Tony Todd Q&A: An Oral History of The X-Files’ “Sleepless” -By Will Levith

Tony Todd Q&A: An Oral History of The X-Files’ “Sleepless”

By Will Levith

About six years ago, give or take, I was a full-time freelance writer living in Brooklyn and publishing work for a number of different magazines and websites. One of them was rather obscure: a site devoted entirely to sleep (it has long since folded). Day in and day out, I dreamed up story ideas to pitch the editor, whom I greatly respected; he had been a bit of a controversial figure in the New York media world but had a nose for a killer story. And that’s when I remembered an X-Files episode called “Sleepless” (Season 2, Episode 4) that had given me nightmares as a kid. It was about Vietnam War veterans who hadn’t slept in decades, and one that was silently waging war on people’s minds.

Luckily, as far as The X-Files canon goes, it’s an important episode, too. It features the first appearances of recurring characters Alex Krycek (Nicholas Lea) and Mr. X (Steven Williams). It was also the first major writing credit for supervising producer Howard Gordon, who would later make his name producing blockbuster shows like 24 and Homeland. It featured co-executive producers James Wong and Glen Morgan, who would be integral to the series and later co-write Final Destination. And it co-starred one of the hottest horror movie actors of the 1990s, Tony Todd (Augustus Cole), who had starred as the titular Candyman in the ’92 slasher classic. Throw in appearances by FBI Assistant Director Walter Skinner (Mitch Peleggi), The Smoking Man (William B. Davis) and Jonathan Gries (Salvatore Matola), who would later appear on Lost, and you had yourself a humdinger of an episode. Of course, the true stars of the show were in it, too: FBI special agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson).

Needless to say, I got the greenlight to do the story—I think I pitched it to run near Halloween— and I landed an interview with star Tony Todd, who turned out to be a journalist’s dream: He had a great memory for his time on The X-Files and provided genuinely interesting answers to all of my questions.

Below, find a lightly edited version of my interview, which originally published online in October of 2015. Since it’s long been scrubbed from the internet, I’ve decided to donate it to The X-Files Preservation Collection, which I am happy to say is located in my hometown of Saratoga Springs, New York. I can’t wait to check it out when it eventually opens to the public. Until then, enjoy this oral history of “Sleepless” by one of the actors that experienced it firsthand.

Will Levith: Where are you calling from?
Tony Todd: I’m calling from California. Where’s “518”?

Upstate New York where I’m originally from, but now I make my home in Brooklyn. It’s cool except for the cold winters.
I’m from Connecticut originally, so I know the four seasons and spent some years in New York.

Your IMDB page said you were from D.C.
I was born in D.C. I left when I was 3 and went to Connecticut.

I went on your IMDB page to see what you’d been up to lately, and was shocked, because there’s quite a bit. Have you had to turn down any roles lately because you’re so busy?
Yeah, I am [busy]. The last two or three years, it’s been really insane in a good way. Amidst [it] all, my daughter graduated with a master’s from Columbia last spring, which is great, so that was the biggest life accomplishment. But you know, the work keeps churning away, and I really did work.

Have you found that you’re less choosy about your roles at 60 than you were at 40?
Well, you know more, the older you get. The more life experiences you have, the deeper I think your inner-core gets. I used to fear that when I was 25, because when you’re 25, you’re like, “I know it all! It’s all gonna fall into place,” but seriously, if you listen to the rhythm of life, you can’t push the water; you gotta let the water take you where the current’s going to go. I’m happy, I’m good. I have probably a greater appreciation at this point in my life than I ever did before.

That’s good to hear.
Don’t be afraid! It’s all good. You gotta think of all the people we’ve all grown up with. You’re in Brooklyn, you know. Brooklyn makes noise. Breathing is a good thing.

Let’s talk a little bit about your guest-starring role on The X-Files. I read that you were familiar with producers James Wong, Glen Morgan, and Howard Gordon from a pilot you’d done for them before.
I was considered for a pilot, I should say. It didn’t last long, and it was like 10 episodes, and I didn’t get the actual job because, at the time, it was for NBC, and [an executive] there actually called my agent and said they wanted to hire me but felt, and this is a direct quote, “They think he’s a movie star, not a TV star.” And at the time, that’s flattering, but I really kind of wanted the gig. But I guess that planted a seed. I went on to work later on with Glen and James in Final Destination. And then Howard, that was his first writing assignment on X-Files, and that’s paid off terrifically, because I went on and appeared twice on 24, when it was at its peak, and currently, the gig I have on The Flash, the executive producer is Howard’s nephew. One of the reasons that fell into place was because Howard whispered in his ear.

That’s great.
Everything emanates from X-Files. And when I think of that episode, I only had a three-day window, because I was just wrapping up on Homicide: Life on the Streets, and getting ready to start Candyman 2 in New Orleans, so they literally flew me from Baltimore to Vancouver, and we shot, and one of the reasons I think “Sleepless” is so effective was that it was so rushed—it was nighttime shooting and then as soon as that wrapped, they flew me down to New Orleans. But it was a great time to [do] three completely different projects.

The episode came early in the second season of The X-Files, when the show was still sort of seen as a “cult hit.” Was it a really tightly knit crew, or was it still going through some growing pains?
No. Everybody was aware of it at that time, because they’d had that extraordinary first season, yet it wasn’t so accomplished that there wasn’t any…sometimes, no matter how good a show is, there’s a certain sense of “been there, done that,” and that hadn’t kicked in at all; the crew was still fresh. Vancouver crews, particularly in that time period in the early to late ’90s, were very happy and eager that Hollywood had found a home there, and they were dedicated, extraordinarily talented and went to extremes to make sure that the projects jumped from the page to the screen. Vancouver’s one of the loveliest cities I’ve ever been to. So you had that; it rained all the time, which really added to the mystique of X-Files, and I liked the shows they filmed there a lot better than the ones they subsequently made in California.

Prior to acting in “Sleepless,” you had done Vietnam War movies like Platoon (1986) and Colors (1988) and had just scared the hell out of everybody with Candyman a few years prior. Was the role of Augustus “Preacher” Cole written for you, or did you have to audition for it like everybody else?
No, they offered it to me. And that was because of my relationship with James and Glen. And Howard, it being his first professional gig, he was just happy to see his script on film. So he was like a little kid on set, and I think it’s shown up in his subsequent works, particularly with Homeland. Glen and James are both “kids” [on set], too. Another [way] we connected in Final Destination was that [its creator] Jeffrey Reddick had submitted that concept to X-Files as a subsequent episode, and they passed on it but encouraged him to develop it, and then it later became a successful film franchise.

You mentioned that this was Howard Gordon’s first writing gig for The X-Files.
First “significant” writing gig; I don’t know exactly, but I know that he’s said [that], and it’s registered in professional circles that it was the most significant gig at that time in his career.

He seems to have the “government is evil” theme down pat.
He does, and they just got that other show [of his] on FX, that Tyrant thing.

Having been born in D.C., how easy is it for you to play someone who distrusts the government?
I don’t think it has to be just limited to Washington, D.C. I live in America, and I’m 60, so there’s been a lot of changes with the shifting winds right up to present day, so nothing surprises me, and yet everything is the same.

Do you think being tall and having a deep voice naturally makes you scary?
I don’t think it hurts. I got my master’s at Trinity [Repertory Company] in Providence, Rhode Island, and when I was in school, my specific focus was writing. At school, we had five different acting teachers, three directing teachers, [and] from 8 in the morning to 12 at night, I got a good basis in acting. When I hit New York and got out of school, my goal was to be a writer. But I got my equity card within two weeks and got caught up professionally, making my living the best way I could, which was saying words. Certainly the height helps, certainly the voice helps, but it’s a whole lot of things. It’s timing, it’s being in the right place at the right time, being trained, being prepared when the opportunity struck, and believing in yourself. I graduated with 23 people, and all of them were totally competent, and only three of us are working professionals [today]. I get calls from some ex-classmates, saying, “What did [you do to become famous]?” A lot of people put time limits on when they’re supposed to [become successful]. See, you can’t do that. You have to be fearless, and you have to be able to ride with the waves, the changing currents of pace, and be prepared when you get that shot.

Howard’s script is pretty sparse as far as your part is concerned. How much of that was ad-libbed.
Everything that was in the episode was on the page. We had a little bit of turmoil during the shooting of that when I was there, because they had originally cast Mr. X as a woman. Then when I left, they brought in Steve Williams. It’s interesting, because I probably would’ve been considered for [the Mr. X part] had I not already been doing Augustus. But it’s fine, because he was a good friend of mine, and I really loved the character, I thought it was really unique; it was one of those Twilight Zone-ists. And I loved that philosophy. Plus, it was exactly what I was, coming from Homicide to Candyman; that little weird bubble.

You said before that they were flying you out to shoot Candyman 2 while you were shooting “Sleepless.” Were you actually sleep deprived when you were filming The X-Files episode?
No, in order to do your best, you have to have rest. I was getting rest, but there just wasn’t time to absorb. Usually, when you finish a gig, you should have that downtime just to reflect, resonate, ’cause actors always think that they could have done a better take, you know? And sometimes in TV, it’s so fast that you don’t have that luxury. So I just wanted to make sure everything was complete. But I knew I had to rest, I knew I had to sleep, and you have to do that —it’s essential for the body and the soul.

So you were completely well-rested playing a guy who hadn’t slept in 24 years.
Yeah, it helped that we were shooting nights, and I was just coming from one place and I knew I was going someplace else; it actually put me in that “limbo” state. Our [director of photography] was great, because a lot of the shots of Augustus are done from angles, high and low, and that helped. The production design on the show was great; all the dream sequences, the Vietnam moments, and the fact that I’d done Platoon certainly helped put me in that place for that. It certainly helped that I’d spent time in the jungle. I think it was [“Sleepless”] director Rob Bowman’s first gig as well, so we had a lot of firsts going on at that time.

It was uncharted territory for a lot of you guys.
Yeah, definitely. You know, sometimes, in some television, it gets too jaded, and everybody’s just showing up and going through the motions, but it wasn’t like that on X-Files. At least at that time. Everybody truly loved what they were doing, they knew they were being watched, they had no fear of cancellation, and they were willing to take chances that resonated. You gotta remember: Everybody was tuning into X-Files at that time; it was must-see TV.

When I was tuning in, I was probably in my early to middle teens. You were probably in your early to middle teens when Vietnam was happening.
Definitely.

Did you know a lot of people that went off to Vietnam, and is that who you were channeling, playing Augustus, or was it more that Platoon thing you were talking about?
It was more the Platoon thing. You know, growing up in Connecticut, we had a lot of young men that left. I was a kid, so I didn’t really get the significance of it, but I knew every night, Walter Cronkite was telling us how serious it fucking was, and I knew that I wasn’t going to go—you know, a lot of us had exit strategies in place. I was just a young, formative kid, but I remember seeing people come back with drug problems related to that war. At that time, we hadn’t qualified a statement called “the homeless,” but if you came from those extreme battle conditions and got air-dropped back into civilization, there’s adjustment problems. So maybe I pulled a little from that—that outcastness quality, which I think was important for it. Two things that I get from people who have served time in the military: They loved that episode and they loved Platoon. They just thought, if you’re going to tackle a subject that’s as deep and life-changing as that, you better be accurate…there’s little wiggle room for bullshit.

I think one of the things you immediately notice in that first dream sequence is it just smacks you over the head; he’s got a bunch of dead Vietnamese children with blood all over their faces, staring him down.
It was amazing. I tried to communicate with those people, those extras that we had, who were wonderful, but more than half of them didn’t really speak English. And that really helped. Most of the people that had been evacuated from Vietnam were now in the Promised Land, but still, memories must’ve run deep, so there was that great quality that it was real.

Candyman may have been a villain, but he’s a character we ultimately feel sorry for. Augustus Cole seems like a similar character. Was it easier to play him having recently done Candyman?
Was [Augustus] really a villain? I think the reason he was picking off members of his platoon was he was helping them to make that transition. I think that was a loving act. I think the real villain was the professor, the doctor, that tried to make us into super killing machines. You know, without the ability of sleep. It’s a thin line between a villain and a person that just has a deep desire to effect change in the people around him. And I think I’ve been able to tap into that mixture of good and bad, hopefully, in poetic ways.

Is that something you’ve just been naturally good at for your entire life?
Yeah, I’m able to look at things in both ways. I grew up doing a lot of freshwater fishing, and you go with a certain expectation to pull out the biggest large-mouth bass in the water, but some days you get a pike. And that presents another kind of fight, so the thing is, you show up at the water, and some days you don’t get anything at all, but sometimes, mostly, it’s about the showing up, and the desire to do something with the body of water. I don’t mean to be too esoteric, but hopefully, you understand what I mean.

You recite a bunch of biblical passages in the X-Files episode, which reminded me a bit of Samuel L. Jackson’s “Ezekiel 25:17” scene in Pulp Fiction. That movie came out a week after the episode dropped. Was that just a happy coincidence?
I didn’t realize that. Are you sure?

October of 1994.
Wow. OK, that’s interesting, because that means that before I did Homicide, I was up in Calgary shooting this Western called Black Fox with Christopher Reeve, and while we were shooting, I got a call, and Quentin [Tarantino] had wanted me to meet with me about both Bruce [Willis’] role and the role that Ving [Rhames] did, and I couldn’t get away. I mean, all respect to that movie, I love it, Pulp Fiction, I love those two guys, but it’s interesting how things are.

That is interesting; I assumed there might’ve been some crossover, you might’ve screened it or something like that.
Yeah, just to be considered. You gotta remember, Quentin started as a fan first, a video clerk operator. We met when he was doing…what’s the one with Harvey Keitel?

Reservoir Dogs.
Yeah, Reservoir Dogs. I met him then, because he was a huge fan of Night of the Living Dead, and they ultimately didn’t go African American on it, but we met. I have a feeling one day we will do something [together]. Once Sam Jackson stops accepting [stuff]. [laughs] I’m not mad at him; I would do the same thing.

He’s got a good thing going on for sure.
Yeah, why not? Hey, everybody’s got to find a way to do the work that’s moving in.

Do you remember the reception “Sleepless” got? Do you think that role scored you any follow-up work? [Author’s note: Its total audience was around 8 million viewers.]
To be honest, I don’t know what that reception was, because by the time that came out, I was deep into Candyman 2 country, and I made a choice not to watch TV during that period. But was it successful, initially? I thought it was something that grew on people.

Do you still get residuals checks in the mail for your role? An actress I recently interviewed, Gossip Girl’s Leighton Meester, said her residuals checks were, like, anywhere from $0.50 to $1.50. Do you know offhand how much you got paid for that role in The X-Files?
Yeah, I still get residuals, and they’re not as great as they were back when Blockbuster and Hollywood Video was alive, because they paid us more then; now everybody can stream shit, and it’s hard to get pennies out of Netflix and Amazon, but no, I have a huge body of work, it’s a good blessing.

So like the X-Files was, like, a $100 check?
More than that. Like closer to $500.

That’s pretty good.
For like 20-plus years. All the actors that had to work the early days of television in the ’60s did not have residuals. [For] all the shows that people grew up with or at least resonated with in the past. So thank god for [actors] that finally stood up, formed a union, and got some sort of profit participation. We’re getting ready to engage in another battle now with the video game industry, which I’m also a part of, because when we had our last sit-down...web content—nobody knew what that was. And now we see what it is—streaming. Some video games make more money than fucking movies do. So, right now, actors don’t get included on residual participation, but that’s gonna change.

Will you be watching The X-Files reboot live, or are you a “wait for it to hit Netflix” type of guy?
I don’t know yet; I haven’t made up my mind. I’m not a huge TV guy, believe it or not. I like shows…I’m a huge David Chase fan, and the last thing I watched, religiously, while it was on was The Sopranos. I rewatched it. You know, when I was a bartender in New York, [Sopranos star] James Gandolfini used to come in, and he was always perpetually depressed and talking out loud about “what the fuck is it for?” It was more a camaraderie with actors in New York, and we always used to encourage each other, and I was happy when he found the role of a lifetime.

Where did you tend bar, Tony?
At a place called the West Bank Cafe bar. I was literally able to do shows, and the owner would say, “OK, that’s great, enough applause, go behind the bar.” But I was happy. My dear friend Lewis Black was the in-house comedian at the time. He and I spent many a Tuesday night with only 10 people in the house, when he would get on the stage and perfect his ranting.

He made a signature role out of that.
He did, he did. That’s another example of [someone who] never lost the belief in himself, and I remember what he said when I got Platoon: He brought me up on stage and gave me a send-off, and then he joked about “Why the hell would somebody be going to [shoot a movie in] the Philippines after [Ferdinand] Marcos had just departed?” But you know, art takes you to many places unexpectedly.

Do you dress up as yourself for Halloween?
I avoid Halloween. Unless Vegas is going to fly me to some casino to meet and greet for an hour, no. I lay low on Halloween. My Halloween is every fucking day! I go shopping for groceries after midnight, because I just don’t want to be…I love fan appreciation, but not when I’m choosing toilet paper rolls, you know?