The actor: David Duchovny, who became a star in the ’90s playing an FBI agent investigating the world’s freakiest mysteries on The X-Files. He went on to star in big-budget movies and low-budget indies, often showing a wry sense of humor even when working on the darkest material. He also wrote and directed his own 2004 feature film, House Of D. Duchovny currently stars on the Showtime series Californication as a conflicted writer and serial philanderer; the second season has just been released on DVD, and the third season launches on Showtime later this year.
Californication (2007-present)—“Hank Moody”
David Duchovny: I remember getting the script and thinking it was very funny in a way that hearkens back to more adult films of the ’70s, like Shampoo or The Last Detail, where you have an actual functioning adult navigating adult problems. When I looked around at the kind of stuff that was available to me, or even not available to me, the comedies were often that man-child thing, with boys in men’s bodies navigating almost adolescent issues. So this was the kind of stuff I’d been wanting to do, and not necessarily the kind of movies being made at the time. It happened on television for me rather than in the movies, but it was the kind of material I wanted to do.
The A.V. Club: Why do you think there’s been a revival of the misbehaving hero on TV over the past several years?
DD: Well, I think it was a staple of the movies in the ’70s. Can’t speak so much to the ’80s, and not in the ’90s, and not after the turn of the century. I can only speculate as to why. I would assume it has to do with movies trying to hit as many quadrants as they can, and therefore having to please very young adults as well as middle-aged adults. And it seems like the anti-hero would be something more… well, at least an adult anti-hero… Well, now I’m not making any sense, because Rebel Without A Cause caused a sensation for kids a long time ago. But it seems to me that once you start trying to please all the people all the time, you’ve kind of got to take the edges off of your leads. And in cable television now, you probably have the most artistic freedom in the making of drama. On cable, although this could be changing now too, you’re not necessarily trying to have a hit that invades the entire culture, you’re trying to attract new viewers to the cable outfit. You can really go out a little further and not have to make your character available to 12-year-old boys as well.
The TV Set (2006)—“Mike Klein”
DD: See, there’s a guy who’s navigating those questions about making television. I think I’d met [writer-director] Jake Kasdan a few years earlier. We had talked about doing a film together. I really liked his work, and I liked him, and we’d always kind of kept track of one another. And then he sent me this script, and I thought it was really smart, and I kind of knew the world a little bit. Not so much as a writer-producer, but as an actor, I certainly knew the world of television. And it was a story that was interesting to tell. I never thought that it was going to leave that world, or find an audience necessarily beyond that world. But I thought it was a nice little human story, and I really liked the idea of playing a character who had to navigate within really… I don’t know anything about speaking Japanese, but it seems to me that in television, everybody’s kind of speaking in codes of power, and that was very interesting to me, to play this character who really couldn’t say what he wanted to say. Whereas I was coming off of playing Fox Mulder on The X-Files for so long, and he always says exactly what he wants to say. I liked playing a character who has a certain amount of power but certainly is not all-powerful, and has to navigate through those streams with Sigourney Weaver, with his wife, with the actors, everything. Everything was in code in that movie, and I thought that was very interesting.
AVC: Is there a secret to navigating that world? Do you have to remind yourself that the people you’re talking to are just as caught up in it as you are?
DD: Well, I think it depends on the game people are playing. Some people are playing an artistic game, and they’re making art, and that’s got different rules. And some people are getting a paycheck, which is fine too. And there are a lot of people below the line who are getting paychecks, and you’ve got to show up and work for them as well, so… Just like every show has a tone, every show has different people on it playing different games. I don’t say “game” in a pejorative sense, I just mean, these are different stories that we tell ourselves when we go to work.
House Of D (2004)—“Tom Warshaw”
DD: I had this script called Yoga Man, which was really a ’70s-style script about an anti-hero, pretty much like Shampoo in a yoga studio. And I was working with an acting coach named Larry Moss, preparing to do a role that I never did in a movie that hasn’t been made yet, but which I’d still like to make someday. And Larry had seen an episode of The X-Files that I wrote and directed, and he said, “You know, you should have your agent send that episode out to everybody, because this is what you should be doing, you should be writing and directing. What have you got? What do you want to write and direct?” I gave Yoga Man to him, and the next week, we got together and he said, “Well, this is good, but I think you have better. Is there anything else that interests you?” And I told him I had these ideas about a story that takes place in New York in the ’70s. Basically the image that kept sticking in my mind was a fairy-tale image of a boy who doesn’t have an adult to talk to, because he’s lost his father, can’t reach his mother, and so he’s talking to a woman out of sight, pretty much like Rapunzel or something, stuck up in a tower. And it all takes place around the Women’s House Of Detention, which was an actual tower in an actual city, as unreal as that may seem.
The movie is about trying to find out who this faceless woman is, and it’s a growing-up film in the mode of Cinema Paradiso. And the fact that the real House Of Detention is actually a garden now seemed to me like a beautiful natural metaphor. If I’d made it up, it would be too precious, but that’s the truth; the prison is now a garden. And I wanted to tell a story that honored that within the journey of the boy, about how his prison becomes a garden. And when I finished my pitch, I looked up, and Larry was weeping. Later, I came to find out that Larry weeps at everything. But at the time, I thought it was a sign, so I went back and made House Of D my priority. I wanted it to be very much like Cinema Paradiso, to make an American-style European coming-of-age film. And that’s kind of what I think I did, warts and all.
AVC: Were you disappointed by the reaction to it? Or just glad that you got to make it?
DD: Well, both. I mean, you always want everybody to pat you on the back and tell you you’re wonderful every time you do something; I think that’s human nature. And I would want more people to see it, you know. I didn’t make it for myself. I didn’t make it to have it up on my shelf and say, “Hey, I did this, and nobody saw it.” So it’s not so much critical reaction, because that fades away—that’s just noise that happens at the time—but I do wish more people had seen it.
Full Frontal (2002)—“Bill/Gus”
DD: Full Frontal was a very short experience in my life. I believe I might have had two or three days filming on it. I think Steven Soderbergh shot it in two weeks, but that might be overstating it. Steven was somebody I had known for a long time. One of the first auditions I ever had was for sex, lies, and videotape. And I don’t even know how I got into that audition, because I would have just started acting, but I read for Steven, and Steven wrote a very nice letter to Henry Jaglom—who’s the guy I did my first film with, New Year’s Day—saying that he had really enjoyed my audition, and blah blah blah. I always treasured that, especially once I saw Steven’s work. And Steven had always said, “We’ll do a movie together,” and finally this project comes along, and he says, “It’s about you! It’s about your character!” I said, “Great, I can’t wait to do it.” And then I got the script and I just had like two scenes. It is about my character turning 40 or something, but I’m hardly in it, so I was like, “Thanks a lot, buddy.”
So we did that, and Steven shot it with a handheld camera, and did whatever lighting there was, and it was very loose. I guess the thing I remember most is, I’m supposed to get an erection in the middle of this massage that Mary McCormack gives me, and obviously it wasn’t something I was—well, not obviously—but I’m not talented enough to do that on command in the middle of a scene, so he had this plastic dildo that he gave me, and we were doing the shot in one, so there wasn’t time to cut and place the thing in so that it looked like a pup tent, right? He designed the shot so he would go off of me to Mary, and then I would have to frantically place this thing under the sheet so it was sticking up, and I had about four or five seconds to do it. After a couple takes, it just tilted unceremoniously to the side.
It’s kind of fun to shoot that way. Not necessarily with a dildo, but where you’re just making movies like kids, and it’s not: “Master, cowboy, four sizes of close-ups, and turn around.” It’s just like, “Let’s get this shot. Let’s make it work, and let’s move on.”
Evolution (2001)—“Dr. Ira Kane”
DD: Yeah, Evolution is an example of big-budget movie-making like that. Which is tough in comedy, because comedy wants to feel fresh and loose and free, and sometimes it’s hard to make the bigger-type comedies, because you’re pulling a lot of weight, especially on a special-effects-laden one like Evolution. But we had a good time making that movie. And I had a good time with Orlando Jones and Seann William Scott and Ivan Reitman. The problem with that film was always the ending. It was about the evolution of this alien form, and though I never would have picked the first movie coming out of The X-Files to be about aliens, that’s just the way it shook out. Anyway, it’s about the fast evolution of this form, and it kind of evolved into a big blob that wasn’t funny or scary. That was the problem with the end of the movie. It didn’t have a great villain, or even a comic villain at the end, like the Stay Puft Marshmallow guy in Ghostbusters. We just had kind of a big cloud. So ultimately I think that movie was a near-miss. It could have been very funny, and I think it was just okay. And I think I played more of the straight man in that, and felt a little straitjacketed. But you know, you take your cuts.
AVC: Do you think of yourself as more of a comic actor?
DD: I don’t know. I think of myself as more of a comic person. I don’t know about a comic actor. I guess with Californication, I feel like that’s ostensibly a comedy, and that’s what I’ve been doing most recently, but I guess I always try to find the humor in a character, because I feel like that’s often the key. A lack of humor can also be a key, but to me, what people respond to with humor is often indicative of really where they are, where they live, and how they truly, deeply feel. So I don’t know. It’s always a key to me when I work, even if I’m working in a movie that’s not a comedy. There are certain things I learned when I first started learning about acting, to try and place the character physically and emotionally. And the way you place them emotionally is often with humor.
The X-Files (1993-2002; 2008)—“Fox Mulder”
DD: Well, there’s a case in point. Way back in the audition process for that, I had a discussion with Chris Carter, because he wanted me to do well in front of the network. Just like you see in The TV Set, there’s this kind of weird, barbaric ritual of reading people in a room in front of the network, suits and all. I think this might have been the third or fourth time I would have read in front of a network, not just for The X-Files, but for other pilots that had come and gone without me. And Chris said, to help me out, “This guy’s irreverent.” I always remember there was a stage direction—and this’ll really date the pilot—where Mulder was described as more MTV VJ than FBI agent. And to me, that was the key, that this guy didn’t give a shit about what people thought of him. And that’s, always a fun thing to play. When you don’t care, you don’t care. Because we all care what other people think, and we gravitate toward those characters in movies or TV who don’t care. They have a strange kind of power and allure. And that was the key to Mulder for me, his sense of humor, and that he would bring that to FBI proceedings, or he’d bring it to Scully. You know, he was always willing to joke. And the key to that in turn was the desperate sincerity of his quest. So if you combine those two things, the emotional hurt over the loss of his sister, and his feeling responsible for that, combined with this “fuck you” attitude, was the character. Those were the two halves of the ring for that character. And that lasted throughout the whole thing.