The San Diego Union-Tribune

'House' call

David Duchovny takes a detour to San Diego to promote his 'labor of love'

By David Elliott

April 29, 2005

You still got great beachfront here? We've been thinking of a move and have considered San Diego, but who can say ... "

We can say it probably won't happen for actor David Duchovny and actress wife Tea Leoni, but it's a nice thought for a nice day in San Diego. Duchovny, 44, best known for his role as Mulder on "The X Files," has come down from L.A. to talk about his new movie –– truly his movie, for he wrote, directed and stars in "House of D."

House-hunting will have to wait until "House" is securely marketed, and Duchovny really wants people to see it in a theater:

"The trouble now is that movies cost as much to market as to release, which is a problem for a small picture. Theatrical release has become like an advertisement for home video. I'm all for enjoying a film in the comfort of your home, but there you can turn it off or walk away or use the cell phone. A theater demands the respect of your attention, and in terms of 'House of D,' you need the larger audience because it's an emotional experience."

With trace elements of his New York youth, the story has Duchovny as grown Tommy Warshaw, looking back from Paris to a Manhattan boyhood of sometimes comic traumas, as acted by young Anton Yelchin. Settling down into a sofa, Duchovny explains:

"I began to write it about three years ago. What carried me through every step of the way is that I learned something, and though the creative process has been over for quite a while, I'm still learning by coming to places like San Diego. This doesn't cost much money, it costs energy, and for me that is the labor-of-love part.

"It's sort of based geographically and temperamentally on part of my life, and there are superficially similar experiences. Like I had a delivery boy job in the city. When I stared to write, I realized that was a nice way into Tommy's world, a way to introduce my character to the major players. I had to pump up certain aspects way beyond what I knew."

Duchovny has a contained, reflective mien, as if playing two or three chess moves ahead. He isn't "on," though his dark outfit fits perfectly into the soberly chic hotel suite, and you can hear his intellect humming. In 1996, he was one of People's 50 sexiest people, yet his attitude shoots that down, and he feels closer to the college him he once recalled this way: "Girls were nice to me in the same way they would be nice to a hamster."

The movie cost under $10 million but uses a full kit of dramatic devices, and "Tommy has to leave behind so much, when he 'becomes a man,' leaves an unprotected mother, and a mentally challenged man who cannot accompany him, and even an imprisoned woman who cannot go with him. And then as a grown man he has to rejoin his past."

Robin Williams plays the mentally simple janitor, Tommy's grown pal Pappass, a name that could make some Greeks bridle about a joke on Pappas. Duchovny cocks a smile and says, "I can only hope they will all see the movie, then get upset. I challenge them to!"

Pappass came from "a guy in the neighborhood when I grew up, not named Pappass, in his early 30s, handicapped in some way, but he hung out with us. He was like a kid, yet scary sometimes. He would get angry and beat us up. I wanted Robin to be physically powerful. When he pushes Tommy, I wanted you to feel that this is a man among boys."

He says Williams was "crucial to the financing, and innately capable of pulling off this role. He has an incredible imagination, he taps into certain childlike forces, an innocence. Robin is not entirely grown-up. I didn't want to use the comic genius, the verbal quickness, but his spirit."

Williams does seem to break character when Pappass jokes about his brain deficiency. Faintly defensive, Duchovny admits, "I wrote it, so I'm guilty! It is maybe not a hundred percent in character, but I had to go with it. I thought it was funny! People forgive a lot if you can make 'em laugh. And this is bittersweet humor. The pathos is that Tommy can grow and Pappass cannot."

Leoni plays Tommy's suicidal mother, and Williams' daughter Zelda has a small role, but Duchovny cautions it wasn't just a family party on set:

"Most everybody worked cheap with the promise of something more if the film does well. The nature of shooting a movie like this is we had to work around people's schedules. Even my wife, who had to go shoot 'Spanglish.' I just had her the first week. And I don't think Robin worked more than two small scenes with Zelda. So we weren't just hangin' out on this film."

He and Leoni, who have two young kids, have never been a tabloid "star couple," which according to Duchovny is just the only way to go for them:

"It comes naturally to both of us. There is her career and my career and that was and is separate. Never been a problem, even before the kids came. Celebrity creates pressures, sure, but the relationship is its own reality for us. We don't 'act' our marriage."

For the movie, Russian-born Anton Yelchin was crucial as young Tommy, though Duchovny "wanted to do this movie so badly I could have made a mistake with the wrong kid. I knew in my heart: wrong kid, bad movie. But I wanted to make the film!

"(Acting coach) Larry Moss told me about Anton, but I didn't want a 13-year-old who can just work three hours a day. I wanted to work with a 16-or even 18-year-old who could act 13. Finally, I came back to Anton and it was clear when he opened his mouth, it was love at first sight. Kids have to work by intuition, go on their guts. If they have a lot of technique, they're usually ruined, because they're 'acting.' Anton just got Tommy from the first. He was Tommy."

The House of D is the old women's House of Detention in Manhattan, where Tommy gets sage advice from a jailed prostitute (Erykah Badu) he doesn't see. It has a ghostly relation to the director's own youth:

"I never talked to the women, or if I did, I've forgotten. Suppose I could have, because it was near where I lived. I did my homework in the library nearby. But I don't remember the House of D.

"We went to the actual place to film. It's now a garden, and people would come by and tell us how awful it was, with the noise and pimps everywhere. I made it mythic: the lady in the tower. I couldn't afford a real jail, so we just built a cell."

The film has a feel for the '70s, but "the problem was, our main aging device was the cars. But all the old cars looked great! The owners love them so much. We had to dirty them up, which caused pain. But I didn't want to do the Brady Bunch thing with bell bottoms and all that. That's a cliché. Clothes then were not uniform."

He plans to direct again ("For sure, but I'm not sure what"), and does not plan to be in another TV series like "X Files," which made him but was not repeatable:

"It just looked like good experience, a job to get. I wasn't wanting to do television, but I auditioned, never thinking it would last for years. In the end, 'X Files' gave birth to the superior dramas on TV now, like 'Alias' or '24,' but because networks don't want now to spend the money, there will not be another show like 'X Files.' The genius was in Chris Carter's conceptual frame, encompassing just about any mode of drama, comedy, horror, melodrama. That was a great gift, but I would never do it again, wouldn't want to work 14 hours a day on a TV show. And I won't be that age again, to feel that sort of excitement."

Did he like the '90s rush of celebrity?

"It was sort of fun, and fascinating. Glad I saw it, experienced that hysteria. Not many people do. There were difficulties staying the course, but I felt we worked our (bleep) off. I never felt we just got lucky. We came to do good work and we did."

Getting a major movie career has been rockier. He played JFK assassination cop J.D. Tippit in "Ruby," a fascinating flop in which "I had to get shot and fall down, which was fine, but we had to keep doing it again and again, so that taught me I'd better use a body pad." He had a charming stud role in "Connie and Carla," but "it was released in a thousand theaters, which is an impossible thing to do. Either you release small and watch it grow, or you release it huge. In the middle, you're dead."

He is amused and a bit disturbed by the TV "reality" shows, like the one starring Kirstie Alley and her bulk, and the endless tab fodder about star couples like Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. Though this Princeton man dropped out of Yale grad school (right into theater and TV), Duchovny examines show-business rather like the arch professor he could have been:

"Angelina and Brad are probably unwillingly starring in a reality show the tabloids are running. I call them unscripted, that's their only reality. At least Kirstie is a creative force in her show, and I wish her luck. But what's really real about it? Who would have thought Andy Warhol was the greatest philosopher we had?"

Spoken like a graduate, with honors.