Over the span of The X-Files' 24-years of existence, actor Mitch Pileggi has embodied the role of Agent Mulder and Agent Scully's gruff, emotionally reserved boss, FBI Assistant Director Walter Sergei Skinner. Aside from the knowledge that he was in Vietnam and almost died, that he was married once, and that his relationship with his X-Files agents can at best be described as "complicated," Skinner remains largely a mystery. Even Pileggi was admittedly mock-grousing in Season 10 that it would be nice to know more about his character.
Luckily, Chris Carter's assistant and X-Files writer's assistant Gabe Rotter was listening and agreed. Based on that informal challenge, Rotter actually pitched a Skinner episode to Carter where we get an expansion of context in regard to his tour in Vietnam. "Kitten" is essentially a love letter to the character and the fantastic Pileggi, that, once and for all, provides an answer as to why Skinner has stuck by FBI pariahs Mulder and Scully for so long.
We were thrilled to join the #WeLoveSkinner dog pile this week, talking to both Pileggi and Rotter about how "Kitten" came about, what it says about the character, and just where the hell Sharon Skinner is.
Mitch, knowing you helped spur this episode into being, when were you actually told it was coming in earnest?
Mitch Pileggi: I can't remember exactly when it was that I found out. I think it was at some point at the beginning of the season. But I was very excited about it. Gabe Rotter, who wrote it, I talked to him about it.
Did he consult with you pre-writing, or did you just get to see the finished script?
MP: He had mentioned that Skinner's past experience in Vietnam would be touched on, but no, he didn't really consult me at all. He just wrote what he wrote. Then when I read it, I said, "This is perfect." I was very happy with what he brought to me.
Before we get into Skinner specifics, I have to ask, did you get a chance to see Jim Pickens, who was such a welcome surprise to see in this episode, as he's played Skinner's hardass boss, Deputy Director Alvin Kersh, on and off since 1998?
MP: I did! His chair was next to mine, and we got to chat quite a bit. I got to work with Jim on Grey's Anatomy, where I played his boss, which was kind of ironic. Jim Pickens is one of the finest people that I've ever met in this business. I told him time and time again that if anybody deserves the good fortune, nobody deserves it more than him. It was great to be able to get to see him, and for him to be back, yeah.
Bringing it back to Skinner, what revelation most impacted you personally when you read this script?
MP: The fact that he's got Metamucil as one of the few things that he has in his spartan apartment. (Laughs)
I loved that!
MP: I thought that was so funny because I've always described Skinner as being perpetually constipated. When I read it, I thought, "Oh my god." But I was actually really happy with the conversation that Skinner had with Mulder and Scully, and telling them his truth and who he was, and just trying to reinforce in their minds that he was the man that they think he is. Whether they buy it or not is another thing.
It felt very sincere, as this was really the first time we've learned what really motivates Skinner in his own words.
MP: Yeah, I thought it was important for that character to express a lot of the feelings that he expressed, so people can understand him. He's always been described as humorless and perpetually constipated, so this really explains a lot of why he is the way he is, and what has carried him through life. The fact that he spent years searching for John James speaks a lot about him. Then to find out what happened to him and his heartbreak, seeing not only what happened to him in Vietnam, but what happened to him at the end of his life. I think it just turns him.
Do you think Skinner, who lost faith post-Vietnam, sees himself in Davey (Haley Joel Osment)?
MP: Yeah, just driving to the location where they live and it's obviously off the grid, and seeing the environment that he had placed himself in. Then when he sees Davey, he thinks it's John. And when he realizes it's not him, he's like, "Oh my god." Yeah, there was a lot of stuff going on in my mind throughout that scene. I have relations that are off the grid that were Vietnam vets, so I have some experience with that. I tried to use that as much as I could allow myself to be in that moment.
Something that has been really interesting about this season is that it has explored the cost of this job on Mulder and Scully's lives, and now on Skinner's life in this episode. There's a sadness to that, but did you frame it that way?
MP: They are at odds within the organization out there that they're working for, constantly. They're almost constantly in jeopardy from their own people that they work for and work with. I think that you find that out in this episode, that it has had an impact on Skinner's career, certainly, and his relationship with the two of them. I've always claimed that that wasn't the situation. People would always say, "Well, why isn't Skinner assistant director?" I said, "Well, because I've been hanging out with Mulder." That relationship's done him no good, but he doesn't care because of his moral compass. He is the man that he is.
I want to ask, did you and Chris, or even Gabe in this process, ever discuss Sharon Skinner again? "Avatar" had a very ambiguous ending. You put on the wedding ring, and some people think that she's dead or some people thought that that was maybe a moment where you guys reconciled. Did it come up at any point?
MP: I haven't the faintest idea. (Laughs) Nobody's ever said anything. That episode happened, then it was like, "Nah, that didn't happen." In the Season 10 episodes, I forgot to take my wedding ring off, so I just wore it throughout the whole six episodes. Then I started wearing it this season. Chris noticed and goes, "We had to CGI your wedding ring off your finger." I said, "Dude, I've been wearing it for last season and I've been wearing it all this season!" I said, "I figured I married my secretary." Or, he's got wives all over the place. Who knows? I don't know. She's obviously not living with him in that apartment. (Laughs)
There's a world-weariness and a fatigue that you feel in this season that Chris and the other writers have head-on addressed. What has it been like for you, who has been on this whole ride, and to see history sort of supersede what the show has explored?
MP: Originally people were going, "Oh man, that stuff's so far out there." Then to present day, where the publicist and I were just talking, and after he saw the episode, he read an article about people talking about the airplane jet chemtrails in the sky, what's in them and how it could possibly be affecting us. That was the gist of the end of the episode, you know? So how pertinent is that? How relevant is the show to what's going on in the world? It's right there. It really is.
The very last shot where Skinner pulls his tooth out is absolutely flooring for us as fans. But for you as an actor, I'm sure you were like, "All right guys, what does this mean?"
MP: Well, he's not eating his steak toothless, so he's not gumming his steak at the end of the show. That is that moment, whatever happens after that, it doesn't affect him any more than it does at that moment. So I'm sure he went to the dentist, got an implant, and is just fine. (Laughs)
What was your favorite moment in this episode?
MP: It was being able to tell a story, and talk about his connection to Vietnam and to this man, John James, and what was done to him by our government, and the fact that he said, "I don't care what happens, I'm gonna find out what they did to him, whether it costs me my life or what." It really shows that he's driven to find answers to this huge question in his life. It drives him forward, past all the other storylines that we have in The X-Files.
Gabe, you've had a long history with the show. You were on The Lone Gunmen as a producer's assistant, and then you were a writer's assistant on The X-Files, and Chris Carter's assistant. What were some of the big takeaways for you?
Gabe Rotter: I learned how to tell an X-File from watching Chris. I learned how to run a show from watching Chris, and I was just lucky to be by his side for so many episodes, and I definitely consider him my mentor.
How did it happen that you got your own episode?
GR: I was actually a writer last season. I didn't get an episode last season, but I was on the writing staff and we talked for a minute about potentially doing a seventh episode, and so Chris had me write it with Brad Follmer, another guy who's worked with us for a long time. The guys liked it, and it seemed like it was literally about to happen and then scheduling stuff got in the way. We ended up not being able to do it. So I came up with the idea for this episode sitting on set with Mitch last season.
Was it because of your love of Mitch, or Skinner?
GR: Both. I thought it would be really fun to do an episode with Mitch just cause I adore him so much. Plus, here's this character who I think is one of the most beloved TV characters of all time, but we know precious little about him even after all this time. I thought this character deserves a little bit of a deep dive because I just know how much fans love him, and I know how much I love him, so I pitched the idea to Chris and he said it was a great idea and told me to run with it.
Was there a scene that you built the episode around?
GR: For me the crux of the episode is: Here's this very comfortable guy who obeys his acute moral compass, who for some reason has never risen above the rank of assistant director in the FBI, even though he should be running the place by now. I thought: Wouldn't it be interesting if we literally said that the reason he's not running the place is because of his loyalty to Mulder and Scully? More importantly, I always imagined ending the episode with Skinner telling them, "Look, yes I realize it's probably true that the reason my career hasn't advanced is because of you guys, but I would make that decision 100% of the time, every time." So, I thought that was a really lovely idea and also a good way to really make sure the episode was about Mulder and Scully, as much as about Skinner.
I wanted to ask about getting Jim Pickens as Kersh. Was that cameo return ever in jeopardy of not happening?
GR: It was in jeopardy, for sure. I wrote it always imagining we would be able to get him. But he's a busy guy! It's hard to find the time in his schedule from Grey's Anatomy but he was such a trooper. He flew to Vancouver after working on Grey's Anatomy earlier that day and we shot his scenes at night. He was so wiped out, but he fought through it and delivered it. We were really lucky that he's willing to do that for us.
Former X-Files script supervisor and now director, Carol Banker, helmed this episode for you. What was it like collaborating with her on the episode?
GR: I knew her before, obviously, but we have just become the best of friends throughout this process. I think she's a brilliant director. We were lucky because Chris trusted us to take this and run with it, and make it our baby. He wasn't really there when we did this episode, he was doing another episode, so we really took it seriously. Carol was so overly prepared. She's just such a pro. We did stuff like a tone meeting where we sat down and went through every single word in the script. I mean every single word. She wanted to know what I was thinking about the tone of every conversation, the tone of every look between characters, what are they thinking in this moment, what should the audience be thinking about at this moment? It was really fun for me as writer to just be so collaborative, and she's also the kind of director who wants the writer standing next to her the whole time she's shooting. So that's what we did and it was just tremendously rewarding for me.
Was Haley Joel Osment a guest star with a The X-Files obsession like others who have appeared in episodes?
GR: Haley's performance, I just thought he nailed it. But no, Haley's a young guy, so I think he was just a kid when the show was on originally. He told me he totally remembered watching and being scared shitless as a little kid. (Laughs) Haley is such a cool dude. I just love that guy. He's so thoughtful and smart and funny and prepared. He had good ideas, and he did a lot with the work. I'll tell you something else about casting him, which I give credit to him, is that when you're casting a guy at his level, they don't audition. They're offer only. I thought he would be so creepy in the role, but Chris and Carol both thought, "I'm not sure he's quite right." To Haley's credit, he put himself on tape, which nobody even asked him to do. He just did it and it won him the job. As soon as Chris and Carol both saw it they said, "You're right he is awesome." He just nailed it.
What's next for you as a TV writer?
GR: My dream is to have my own show and so I'm out pitching my own work now. You know my favorite episodes will always be Vince Gilligan episodes, so that kind of tells you everything you need to know about my sensibility. (Laughs)