Costars Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny joke at The X-Files reunion panel at Wizard World Chicago on Saturday. Credit: Daniel Boczarski/Getty

The X-Files reunion during Wizard World Chicago last Saturday opened on a cringe-inducing note. Moments after the quartet of cast members, including stars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, strolled onto the stage and sat down for a 45-minute Q&A session, a young spiky-haired panel moderator kicked things off with an utterly vacuous question: “So . . . what’s your favorite pizza?” 

A wave of delight rippled through the thousands of X-Files fans packed into the expansive ballroom in suburban Rosemont—but the actors’ dumbfounded silence seemed to say, “Seriously, you paid us all this money and then you ask us about pizza?” Finally Duchovny—slouching in the middle of a couch and wearing his trademark expression of I-don’t-give-a-shit bemusement—shrugged and sarcastically muttered “Chicago?”

Spending a weekend speaking at panels and signing autographs at a comic con like Wizard World has become old hat for working actors. Once novel, a convention appearance is now just another cog in the PR machine of movie or TV show promotion. It’s Hollywood’s equivalent of a rally for a presidential candidate: a tool used to whip up passion and excitement among an entertainment property’s most ardent enthusiasts.

But as last Saturday afternoon’s marquee appearances proved, the symbiotic relationship between celebrities, fans, and the entertainment industry can be a tenuous one in the wilds of Big Con, where there’s no script and often no savvy host to insulate a star from stupid questions and awkward fans. Nothing at Wizard World qualified as a disaster, certainly nothing as bad as when Jesse Eisenberg got flak last summer when he described his experience dealing with hordes of screaming people at San Diego Comic-Con as like “some kind of genocide. I can’t think of anything that’s equivalent.” (He later apologized with the excuse that he was playing up his role as Lex Luthor in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.) Instead Wizard World Chicago offered a mixed bag of absurd, funny, soulful, and mildly contentious moments.

One model of success at comic conventions is B-movie idol Bruce Campbell, who wears the events like a second skin. The star of the cult-favorite Evil Dead and other low-budget horror films exudes a hammy vaudevillian swagger that feels like an extension of his onscreen persona. At a session promoting his Starz series Ash vs. the Evil Dead and as host of a Wizard World horror-movie festival he programmed, Campbell strutted around in a gaudy purple suit and riffed with the crowd while handing out fake-blood-splattered chainsaws as awards. “You guys are great!” Campbell bellowed at a screening. The audience roared.

Few other Hollywood types can harness Campbell’s fan-friendly brand of canny method acting at cons. But then again, for the Back to the Future and X-Files crews, there’s much less at stake. Back to the Future producer and cowriter Bob Gale announced as much at the beginning of the reunion panel that featured stars Michael J. Fox, Lea Thompson, and Christopher Lloyd. According to Gale, a new entry to the beloved trilogy or a reboot with younger actors are both out of the question.

“The answer is no,” he said. “We should leave well enough alone.” Gale’s stance came across as sacrilege in the worlds of Hollywood and rabid fandom—both seemingly ever ready for the next iteration of a known franchise.

Michael J. Fox, Lea Thompson, and Christopher Lloyd at the <i>Back to the Future</i> reunion at Wizard World.
Michael J. Fox, Lea Thompson, and Christopher Lloyd at the Back to the Future reunion at Wizard World.Credit: Daniel Boczarski/Getty

That didn’t stop a Back to the Future devotee from asking about a sequel a few minutes later. “Sorry, we’re not going to answer that,” said Michael Klastorin, the panel’s moderator and author of a pair of Back to the Future-related books. Klastorin similarly shot down an audience member who posited a question about a continuity error in Back to the Future III. “The answer is on the Internet,” Klastorin replied. “Go google it.”

Klastorin’s brusqueness was a sharp contrast to Fox’s genuine joy at his reunion with costars Thompson and Lloyd. It was hard to watch the still-boyish looking Fox, who displays the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, and not feel deep affection for him as he praised his castmates and recalled, with a smile, anecdotes about the pleasures of working on the film series. “It was an amazing whirlwind,” he said. “One moment I’m reading the script and all of a sudden I’m in a parking lot with flames coming through my legs.”

Such enthusiasm was muted at the X-Files panel, thanks in part to some uninspired questions the host and fans posed to Duchovny, Anderson, Mitch Pileggi (Agent Skinner), and William B. Davis (“the Smoking Man”). The follow-up to the aforementioned pizza inquiry was a question about why the 90s sci-fi series has endured in the pop-culture imagination after more than two decades. Duchovny initially sleepwalked through a boilerplate answer, something about how unique X-Files was for its time. Then he stopped suddenly and gave a more honest response: “You know, I appreciate your questions, but we’re, like, the last people qualified to answer some of these things,” he said. “The fans sitting out there, they’re the ones that could tell you why it’s popular.”

Gillian Anderson looked exhausted when floated a question about first impressions of her X-Files costars. “I don’t know. That was a long fucking time ago, you guys,” she said with a sigh. She also couldn’t muster a response to a question about her favorite moment from the show. “You really should prepare for these things,” Duchovny said wryly after an overlong pause from Anderson.

Sometimes the off-the-cuff moments worked in the panel’s favor: Duchovny and Anderson’s banter was heavy with flirty double entendres that felt like a pleasant reminder of the duo’s natural chemistry as Mulder and Scully on the show.

A young classical musician asked The X-Files cast for insight about landing a job in a creative field. Pileggi offered a standard “never give up” reply, but then Duchovny waxed philosophical: “Everything always feels transitional,” he mused. “Learn to find comfort in that anxiety.” Anderson’s answer was downright confessional: “I’m always afraid. But you just fucking do it.”

A few minutes later Anderson backed off her own advice when a superfan walked up to a microphone and showed off a large colorful portrait of Duchovny as Mulder tattooed on her right arm. She said she planned to add the rest of the X-Files cast to her body. “Don’t,” said Anderson looking alarmed. “Stop.”