The Boston Globe

House of Duchovny

The lit student turned 'X-Files' star turned family man is now taking on feature filmmaking

By Judy Abel, Globe Correspondent | April 24, 2005

NEW YORK -- When David Duchovny was a doctoral student in English literature, he hungered to get out of his head and onto the stage. Twenty years later, he's back in his head, only this time he's invited the audience along.

The 44-year-old former "X-Files" star has written and directed "House of D," his first feature film, which opens Friday. Set in New York City in 1973, it tells the story of a 13-year-old boy forced to cope with loss, responsibility, and adolescence. The film is narrated by the boy's adult self -- played by Duchovny -- who attempts to face his failings as a husband and father by revisiting his past.

Although the film's protagonist, Tommy, has some things in common with Duchovny -- both were scholarship students at Manhattan prep schools -- the filmmaker insists "House of D" is not autobiographical.

"It wasn't like I said, 'I'm going to write my first movie and I'm going to go home and shoot it on the streets where I grew up,' " Duchovny says. "The story just demanded the place and time of my childhood."

The plot was formed as Duchovny wrestled with some questions about manhood. "I think about what it is to be a man -- not in the macho sense, but what it means to be a responsible adult," he says. "I'm always thinking about that and defining it as my life circumstances change."

The idea for the film had been floating in Duchovny's mind for a while, he says. While growing up on Manhattan's Lower East Side, he was fascinated by the Women's House of Detention, which was built in neighboring Greenwich Village. When the prison was torn down in 1974, it was replaced with a garden, which Duchovny found poignant.

"A prison becoming a garden -- it's like a found poem," Duchovny says. "That really inspired me because I thought it was a beautiful transformation. If I had made it up, I would have said it was too sappy. But because it's real, I thought I could use it, and I wanted to create a movie that would honor that transformation."

The seemingly mind-bending task of making a prison-turned-garden-turned-poem into a film was relatively easy for Duchovny, who says he wrote the script in six days.

"I knew what kind of movie I wanted it to be -- really funny and sad," he says. "And I knew the characters. I just didn't know what the crisis would be to cause the film's catastrophe to happen."

Ultimately, Duchovny determined that a seemingly minor bike theft would cause the boy's life to unravel. "I've always believed that huge consequences in life happen from the smallest of actions," Duchovny says. "In movies it seems like it's always portrayed as a huge moment -- a shooting or something. But in life, you turn left or you turn right and everything changes."

Duchovny has certainly experienced some life-altering twists and turns. After graduating from Princeton University in 1982, he enrolled in a doctoral program in English literature at Yale. During a vacation in New York, where he'd hoped to earn money as a bartender, he auditioned for commercials and was taken on by an agent who urged him to take acting lessons. He continued to work on his doctoral thesis -- "Magic and Technology in Contemporary American Fiction and Poetry" -- while commuting to New York to act in off-Broadway shows. In 1987, Duchovny abandoned his literature studies and decided to pursue acting full time.

"I think I wanted more [of a] life," Duchovny explains. "The life of an academic is really kind of solitary. I think I was withheld emotionally, and I saw acting as a way to work through that and as a way to express things."

In 1993, Duchovny won the role of the alien-tracking FBI agent Fox Mulder on "The X-Files," which ran for seven seasons and made him a major star. "I never imagined this would be my life -- I never imagined this would make me happy," he says.

And yet, he is quite happy. He's happy to work in a venue that allows him to be creative. He's happy he has time to spend with his children -- Madelaine West, 6, and Kyd Miller, 3. His own father, Amram Ducovny (who changed the spelling during a stint in the Army to avoid mispronunciation), vice president of public affairs for Brandeis from 1978 to 1982 and later a novelist, died in 2003.

Duchovny's wife, actress Tea Leoni, plays the role of Tommy's mother in "House of D."

"I'm a fan of Tea's," he says. "I was a fan before I knew her. She's one of a kind. When she asked to play the role, I had no doubts about her doing great work, but I think she was nervous. She was thinking, 'I don't want to ruin your movie.' "

But Duchovny says Leoni worried for nothing, because her performance was exactly what he was looking for. The other cast members, including Anton Yelchin, Robin Williams, and Erykah Badu, also portrayed their characters as Duchovny visualized them while he was writing the script.

Yelchin, who plays Tommy, says Duchovny made his job easy because the direction and script offered him a clear sense of his character. "I have a lot of respect for David," Yelchin says. "He's sensitive, intelligent, and funny, and the script is that way too."

But despite the praise of his colleagues and all his recent success, Duchovny says his confidence is far from unshakable. "I struggle all the time," he says. "That just happens to be my thing. It's human nature. I'll never have as much talent as I want. If I could give my kids anything, I'd give them the impression that they could try anything and succeed at it."

So far, Duchovny has done a fine job of teaching that lesson by example. He recently completed filming "Trust the Man," directed by Bart Freundlich, and is now headed to Montreal to start work on a new movie, directed by French actor Vincent Perez.

Meanwhile, he's attempting to finance another script he's written -- although he fears the title might stir up memories in the hearts of New Englanders. The movie, called "Bucky [expletive] Dent," centers around Dent's 1978 home run that sent the Red Sox home for the postseason and led the New York Yankees to a World Series championship.

Duchovny claims the film is a father-and-son story that even a diehard Red Sox fan could enjoy.

"I wouldn't call it a baseball movie," he says. "It just uses Bucky Dent as a metaphor for the fact that you get beat by the little guy -- not Reggie Jackson, but Bucky [expletive] Dent and Aaron [expletive] Boone and Bill [expletive] Buckner."