Chasing the unknown week after week on The X-Files is bound to make a guy feel a little, well, alienated. But David Duchovny has always been different
By Allison Glock
Backstage at the Lilith Fair women's concert in Vancouver, David Duchovny is listening intently as Emmylou Harris sings "Goodbye." His feet tap a bit, nothing too overt, just enough to keep him from looking stiff. He mouths the words: " 'Somewhere in there I'm sure I made you cry. / But I can't remember if we said goodbye.' " Behind him disgruntled stagehands grouse, "Who does this guy think he is? Moses?" Duchovny doesn't hear. His heart is breaking.
"Was I just off somewhere or maybe just too high? / But I can't remember if we said goodbye.' " Beside him singer Lisa Loeb, last year's Jewel, also tries to watch Emmylou. But her eyes wander. She keeps looking at Duchovny in hi slim jeans and madras anorak, tennis shoe tapping. And when he bends down slightly to praise Steve Earle or the veiny-armed bass player or utter the inevitable wry observation, she tilts her head to his a little too quickly, leans in a little too far, so she is almost unbalanced, needing to touch his waist to steady herself.
Not that you can blame her. David Duchovny is, after all, a muscled ball of complexity and charm–not a simple star, like the unavoidably agreeable Michael J. Fox, but a celebrity as murky as swamp water, the anti-Carrey. He is, at 36, the brooding it-crit professor, the tortured bard, the rumpled intellectual you want to seduce, to shake out of his brainiac exile. In short, a magnet for artsy chicks.
He is also, like the character he's best known for, FBI agent Fox Mulder of The X-Files, vaguely disturbing. He is, like almost every character he's played–a hostage to killers (Kalifornia), a biker touched by God (The Rapture), a transvestite (Twin Peaks)–uneasy. Unlike Mulder, who is an innocent among thieves, he does manipulate, but artfully, subtly and so skillfully that you don't blame him. In fact, you're honored he bothered. He is a dark and stormy knight, which, as any woman will tell you, is far more compelling than that white-tight guy on the horse. "That song will wreck you," he says, his face squinched slightly. Loeb nods. She feels his pain.
When Emmylou has finished her set, Duchovny exits, but hot before Loeb promises to meet him and his party for dinner. And, of course, she does. Showered and lipsticked, wearing a short jumper and a teddy-bear backpack. She comes because he asked her to.
David Duchovny is getting spat on. He's shooting an X-Files episode on the industrial back lots of Vancouver. The episode is one he is particularly proud of, in which he regresses into past lives and gets to break out of the repressed, deadpan savior mold and explore more animated personalities. The spitter is another regressor he is trying to save.
"I gave her my spit to use so I won't get any new diseases," he jokes. Between takes, he plays with the ever present Blue, his Benji-ish mutt, who, in truth, isn't very cute. Duchovny kicks her ball straight toward her head. Bam! She catches it in her teeth. He does it again, a cannonball fired from his toe. Again she snags it, tail wagging. He wants to take her on Letterman. He is that bewitched. Playing with the dog is one of the few times he relaxes on the set; an exception to his usual droll, enclosed stance. "I'm lucky if I get a hello in the morning," says an assistant producer. "He doesn't say much."
He comes by this understatement naturally. It is easy to hang low when you're the brightest person in the room, when you can make the right people laugh and the rest feel stupid. Not that he tries to make them feel stupid. It's just that, Christ, they didn't get the allusion.
Like Mulder, Duchovny is serious, even when he's being jocose. A chuckler, not a laugher. A man who ponders. It's made him a cult hero to thousands of X-philes and a stud to smart women weary of himbos like Tom Cruise. Duchovny's popularity both flatters and alarms him.
"I don't want to be a fashion. I don't want to be a joke," he says, stroking Blue's head. "I didn't ask for it. It's just my nature to try to win so that I don't lose. I have to always breathe and relax and recognize that it doesn't matter whether you win or lose. It's hard. The world doesn't believe it. It's a trophy-giving world, an award-giving world, a salary-looking-at world."
Of course, even by that tainted measure, David Duchovny is a success. He is rich. Richer than the highest-paid academic, the career he considered while working on his Yale PH.D. thesis, "Magic and Technology in Contemporary American Fiction and Poetry," before he abandoned the thesis and started hanging out at the drama school. Instead, he has become the professor who teaches the television audience, the highbrow of lowbrow, except, as he's quick to point out, he is not an "ac-tor," an Andre Braugher type who emotes like water from a fire hose. Nor is he a goof, like the Friends friends who crinkle their brows and call it comedy.
He is in between, a man trying to act by not acting, a jaded relativist playing a hopeful believer, a cerebral man playing a cerebral man on a television show, a guy who reads John Ashbery and Dorothy Allison, a man of depth in a gravely shallow pool.
He is exceptional in the real world, and aberration in L.A. An Ivy League pop-culture icon. Ralph Nader meets James Dean. A silver tray serving Twinkies. His face is the only prosaic thing about him. His nose sits a tad too close to his mouth. His eyes are a wince too small. His hair is bark brown, straight, no hint of a cocky cowlick or a foppish flop. His frame is a happy medium. He walks with his round rear slightly turned under, a deliberately casual stride. A hint of shuffle but mostly an inverted strut. His legs are a wee bit too thin. And yet, thanks to an innate allure, his visage transcends "Yeah, so?" to become striking–to such an extent that 85 percent of the Internet offerings pertaining to David Duchovny fall under the heading "David Duchovny is a fox!" Which he is, in the same way that Sharon Stone is an actress, by sheer force of will.
It shows mostly in his eyes, which he wields like num-chucks, drawing you in, then knocking you out. When he talks to you, he stares, pupil to pupil, not like a pit bull sensing a challenge but more like a pit bull imagining you in his feed bowl.
"You work so hard and so long that you start believing the illusion that what you're doing is important," he says, staring. "TV is the national theater. It is important. I don't think I'm important. I'm ambitious but innocent, in a way. I don't want to be an archetype. I'm no Hollywood. Am I?"
Well, no, but he does reside in a Malibu beach house and, like it or not, has an air of confidence that could be interpreted as smugness and most probably is by folks too brittle to withstand his gaze and his slow-boil witticisms. He radiates an aura of superiority that permeates those around him and leaves them either similarly uplifted (even Blue seems to wonder why other dogs are sniffing her ass) or as insecure as pubescents toking their first joint. And he is smart–Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker, switchblade smart.
Despite all this, he's uncomfortable, fidgety, not a man of bone-deep royalty, supremacy by entitlement, but a bootstrapper, a poor kid who used to deliver pot roasts in Chelsea, in New York, after his dad left him and his mother, older brother and younger sister when Duchovny was 11. "I probably grew up with a lot less money than a lot of people who try and pass themselves off as street kids," he says. "I worked as a delivery boy for a meat market. An old French woman ran the store. She made me clean the rotisserie. I think that's where my aversion to schmaltz came from."
From meat schlepper, he graduated to Fire Island lifeguard–"I was the youngest that year to pass my civil servant's exam. It was a hard test"–then on to New York's Collegiate prep school through a scholarship), where he shared classes with John-John and tried to perfect himself.
All went as planned until senior year, when, for an unknown reason, "I fainted and fell on my face in school." Teeth busted, he lay in intensive care for a few days while test were run. "They didn't know why I had fainted. I was so normal, it was weird that that would have happened."
New he knows. "As I've come to look back on it, I was captain of the basketball team and the baseball team and a straight-A student, and I was in my last year of high school, and I'd applied to four schools–Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Brown–and I got into all of them. And I was kind of, like, overachieving on every level. My father had left only five or six years earlier, which I don't think I was dealing with. And I think I just kinda checked out. But I happened to check out in a bad place, where I fell on my face."
He remembers one Latin reacher, "the one teacher who didn't kiss my ass because I was a scholarship student and a good student and a great athlete," the one teacher who "was really tough on me, always barking at me, accusing me of not listening. And of all the teachers who–I don't want to say made use of me, but who allowed me to overachieve without wondering what was going on inside, he was the only one who came to visit me in the hospital. He came and he stood by my bed, and he said, 'No matter what they say, don't come back until you're ready.' And I was like, What the fuck is he talking about? Years later, after he died, I realized he was the only one who knew that I needed help and rest and people to lay off me. I wish I could tell him, 'Hey, I finally got it, and thanks.' "
The woman watching Duchovny is limp with anticipation. She is a reporter and, judging from her posture, either in love or painfully hungry. She is part of a Japanese press conference being held at midnight in the antiseptic meeting room of the Garden Hotel, in downtown Vancouver. She and about twenty other reporters have traveled from Japan with no guarantee of meeting Duchovny. Still, they came, replete with television cameras, lights and posters of Agent Mulder as rendered by Japanese cartoonists. In Japan Duchovny is a bigger star than Cruise, Schwarzenegger or Gibson. He is the biggest.
When he arrives after a fourteen-hour shoot, still wearing Mulder's suit, they applaud. He returns the favor by introducing himself in Japanese. They applaud again. And so it goes for an hour.
"Do you receive help from the FBI on the show?"
"When I was on celebrity Jeopardy..."
"Yes, yes, Stephen King..."
"...a guy in the audience was in the FBI, and he told me that you don't have to die every time you get shot. Which is good Isn't it?"
"Are there any movies you wish you had been in?"
"Last Tango in Paris, The Last Temptation of Christ." Beat. "Anything with the word last in it."
He answers every question thoughtfully, looks each reporter in the eye, refers to their comments throughout the conference. He has an instant ease, a spot-on shorthand with people h barely knows. He remembers names. And in turn, they feel special to have been remembered–quoted, even–by such a man.
The press conference ends, and Duchovny saunters over to meet the journalists personally. The hungry-looking woman's hands shake. He pretends not to notice and asks her casual questions about her hotel, the weather, is she having a good time? She nods; he nods, then moves on to the next reporter.
Finally, they swarm, dissolving into fandom, all pretense of objectivity abandoned. The scene becomes less press conference than movie premiere. Duchovny works through the pack, smooth as Clinton, all smiles and charisma. No question is too inane, no compliment too gratuitous. On he presses, until the last reporter has been touched. He does not turn off until he is in the elevator, and then it is like a candle being snuffed out.
His shoulders slump. The smile evaporates. He looks anxiously for his driver. He is exhausted, and yet he does not go home. He wants to have a drink, to relax in a local hotel bar. And as he enters, the staring and whispering and hand shaking begin anew.
"My mother is a very hard worker. I learned will from her. I'm a really, really hard worker. Just th fact that I can do this job day in and day out, and prepare, and take it seriously, do my homework. My father was more playful, less in the world, less ambitious, more cerebral, more out of it. I'm diffuse but intense, so I'm a combination of both of them."
He is joking, and yet he is big on such distinctions, a holdover from dissecting literature, from living in an exacting home. He is spiritual, not religious; an aficionado, not an addict; a man who has joy but not fun, trepidation but not fear, tolerance but no patience.
He has a handful of "real friends," people he trusts, one of whom is the similarly abstruse actor Michael Massee, who was first struck by Duchovny on-screen at the Berlin Film Festival. "He was in this movie where he was calling women on the phone and trying to seduce them," says Massee. They became fast friends.
Massee plays the foil to Duchovny's latest antihero, a drug-addled doctor, in the upcoming movie Playing God. Not surprisingly, Massee describes Duchovny's take on the role as "low-key."
"You know, you see him acting, and it's like he's doing nothing. He's very minimalistic. He dares to be boring," says Massee. "I think he handles the fame thing really well. I don't see it changing him much. But I would find it lonely to do what he does. It cuts you off from normal relationships."
It is late on a Saturday night, and Duchovny is dropping Massee, in town for a guest spot on The X-Files, at his hotel. As he enters the lobby, he runs into an old friend. Actually, he is spotted, and for a second appears trapped like a snagged fox, but then he relaxes, a wave of cool. The young woman is tremulous and grows more so as they talk. He, in turn, becomes calmer, and ocean of Zen, surfing her distress as she drowns. Massee turns away.
Minutes later they part. She scurries back to the bar. Duchovny, looking spent, smiles slightly. Instead of staying for a drink, he decides to go home. As he hails a cab, a tall blonde woman coming into the hotel eyes him and says, "I thought you'd be taller."
He looks at her. "I can be."
"People don't really change. They just peel back layers, and you see what they're really like." Duchovny is sitting on the stairs outside the X-Files set, drinking wheatgrass extract, a "purifying" liquid resembling antifreeze. He is talking about how he is finally ready for a family. "It's the first time. I never wanted one before. I didn't even want my own. But now I've taken my ticket. I'm in line. I know in my heart it's not bullshit. I want to feather the nest.
With whom, he won't say. Getting Duchovny to talk about love is like trying to pry open an oyster with a Popsicle stick.
"I had an adviser in graduate school who said, 'Would you rather go one place with a hundred women or a hundred places with one woman?' And I said, 'How about thirty-three places with three women?' Now I realize that's what happens. You go to the same place again and again, and it's fruitless. So I'd rather go a hundred places with one woman. The choices are kind of numbing. I'm not a believer in the 'There's a right woman' theory. I think if you're right, there are lots of right women."
The right woman du jour is rumored to be actress Winona Ryder. Indeed, his message pad shows that she calls with some regularity. (To the press, she remains noncommittal, refusing to comment on the relationship.) If Duchovny is in love, he behaves more like a puppy after a shot than an unbridled Lothario. You know he's got that wild energy somewhere–he senses it himself–it's just that at the present, well, it's unavailable, deadened by responsibility, anxiety and the fatigue of logging fourteen-hour days on location in the Northwest dim. He'll snap out of it eventually, get all jangly, write a poem or two, but that's in private and probably infrequent. One senses that should he mutate into th giddy paramour, it would be sudden and splintering. A bowling ball dropped on a frozen lake.
"You know, if I'm in love, if I'm in a relationship, I'm passionate about the person that I'm with. But I mean, how many things can you be passionate about in life? I had this girlfriend who went to Russia, and I wrote her poems every day. She' s married now, and her husband made her throw them out. I was bummed. It was some of my best stuff."
"Why do I smell like shit?"
Duchovny is in the middle of the Vancouver woods, inhaling. He sniffs, gags, sniffs again. Beside him rests his mountain bike, which he has ridden in the mountains for the first time today. Aside from the horseshit splatter, the adventure has gone well. He has not crashed or embarrassed himself in front of Rob Bowman, and X-Files director and Duchovny's guide. Bowman, a burly fireplug of a man who looks like he'd be a Meat Loaf roadie were he not directing the biggest cult hit of the decade, is an avid cyclist. He rides fast and doesn't bobble, even when the trees scrape against his wide shoulders. Duchovny, a college-basketball alum and pickup-game player, has of late spent more time doing yoga. He isn't nervous, exactly, but he is operating from a place of fear, unwise in any endeavor but especially so when you're cutting whipsaw through dense, misty old-growth forest at twenty-five miles per hour.
"I envy people who walk into new situations with great expectation and wonder. Like, 'Hey, a new environment–I get to make new friends, have fun.' Me, I'm like, 'A new environment–I'm going to be humiliated. Better work hard.' "
So he keeps up, pushing himself through muck and mire, even when his feet slip from the wet and his pedals chink into his shins. And when he finishes, he smiles. Not the stingy, close-lipped, barely-there number he doles out for magazine covers or the flash-quick peep show he offers postjoke on Letterman. No, it's a real teeth-gleaming whopper, dramatic enough to crinkle his eyes and make his nose flatten like a fan. And uncommon enough to prompt Bowman to make a mental note to describe it later to X-Files creator Chris Carter, who in turn has trouble believing the grinning dirt dog was the same "moody guy" he knows.
Duchovny acknowledges he can be dour. For some actors, fame fuels the ego fire, but all the kowtowing just makes Duchovny morose. "In television, the star is king," he says ruefully. "Nobody stands up to me. Everyone laughs at my jokes. It can be oppressive."
Oppressive for the sort of man who thrives on challenge and competition, who remembers most fondly the teachers who didn't like him, the women who rebuked his advances. A star willing to be anointed with shit if it means keeping up with the pack.
"I believe in karma," Duchovny says. "And the best karma you can have is to have no effect at all. People say, 'Oh, I want to have good karma,' but that's wrong. The most noble life is to come here and have no effect at all."
He is aware of th irony. He is having an effect; he can't sleep without having one. And yet he knows that for him, it is spiritual poison.
"I wish there were instant karma, like John Lennon said," he says pensively. Then, with a chuckle, "Or maybe I don't."
Duchovny is slumped in a booth at the Century Grill, a hip restaurant in the Vancouver equivalent of New York's SoHo. It has been a long day, and the rain won't quit. He has had a glass of win and a few rounds of oysters, a slab of fish and a crème caramel that is more flan than crème caramel, so he leaves it be. He seems small, and yet he is noticed. Women at the next table gossip about the woman he's with. A man asks for an autograph "for some exchange students." Duchovny refuses. He knows the man is lying, and it irritates him. He does not as a rule refuse to sigh, but this is dinner, and the man is a twerp, and he is tired. He has logged enough working hours this week. Under the table, his delicate hands work, wringing, cracking, the only anxious life left in his body.
He seems so much the weary boy, so harmless now and sweet, a tot in Osh-Kosh, that when he says, "Feel how soft my hair is," I do. Because he asked me to.
And then he aks if he can see the story before I turn it in. I look at him, and I notice he doesn't look world-weary anymore, or miserable. His brow is lifted, jauntily. His hands, finally, are still He persists. Other writers have done it. Because he asked them to. I snatch my hand away, avert my eyes and politely refuse. He shrugs, glances around the room and calls for the check.