened hair in the middle.
"The human horn," she says, reading from a plaque describing the object from a woman in 1688. Anderson grins: "I wonder if that's a mating thing?"
"Remember The Enigma?" Duchovny says slyly, referring to a sideshow performer who co-starred with them in a 1995 episode. "He actually had horns implanted after we worked with him. Two horns, like devil horns. I think he said they were coral implants, so they would continue to grow," Duchovny says.
"Is he doused with saltwater every day?" Anderson jokes.
As they study an exhibit of folk remedies, they seem to gravitate to the ones relating to pregnancy and children. Anderson is five months pregnant with her third child; Duchovny has two kids with wife Téa Leoni.
One display is about the belief that inhaling the breath of a duck can cure throat ailments in children, and Duchovny sarcastically says, "I've done that."
Inside another glass case, two long-dead mice are atop a slice of toast. "What's it supposed to cure?" Duchovny asks.
Anderson leans in for a peek. "No way, really?" Duchovny just looks at her.
She reads from another display: " 'A woman after childbirth is the most dangerous thing on Earth. All sorts of uncanny things surround the mother and infant, and if she goes to a river to wash, the fish will go away.' Hmm …" she says, cradling her belly.
"Keep that in mind," Duchovny says.
"I will," she answers, mock impressed.
While it's easy to dismiss these bizarre notions, Duchovny says the old-fashioned desire to make sense of a random world is what fueled the love of The X-Files.
"Human nature doesn't change. We are who we were 300 years ago. We're interested in the same myths," Duchovny says. "We're dealing with the ancient fears, like in the museum here. Whether gods exist, whether monsters exist. It's pretty fundamental. … They want to believe."
"There's an emptiness that will always be there, and people will constantly try to fill it," Anderson adds.
For a moment inside the folk remedies room, Duchovny abandons his wisecracks.
"The whole exhibit kind of fills me with sadness," he says. "It just reminds me of how fearful and powerless human beings are. I mean these are fake, but they're not. People believe we can actually ward off evil, or keep our children healthy or whatever."
Anderson adds: "And the most we can muster is breathing in the breath of a duck."