A Lone Gunman's Dream Girl Plans a Comeback
She's the woman who pulled her own molar to reveal a hidden surveillance device. She announced that Gideon Bibles are placed in hotel rooms to spy on the occupants. She declared that the government had JFK assassinated - a pronouncement which later inspired the name for the Lone Gunmen. In a way, she's responsible for the political bent of the X-Files.
She's Suzanne Modeski...and she's played by Signy Coleman, a ballerina turned model turned actress with a large following from soap operas. "My understanding was that they had written this part for some pretty big actress, I'm thinking Winona Ryder, who at the last minute was not able to play the character - something else came up," explained Coleman. "It's such a great show, and I was such a fan of the show. I felt so lucky."
Coleman - who recently moved into a new house and is getting married in August - feels lucky in general these days. But The X-Files has brought her fans in her favorite genre and allowed her to create a character in one of television's most unforgettable arcs.
"I love Suzanne," she said. "I think there's a lot of similarities between the two of us. She's a very righteous person, she very strongly believes in the people. She's a very strong woman, very independent, and she does not like to see any sort of injustice done. That's a tribute to how they write the characters - I think Chris Carter and his people are just brilliant in their development of characters and storylines, how he can plan something a year ahead of time that's going to play out later. That's very intelligent-minded work, planning that kind of long-term storyline."
Modeski first appeared in flashback in 1989, when she made Langly, Byers, and Frohicke aware of the conspiracies in the United States government. Though besotted Byers believed her to be dead or imprisoned by the conspirators, she turned up alive and well last year at a defense department convention. But the man she planned to marry betrayed her and her work, forcing her to fake her own death and flee. Though Modeski vanished ominously at the end of her first appearance in "Unusual Suspects," Coleman already had reason to suspect she would be back, and hopes to return again to finish the work Modeski started.
"Vince [Gilligan, one of the writers] came to me on the set a couple of days into shooting and said, 'We really like this character, we really like the relationships, we really want you to come back.' They're talking about doing it again. I certainly hope so."
Wanting To Believe
It's hard to imagine anyone other actress playing the role, but Coleman laughingly told the story of her audition, which she didn't think went well at all. "I was really nervous because they write very technical dialogue for the show - it's a mouthful to get out - and I kept stumbling over it. I was walking out the door across the parking lot and I said to myself, 'You're so stupid, you were so nervous,' everything you say to yourself as an actress when you're walking out the door."
"And all of a sudden I hear from across the parking lot, 'Signy! Wait! Come back here!'" she continued. "It was the casting director. She pulled me back in the room and they all laughed and said, 'OK, you did it once and it's out of the way; now you're relaxed, you want to try it again?' I just went through and I was very comfortable, and by the time I had gotten to my car, my agent had paged me and said, 'You got it!'"
Coleman had known David Duchovny for years through the Los Angeles acting community, and fell in love with the Lone Gunmen on the set. "We had so much fun doing that episode - what a delightful, wonderful, intelligent, funny group of people, the cast and crew of that show," she recalled. "I love the three boys so much. Suzanne obviously has a very soft place in her heart for Bruce, he's such a doll, but they all are to me. Dean is hysterical, Tom is just a nut, and the three of them together...when I talk about comradeship and how they work together, it really is amazing. It's very unique. There's not ego involved, and that's really refreshing."
Duchovny and Coleman share friends in the Los Angeles acting community. "David is amazing," she said. "He's so intelligent, and he has a very warped, dark sense of humor; he reminds me a lot of Dennis Miller. Sometimes you sit there and you go, 'Oh, that's a JOKE! That's funny!'"
Though she did not work with Gillian Anderson at all on "Unusual Suspects" since Scully did not appear in that episode, Coleman appreciated meeting the actress during "Three of a Kind" when Anderson played "Holly Golightly," as Frohicke joked. "We're both single mothers," noted Coleman. "She's wonderful, very professional, very to the point, it was great to watch her work. She's just so focused on what she does. It was really a great experience to watch her."
Coleman creates backstories for her characters and takes notes from their perspective - even keeping journals of what her characters would write about the scenes she plays. "With every one of my characters I build a whole background and family. A lot of how I saw Suzanne Modeski had to do with her father, and her relationship with her father. I built a whole background in which her father was her idol and her mentor. The thing that worked for me within the character was that Suzanne had been so beaten down for so long. I think that psychologically when you get to that point, you're ready to let someone take care of you."
How hard was it for Coleman to play a woman who had been abused and betrayed by the government she worked for? Not as hard as one might think. "I really believe that there's a tremendous amount that's kept from us within the government," she revealed. "I have a very good friend of mine whose father was a lawyer in the White House years ago, and though he would never list specific things, he would always say, 'You have no idea what goes on.'"
Coleman recalled a story she was told by one of the cameramen in Vancouver. "They had two ex-CIA guys come down to the set, huge fans of the show, and they were there for a couple of days just watching them shoot. As they were getting ready to leave, one of the cameramen asked them, 'Are we even close?' and they said, 'You have no idea how close you are.' That's what's frightening about it."
What about the extraterrestrial storylines on The X-Files? "I'm open to everything," admitted the actress. "I think that there are greater forces in this universe than we can understand and who's to say if there is or isn't other life out there? I'm open to the possibility and it wouldn't surprise me if somebody came walking up to my back door."
"I think mental abuse is worse than physical, and the fact that all of these tests had been conducted on her...she was just brain-dead," the actress explained of her character. "It took her a long time before she trusted anyone, but she wanted to believe in somebody."
Like the men who play the Lone Gunmen, Coleman reported that she receives quite a bit of fan mail from conspiracy theorists, most of which is quite entertaining. "I got a lot of fan mail after I did the first show, and then the second one, being that I was on the soap opera Guiding Light, I could not believe how much mail I got. It was hysterical!" She answers all the letters herself.
Though some X-Files guest stars have been unnerved at the intensity of some of the show's fans, they don't faze Coleman, who had already experienced the fervor of daytime drama fandom as a star not only of Guiding Light but of The Young and the Restless, on which she played Hope Adams for more than five years.
Young and Restless
Coleman did not start out intending to be an actress, though she performed even as a child: she was a classical ballet dancer from the time she was five years old. "By the time I was thirteen, I was on a full scholarship with the San Francisco Ballet school, and they were basically apprenticing me for the company," she explained.
At 16, however, she quit cold turkey. Told to stop riding horses because riding was bad for her turnout, she watched her peers strive for a perfection that she came to realize did not exist. "I looked at these girls who existed on dexatrim and cigarettes and I said, 'I want to be healthy. I want to enjoy my life.' I needed something that fulfilled me a little bit more." Yet she believes that the discipline and training she learned from dance carried over into acting, "for what I need to do to prepare for a part, and taking care of myself and staying on top of things."
Accepted to Berkeley, Coleman was approached on the street by an agent who suggested to the former tomboy that she should model. "I never wore makeup, I lived in overalls, but I took a meeting with his agency, and a month later I was on my way to Paris." For years she alternated six months in Paris with six months in San Francisco, traveling all over Europe to model.
On one of her trips home, she went in for an audition "for this unknown thing that was about to hit the air called MTV. It was this band that nobody had ever really heard of, Huey Lewis and the News." Coleman did their first video, went back to Paris, then returned home to find that MTV was a success and Huey Lewis was huge. "I did their second video, and started getting calls from casting directors in Los Angeles to my modeling agency."
She flew down to L.A. for auditions, landing a role in a Stacy Keach Mike Hammer installment. "I was playing a French maid because I had a great French accent - I'd been living in Paris," she laughed. "Stacy was great. He said, 'Look, you have a real raw talent, obviously you look great on film, but if you're going to do this, you've got to go to L.A. and study or you've got to go to New York and study." So I moved to L.A. and I studied with Peggy Furey." Meg Ryan had just come from As the World Turns, Sean and Chris Penn were in her class. "It was an amazing group of people."
Coleman learned the most, however, following a stint on Santa Barbara and several feature films, when she was cast on The Young and the Restless as blind farm girl Hope Adams. "That was a great character; it was wonderful to create her and play her," the actress recalled, reflecting on the differences between doing daytime and nighttime drama: "In nighttime we're doing maybe three, four pages a day. On a soap we're doing up to a hundred pages of dialogue a day, we're knocking out five shows a week. It's a lot of focus and concentration - it's a lot like doing a play, so it's a great training ground."
Hope taught Signy Coleman about more than just the business. "Here was a character who was blind, and she just turned around and made the best of it, and as a result was a very strong, very spiritual woman with tremendous belief that God has a plan. There was no self-pity in Hope; it was, 'This is what my life is, and I choose to go forward and make the best of it and be a good role model and enjoy my life...the sound of classical music, the smell of coffee brewing in the kitchen, the feel of my child's arms around my neck.'"
"I believe that you can make of any situation what you want," she added. "You can take a negative and make it a positive because there's always something to be learned from it. Playing Hope was a tremendous growing experience for me because I learned there's a lot I take for granted that I shouldn't. And as a result I do a lot of benefit work for orphaned children and homeless people - I try to give back however I can to people who are less fortunate."
Preferring to play tough, gritty characters to leading ladies, Coleman said she asks her agent to send her in for "down and dirty" roles. "I love to delve into that sort of dark, very real place we all have the potential of being in," she noted. "I won't take a shower for a week, I'll put dirt in my teeth. When I went to audition for Celeste on Santa Barbara, who was a prostitute on the verge of becoming homeless, I didn't wash my hair for four days. The guard wouldn't let me in - he didn't believe I was there for an audition. When they brought me back for the final callback for NBC, they said, 'By the way, we're thinking you might want to take a shower and put on a little bit of makeup.' That was funny."
The mother of a nine-year-old daughter, Coleman allowed that she finds soap operas very compatible with motherhood. "You have a little bit more normal schedule, which is nice - being a mom, it's allowed me to have a career and raise a daughter at the same time, as opposed to being on a set until three or six o'clock in the morning, which I've done. I did this one independent film, Lord Protector, and I didn't see my daughter for three months; I was always coming home at seven o'clock in the morning as she was getting up to go to school. It was horrible. At the end of it I thought, I just missed out on three months of my daughter's life. So I love doing TV. I love doing film work, don't get me wrong - I just love to work, period. My daughter is getting older now so it's easier."
Coleman enjoys genre television as a viewer as well as a performer. "I remember watching all those old sci-fi movies with my dad, and the original Star Trek," she reflected. "There was a program Creature Features, and we would curl up with a big bag of popcorn and watch the double feature horror movies together. I don't have a lot of time to watch TV, but when I do, that's what I watch. Medical shows are really difficult for me, especially when they have children involved - I just become a basket case. And I have all the symptoms of whatever they're describing on the show."
Citing Suzanne Modeski along with Hope Adams as her favorite characters to play, Coleman said that she would like to work onstage - ideally doing Shakespeare, ideally The Taming of the Shrew or Hamlet. Having relocated to New York, where she met her fiance and bought a house, the actress is well-situated to work Off-Off Broadway, where a great deal of experimental theater develops.
But she added quickly, "I'd just like to be involved in something that's quality, that I love doing and feel good about being in. I love the process. I've played some strong women and I've played some victims, and I have to tell you, I've enjoyed all of it. I think roles for women are definitely getting better, and I think that people like Susan Sarandon and Meryl Streep have really brought it a long way. Look at Thelma and Louise: there was no victim role in that."
"I do not beat myself up anymore about stuff that comes and goes," the actress noted. "If I get down time and I'm not working, it gives me time to work on my book and be with my daughter. If there's something I missed out on, maybe that's a part I just wasn't supposed to have. I just try to say, what am I supposed to learn from this?"
It's a philosophy which has come home to roost for Coleman, who plans to be married August 7 to an "unbelievably wonderful" man who works in telecommunications on Wall Street. "He's as far away from the business as possible which is the best scenario!" she laughed. "Talk about how everything happens for a reason...I had gone through a very bad relationship, and I realized I needed distance to get back on my feet. A week later my agent asked me if I would be willing to relocate to New York, and I came to do a soap. A friend invited me out to dinner and I met this guy.
"And I'm going to marry this amazing man with parents who are like a second family, who I met my first week in New York," she concluded. "It all happened the way it was supposed to happen!"