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Playboy Interview - David Duchovny
  • December 13, 1998 : 15:12
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It's a classic X-Files moment. Special Agent Fox Mulder, played by David Duchovny, stares forlornly off a bluff, contemplating yet another investigation gone wrong. Only minutes earlier, he had been driving wildly, then came to a screeching halt on this bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. In the backseat: a man Mulder desperately wanted to save. Close behind was Mulder's partner, Special Agent Dana Scully, bringing a syringe full of the mystery concoction that could have saved the man's life. But when you specialize in the paranormal you can pretty much expect that your victim will expire in a most paranormal way. And that's precisely what happens. Unable to inject the medication in time, Mulder watches helplessly as the victim's head explodes all over the backseat. No wonder Mulder is depressed.

Later, back in his trailer, Duchovny gives some insight into his character's mood. "Any time somebody's head explodes in your car, it's upsetting," he explains drily.

Horror and humor. Without those elements subtly intertwined, The X-Files would be just another TV show instead of that odd hybrid--a hit TV show with a devoted cult following. And no one manages to straddle the mixed demands of the show better than Duchovny, whose morose underacting is deftly leavened by a deadpan sense of humor. It's the perfect combination for a show often described as a cross between Twin Peaks and The Twilight Zone -- a TV series for paranoids and zealots who are sure the government covers up what it knows about the UFOs and aliens among us. Mulder's own obsession stemmed from having seen, or so he believed, his younger sister abducted by aliens when she was eight.

In a bit of fortunate casting, Duchovny was paired with Gillian Anderson, who landed the role of Dana Scully, the rational disbeliever. Anderson, voted "most bizarre girl" in high school, was the perfect match for the wry Duchovny. Their chemistry worked, and the palpable sexual tension could be milked for the entire series without any actual romance. Mulder, after all, is a guy who sleeps on a couch, watches pornographic videotapes and never has sex (except with a vampire).

The series has done more than help boost the Fox network in the ratings. A movie spin-off, The X-Files: Fight the Future, was released this past summer. It was a bold attempt, because more movies-from-TV-shows have failed (The Avengers, The Saint) than have succeeded (The Fugitive, Mission: Impossible). But the gamble paid off, as the $60 million X-Files movie grossed $83 million domestically and is expected to more than double that internationally.

Few TV shows or movies develop such a fanatical following. At conventions and on the Internet, diehard believers debate every conspiratorial nuance (there are hundreds of Web sites devoted to dissecting the meaning of the ghost trains, black helicopters, bees, corn, Agent Scully's crucifix and other obscure details). But the show has also grown beyond cult status: Twenty million people tune in on Sunday nights (and 10 million for the syndicated repeats) to see what's been cooked up by the Cigarette Smoking Man or the head of the Syndicate or the faceless men or the alien-human hybrids created by a black-oil virus.

At the heart of all this attention is Duchovny. He was born on August 7, 1960 and grew up in New York City. When he was 11, his parents split up and he and his sister and brother stayed with their Scottish-born mother, Margaret, then a teacher. His father, Amram, a playwright (The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald) and publicist who edited the humorous book The Wisdom of Spiro T. Agnew, moved to Boston after the divorce and now lives in Paris. Duchovny won a scholarship to Collegiate, an exclusive prep school in Manhattan, where one of his fellow students was John Kennedy Jr. Duchovny excelled in sports (baseball and basketball) and academics (he was valedictorian) and was accepted to four Ivy League schools -- Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown). He chose Princeton for undergraduate and Yale for graduate school (on a teaching fellowship), where he studied modern literature, concentrating on Samuel Beckett. To the chagrin of his mother, he never completed his doctorate because a friend introduced him to acting as a way to supplement his income (he also worked as a bartender during the summer). Duchovny had discovered his profession.

He started doing commercials in 1985 and auditioned for parts in the movies Bull Durham and Valmont. It was director Henry Jaglom who recognized his potential and cast him as a seducer in his 1989 film New Year's Day. Duchovny followed that with small parts in Venice/Venice, Julia Has Two Lovers, The Rapture, Beethoven, Ruby and Chaplin. In 1993 he appeared with Brad Pitt and Juliette Lewis inKalifornia. That same year The X-Files creator Chris Carter thought Duchovny might be right for playing Fox Mulder.

Duchovny also gained notoriety for his sexually adventurous roles. He dressed in drag for Twin Peaks, flirted openly with Garry Shandling during a running story line on The Larry Sanders Show and appeared as a regular character on Showtime's erotic breakthrough series, Red Shoe Diaries.

Like most TV actors, Duchovny has big-screen ambitions. His X-Files contract is up in two years, and he plans to leave TV behind (though he will continue to star as Fox Mulder in the series of X-Files movies the studio hopes will live on long after the TV show dies). Duchovny starred in the little-seen movie Playing God in 1997, about a doctor who is coerced into working for the Mob.

Movie roles might be easier to come by now that the series has switched locations. The X-Files was originally filmed in Vancouver, which gave the show its moody, rainy look (and saved the studio from paying Hollywood salaries to the crew). But when Duchovny fell in love with and married Téa Leoni (who starred in the TV show The Naked Truth and the films Flirting With Disaster and Deep Impact), the long shooting schedule and lengthy separations began to drag on him. Furthermore, he managed to offend Canadians when he complained to a reporter that "Vancouver is a nice place if you like 400 inches of rainfall a day." Soon after, the marquee on a local strip club suggested that Duchovny go home, and he took the advice, persuading the producers to move the show from Canada to Los Angeles.

To find out more about this unorthodox actor, Playboy sent Contributing Editor Lawrence Grobel (whose last interview was with Christopher Walken) to the Fox lot and on location. Grobel's report follows:

"The first few times we met, Duchovny was in his trailer on the Fox lot, putting the finishing touches on the X-Files movie. There were constant interruptions -- visitors who wanted to say hello or have a picture taken or signed, studio heads who wanted, as Duchovny told me after they left, 'to blow smoke up my ass.' He was as interested in asking me questions about people I had interviewed for Playboy as he was in answering my questions. 'Which actors did Brando say he admired?' he wanted to know. 'Would Pacino rather direct than act? Why won't he do ads in Japan?' 'How does Anthony Hopkins memorize his lines?' 'What did Saul Bellow think of the dramatization of Seize the Day?, 'How does Joyce Carol Oates feel she can write well about men?'

"For our final sessions, we spoke in his TV trailer in San Pedro, a few months after The X-Files: Fight the Future had come out and he was back playing Mulder for the series. He was pleased with a poem of his that a magazine had published and showed me others he had written and hoped to turn into a book. I read his poems, offered my suggestions (for whatever they were worth) and then we got down to business."

Playboy: You once described The X-Files to Garry Shandling on The Larry Sanders Show as "Laurel and Hardy with sexual tension." Do you still believe that?

Duchovny: No, we were improvising. When you did the talk-show part on The Larry Sanders Show you were actually doing a talk show. None of that was scripted. What I said makes no sense to me. I don't know what that means. I think what Mulder and Scully have goes back to Cary Grant movies, where verbal sparring had to code sexual sparring. I think that's what people really like about it. It's this kind of chaste love affair. And we've done it for five years. That's a lot of chastity. Usually at the end of a movie the guy and the girl kiss, even if they've been sparring throughout. With us, it's an intense buildup. People ask, "Are Mulder and Scully ever going to get it together?" I think no at this point. I don't think they should.

Playboy: How did the show keep from getting stuck in the science fiction ghetto and attract more than a cult following?

Duchovny: We do a cop show with paranormal phenomena. The show is amazing because it has an all-inclusive tone. On one end it can take itself completely seriously on ridiculous stuff like liberating aliens or a conspiracy that will bring down the entire world, and on the other end it can be lighthearted and funny.

Playboy: Is that what accounts for the show's popularity?

Duchovny: The enduring popularity of our show has to do with the fact that we've established two interesting characters in almost soap-opera fashion. We have embarked upon a long-running mythological story that people want to get to the bottom of, punctuated by interesting stand-alone monster-of-the-week episodes. When we started we were really the only scary show on TV. Now there are scary shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Millennium. I think Caroline in the City is very scary [laughs]. People like to be scared; it's fun TV.

Playboy: Some people claim we're all looking for a religious experience, and that shows about alien abductions are basically that.

Duchovny: If not a religious experience then a life-changing experience. Every week something happens that would be world-altering if it were true. The genetic freaks or monsters we deal with would revolutionize any evolutionary way of thinking. If the series is not religious in the normal sense of the word, it's cataclysmic.

Playboy: You've called it a "secular religious show."

Duchovny: I was stretching. The show is evocative, it's part of the cultural lexicon now. ER is twice as popular, but you don't hear people making an adjective out of ER. We've achieved iconic status somehow. Everything is the something-files now.

Playboy: How much have we embraced the world view of The X-Files: "Trust no one," "The truth is out there"?

Duchovny: I'm not sure that people are so into that. On a popular level it was one of the first shows to state outright that the government is lying to you. Or, at least, that the FBI is lying to its own agents. People always like to have somebody to blame.

Playboy: How much of the show is based on real-life events?

Duchovny: Read the recent news about splicing, cloning and genetic engineering. That has become important for the idea in our show that experiments are being conducted with alien DNA. Things that were science fiction ten years ago and were pretty much a joke -- as cloning was in Sleeper -- are now a reality. It helps that science is more imaginative than science fiction. It helps that there are brilliant people out there, so that we knuckleheads can actually make metaphors out of science and make trivial use of incredible breakthroughs.

Playboy: What do you think about all these breakthroughs?

Duchovny: Biologically, we're not far from cloning a human being, but what would be the purpose? We'd have to decide who is worthy of cloning. We'd clone Stephen Hawking and Michael Jordan, but what does that mean? It kind of ruins the preciousness of life.

Playboy: Cloning could also be used for spare parts.

Duchovny: Oh, so you farm your own. That's so mean to the poor clones. So you've got all your clones in the backyard fighting because they don't want to give up their liver. I don't know if life should be so precious that we try that hard to hold on to it. Maybe there are people who love life a lot more than I do.

Playboy: Are you often unsatisfied with what you do?

Duchovny: Always. I have never been satisfied.

Playboy: There isn't one show in which you feel you nailed it?

Duchovny: No. There are definitely shows I feel are really good, even great.

Playboy: Of the 110 shows you've done, what percentage would you say are really good?

Duchovny: I'd say ten percent are the great ones. Really good, or good, 80 percent. Lousy, ten percent.

Playboy: Do the lousy ones make you cringe?

Duchovny: There are the lousy ones that you know are going to be lousy. Then there are the lousy ones that should have been better. Those hurt more, because you think, Maybe I fucked up.

Playboy: You told Playboy a few years ago that Fox Mulder was on an inward journey and asked, "Why is this man in so much pain? Why is he obsessed? Why would anyone want to live their life this way? How do we heal him? How do we show him the truth?" Any answers?

Duchovny: I said that? That's good. I think his pain comes from the fact that he feels he could have protected his sister but didn't. She was taken from him when he was 12 and she was eight, and he's come to realize that she was abducted by aliens -- at least he thinks so -- and that he might have been able to stop it in some way. Then, during the journey we've had for the past five years, he found out that he was the one who was supposed to have been taken and not his sister, so there's a lot of survivor guilt going on. He can't enjoy himself. He can't rest until he's sure they've done everything to find the girl he let go.

Playboy: As you said, why would anyone want to live that way?

Duchovny: Right. He doesn't appear to have any interests outside that. We've never seen him in a bed; he sleeps on his couch. He watches pornography. He doesn't have sexual relations, except once, with a vampire. He cannot have joy until somebody else does. As soon as he starts to have joy he feels guilty.

Playboy: Will he ever find the truth?

Duchovny: No. When he matures he'll realize that the truth is not something to be had. Mulder is very young because he really thinks there's an answer. He thinks there's a bad guy. He thinks if someone finds that guy, everything will be OK. That's a young point of view. When he grows up he's going to turn into a different person. But I like that about him. I like the intensity of his belief that he can fix things.

Playboy: Your schedule conflicted with appearing in Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday, a movie about pro football. Was that disappointing?

Duchovny: I would do anything to work with Oliver Stone. I really like him. I've always wanted to play an athlete in a movie, and it was a rude awakening to realize the only part for me in his film was that of an aging quarterback. But Oliver wanted me for the team doctor. When we first met I told him I was a good athlete and he said he had seen George Clooney, who is a really good athlete. I said, "I'm a better athlete than Clooney. He talks about how he can beat me in basketball, but I guarantee you he can't." And Stone said, "Well, you don't have the neck for it." I said, "Joe Montana doesn't have a big neck. If you tell me I can have this part, I'll work on my neck." We laughed. Then he called later and asked again if I wanted the doctor part. I said, "I'm working on my neck."

Playboy: Are there any other movies in the works?

Duchovny: Bonnie Hunt co-wrote and will direct Return to Me, a romantic comedy about heart transplants. I want to do it.

Playboy: Is TV better than movies?

Duchovny: Yeah, though I think a great movie beats a great television show. It's like, does a great karate guy beat a great boxer? A great movie is a movie. But look at the writing and the drama on X-Files and NYPD Blue, which to me are the two best dramas on television. I feel they're better executed than the drama in most movies.

Playboy: Then why do movies?

Duchovny: Regardless of how good the story line is on a TV show, you're playing the same character. I'm proud of The X-Files, and when all is said and done I'll be proud to have created 150 hours or so of really good entertainment and the best TV we could do. But in the end I'm playing 150 hours of the same guy.

Playboy: Another actor who attempted to make the leap from a successful television show to the big screen was David Caruso. His career has certainly faltered since he left NYPD Blue. Is his a cautionary tale?

Duchovny: No. As trite as it sounds, everybody is individual, everyone has their own career to pursue. Alec Baldwin came from a soap opera, so did Demi Moore. Bruce Willis came from Moonlighting. Tom Selleck came from Magnum, P.I. -- it didn't happen for him. Clint Eastwood came from TV. There are millions of actors who were never on TV or film, who never made it. There are film actors who were successful at first and then weren't, then made a comeback. To think there's an equation is bogus. We all have our paths. What Caruso did is so different from what I'm doing: He left a hit TV show after one year. He acted in a couple of movies that didn't do well; now he's back on TV. I've been completely loyal. This is my sixth year on the TV show. I've fulfilled my responsibilities.

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