Fresh Air

April 20, 2005 (original air date)

Actor David Duchovny Directs 'House of D'

This is Fresh Air. I'm Dave Davies filling in for Terry Gross.

David Duchovny has had his share of success in Hollywood, but he didn't follow a typical route getting there. After growing up in New York and attending a prep school on a scholarship, he graduated from Princeton and was getting a Ph.D. in English at Yale before deciding to move to California and pursue acting. After minor parts in several movies, Duchovny found a role that seemed to fit him perfectly in a TV series that became one of the breakout hits of the 90s. In nine seasons on The X-Files Duchovny played F.B.I. Agent Fox Mulder, investigating supernatural happenings and government coverups with his partner Dana Scully, played by Gillian Anderson. The role made Duchovny a star. Since leaving the series five years ago Duchovny has made guest appearances in other TV shows and has starred in several films including Evolution, Playing God, and Return to Me.

Now Duchovny has written and directed his first feature film. It's called House of D and it's a coming-of-age story about a thirteen-year-old boy growing up in New York in the 70s. Here's a scene from the film in which the boy, Tommy Warshaw, played by Anton Yelchin, is talking to his mom, played by Téa Leoni, is talking to his mom about some problems he's having at school:

TOMMY: Mom. Listen, I really can't go back to that school anymore.

MOM: St. Andrew's? What are you talking about?

TOMMY: We have to move. I did something bad--I said something and they hate me there, and the girls *really, really* don't like me.

MOM: What are you doing with girls?

TOMMY: That's not the point Mom. The point is that we have to find another school.

MOM: (angry) Don't tell me what the point is, Tommy. Your scholarship is the point, and getting into a good college is the point. Girls are beside the point. Jesus, Tommy. What are you trying to do to me?

TOMMY: I'm not trying to do anything to you Mom. Forget it, okay?

MOM: You tell me you're gonna piss away your scholarship because of girls? I'm not gonna forget it. What am I working for? Slaving away for you every day?

TOMMY: Forget this (yelling).

MOM: Tommy, where are you going?


MOM: Out where?

TOMMY: Out--out.

MOM: Go on--run away just like your father.

TOMMY: He didn't run away Mom. He died.

Dave Davies: Well, David Duchovny, welcome to Fresh Air.

David Duchovny: Thanks for having me.

Davies: This new film of yours, House of D is, I guess. in part a coming-of-age crisis involving a thirteen-year-old kid growing up in New York whose mom, played by your wife, Téa Leoni, is struggling with the death of her husband. You grew up in New York. Your parents split up when you were, I guess, twelve or so. How much of this character in this film is autobiographical?

DD: Well, mostly what's autobiographical in this film are superficial details of time and place because I grew up in the Village at that time. So, when it came time to write it I wanted to write a universal coming-of-age story, really because my particular life story is not dramatic and I didn't think it would reach out to anybody really, so I thought that in order to be universal I would actually be as specific as I could and try to make the time and the place come alive.

Davies: Is there any particular directing style that you're influenced by? What do you like on the set?

DD: I think the best thing that I can do as a director and the best thing a director can do for me as an actor, is make clear to me what the tone of the film is, and the tone of this film is kind of a mix of reality and fable, and in that I was instructing the actors to try and exist on both worlds so that ... so that when it was funny, and I think the movie is often funny, we didn't stretch the tone so much as to become ridiculous, so that when it came time for the tragedy of the film or the tear jerking part of the film, that it wouldn't break at that point. So, as a director I just try and give ... I try and inform the actors what kind of a movie they're appearing in so they all appear in the same movie. And hell for an actor is when he sees a film and he realizes he was acting in a different film from everybody else.

Davies: Have you had that experience as an actor?

DD: Oh, of course. I think every actor has. And, you know it's ... it's really not the actor's fault in that case. In that case it's always the director's fault, I think.

Davies: You, of course, are known to most of America as Agent Mulder from The X-Files.

DD: Yeah.

Davies: Which became an incredibly successful show. It was, I think, called by one writer in The New York Times the deifining series of the 90s. And it developed a cult following of sorts and I wondered if you, you know, feared that you might forever be associated with this--you might become, you know, a Leonard Nimoy who we always expect to be a Vulcan with pointed ears somehow.

DD: I never really did. I mean I think that ... I don't want to compare us to Star Trek, but I think what separates the two shows is Star Trek was somewhat campy, I guess, and The X-Files always seemed to me kind of cinematic or filmic, and ... and the drama realistic and therefore I thought that ... yeah, playing a character's playing a character even though I'm playing him every day for ... for 8-9 years and that eventually after the iconic significance of that character fades away from public memory then I'll be allowed to move on, and if I'm not it's mostly my fault for not working harder and for not being more imaginative. And if I'm not there, it's just testament to the ... to the power and the quality of the show.

Davies: Well, you know, we looked at--as I was preparing for the interview I looked at two X-Files episodes which you wrote and directed and when the first one popped up, you know I hadn't seen an X-Files episode in a long time, but I actually remembered this one. I mean it really stuck in my head and it's one--it's about a baseball player in the Negro Leagues in New Mexico in the 40s who could easily be a big league player but always avoided playing well before scouts, because it turns out he's actually an alien who's come to earth as part of a plan of conquest but fell in love with the game of baseball and went native (DD laughs) and became a ball player because he loved the game of baseball. Where did that story come from?

DD: It was ... it was the ... was it '98 when Maguire and Sosa were ...

Davies: Right.

DD:... having their home run race? And baseball was on everybody's mind and there was an article in The New York or The L.A. Times about a minor leaguer, and I can't remember his name, but he hit more homeruns than anybody. He hit 70-some homeruns for the Nevada Something-or-Others. So I thought, well, here's a guy in the desert near Area 51 who is hitting all these homers and he's unknown, and I just started to kinda meditate on that idea, and then, you know, also Roswell happened ...

Davies: Right.

DD:... the same year that Jackie Robinson went to the bigs, so I thought that was an interesting coincidence to try to play with, and everything started to fall into place from there and I liked playing with the ideas of aliens and alienation from society and I thought ... I thought it all kinda worked and came together thematically, and then the plot came.

Davies: Yeah, and it worked well because there's actually an alien bounty hunter trying to track him down and bring him in for having deserted his kind. I want to listen to a little piece of a clip of that episode. This is early on when you, Agent Mulder, are with Agent Scully and you're going over records from newspapers in New Mexico and she notices that you've actually been looking at some baseball scores. Let's listen:

SCULLY: (accusing) Mulder!? You cheat. I can't believe that you've been reading about baseball this whole time.

MULDER: I'm reading the box scores, Scully. You'd like it. It's like the Pythagorean Theorem for jocks. It distills all the chaos and action of any game in the history of all baseball games into one tiny, perfect, rectangular sequence of numbers. I can look at this box and I can recreate exactly what happened on some sunny summer day back in 1947. It's like the numbers talk to me, they comfort me. They tell me that even though lots of things can change some things do remain the same. It's ...

SCULLY: (interrupting) Boring. Mulder, can I ask you a personal question?

MULDER: Of course not.

SCULLY: Did your mother ever tell you to go outside and play?

Davies: That's a nice little piece of dialogue.

DD: (softly) Yeah.

Davies: Do you remember that? Do you remember where it came from?

DD: That came from my heart, really. You know, I love box scores. I look at 'em. I look at 'em over and over--not so much anymore because I don't follow baseball so much, but there was something about the numbers and the box score and the fact ... you know my wife would say, how do you read that? What do all those little notations and numbers mean? It's really not that complicated but it appears to be some kind of mystical, you know, sequence of numbers and letters and I always felt it.

Davies: What *did* get you out of academia and into Hollywood?

DD: Well, when I was getting my Ph.D. I always had this sneaking suspicion that I was in the wrong place and that while I could have been, I think, a good teacher I would always be a mediocre academic and I wasn't ready at the age of 22 or 23 to resign myself to mediocrity. I wanted to try ... I wanted to try to find something I could be better than mediocre at so I was really (laughs)--that doesn't sound very ambitious--but I was looking for an out.

Davies: And ...

DD: And as I said, I started writing and I thought I would write stage plays. I thought I should learn how to speak the words that I was going to write.

Davies: And you eventually found yourself in Hollywood and got parts here and there and then The X-Files happened and your life changed.

DD: Yeah, I was ... I'm talking to you from the Carnegie Hall Building and I studied acting here many years ago just a few floors above from where I'm talking to you, and with Robert Modica. So I worked hard when I was in graduate school. By the time I got out to California I was beginning to understand a little about what I was doing and I managed to get some pretty interesting film roles like in The Rapture and in Kalifornia. But I was really going from film to film and it was kind of haphazard, and when I did get The X-Files it really enabled me to act every day and that's what I really needed to do because I started when I was 26 and I felt ... I felt and I knew that I needed experience. I needed to work every day so that I could teach myself my own acting.

Davies: That's interesting. I wonder if you could think of an example of something that you found you were able to do in the fifth season that you couldn't do in the first?

DD: Well, you know it's ... it's very much of a trade-off 'cause when I look back--sometimes I'll be flipping channels with my wife and a show from the first year will be on and I'll say "Just look at how bad I am--just watch, this is really great how bad I am," and she'll say "Yeah, but look at you, you're trying so hard-- it's great. You're so committed to trying hard." So, I think that even though I became more competent, I think I lost some of that green eagerness that can read really well. There's so many things that go into a performance--sometimes you're not--most of the time you're not in control of the best things. Eagerness can go a long way, can seem kind of winning in a character. But, you know, by the time you ask in the third or fourth year what could I do? I think I was relaxed enough with the process of making a TV show or film, relaxed enough with a bunch of kind of scientific sounding dialogue, to actually start to relax--to have fun with it and to bring other things into play rather than just, oh my God how am I gonna survive this scene? Look at all this dialogue.

Davies: You were quoted in a Playboy interview a few years back as saying "The best actors convey the idea that they never truly get there." Again, you were quoted as saying, "I love when you sense failure in an actor's performance. The best actors have a failure even at the height of their success." What did you mean by that?

DD: (laughs) I think I was thinking specifically of Marlon Brando who ... who has always been one of my favorites, if not my favorite actor and I think he always had such a ... such a kind of a ... he was always torn it seemed to me about the very process of acting and it kind of read in all his performances. Not a disdain, but an ambivalence and that lent to him an air, to me, an air of sadness or failure around it ... that he was reaching ... he was reaching for these characters that he could portray so effortlessly and so wonderfully and yet there was still ... there was still something that was missing for him and that was conveyed to me. And I feel like there's always something missing in life in everybody, and that ... that made him human to me no matter what character he was playing. And when I see a seamless performance, I lose that. I lose the humanity of it.

Davies: You've had a series of memorable appearances on a lot of sitcoms, The Simpsons, Sex and the City, and there was one that I really loved on The Larry Sanders Show where Garry Shandling has the talk show on the HBO series and you play a guy--no you don't--you play yourself, you play the celebrity David Duchovny.

DD: Well, I play a character *named* David Duchovny.

Davies: Okay, this character, in this case who has a sexual preference, that's ... let's say that's open to some speculation.

DD: Yes.

Davies: And you just do a wonderful job of making Larry Sanders feel uncomfortable.

DD: (laughter) Yeah.

Davies: Where'd that come from?

DD: Well I had done The Larry Sanders Show one time, and through that Garry Shandling and I became friends, and this was a year later and he and I were talking and I said I'd love to come do the show again, and he said sure ... you know, come up with an idea and we'll ... whatever you want to do, if I like it, we'll do it. And I called back some time later and I said I think it would be great if I had a crush on you but I'm straight and I don't understand it, and I just, but it's a real crush--I just don't--I just don't get it, and you're the only guy that I have a crush on. And he said that does sound funny--let's try to do that. And they wrote it up and I just thought-- my instinct is always to play it real first and to just, you know, commit to the reality of the desire, so I thought, you know it's just gonna be really funny if you're not winking at all. Don't wink at all--you know, what's funny is this commitment, not winking, to me. So, I thought--yeah, just caress his cheek, you know, and tell him you're confused.

Davies: Let's hear some of this. This is David Duchovny appearing on the HBO series The Larry Sanders Show:

DAVID: Hey, could you, ah, give Larry and I just a minute?

FEMALE VOICE (Carol?): Oh, yeah. Certainly.

DAVID: Thanks. You're not upset that I'm taking Carol to the beach are you?

LARRY: Don't be silly. Of course not. She's a nice girl.

DAVID: Well, good. Well, I'm sorry I'm not gonna be on the show with you.

LARRY: What are you talking about?

DAVID: My agent called, said the network went ballistic and they put me back on with Jon Stewart.

LARRY: Damn it -- S**t.

DAVID: You're ...

LARRY: They're just not supposed to do that.

DAVID: You're up ...

LARRY: Damn it.

DAVID: Shh, shh-shh-shh-shh-shh-shhhh ... God, you're really upset, aren't you? God, you really care about me, don't you? Are you uncomfortable?

LARRY: A little bit.

DAVID: Okay, I'll see you.

LARRY: See you later.

DAVID: (to Arthur) Bye.

LARRY: (to Arthur) Did you see that?

ARTHUR: Yeah, next time kick him in the (expletive bleeped) balls.

Davies: That was David Duchovny on The Larry Sanders Show. You know, I have to say since you have such a reputation as a Hollywood hunk, was it sort of fun to play off that as a guy who's struggling with his sexual identity?

DD: Well, you see what I thought was so funny was that I wasn't really struggling with my sexual identity. This was like a one time offer, you know, and it was only for Larry Sanders. But, that's what I found funny about it was ... was the confusion, the kinda playing with the ... playing confused with sexual confusion, you know, and just kind of reducing it and reducing it and, so that's what I was attracted to in that kind of a scenario, but in terms of Hollywood hunk and all that, I mean, I don't care and I don't ever really think about it. I'm just a ... just a ... you know I'm just getting along (laughs).

Davies: Just a regular guy.

DD: Just gettin' along (affects a *slightly* different voice) "Oh, I was an ugly duckling in high school" all that stuff--no, no, but, ah, I don't know, that just seems like, that just seems like it's on the outside.

Davies: Well you've come a long way from the graduate program in English at Yale. Not only did you come to Hollywood, not only have you been in a hit series, but you are actually married to a beautiful actress. I mean, what a ...what a cliche.

DD: (Laughs).

Davies: Is it true that you--

DD: Yeah, just like Hollywood hunk being a cliche just ... just lays on top of me ... I don't feel it.

Davies: Sometimes it works.

DD: (laughs).

Davies: Is it true that you met your wife, Téa Leoni, when you both were auditioning to be on The Tonight Show?

DD: That's when we first met. My manager had told me "you should get on The Tonight Show" and I said, "well why would I do that?" And she said "well, it's good--you know people see you out there and then they think of you." I said, "well then I'll go," and she said "well they don't really want you." I said "well what do you mean?" She said "well you kinda have to, you know you kinda have to have lunch with them and they'll see that you are intelligent and you can speak and perhaps you can tell a story," and I said "I'm auditioning to go on a talk show?" She said "it'll be worth it, don't worry." I said "all right, I'll go." And so I showed up in the Valley at this restaurant and I sit down, and now I'm not the only one auditioning for a talk show--there's actually a woman there who's auditioning at the same time. This was brutally shocking to me. I couldn't believe that somebody that I'd have to audition for a talk show, and next to somebody. And, Téa--it was Téa--she was married at the time, and she was charming and smart, and completely dominated the conversation. I became morose and withdrawn and was not invited on The Tonight Show. But Téa was.

Davies: God, you failed your lunchtime audition.

DD: Yeah.

Davies: You directed your wife, Téa Leoni, in an X-Files episode. It was Hollywood A.D., I think.

DD: Yeah--yeah.

Davies: I'm wondering if you learned things about working with her that helped her later when you ... when she played the role in House of D.

DD: Well, you know everybody knows that Téa's a brilliant comedienne and I kind of used her that way in Hollywood A.D. But in House of D, even though I think it's a very funny movie in places, she is not a comedienne in this film. And, you know, because I live with her and because I know her--for me, humor is often a key to any character that I play because I think the way a character is funny says so much about them and I often think that the way a character is funny hides exactly where their pain is, and with Téa, living with her, I know ... I know the pain, you know, that drives the humor and so it was very ... very easy for me to know that she could play this kind of a role.

Davies: You're working on some other stuff. Including, I read, you've written a film set against the Boston Red Sox 1978 pennant race collapse?

DD: Yeah. Yeah, it's called Bucky F**king Dent. Bucky Freaking Dent.

Davies: Okay.

DD: It's what all the Boston Red Sox fans refer to Bucky Dent as. He's known throughout New England as Bucky hmm-hmm Dent.

Davies: Uh-huh.

DD: And I just thought it was a great title for a film, and it is set in '78 and it's really a father son piece using that collapse as a backdrop.

Davies: And we should mention for our audience that doesn't know that Bucky Dent was a singles hitting shortstop who slew the Boston Red Sox with a pop-up, wind driven homerun in Fenway in a playoff game in 1978.

DD: (Laughs) Well, Red Sox fans will say the bat was corked, but in the movie Bucky Dent is used as a kind of a metaphor for the little guy that beats you ... that comes up from behind in life and beats you. It's not the Mickey Mantles and the Reggie Jacksons, because you can see them coming, but it's always Bucky Dent that ruins your day, and that's kind of the heart of the movie.

Davies: And is it gonna be made?

DD: I sure hope so. You know, I'd have to change the title probably.

Davies: Yeah, right.

DD: But, Bucky Dent's not a bad title.

Davies: Yeah.

DD: I think ... I think it's the best thing I've ever written so I hope it gets made. I would like to shoot it either this fall or next fall because it takes place in September in New York and some in Boston, and I'm just trying to get financing and cast right now.

Davies: You write--I mean you're an actor but you've obviously spent a lot of time writing. When you were in The X-Files you found time to write some episodes and you've written screenplays; you have a novel, there's poetry ...

DD: Well ... novel ... I mean ...

Davies: No, no?

DD: You use that term loosely. It will never see the light of day. It is ... it is just a ... it's a collection of ... of words. (laughs)

Davies: Wow, that bad, huh?

DD: Maybe not that bad. There are a couple of things that are, you know, there's a couple chapters that are decent. It's got a great title, I'll give it that.

Davies: Well, tell us the title, if it's not profane.

DD: No (laughs). It's called Where There Are Two.

Davies: Has your wife, Téa Leoni, read it?

(dialogue starts to overlap here)

DD: Underwhelming for you, but I like it. Has my wife, Téa, read it? I believe she has ... I think she has. She may not have, though, but maybe she has.

Davies: Okay. I sense a discomfort ...

DD: How's that for an answer?

Davies: I sense a discomfort in this area.

DD: Honestly, there's no discomfort. I honestly can't remember. I mean wrote that when I was 21 and I got a very nice rejection letter from Putnam, who said that I would probably have a wonderful first novel in ten years. So what I did was ten years later I sent it to them again.

Davies: (Laughing) Great.

DD: I thought they were saying I was ahead of my time. Ah, no I didn't send it to them again, but I think it showed promise, but it was ... it wasn't structured. In some ways becoming an actor and being on The X-Files and learning about drama was the best thing that ever happened to my writing because I was, you know, kind of a modernist.

Davies: So are you gonna go back to that novel, or not?

DD: No, there's no way. It's like, you know, Henry James used to say in one of his prefaces that--and he used to rewrite all the time and revise--that it was like trying to follow somebody's footprints in a snowstorm. And I'm a different guy. It would be like trying to revise a novel that you wrote as far as I'm concerned. I think when you're writing you really have to ride the inspiration in the moment that you have it.

Davies: Well, David Duchovny thanks so much for speaking with us.

DD: Thank you.

Davies: Since leaving The X-Files five years ago David Duchovny has appeared in several movies. House of D, which he wrote and directed premiered this month.