Above and Beyond X-Files
Kristen Cloke doesn't have a very long science fiction resume, just a very strong one. Best known for playing Captain Shane Vansen on the short-lived but highly-regarded series Space: Above and Beyond, she's also recognizable as Fox Mulder's soulmate Melissa Reidel-Ephesian from the wrenching X Files episode "The Field Where I Died," and as one of the newest members of Frank Black's group on Millennium. Though she's a versatile actress who directs and produces plays when she's not working in television, she's developing a large following within the genre.
"I always say to people, 'You may not know me, but I'm huge on the Internet!'" jokes the actress, who has a lavish official home page put together by a fan. Her first film, Megaville, was a science fiction-action movie, and Cloke thinks her "sort of tough-chick quality" may have contributed to her popularity with casting directors and audiences for genre films.
Cloke also seems to like playing such women. "Shane Vansen is like a sister to me," she says of the tough, passionate character who's been compared with Commander Susan Ivanova of Babylon Five and Captain Kathryn Janeway of Star Trek: Voyager. "I really played Shane as like a young mother, the Momma Bear. It wasn't just about being the captain of a Marine Corps, but the mother of a family - I think that took her out of being just completely tough, and let her be soft around the edges." Cloke credits series creators Glen Morgan and James Wong with developing the multidimensional character, noting that most of the female characters they've written for "don't have to stop being a woman to be masculine. They're complete people."
Vansen, who lost her parents to the cyborg Silicates and joined the Marines as an escape from the responsibility of taking care of her siblings, became the reluctant leader of the Wildcards, was a very accessible captain - she could hang out like one of the guys, yet when a crisis arose, she never failed to take charge, even before she was officially promoted. The cast went through boot camp when they were in Australia, and the series technical advisors taught them how to act like Marines. "We started the pilot where we'd just joined the Marines, and we learned as the characters learned, which was really neat," Cloke explains.
The work was arduous physically, requiring that Cloke carry heavy equipment and run around in the heat. "I got a little tired of the dirt after awhile, I got a little tired of the sweat," she admits. Though she works out almost every day, so her physique was up to the task, "I'm not incredibly coordinated, and Lanei [Chapman, who played Lieutenant Vanessa Damphousse] is incredibly coordinated - so she always looked like a gazelle!" She argued with David Duchovny, who had a guest role on Space as a cybernetic pool shark, about who had the harder full-time job, since she was onscreen nearly as much as he was in X Files, but "running around and shooting guns and standing out in the heat with forty pounds of equipment and a helmet on!"
She says that Space's cancellation is "still to this day very sad to me," because she adored the character and the people she worked with. "Glen and Jim are really special producers in the sense that they incorporate a lot of who you are, and the dynamics of all of us on the show, into the characters," she notes. "I enjoyed seeing what they came up with. And I enjoyed the challenge of making it fly for them, because I respect them. It was a fun communication that we had, that way. Glen and Jim really taught me a lot."
Cloke had the opportunity to witness Duchovny's efforts firsthand when she appeared on The X Files in the powerful, controversial episode "The Field Where I Died." Glen Morgan, who has since become her fiance, created the role of Melissa Reidel-Ephesian specifically for Cloke. The character suffered from an unusual multiple personality disorder: the personas shielding her from her miserable life as one of the wives of a charismatic cult leader were past-life incarnations.
"Those were characters that I had worked on - Glen sort of made them his own, and wrote what he wanted, loosely based on characters that he knew I could do," the actress explains. "I read stuff on multiple personalities, but Glen's point of view was that he wanted it to be that I was channeling my past lives." Cloke labels the episode "a love letter from Glen Morgan to me - it was about when you're so connected to a person, when you find a united soul, it transcends life as we know it." Among the multiple personalities were an old man named Sidney, who thought Truman was president, and Lily, a scared young girl. The most interesting to audiences was Sarah, a Confederate widow who believes she was Mulder's wife in another life.
During the segment where Mulder undergoes hypnosis, he discovers that during several previous lives, he and Melissa were lovers; he also previously interacted with many of the personalities he knows in his current incarnation, like his father and Cigarette-Smoking Man. Though Scully played a prominent role in Mulder's past lives, he did not mention her being his spouse or lover, which upset some fans who had hoped to see Mulder recognize that Scully is his soulmate.
"The internet 'Shippers [i.e., 'relationshippers,' as Mulder/Scully fans call themselves] got so upset!" Cloke recalls. "I understand that they're very involved in the show and that's how they feel about it, but I think it's dangerous to get so attached to having characters be the way that you want them to be that they can't ever surprise you - or have something new and interesting happen to them." The performer is a bit puzzled by the furor, since Scully's role in Mulder's psychic history was so substantial: "The point was that [Mulder] was connected to all the people he's been connected to, life after life."
Cloke found the episode, which ended in a mass suicide by the cult members, "very powerful," and is both mystified and frustrated that Entertainment Weekly gave it a grade of 'F' and called it the worst X Files ever. "As a journalist, I think it's very dangerous to judge things only as a fan," she complains. "You don't have any journalistic perspective. You can say, 'I didn't personally like it,' but there's direction, there's writing, there's acting [to be considered], you know what I mean? Rob Bowman's direction [of "The Field Where I Died"] stands by itself." Fox apparently agreed with Cloke: the network submitted the episode for evaluation to the committee which nominates Emmy Awards.
Though she enjoyed working with Duchovny and Anderson, Cloke says she's gotten to know them better off the show, because she was in "such a world of pain" while filming the episode. "My character changed personalities almost in every scene. Every personality change had to come out of extreme pain, so I was always crying and just sort of a mess, and I had to be very, very focused on what I was doing. I really wasn't a lot of fun to be around," she recalls.
Her acting tecnique, which she describes as a combination of elements from a variety of different schools - "acting technique is like religion, I think there are wonderful things about each religion, and you take what you want from each thing and make it your own" - necessitates that she have an empathic experience to the point where there's little division between actress and character, so Melissa Reidel's pain was Kristen Cloke's while she was filming. She believes that, though her alter egos tried to protect her from killing herself in the mass suicide at the end of the episode, Melissa found her life so painful that she chose to die willingly.
Cloke is working once again with Morgan and Wong, this time on Millennium, in a recurring role which first appeared during last week's episode "Monster." A member of the Millennium Group, her character sees visions, like central character Frank Black. "I see an angel that's sort of like a portent of evil," she divulges, explaining that this season, Millennium will be "a lot more sci-fi than it was last year, and a lot less Serial Killer of the Week." With Morgan and Wong producing, Millennium will be focusing on finding and rooting out evil, which Cloke thinks "really opens up the show a lot, and allows a lot more interesting things to happen."
Asked how she feels about the kinds of roles available to women in the industry, the California native hesitates to complain. "I think it's hard for everybody - women have a very different set of standards. The things that I end up wanting to do, the competition's very, very stiff, and it comes down to my hair color being wrong. So at that point, it becomes very frustrating." Still, she says she tries to reserve griping until she has exhausted all the possibilities open to her, and created her own material. "I can't say they don't give me enough to do, because 'they' don't, but how am I going to empower myself to change that?"
Cloke takes relatively few roles, preferring to work in film and television only when the parts interest her. In between, she's very involved in the Alliance Repertory Theatre; she just produced the play The Grace To Climb With Eagles, and has written and directed pieces for the company. Though she was an English major and is the daughter of educators, she says that she's just starting to write seriously. "I'm afraid of it - I've always been told that I should write, and I think that when everyone tells you that you should do something, it makes you more afraid to do it. So it's taking me a long time, it takes a lot of courage to write. I think I've mustered up all my courage and focused it on acting."
Directing theater, she says, is a terrific acting exercise because it teaches dramatists how to verbalize choices and be constructive about getting an actor to manifest those choices. While she's interested in directing film, her priority at the moment is on acting - "what the next job is going to be, picking the right thing, getting in an improv class or an acting class." She's very appreciative of her fans, particularly the Internet group, several of whom came to see her play.
"They're just really sweet, great people, they're like my friends," the actress says of her following, who can send e-mail to her via her web site. "I'm surprised how much [Space Above and Beyond] really touched people, and how incredibly, undyingly kind those people have been to me. I still go online and answer a lot of fan mail, and some people are just watching it for the first time in other parts of the world, and I have to go back to that place at this point and then explain to them that it's not coming back."
As for her own viewing habits, Cloke says she's a terrible channel-surfer. "I just really watch a couple of minutes of each thing to sort of see what everybody's doing, if I watch TV. I never watch a whole show." When she got the role on Space Above and Beyond, she had never seen an episode of The X Files. Since Morgan and Wong are now working exclusively on Millennium and since she's working on the series now, she watches that, but her favorite shows are Larry Sanders and Oz - two series she acknowledges that it's unlikely she'll be appearing on any time soon.
It's interesting that Cloke plays so many dark, disturbed characters, because she comes across as witty and bright, albeit intense. Millennium may not be the same by the time she's through with it.