Abnormal Interviews: Lawyer and X-Files Actor Zachary Ansley


Today, Abnormal Use continues its series, “Abnormal Interviews,” in which this site will conduct interviews with law professors, practitioners, and makers of legal-themed pop culture. For the latest installment, we turn to lawyer Zachary Ansley.  Before becoming an attorney, Ansley had a varied and successful career in film and television. Twenty-one years ago today, on September 10, 1993, he appeared as alien abductee Billy Miles in the pilot episode of “The X-Files.” Can you believe that the first episode of “The X-Files” aired 21 years ago? That character became central to the conspiracy mythology in “The X-Files,” and Ansley returned to the show on four more occasions. Over the course of his run on the series, Billy Miles was abducted by aliens at least twice, killed at least twice, and transformed into a formidable alien super soldier in pursuit of Agent Scully and her  baby. To refresh your recollection, here’s how the The X-Files Wiki begins its very detailed entry on Miles:

Billy Miles was the son of Detective Miles and a resident of Bellefleur, Oregon. He claimed to have been under temporary alien control several times in his life. After one final abduction, Miles was genetically altered into a human/alien hybrid, and became a super-soldier.

For good measure, here’s how The X-Files Wiki describes the super-soldiers on the series:

Super-soldiers are human replacements that look human but are actually a type of alien. Fearless and virtually unstoppable, these aliens are not directed by anyone and are answerable to no-one except their own biological imperative to survive. They want to knock out any and all attempts by humans to survive the alien colonization of Earth and were created to aid in the extraterrestrial repopulation of the planet. Their collective name, “super-soldiers,” derives from the aliens themselves, but was often used cynically by humans.

Ansley is now a shareholder at Owen Bird in Vancouver. He practices in the areas of civil litigation, employment law, intellectual property and other areas.

To commemorate the anniversary of the pilot’s airing, we sought an interview with Mr. Ansley, who kindly granted our request. Without further ado, the interview is as follows.

JIM DEDMAN: You appeared as Billy Miles in five episodes of “The X-Files.” The first being the pilot, which aired 21 years ago this month. How did you first get involved with the show and get that part?

ZACHARY ANSLEY: I was an actor in Vancouver. I was a child actor in Vancouver, actually, and I was part of the Vancouver Youth Theatre from the age of 12 on, and so what happened was, when the film and television industry started to grow in Vancouver, the Vancouver Youth Theatre was there to sort of feed it with young talent. So casting directors would come to the Vancouver Youth Theatre, and so that’s how I became involved in the industry. And prior to “The X-Files,” I had done some pretty high level, I guess, or high exposure stuff in Canada. I had done a few movies of the week, I had done a few Canadian feature films, so I was known to casting directors in Vancouver at that time, and when “The X-Files” pilot came along, I auditioned and was fortunate enough to get the roll.

JD: Now, [X-Files creator] Chris Carter did an interview about a year ago with an “X-Files” fan site, and they asked him actually one of the questions I was going to ask you, which is if there is a favorite moment or memory from the filming of the pilot that sticks out in your memory. One of his was your audition, and so I wanted to ask you that same question. What is it about filming the pilot that sticks out in your mind these years later?

ZA:  . . . I had never heard that one of Chris Carter’s fondest memories was my audition. That’s very kind of him to say that.

[T]he most exciting part about doing that pilot was just getting the part, which was kind of before I went to acting school in New York City. It was actually September of ’93 that I started acting school in New York City, I believe. That was at Circle in the Square theatre school in New York, so this was before then, obviously, and I was hungry for work, and I was just happy to be part of something that could potentially grow into something a lot bigger than a pilot. And it eventually did, so that was very exciting. In terms of the actual filming itself, I do remember Chris, sort of in his quiet and confident way, sort of tending to the projects, reviewing each unit that was filmed, and reviewing playbacks and making sure that the images and the scenes aligned with his vision, and I think, you know, I didn’t have a lot of interaction with Chris while we were filming outside of after the audition, but I do recall him being there and attending to the details and making sure, as they say, that it aligned with his visions, and that they got it right, and that we were getting it right. So, I remember that, and I remember also working with Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny, and that was and they were very easy to work with and stayed very professional. And also you could tell that they were also trying to figure out how to do this right and what was the right sort of tone for the show and their characters and their relationship, and you know, you kind of got a sense that these people were working very hard to make this work, and so that was very exciting to just be a part of that.

JD: Did you have any idea at that time that it would become this huge cultural phenomenon?

ZA: I didn’t, but at the same time, not that I thought that it wasn’t going to be that, either. I mean, it was just so fresh and new to me that I was just excited to be a part of it, and I was certainly hopeful that it would become something much bigger, and I was just sort of focusing on that moment and not letting myself think too much into the future. And, of course, my character at that time didn’t have a future with the show, so maybe that played into sort of my ability to focus on the pilot episode itself.

JD: Well, that anticipates my next question, which is, seven years later, you come back to the show starting with the Season 7 finale. How did that come to be?

ZA: Well, it was very interesting. I certainly didn’t expect it. It was a pleasant surprise. At that time, of course, “The X-Files” had moved the filming . . . from Vancouver back down to Los Angeles. It started filming in Vancouver, and then after a certain amount of seasons, I think it was 6, moved down to Los Angeles, so I they called me, and I didn’t expect it at that time. I was finishing my last year of undergrad at the University of British Columbia. I remember it was sort of final exam time that I got the call that they wanted to reprise the character and bring it back, and the reason they were going to bring it back was because David Duchovny’s character was maybe going to be leaving the show, and they wanted to sort of bring it back full circle to the original “X-File,” which of course, Billy Miles was a part of. So, I was very excited to get that call and happy to come back to the show.


JD: And the episodes you were in aren’t just regular episodes of the show; they were big mythology episodes with the alien abductions, and of course, Fox Molder gets abducted, and Scully gets pregnant. How did it feel to be a part of those sort of big picture episodes of the series?

ZA: Well, going back to the show after that length of time, when it already was a cult phenomenon big hit, at that point, was really special. I mean, it was just an honor to be back, and I felt very fortunate to be doing it and to be reprising the role of Billy Miles, and especially because he becomes abducted again, and he comes back with these special powers that are sort of similar to like the character in Terminator 2 where he can sort of regenerate himself in different shapes, and they can try to kill him in trash compactors and elevators shafts, but he keeps coming back to life. So, I mean, that added a whole other dimension to my character that was just a lot of fun to play, and of course, was fun to be a part of those mythological episodes near the end.

JD: And looking back in 2014, what would you say the legacy of the show is?

ZA: Well, I mean, the legacy of the show, I think, is just how far it sort of popularized the science fiction and conspiracy kind of episodic television – how far it brought that particular component into pop culture that I don’t think was there. Obviously, it was there, partially, but it certainly wasn’t there to the extent that it was after “The X-Files,” and I think it’s obviously generated a lot of buzz, and shows have attempted to repeat that success. But I think it was, you know, the pioneer in how far it was sort of pushing that conspiracy theory, “someone is watching you out there” genre that I don’t recall being there as much as when I was younger.

JD: How did you go from acting to the legal profession?

ZA: Well, that’s a good question. I mean, I get asked that a lot when people ask me what I do now or what I used to do or find out that I used to act. It didn’t seem like such a stretch to me. . . . I didn’t welcome the thought of always auditioning for your next role, even when you had work, so there was a lack of stability there, a lack of predictability there, when you’re an actor, and you kind of have to embrace that, because it’s just the nature of the beast when you’re an actor, you know, until you’re superstar and you get offered parts all the time. . . .  [I]t kind of wears on you after some time, and I had been an actor, like I said, since I was a child, and I had been doing it for twenty years, actually, before I stopped and went to law school. I did that through undergrad.  . .  . [T]hat lack of control over your own career path kind of began to wear on me a bit, and I started to look for other outlets to engage . . . other interests, such as fundamental legal interests of values in society and how those are reflected in our laws and how those are applied and policy and those kind of things. So, I found myself sort of in my undergrad sort of slowly drifting more [toward] political science and economics themes or interests and a little bit away from the pop culture Hollywood greatest blockbuster hit interest that I had more when I was younger.

JD: Do you think that the acting profession and the legal profession particularly litigation requires similar skill sets?

ZA: I do, certainly. I mean, I don’t think they are identical, but there is more overlap than people might appreciate just on first blush. I think that one of the things that all actors have to do in any given theme and under any arch of any part is follow through on an objective. And that is when you’re in a scene, and you’re playing that scene, you want something out of the other person or out of the event, and everything you do is kind of funneled through that objective, whether you go about it directly, whether you go about it indirectly, whether you go about it in a covert way. As a lawyer, you also follow objectives. You have your instructions from your client, you have an objective when you’re in court, so in that sense, it’s similar. Also, of course, when you’re a litigator, and you’re standing in front of a judge or a jury – I haven’t done a jury trial yet, and I think they are less common in Canada than in the United States – but if I was so fortunate to be in front of a jury, you have to communicate, you have to connect, you have to appreciate how your argument, how your evidence, is landing, with the judge or your audience. So, in that sense, that is very analogous to an actor being on stage or having a sense of the audience behind the camera. You have to have that sense as to how this is registering with your audience. . . . [A]s an artist and an actor, you are maybe, and this is more philosophical, if you permit me, but I think you’re a little bit more on the outside of things, kind of commenting on how things are happening, and whereas a lawyer, you kind of feel closer to sort of the center of deals and policy and the messy stuff . . . . So, as an actor, you’re looking at it, observing and commenting on it, whereas a lawyer, I think, you’re a little bit closer to the nub of it.

JD: In 1993, you played Robert De Niro’s son in This Boy’s Life. You mentioned a moment ago that in the acting profession you got some life education yourself. What did you learn about acting and life from Robert De Niro at that time?

ZA: Well, he, you know, he’s one of the superstars not only in acting, but he’s like an actor’s actor, if you will.  . . . I was really fortunate. I just watched him, how he was a constant professional, he came in prepared, he was able to, he knew his lines cold, he was able to drift off outside of the script and play whatever came to him. He had a very strong idea of who his character was and wanted to achieve, and it was really impressive to watch him just come on to the set. He was there to do a job, and he was able to carry on long after the scene ended. He was able to sort of carry on in that character and keep ad-libbing . . . . [S]ometimes the director would just let the camera roll and see what came out. So, it was, as an actor who at that point was going on to acting school, I was like a sponge, just kind of watching hanging out when I wasn’t in the scene myself and just see what things I could learn from him.

JD: You were in a holiday movie with John Schneider and Tom Wopat that was not a Dukes of Hazard related project. How did that come to be?

ZA: Well, that was the movie of the week that was shooting in Vancouver. It was “Christmas Comes To Willow Creek,” I believe that’s the name of it, and I’m not sure the background of it, or how it came to be, but I imagine that it was a vehicle for Mr. Schneider and Wopat to reprise their role of brothers even though they weren’t the “Dukes of Hazard” brothers but they were brothers in the movie. . . . [A]gain, I was fortunate enough to be a young actor in Vancouver that was sort of – that was kinda of my – I had a series of parts where I was the angry, young man and it was all about the relationship with the father, and I would always rebel against my father, and Tom Wopat was my father, and he kind of handcuffed me to the truck and took me on this journey we were going. I think we were going to Alaska, and so he handcuffed me to this truck, so I was stuck in the truck, and I didn’t want to be there. And so that was the feature of our relationship throughout that movie, and of course, it’s a Christmas movie, so it all ended well. That was a ton of fun. I would say I have very fond memories of working with those guys. And I was in high school then in Vancouver, so that was a nice break from high school and going out and hanging around a set for four weeks with those guys was a lot of fun.

JD: Getting back to “The X-Files,” of the episodes in which you appeared, which one was your favorite, and why?

ZA: Well, I think that the pilot was, just because of what it went on to become, and for those reasons that I gave earlier on that, there was a real buzz on the set initially in the pilot, and I played an abductee who abducts others and offers them to the light above. It was a complicated character, so I mean, he kind of comes out of that and is interviewed at the end so there’s levels of a sense of guilt of what he had done, a level of anger of you know of being abducted, of course, and a sense of vulnerability of how his body and being was taken over so that was kind of a complex, and it’s obvious that I didn’t have personal experience with, but I could relate to all those different elements of it and try to put it together in the character. So it was probably the pilot episode, although, of course, I was very happy to go back and play this, they say the Terminator 2 role, where I can’t be killed and can take all sorts of different shapes.

JD: Well when you came back and became the sort of transformed alien assassin, after that one scene in the “Deadalive” episode, were you ever able to eat strawberry jam again?

ZA: [Laughter] . . .  I didn’t take that home with me, so to speak.

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