On Actor Intertextuality and Fan Decodings

I’m going through my lit review at the moment, turning a conference paper into a journal article, and the section I’m reading along with a tweet from a friend reminded me that I’ve been meaning to write about actor intertextuality for a while. Given the focus of the PhD has shifted a bit since 2013 I thought I’d write this up here for anyone who might be interested.

During one of the #tweetmythesis hashtags on Twitter I tweeted the following:

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The concept of actor intertextuality, which I’d only coined to fit the 140 character limit on Twitter, generated some interest and to elaborate on what I meant by it I said:

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What I was thinking about in particular when I wrote this was the attitudes of fans and the media to Gillian Anderson’s portrayal of Stella Gibson in the BBC series The Fall, and to a lesser extent David Duchovny’s performance as Hank Moody in Californication. Anderson and Duchovny are best known for playing FBI agents Dana Scully and Fox Mulder on The X-Files, and they are roles which are credited with turning the two actors into global icons. Duchovny has often talked about his role on the series being a once in a lifetime success, as in this interview with The Express:

I guess at some point, I came to grips with the fact that The X-Files is my unicorn and I’m not going to have another success like that – nor do I really want to. It’s enough to have one phenomenon, I don’t need two. One unicorn is fine.

And Anderson, while she would choose Gibson as her favourite role over Scully, has also acknowledged the role the series playing in her career. Despite both finding success in other areas, the press very much emphasis their roles in The X-Files in pretty much all press discourse. Articles about the two refer to their time on the X-Files, almost always by saying “who found success as so-and-so on The X-Files” or “best known for playing so-and-so on The X-Files“. So when Anderson took the role as Gibson in The Fall it wasn’t much of a surprise to see the press proclaim that ‘Scully’s back!’ Indeed, the same thing happened when she joined Hannibal as Lector’s psychologist.

What I’m particularly interested in, both in terms of press and fan discourse, is how positioning a character in relation to the actor’s previous characters affects how the new character is understood (or decoded, to use Stuart Hall’s model). There are some similarities between Scully, Gibson and Bedelia. Most obviously there’s the fact that Scully and Gibson are both investigators, and that Scully and Bedlia are linked extra-textually by the influence the Silences of the Lambs‘ Clarisse Starling had on Chris Carter when he came up with the character of Scully. But beyond that there are few similarities. What alluding to Anderson’s previous work as Scully does, though, is create comparisons between the characters. So both Scully and Gibson are ‘badasses’, ‘intelligent’ and ‘feminist even if there are clear differences between the two (and not simply that one is red-headed and American and the other is blonde and British). Anderson has said of Scully: “Whenever I think of that show, I think of a 12-year-old pretending to be an agent. Scully felt quite childlike for a long time and a part of that was because I was only in my early 20s when I started to play her. Audiences got to see us both grow up” and fans have appeared to draw similar comparisons between Scully and Gibson.

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In an article for The Sydney Morning Herald Marion Hume writes

It is a mistake, of course, to confuse character with actor, yet Gillian Anderson so utterly inhabits her blisteringly intelligent and fiercely sexy detective that when the series ran on the BBC last June, it provoked an internet meme called “What would Stella do?”

And while I agree that it is a mistake to confuse character with actor it is a mistake that many of us make, with mutliple characters and actors. What I would suggest, though, is thatAnderson’s depiction of both characters creates an intertextuality, with the actor rather than the character shaping the texts in relation to each other. Jonathan Gray, in Watching With The Simpsons: Television, Parody and Intertextuality proposes a model of intertextuality that “involves a more complex interaction between texts, seeing texts working on each other’s ground, setting up shop in each other’s offices and working through and sometimes against one another” (2006, p.24) and I think this model applies nicely to actor intertextuality as well, particularly given we can imagine Stella and Scully literally “working on each other’s ground, setting up shop in each other’s offices and working through and sometimes against one another” (much fanfic of this exists).
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I’ve talked a fair bit about Anderson but a similar thing happened when Duchovny took on the role of Hank Moody, and again now that The X-Files has been renewed. I remember a friend of mine, in X-Files fandom, lament that she couldn’t watch Californication because Hank Moody was nothing like Fox Mulder. Of course, he wouldn’t be – Hank is a pot-smoking, whisky-drinking, semi-successful novelist while Mulder with his, to paraphrase from Season 2’s ‘Humbug’ “all-America features, dour demeanour and unimaginative necktie” is the quintessential FBI agent. Duchovny’s character record has mirrored Anderson’s in some respects. In addition to Mulder he has played novelist Hank Moody and FBI agent Sam Hodiak. Comparisons have been drawn between Mulder and Hodiak for obvious reasons – both are FBI agents, if agents in markedly different time periods – but few have been drawn between Hank and Mulder, at least when Californication began.

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More comparison were drawn between Duchovny and Moody, particularly when Duchovny entered a clinic for sex-addiction, but since promos for the new series of The X-Files started airing the press, and fans, have been comparing Mulder to Hank. In an article for Deadline, Ross A. Lincoln notes

Fittingly, David Duchovny’s Fox Mulder looks worn the hell out and gone to seed, almost as if he spent several years hiding, pretending to be Hank Moody.

And fan discussion on Twitter also conflates the two characters.

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Following Gray’s explaination of intertextuality, intertextuality works via texts including references to other texts, and so joining a network, becoming only part of a broader meaning. Duchovny as text joins the network of the characters he has played, but – as with Anderson – only specific characters. Duchovny functions as an intertext for and between Mulder, Hank Moody and Sam Hodiak in ways that he doesn’t for Twin Peaks‘ Denise Bolton, even though she is also a DEA agent. Similarly, Anderson functions as an intertext for and between Scully, Stella Gibson and Bedelia du Maurier in ways that she doesn’t for Mrs. Havisham or Blanche DuBois. In a similar way Mimi Rogers, who played Diana Fowley on The X-Files, is seen as Fowley by Philes who hated the character in almost every other role she plays.

Another particularly interesting example of actor intertextuality and fan decoding that I want to end with, though, is that of Jamie Dornan. Dornan is known for playing Phil Spector alongside Anderson in The Fall as well as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey. The characters are, in some respects similar, but responses to both texts have mirrored responses to Anderson and Duchovny.

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The conflation between Spector and Grey relies on Dornan as he plays both characters, but it also means that viewers decode the texts different, having seen both The Fall and Fifty Shades because of his involvement.

These are only some preliminary thoughts when I’m arguing for actor intertextuality in this blog then, and there are still things that need to be considered. This doesn’t apply to all actors or all roles, but why not? Would viewers who weren’t familiar with Mulder and Scully feel the same way about Gibson and Moody, and if not what role does familiarity with a text or actor play? And what effect does actor intertextuality have on the different texts – in what ways might season 10 Mulder be seen differently after Hank Moody’s existence that he would be without it?

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2 thoughts on “On Actor Intertextuality and Fan Decodings

  1. This should make for an interesting paper. “The Fall” as a sequel to “50 Shades of Grey”? That’s completely absurd. I only watched one full episode of “The Fall,” so I probably shouldn’t comment but I didn’t see much in common between Stella Gibson and Dana Scully, other than that they both investigate crime. I don’t see many similarities between Sam Hodiak and Fox Mulder, either. Sam Hodiak is not an FBI agent, by the way. He’s a police detective for the Los Angeles City police department. And I really don’t get the hate for Mimi Rogers– for any of her characters. How can people be so crazy?

  2. Reblogged this on fan cultures and commented:
    Bethan Jones makes an interesting case for actor intertextuality in this essay-in-progress. How does her work help us understand the much confused concepts of celebrity and cult and in what way is the matrix of actor-performer one that is cultivated by fans?

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