May 1997

David Duchovny: Hiding in Plain Sight

David Duchovny explains his esthetics of self-protection, talks about his foray back onto the big screen in Playing God, and lays out the strategy for "The X-Files" movie(s).

By Martha Frankel

In his hit TV show, "The X-Files," David Duchovny plays Fox Mulder, an FBI agent who specializes in cases with paranormal or extraterrestrial aspects to them. He's paired with Gillian Anderson, who plays the cynic to his believer. Duchovny's acting style is so understated that you feel as if you're watching Mulder's innermost thoughts. Either that, or he's about to fall asleep at any moment.

After nearly 10 years of relative obscurity in mediocre films (including New Year's Day, Showtime's Red Shoe Diaries, Julia Has Two Lovers and Kalifornia), plus a memorable turn as transvestite FBI agent Dennis/Denise on Twin Peaks, Duchovny has finally become a bona fide star – "The X-Files" is watched by an average of 20 million viewers weekly. Now, with the upcoming stylish crime drama Playing God, the 36-year-old actor is looking to return to the big screen.

I'm following Duchovny through a field toward what looks like a goat with its viscera hanging out. On closer inspection, it is a goat with its viscera hanging out. Granted, it's a fake goat, but the flies buzzing around its head are real. Blood oozes from its nose and eyes. A little girl in a black beret squats next to it. "This isn't scary enough," she says. "It isn't?" asks the director, who, along with the fly rustler (I kid you not) heads over to see what else can be done. Just as I think I hear the word "maggots," I catch up with Duchovny and we get settled in some director's chairs at the edge of the field.

"That's Piper," Duchovny says, pointing to the little girl. "She's Gillian's two-year-old daughter. She's been on the set since the day she was born, so she's used to seeing squirming, alien worms. She thinks that's normal. But when she saw Santa Claus this year, she went apoplectic – screaming and crying. I'm glad I'm not going to have to pay her therapy bills."

"So," he says, turning back to me. "I hope you don't want to talk about aliens. We can if you really want to, but ..."

"Don't worry," I say. "I've seen a total of about six minutes of 'The X-Files,' and I could give a shit about aliens–"

"Really?" he says, looking me over. "Most journalists expect me to answer all their questions about aliens and spaceships..."

"I don't have any questions about aliens. If they're coming, I hope they don't take me. I'd rather talk about poetry ..."

Duchovny laughs. He earned an undergraduate degree at Princeton and was working towards a Ph.D. in literature at Yale when he decided he'd rather be an actor.

"My editor thought you might take a look at this," I say, removing a wad of disorganized fax pages from my bag. Duchovny takes a page and reads aloud: "As Parmigianino did it, the right hand bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer and swerving easily away, as though to protect what it advertises ..." He starts to laugh. "Jesus, this is one of my favorite poems. How did she know? It's called Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror by John Ashbery. It's about a man who's painting his self-portrait, but he's looking into a mirrored ball, and the closer he gets to it, the further away his image seems to be going. For me, that would be the acting style that I'm trying to do. I'm trying to protect what I advertise. That's my stance on any kind of self-expression. That's as far as I need to go." He pauses, then says, "You could look at this poem for weeks, just weeks."

Duchovny reads for about five minutes, until I realize that if I don't stop him, he probably will read it for weeks. I take the poem out of his hands and shove it in my bag. He looks up, startled, and you can see the ironic, absentminded professor he might have become.

"I was wondering if you thought there were warning signs for Ph.D. candidates, telling them that they're really in the wrong line of work and would be happier as actors."

Duchovny doesn't hesitate. "OK. One: instead of staying home and grading papers, you smoke a joint, grab a Three Musketeers bar and go to the movie theater. Although that could apply to just about all graduate students. Two: while teaching, all your references are to television shows and popular movies rather than literature. Which is much appreciated by the students, but not by the faculty. Three –"

"Would you have made a good teacher?" I interrupt.

Duchovny thinks it over for a few minutes. "I think teaching college is a very important job, yes, but these kids at Yale were already better educated than most people in the world when they got there. I think the real heroic teachers are the ones who work with kids, like my mom and my sister do."

"What were you like as a teenager?"

"A good athlete, a good student, a pretty good kid. I didn't really feel a need to blow up any buildings."

"You were brought up on New York's Lower East Side. Do you go back there often?"

"Oh yeah. I love the Lower East Side. Everybody talks about how different groups of people are moving in and changing the texture. But the drugs remain the same–it's just different ethnic groups selling them."

"What about the hookers?"

"I'll always remember walking past 12th and 3rd one day when I was too young, and there was a woman saying, 'Piece of pussy for five dollars.' I remember thinking, 'How much for the whole thing?' I remember more about her than about women I've spent significant amounts of time with. That says nothing about me, but a lot about memory ..."

"Are you kidding?" I say. "It says everything about you. If you'd had five bucks in your pocket that day, you probably wouldn't even remember this story."

"Who says I didn't have the five bucks? No, it's just that I never thought she'd talk to me, and when she did, she was offering me a piece. What was she saying about me? That I couldn't handle the whole thing? Would five bucks be for a quarter pussy? Would 20 bucks buy the whole thing?"

"As long as we're talking about sex ..."

Duchovny groans.

"Oh, c'mon," I say, "we might as well talk about it, because there was an article in a magazine a few months ago that said you were a sex addict ..." I'm trying not to giggle.

"Is that funny? It's like this appellation that they can put after my name – David Duchovny, Sex Addict! It doesn't bother me, but if I'm dating someone or my mother sees it, it gets embarrassing. I have no idea how that rumor started, but every once in a while, it rears its ugly head again. I'm single and I date women. And because I'm famous, there's nothing casual in my life. If I go out to dinner with someone, and someone sees us, it's in the papers the next day. It's like all the stories about me and Winona [Ryder]. Winona is my friend and I adore her, but she is not my girlfriend. As soon as we have dinner together, they have us making plans for the future. There's not much I can do about people's misguided notions, but I'll tell you a funny story. I was doing some press with the Hollywood Foreign Press, and this guy stands up, an older guy, I think he was Israeli, and he says, 'I have a three-part question. One: are you a sex addict? Two: what is a sex addict? And three: how do I become one?' To me, that says more about the subject than I'd ever care to."

"Are you in a relationship?"

"No, not right now. I keep thinking how nice it would be if I was, but the person would have to be willing to make a sacrifice, or the person would have to have a similar life to me, which is why actors tend to pair up with other actors."

"That doesn't seem to work out too often ..."

"Well, not many relationships seem to work."

"Have you ever gone on the Internet to see what they're writing about you? Because there are all these David Duchovny chat rooms ..."

"Oh, I know. Recently I was idle in my manager's office, and her assistant took me into one of my chat rooms. Listen to me, 'my chat room.' Anyway, I type in, 'Hi, it's David Duchovny. Does anybody want to talk?' And they just went on with their conversation. So I typed it again: 'Hi, it's David Duchovny.' And they all start typing back: 'Yeah, I'm David Duchovny, too.' 'So am I!'"

"So what is it with all these chat rooms?"

"They bring people together. It's like church. You know, we all go there saying that we're gonna pray to God, but we're actually there to meet people, right? And have a community. I mean, that's why church is great. It's not just faith, it's about community. Like God, I'm unnecessary at this point. They'd hate me if I showed up."

"You're up here in Vancouver for 10 months a year. Do you get to enjoy it?"

"Part of what's nice about Vancouver is that it's not America, and people give you a bit more space up here. You may get the odd person bringing out the Instamatic, but you don't get the paparazzi. They are really tough to handle. I mean, it's a long walk through an airport. They're always there when I land. Actors feel like sissies anyway, so there you are having to hold your shit together for a long time, and you're thinking, 'I should just fucking punch one of these guys, and I'd feel like a man.'"

"Do actors feel like sissies?"

"Well, I think they do. Being an actor involves a lot of pampering, a lot of make-believe. I'm not saying it's easy work, and I'm not saying it is sissy work, but you can be susceptible to the idea that you're not doing a real man's job."

"I'm thinking about smuggling back some Cuban cigars," I tell him. "Do they give you a hard time leaving here?"

Duchovny rolls his eyes. "I got stopped going down to L.A. last weekend. The dog just came and sat down next to me. And then they brought me over to the customs guy, and he says, 'Have you smoked marijuana or been near anybody who smoked marijuana in the last 24 hours?' And I said, I know I haven't smoked any, and I don't think I've been around anybody who did, but how can I know that?' And he said, 'This'll go a lot quicker if you just tell me the truth.' And I say, 'I'm telling you the truth.' And he says, 'What do you do here in Canada?' Of course, I get the one guy who doesn't watch 'The X-Files.' So I tell him I'm on this TV show, and he smiles and asks me if I have any idea why the dog would've hit on me, and I say, 'I have a dog, maybe the dog smelled it.' Which I thought made a lot of sense. And he says, 'No, that's not why.' And I tell him maybe he needs another dog, which he doesn't like. Another guy comes out, carrying this big mitt, and asks for my wallet."

"Were you starting to get scared?"

"Starting to? I was hyperventilating, getting dizzy. It's like, 'Go ahead, shoot me, I just can't feel this way anymore.' So the guy takes out all my credit cards and he wipes this glove over them and puts it in all the nooks and crannies of the wallet and leaves, and then comes back and says, 'You tested positive for cocaine.' And I say, 'What? This is not possible. I don't do cocaine.' Which is true, but it sounds just like what a guilty person would say. And finally he says, I have to say that the count I would strip-search you for is 1,000 and you counted 190, so I think that probably you gave your credit card to somebody who had been using cocaine.' What's funny is they usually know who I am, and they like to look through my bag and ask me if there are any secret documents in there. They get a big kick out of it. But now I think that if you see that little dog coming towards you, just say, 'Sit!' As if it was your idea."

"Do you miss having a life? Did you have a life before?"

"I thought I did. I miss it desperately at this point. But when I went back to L.A. recently, I was shocked to find that I didn't have a life there, either. I don't know if you realize this, but I'm about to have a nervous breakdown." It's hard to tell if Duchovny is kidding.

"I mean," he continues, "I'm OK, I can take care of myself. But I feel isolated and lonely. I'm not happy."

"If you knew what it was going to be like, would you have taken the series?"

"Can I also know what it would have been like if I didn't take the series? I hate those kinds of things, where people say, 'Stop bitching, you could be working at Burger King now.' As if those are the only two options for me – either act, or 'Would you like a soda with your fries?' I love acting, and I love 'The X-Files.' But doing a television show is like riding an elephant – it goes where it wants, with or without your say. Does that make me an ungrateful bastard?"

Duchovny thinks this over for a minute. "Perhaps it does. I saw this show on TV about how your happiness is sort of predetermined. It has nothing to do with you – you're either one of those people who looks on the bright side, or you're not. Just from looking at you, I can tell that you're one of those really happy people, right? Me, I could convince myself all day that everything's really OK with the world, but I'd still feel blue. All in all, though, I'm not complaining."

By now it is freezing, so we move into Duchovny's trailer, a small, dark, depressing little place. He sees the grimace on my face. "What? I had to buy a little trailer, because we work really late a lot of nights."

"Honey," I say, "a borderline depressed person like you needs sunlight and bright colors. Enough of this gloom." I leaf through the stack of books on Duchovny's table. Joyce Carol Oates short stories, Joseph Campbell. "I don't really understand the fascination with this guy," I say, holding up Campbell.

"It's inspirational. You don't get it because you're already happy. It's for us happiness-handicapped people. I should be able to park in handicapped spaces. 'Officer, look at me, I'm unhappy.' So don't knock Campbell until you've needed him."

While I look through the cabinets and drawers, Duchovny sits at the table and doodles.

"Are you getting tons of scripts now?"

"I think everyone knows that 'The X-Files' films up here for 10 months, and I really can't get anywhere else to do a film in that time. I mean, they didn't offer me Batman, although I had a great joke all ready for that. I say, 'They offered me Batman, but because my nose was so big, they were going to change it to Batmanischewitz.' I'm not sure if anyone would have thought it was funny, though."

"You once did a Richard Gere imitation on 'Saturday Night Live' that I thought was one of the most hilarious things I ever saw. You were dressed like he was in An Officer and a Gentleman ..."

"Yes," says Duchovny. "It was about how he showed all of his emotions with his blinking. And with jaw clenching."

"It drives me nuts when actors clench their jaws," I say.

"Really? I do it a lot. But I don't do it on purpose. I like it, actually."

"I think it's something actors should try to overcome."

"I cringe when I see myself licking my lips. I think it's because I've got a big lower lip and it gets dry. If you'll notice, people with big lips tend to lick them a lot, because they're hanging out there in the wind, and they get chapped. I hate it because it looks self-conscious. Now you'll probably make me self-conscious about clenching my jaw, too."

In his upcoming film, Playing God, Duchovny plays a doctor who has screwed up his life with drugs and lost his license. "He's kind of drifting without any function in life anymore," Duchovny tells me. "He jumps into the fray when there's a shooting at a bar and saves this bad guy's life with just whatever's handy. We took part of the scene from an actual description that happened on an airplane where somebody had a collapsed lung and they had to drain the fluid from it. He uses a coat hanger and an Evian bottle for suction. As MacGyver - ish and silly as it sounds, it could really happen. And because my character does this, the head bad guy, played by Tim Hutton, takes me in and I go to work for him, healing his gangster friends."

"I used to write this plastic surgery column," I say, "and I met lots of doctors who were addicts."

"Yes. When I was researching my character I talked to a doctor who specialized in drug rehabilitation of doctors, and he said that a good doctor who was smart could probably get away with it for 15 or 20 years. Anyway, it was a great role, because you know how they always say, 'Hey, this isn't brain surgery'? Well, this time it was."

"You've worked pretty steadily since you started – " I begin.

"Well, it doesn't seem that way to me. I went on lots of auditions that I didn't get. I really wanted to do Bull Durham. I read for the role that Tim Robbins got and met with the director, Ron Shelton, and I met with him again for White Men Can't Jump, which, obviously, I didn't get, either. I read for the part Colin Firth got in Valmont. I read for tons of television, but I never got any of that except 'Twin Peaks.' I just figured I must really be bad."

"What was it like the first time you saw yourself on-screen?"

"I remember thinking, This works, there's something happening, it's OK, I haven't deluded myself completely."

"I've heard that the character you played in Henry Jaglom's New Year's Day was you ..."

"See? How the hell do these rumors start? What was true was that I had gone out with the lead actress in the film, Maggie Jakobson [ now Maggie Wheeler, who plays Janice on Friends ]. And that's pretty much where the similarity ended."

"You've never used poetry to seduce a woman?"

"I don't know." Duchovny looks uncomfortable. "God, I was acting. Trust me, that character wasn't me. It was just great to have a job. Then I did Julia Has Two Lovers. And that character wasn't me either – I don't call people up on the phone and talk dirty. Then I did The Rapture, and just recently we narrated it for laser disc, and [writer/director] Michael Tolkin and Mimi Rogers and I sat in the room and watched it, and all Mimi and I could say is, 'God, we look so young in this movie.' On Red Shoe Diaries, the first one, the movie, I learned a lot from Zalman King about acting and that was my first romantic lead, and I have nothing but wonderful memories of that entire experience. Ruby, Beethoven and Chaplin were all small parts. And Kalifornia – "

Duchovny sees me wince. "What? You didn't like it?"

I can't lie. "I could only watch the first half hour. I thought it sucked."

"Because it was so violent?"

"No, because it had no sense of humor about itself."

"OK, granted. But I loved that film. I loved working with Brad [Pitt] and Juliette [Lewis]. Everybody was saying how Brad was about to become, well, Brad Pitt."

"Do you think you're one of those actors who could change into anything you want on-screen ... ?"

"You mean like a chameleon? No, I'm not really a chameleon. 'The X-Files' has given me confidence, but I still try to hide a little, which is just fine by me. I don't like the show-offy stuff. I don't want to go after things that are different just for the sake of being different. But there's definitely stuff, like romantic comedy, that I want to try."

"And how much longer will you be chasing aliens?"

"Just one more year after this, so I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. And then we'll do 'The X-Files' movies. We'll come back every five or six years and have a reunion. They're trying to write the first one now, and maybe we'll do it this summer or next, I'm not sure. But it will be fun to do. Once I walk away from this character, I know I'm going to want to come back."

"Do you think you'll be happy then?"

"Actually, I think I have a lot of latent happiness. I'm a latent happy person. And I think that when you stop wanting so much, you get a lot happier. So for now, I want to want less."

Martha Frankel interviewed Howard Stern for the Jan/Feb issue of Movieline.