The New York Times
Looking for Space Aliens (and Denying Yale)
VANCOUVER, British Columbia -
David Duchovny meets some very strange characters on the job: a flesh-eating beast-woman from New Jersey, a six-foot intestinal worm with a face and a red-lipped, red-nailed, vamping vampire.
"You'd think seeing a Cro-Magnon woman in New Jersey who was 6-foot-1 of pure girth would be the most amazing thing that anybody ever saw," Mr. Duchovny says dryly. "But there's always another level of amazement for me to go to."
He also gets some very strange attention.
Mr. Duchovny plays Fox Mulder, an F.B.I. agent who investigates space-alien visits and other supernatural phenomena on the Fox hit television show "The X-Files," a moody, mysterious "Twilight Zone" for the 90's that was the surprise winner for best drama at the Golden Globe Awards in January. (Until "The X-Files," Mr. Duchovny's most memorable role was as the transvestite detective Dennis Denise in the television series "Twin Peaks.")
The 34-year-old Manhattan native, a Princeton graduate and Yale Ph.D. candidate who abandoned his thesis to try acting, has become the first Internet sex symbol with hair. (The bald "Star Trek" captain, Patrick Stewart, attracted the first Estrogen Brigade, as female Trekkies in cyberspace call themselves.)
The David Duchovny Estrogen Brigade and a sister group, the Duchovniks, try to "serve David," as they put it, by compiling as much information about him as they can and putting it on the Internet -- everything from his dog's foot-licking habits to his poetry writing to pronunciation tips (DAY-vid doo-KUV-nee) to the latest on his relationships with his real-life girlfriend, an actress named Perrey Reeves, and his television F.B.I. partner, Gillian Anderson.
The cyberspace fans describe his vital statistics this way: "6' 1" tall, brown hair, hazel eyes. Mole on right cheek. The rest is sheer poetry." The "What's David Really Like?" section gets more gushy: "From all accounts, he is charming, funny and very smart. . . . David seems to be very surprised, not only by the success of 'The X-Files' but by his own personal popularity (does the man not own a mirror?)." Others have also gone over the moon about the Mulder character (he does not like to be called Fox, and his nickname around the bureau, because of his interest in the mysterious, is Spooky).
In an article about men's fashion in The New Republic, Laura Jacobs offered a cerebral observation about the foxy Mulder: "His every fashion move is monitored on the computer lines, from his haircuts to his ties to the look in his brown eyes. Machines all over America booted up after a show in which he climbed out of the company pool wearing a Speedo." The writer christened Mr. Duchovny "the Zeitgeist icon," a modern John Wayne riding the range of alien atmospheres and "Mellors at the millennium," a reference to the sexy gamekeeper in "Lady Chatterley's Lover."
The latter is an allusion Mr. Duchovny might appreciate, since he is not only one of the rare actors who drops references to "The Fairie Queen" and Dante but also the host of Zalman King's "Red Shoe Diaries," the glossy yuppie soft-porn cable show that appears Saturday nights on Showtime. "I have never found sex scenes embarrassing, and I don't think they're hard to do, either," says the actor, who occasionally takes a turn as the romantic interest on "Red Shoe Diaries."
Sipping hot cider one Sunday night at a Starbucks in Vancouver, where "The X-Files" is shot to save money, Mr. Duchovny says he doesn't understand much of the lofty commentary on the show.
"I'm, like, overeducated, but I have no idea what a lot of this stuff means," he says.
He also says he is not too computer literate and does not pay much attention to the Internet buzz, though he seems intrigued by the printouts of his Estrogen Brigade fan club pages.
Fresh from his evening workout, Mr. Duchovny is wearing jeans and a black cotton shirt. He does not look or act like a star; he seems more like the cute lawyer who lives down the hall. He recalls that at the Golden Globe Awards reporters wanted to know what he thought about Brad Pitt. The two appeared together in the 1993 movie "Kalifornia." "I was kind of preening and full of myself -- you know, my first Golden Globe Awards -- and some reporter holds up a picture of Brad Pitt in People magazine as 'the sexiest man alive' and asks what it was like to work with him," Mr. Duchovny says. "So I said, yes, I tried to learn to be sexy from Brad Pitt."
Chris Carter, the show's creator and executive producer, is rigorous about the film-noir look and ominous tone of the show. The mood is Oliver Stone anti-government paranoia; Mulder's motto is "trust no one." But Mr. Duchovny sometimes slips in a bit of his own humor. When the F.B.I. agent was interrogating a sinister-looking young man who claimed to be a vampire, the man asked Mulder, "Don't you want to live forever?" An unsmiling Mulder replied, "Well, not if drawstring pants come back into style."
His mother, Meg, born and raised in Scotland, is in charge of the lower school of Grace School Church, in Manhattan. His father was a publicist for the American Jewish Committee. "As David once said, It's like the Highlands meet Coney Island," says his sister, Laurie Duchovny, 28, a schoolteacher at St. Anne's in Brooklyn. She describes her brother as "the biggest softy," even though as a boy he and his friend Jason, with stockings over their heads, would try to scare her by chasing her around the house with kitchen utensils.
His father, Amram Ducovny -- he dropped the "h" for easier pronunciation -- wrote books, including "The Wisdom of Spiro T. Agnew," "David Ben-Gurion in His Own Words" and "On With the Wind," about Martha Mitchell. He wrote a play called "The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald," which ran very briefly Off Broadway in 1967 with Ralph Meeker.
David Duchovny recalled the play as his first brush with show business, though the only question the 7-year-old asked his dad, after watching Mr. Meeker sit on stage throughout the long first act, was "I want to know how that man doesn't have to go to the bathroom."
Mr. Duchovny's brother, Daniel (Ducovny), directs commercials in Los Angeles. His father has retired to Paris to eat baguettes and write a novel. "When I was 6 years old, I told my father I wanted to be a bathtub," David Duchovny recalls. "So now he always calls me and he goes, 'So, still a failure, huh?' "
He says he felt for a long time that his parents' divorce, which happened when he was 11, was the main event of his emotional life. "I think it caused me to repress a lot," he says, "because I was supposed to be, like, the hero in the family and do well in high school and do well in sports." He attended the Collegiate School.
He says his mother "wasn't crazy about" his decision to leave academia. ("He's quite gifted," she says, only somewhat mollified by her son's acting success. "Did he tell you he had a Mellon Fellowship at Yale?") He had received his master's degree from Yale in English literature and had only his thesis left to write -- "Magic and Technology in Contemporary American Fiction and Poetry" -- when he burned out on study and decided to try acting school in New York, initially with the idea of becoming a playwright or a screenwriter.
"I was going from one endeavor considered by the people who do it as the deepest intellectual and most spiritual endeavor you can do -- to spend your life with books -- to something where the parts might be superficial, and I might not be any good at it. So I had a lot of shame about the fact that I wanted it."
But after a life spent keeping a rein on his impulses, he was drawn by the "raw expressions of emotion" in acting. "It's one of the most wonderful things about acting," he says. "You get to do things that are normally illegal. You can have the woman you're not supposed to have, and there are no repercussions and nobody doesn't love you afterward."
Smiling, he says: "When I first started, my agent would whisper to me, 'Don't tell them you went to Yale.' Or I'd lie and say I went to Yale Drama School. That was O.K. It was just for the silly reason that people would become intimidated by a worthless pedigree and diploma. I went to Yale, so I know that I met some of the stupidest people in my life there, and I've met some of the most intelligent people in my life who have no education."
When he was first cast in "The X-Files," which is now in its second season, he thought it would bomb because "it would be like an alien-of-the-week thing, just too boring," he says.
"But then Chris Carter opened it up to anything unexplainable," he goes on, "and I think the reason the show has caught on is that Chris knew that people want to be scared. They want to be mystified."
There is a lonely quality to Mulder, whose intensity about his work has reduced his social life to one night with a vampire and the occasional porn movie on television. "The sad thing about Mulder is that he rarely gets to see what he wants to see," Mr. Duchovny says. "So he's one step behind. He only gets the smell of the alien or the slime of the alien or the hint of the alien."
In the show, Ms. Anderson, a petite 26-year-old redhead, plays Mulder's partner, Dana Scully, an intense, rational type who is skeptical of Mulder's obsession with the supernatural. In reality, as Ms. Anderson told People magazine, she goes to psychics and believes in extrasensory perception. Mr. Duchovny says he himself does not believe in aliens specifically. "I believe in the possibility," he says. "I would think that it's a very odd circumstance if we were the only life form in the entire universe."
He says the hardest thing about the show was modulating his reaction to the various creatures. Early on, he and Ms. Anderson had to watch a blank night sky and react to some UFO's that the special-effects people would insert later. "We're acting all amazed at the technology, shaking with excitement," he recalls. "And then we saw the show, and it looked like a Pong game, these little things in the sky. We got burned on that."
So in an attempt to underplay his surprise, he offered a deadpan expression when the director told him to react to the Fluke Man, a six-foot intestinal worm that would also be photographed later. "And then I see the show, and the Fluke Man is the most amazing thing that anybody could have seen, and there's no way that this" -- he makes a deadpan face -- "was an appropriate reaction. In any universe."
The safest policy, the actors have found, is to change facial expressions rarely. Mr. Duchovny always has a sad-obsessed-bemused look, and Ms. Anderson always has a serious-open-mouthed-disbelieving look.
Mr. Duchovny's girlfriend, Ms. Reeves, played a sexy vampire-in-training on one "X-Files" episode this season. Asked if he liked working with her, Mr. Duchovny says he found it difficult."The bad part is that in acting you're more honest and more vulnerable and more in the moment than you are in life," he says. "And the people that you live with in your life are used to seeing you defensive and up-tight, as you normally are."
He recalls the time when another woman he was dating, after watching him acting very courtly in "Red Shoe Diaries," confronted him about their own relationship. "She said: 'Now I know you can be really nice and sweet. Now I want to see you do it.' "
Although there has been talk about making a big-screen version of "The X-Files," Mr. Duchovny does not sound too enthusiastic. "I've played Fox Mulder more than enough," he says. "I've done him to death."
He is not sure what he wants to do next. "I think your spirit or unconscious knows a lot better than the plan-making organ, whichever one that is," he says, a sentiment that Mulder would appreciate.