When David Duchovny says he hears voices in his head, he must be joking–right? Or is the smartest man on television also the most twisted?
Lord of the Files
By Mim Udovitch
For the fourth or fifth time today, David Duchovny walks down a hall in an abandoned hospital building just outside of Vancouver, looks to the left, and says: "Boys, we have a problem. The doctor treating Scully's cancer is on staff here." Later, he will walk toward a door with a flashlight many times, yawn, pretend to get shot at, and play with Blue, his dog. Still later, while waiting for another shot to be set up, he will give a visitor to The X-Files a brief tour of his jaw. "Here's my alopecia from stress," he says, indicating a spot where facial hair refuses to grow. "I'm suave on the outside, but on the inside I'm churning."
He says this as he says most things, in a tone that strongly implies that on the contrary, underneath that suave exterior lies a suave interior. This is the voice that launched the David Duchovny Estrogen Brigade: wry, minimally inflected, and suggestive of some undefined, very intense, and very intelligent thought being left unsaid, the tone of a man saying something private to his date in a crowded room.
Duchovny, thirty-six and New York City-raised, is an Ivy-educated guy who was all-but-dissertation for his doctorate in English literature at Yale when he threw over academe for acting. He has also recently acquired one of the standard hallmarks of American celebrity: his very own scurrilous rumor, in the form of allegations of sex addiction, which he denies. He does not, however, deny dating Téa Leoni. In fact, when asked if he is, he replies with what is, for him, a positive outpouring of intimate personal detail: "Yes, I am."
Furthermore, he is busy continuing to acquire the more desirable hallmarks of American celebrity, in the form of feature film roles. Playing God, in which he plays a drug-addicted doctor who falls in among thieves in order to keep practicing, opens this month. ("It's a roller-coaster ride with a lesson. Imagine getting on a roller-coaster ride with a lesson. Imagine getting on a roller coaster and having a really fun ride, and then when you get off you've learned something, besides the fact that roller coasters make you nauseous.") This summer, work begins on an X-Files movie. ("We're going to try to make it as different from the TV show as possible. In fact, recasting Mulder and Scully might be a good idea. The joke was always Richard Gere and Jodie Foster. But now I'm thinking Matthew Perry and Courteney Cox.")
Until and, as a matter of fact, after then, Duchovny will spend most of the time he is not playing Mulder, which given his ten-month-a-year, fourteen-to-sixteen-hour-a-day schedule is not a lot of time, in his trailer on the set of The X-Files. This trailer, small and pleasantly cluttered in a basketball-books-and-CDs-lying-around kind of a way, is where most of this conversation, during some of which the Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers was playing, took place.
What are the best and worst aspects of being a premillennial sex icon?
The worst part is being asked those kinds of questions. The best part is being in a position to work with artists that I respect. And the scary part is that when you become associated with one show, or one character, or even one aspect of yourself, like sexiness, then that's gonna go, and when that goes, you go. And when the millennium comes, the premillennial sex icons–who are who, I'm asking, besides myself, because how many men are there on TV, who did I beat out, Drew Carey?–anyway, when the millennium comes, the premillennial sex icons will get tossed aside like so many Dukes of Hazzard. Duchovnys of Hazzard.
Do you feel boxed in by your contract?
I feel boxed in by the schedule, not the contract. My hiatus is so short and the time that I can give somebody to do their movie is really specific. If you have a movie that can be shot from May 1 to July 10 and I happen to be right for the role, then I can do it. So you can see that it starts to get pretty narrow right away.
Where do you get your work ethic from?
Me mum. She's a Lutheran, they work hard. And I guess she always made us feel like we were smart and talented, but that there were some people who could just do it without working, and we weren't those kind of people. We had abilities, but we had to work hard in order for them to be seen. It was a very me-and-not-you-against-the-world kind of picture.
And do you still feel that alienation?
I don't know. From the outside I always looked like somebody who was totally in the groove of what the civilization values and wants–I was athletic, I was academic, I was presentable looking, I went to the right schools. So outside I was always accepted and acceptable. Yet I . . . I hear voices in my head. Do you hear them? Please say you hear them. No, on the inside I felt there was a gap between what I appeared to be and what I was. I'm sure everybody feels that. But it was hard for me to express my eccentricities, not because they were so bad, but because my outside was so presentable.
How do you feel about being one of the only regular pleasures allowed to the suicidal cult members in Heaven's Gate?
They watched The X-Files? I didn't know that. But I don't have any problem with being blamed for that, because I don't think we've ever shown nice, pleasant aliens. We always show horrible aliens. Why would anyone want to join those guys? But this is what pisses me off about the whole cult business. It's like, Uh-oh, it happened around Easter, so all the writing is about how Christians are up in arms that their philosophy and beliefs have been used by this . . . cult. What do they think Christianity started out as? It's a very successful cult. And Christians were persecuted just as these poor souls felt they were persecuted. It just really pisses me off, the cant, the idiocy, and the lack of knowledge of the history of religion and the history of thinking that goes into just saying: Ooh! Cult.
What do you wish you didn't care about?
Yesterday. Today. It's always a little bit of a bother. But I think that one of the real struggles of becoming a mature human being, and also becoming a mature artist, is not giving a shit. I'm not saying that you don't give a shit and that therefore you can act like an asshole. It's just that it does not matter to you, you can remain focused and receptive, but also not affected by the pain that you're in, or by things moving around you. It's not a state of nonfeeling. It's a state of nonattachment to what others do.
Have you ever fantasized about your own funeral?
Yeah, mm-hm. It's always open casket and I look fabulous.
Jews don't have open casket.
I'm only half Jewish. It's the bottom half that's open. But I think it's the same thing everybody fantasizes, which is how dreadfully upset everybody is, all theses people whose lives will never be the same, they're so diminished by my passing. Like that. And all the women that I've dated say, "You know, he really was the one, he was the one I should have been with. I never said it to him, but he was my true love." They all say that at some point, in the bathroom because I'm just a floating spirit.
What's the worst thing you've ever done to a woman?
I'd never tell. Let me think for a moment. I've forgotten many a birthday.
How about before the age of eighteen?
There was a girl in sixth grade who used to go out with my best friend, however you go out in sixth grade, and they broke up. And because she no longer went out with my best friend she became the target of our scorn and hatred, in the way you choose up sides at that age. And we, as like an English project, wrote a play about her and we read it out in class, just about how stupid she was, and how ugly, and all those things that you would do to another sixth grader to try to humiliate them. And we were hysterically tickled by the whole thing, we thought it was the funniest thing in the world. But looking back, that was just a horrible thing to have done.
Well, you're sorry now, aren't you?
I don't think I'm sorry, but it doesn't really jibe with what I like to think of my character. And the most humiliating thing that happened to me as a result of something I did, probably at around the same time, is I was riding back from baseball practice with the older boys, and they would, like, yell out names of girls. They'd say: "So-and-so!" and then everybody would say what they felt, like "Pretty!" or "Dog!" or whatever. And somebody yelled out this girl, and I, having never felt a breast or even having been near enough to feel one, said, "She's flat!" You know, showing off that I had any kind of sexual expertise. And of course, the boys in that class ran to her when they got off the bus and said, "Oh, Duchovny said you're flat." So the next day when I got to school, I was surrounded by six or seven girls. They were kicking at me, and they said, "Well, how would you like it if we said you had small balls?" Which was wonderful, because it shows that they had no idea of how to humiliate me, either. And I remember walking home from school, not understanding that this was a show of affection. I really thought they hated me, I didn't know that they were actually communicating interest in me.
I think they did really hate you.
No, they didn't.
How do you know?
Because. I became their friend. The girl who I said was flat became my friend–even though I may or may not have had small balls. And she was like the yenta of our set. She was the matchmaker, and she thought I should go out with the cutest girl in the school. She was one of these beautiful young girls, she glowed, and everybody was in love with her. And this other girl decided, "Okay, you're going out with her. She's your girlfriend." There was a dance that Friday at my school, so she said, you'll see her there. So Friday came along and I saw her decorating for the dance, putting up the actual mirrored ball. And I ran because shw was just too beautiful, I couldn't talk to her. And then the dance came and I wasn't comfortable dancing–cool boys didn't dance. They slow-danced, but they didn't dance dance. And in fact, "Stairway to Heaven" was such a dilemma because it started out a slow-dance song and you could rub your crotch against the girl, but then it got fast, and then what do you do? Do you rub your crotch really frantically against her to Jimmy Page's soaring guitar work? So anyway, I could not face my fear of dancing, my fear of this girl's beauty, could not talk to her at the dance, and did not say a word to her all night. My own girlfriend. And I was informed on Sunday that she had broken up with me. That was my first girlfriend. And what I still think of as the healthiest relationship I've ever been in.
Are you looking at my notes? Stop it.
I can't see them, my eyes are very bad. I nearly lost my right eye in a basketball accident, so I can't see a thing. I have one pupil dilated like David Bowie.
Yet your eyes appear to be the same color.
That's because I drug them for the viewing public so they don't get scared of me.
So they don't know that in fact you are a hideously deformed freak. Until now. Tell me an anecdote from the set of Playing God.
It was a sticky set experience, it seems like I was covered in blood the whole time. Playing a doctor is kind of fun. Because you know, you watch those guys on ER and you're a little awed, like, Wow, they look like real doctors. And then you realize that all you've got to do is get yourself a real nurse, and you just put a mask on, so basically you can record all the dialogue later. If you could hear the soundtrack of what's really going on, it's: "What the hell am I supposed to do next, my nurse?" And she says, "Take the scalpel out of my hand, idiot." In fact, it made me think that there aren't any real doctors, there are only nurses. The next time you go to the doctor, instead of asking for the nurse to be present, ask for the nurse to be absent and see if the doctor has any idea what's going on.
What frightens you? What do you dread?
I'm frightened by the possibilities of my own lack of talent. Of death. (There is a knock on the door.) Of the knock on the door. I'm frightened of ending up with no money; I'm frightened of ending up old and unloved and alone; I'm frightened of being an unfeeling person and not having true feelings for other human beings; I'm frightened of . . . is that enough?
Yes, that's a comprehensive list. What part of acting is the most rewarding?
Solving a character or a scene. It's fun, its' like detective work with a mystical solution. But I don't give 110 percent every day, it's not possible in series television. If there are two leads on a one-hour drama, and one of them claims not to have phoned it in from time to time just to retain his sanity, or hers, that person is a liar. But . . . there's a John Ashbery poem, where he says, "The art part, leaving things out." Anybody can put everything in; anybody can tell you, (whimpering) I'm sad, and that's why I'm crying, because, you see, crying is a symbol of sadness to us human beings." But the art part is making you feel sad.
And what part of life is the most rewarding?
I guess . . . love. Love and art. And religion, spirituality. All the ecstatic states, the ecstasy of it all. I like that part. I like that second.
Okay, enough about art, let's get back to the details of your personal life. What is your favorite slow-dance song?
"Wild Horses." He said without hesitation.
A sad song, and very romantic. I was expecting something sexier.
Well, anybody can have sex. Romance is much harder.
That's easy for you to say, since you're a premillennial sex icon. You have a wide field to pick from.
No, I'm not saying everybody can have sex when they want it. I meant that everybody is capable of sex, but not everybody is capable of romance. A sexy one is "Let's Get It On," that's the best of all time. I know every sound in that song, every sound Marvin makes, every groan, every little addition to the line, I know.
And there are some really hokey lyrics in that song. "We're all sensitive people, with so much to give," for example.
But it doesn't matter, it's how he sings it. That's another thing about acting: You can say the worst lines, but somehow you can fill them the right way. It's like when you look at lyrics on a page and say "This song makes me cry?" Did you know that the second or third time I did Letterman, I had them play me out to "Bitch," by the Rolling Stones? Do you like me better now? They used to do "Secret Agent Man," but I just love "Bitch." I love to talk about music. Ask me more musical questions.
We were actually just chatting.
You're not going to use the part about "Wild Horses"? I mean, to me it's the moment when he says "We'll ride them someday" that's it. And Keith's guitar is so choice, spare, and perfect. Now there's a guy who doesn't play too many notes.
A minimalist like you. Maybe that's the tradition your acting is int.
I would love that. I was talking to somebody the other day, and I said, "Oh, that fucker, he said I was one-note!" And he said, "You're not one-note. You're more like one-chord. And it's a really cool chord." And I said, "Thanks, maybe I'll use that." And now I have.
You played two sports in college. What are your strengths and weaknesses as an athlete?
I'm a great hand-eye athlete, great hand-eye coordination and great hands, I can catch anything. But I'm not particularly fast or strong or able to jump that high.
And what do you think are your strengths and weaknesses as an actor?
They're exactly the same.
You have good hand-eye coordination?
Yes. I handle props really well. It's not for me to say, really. Most of the times in the past when I've discussed my acting, I've talked about how I'm not that good, and I've found that people pick up on that, and then they say it like they discovered it. So I'm going to stay away from that from no on. I'm just fabulous. I like being put in the Keith Richards school of acting. The spare but well-placed note. Because Keith isn't the fastest or best. But . . . he's the best. I've also thought long and hard about Mick Jagger. I used to think about what his appeal was, and there are theories. There's the androgyny thing. And Allan Bloom singled him out as the fall of civilization in The Closing of the American Mind. So I thought about Mick, and what I thought was that he offered the promise of premature ejaculation.
Why would that be a promise worth keeping?
I don't know, it just came to me and made sense. Well, for me, since I'm not interested in having sex with men, if I had sex with Mick I would hope he would prematurely ejaculate, because then it would be over quick. So maybe that's what I'm getting at.
What work are you proudest of?
Certain episodes of The X-Files, usually ones where I have a wonderful costar. There's one called "One Breath," and one from this year, "Paper Hearts." Acting is a lot like tennis: If you have a strong partner, you're in luck.
And what work are you most ashamed of?
Probably some of the earlier X-Files. I remember in the first year we did an episode called "Ghost in the Machine," which was just rerun recently. It ran on one of the first Friday nights that I had off, and I got to go home and watch the show when it aired. And I smoked a joint. And I started calling all my friends, saying, "Is there anything else you can think of that I can do? Because I have got to quit the business. Not only am I the worst actor that ever strode the earth, but this is the worst show that has ever been put on television."
What got into you?
Well, the drugs. And it was a bad show and I was bad in it. So I have my moments, you know, of desperation. (There is a loud buzz.) I think my fries are ready.
What is cool?
You should ask who's cooler, Mick or Keith, that would be easier.
That would be too easy.
I might say Mick. I love Mick. Do you think he promises premature ejaculation? Do you think there's anything to that?
No. What is cool?
I really think . . . what I said before when I said I wanted to have a focus where I didn't care about what anybody thought. When you are who you are in all situations, when you're comfortable enough in your own skin that those who are with you go comfortable, and those who aren't go fuck themselves–I think that's cool. I just love that in a person. Maybe some people are just born with it, and they're always powerful.
And what is sexy?
Probably the opposite of that.
I think so too. Somebody for whom you can be a different person than you are for anybody else is very attractive.
True. Like, "Oh, I like who I am when I'm with her." We've all said that. But what does that mean? You might want to take a good look at the situation if you're saying that. Is that such a good thing?
Yeah, it's a good thing. That's love, why would it be bad?
Because wouldn't you want to be yourself at all times?
As Walt Whitman said, "I am large, I contain multitudes."
I love that poem. I like that part too. I don't know what is sexy, I guess. But I'll tell you one thing: You know it when you see it. Why argue about it?