David Duchovny isn't really a television star.
He just plays one on TV
by Mike Sager
David Duchovny is annoyed. He is standing in a secluded canyon, waiting to shoot a scene from The X-Files. It is cold for southern California, late in the day. Rain taps a rhythm on a green-and-white canopy above our heads. A propane heater blows a noisy orange flame, warping the air behind us. Though he shook my hand a few moments ago and said it was nice to see me again, his body language says otherwise. He has placed himself a bit too distant for normal conversation. His hazel eyes dart around the set, a rustic homestead partially hidden by trees. overrun now with crew and equipment.
This is our second meeting. A week ago, we spoke for two hours in his trailer behind a soundstage at Twentieth Century Fox, where production of his series was moved this season following his marriage to Téa Leoni. Last seen rail thin in Deep Impact, she did a brief cameo at the start of my visit with Duchovny, playing an uncomfortable wife in her sixth month of pregnancy. Her hair was shoulder length, blond with dark roots. She wore a man's dress shirt untucked, the tails flowing around the swell of her belly. She mumbled hello, ventured a tepid handshake, and beat a hasty retreat, stopping only long enough to chide her husband rather stridently for grabbing her belly button, which had metamorphosed lately into an outie. For his part, Duchovny was personable if not friendly during our interview, candid about his lack of candor, telling me outright that access to his private life and innermost thoughts was not part of our script. "I'm not really prepared for hubris in that case," he said. "I know exactly why that is, but I won't tell you," he said. "I guess they're entitled to know, but by the same token, I'm entitled not to tell," he said. "I always find it objectionable....It always makes me cringe....I don't remember," he said.
Now I am back, and things have taken a sour turn. I have told him that I need more time, more entrée, more....something. I need his participation. The red light on my tape recorder glows against the gray afternoon; the little sprockets turn. Duchovny shoves his hands deep into the pockets of his overcoat. His eyes narrow, a low-watt burn.
"Whenever somebody says they need an angle for their story I always fear that they've got an idea and they want me to fit into it or they want me to come up with an idea myself or I'm supposed to be more revealing than I've been, and to me it just sounds like something I don't want to do." The words come quickly, flowing past his Ultra Brite teeth without pause or inflection-a nasal, droning, torrential monotone, his pillowy lips barely moving. "If what you have is not enough that means to me I didn't say something I'll regret." He pauses for a beat, raises his chin a defiant notch. "You can roll the tape if you want."
I look at him blankly, not sure exactly where to go from here. You can lead an actor to a microphone, but you can't make him talk. "Tell you what: One question, then I'll go."
At that, he brightens considerably. He forms his thumb and index finger into the shape of a handgun, aims it at the center of my face. "Shoot."
"Why agree to interviews if you don't want to do them?"
Duchovny scuffs his shoe in the gravel, looks off into the middle distance. He is six feet tall, with an angular jaw, a knobby chin, and a Slavic nose that seems a half size to large for his face, set a bit too close to his mouth. A spit curl lounges roguishly across the broad, flat plain of his forehead. "I'm doing this one because...."
The sentence trails off. He sighs. Over the years, flip responses to journalists have cost him. His talk about using porn videos on lonely nights on location fueled reports that he was undergoing treatment for sex addiction. A crack about the weather in Vancouver-the former home of X-Files production-turned an entire town against him. Newsweek concluded that "he appears to take almost nothing seriously....After uttering something actorly and pretentious, he'll undercut with an idiotic 'ass' joke." Now Duchovny pulls his hand out of his pocket, takes stock of his manicured nails. "I don't really know why I'm doing this interview. I don't have a movie to sell. I guess that's suspect in a way."
"What it's suspect of is that this was somebody else's idea."
"It's always somebody else's idea."
It is my turn to sigh. "Well, thanks for your time. You get back to work. I'll think of something to write"
"No, no no!" he interrupts, suddenly animated, raising his palm in the air like a traffic cop. He flashes a self-depreciating smile, an expression similar, perhaps, to the one known to his myriad fans on more than forty Web sites as the WPDF-the wounded-puppy-dog face. "You don't have to go. I'm perfectly happy to do this. I just don't, I mean-I get just as scared as you get when there's nothing to focus on, because I don't want to be more entertaining than I want to be. Or having to be more entertaining or more interesting or more charming than I'm actually capable of being."
Silence falls. His words resonate. We stand together for a full minute, watching the comings and goings on the set. He entered the world of showbiz on a lark, really. The son of a Jewish writer and a Scottish schoolteacher who divorced when he was eleven, he attended the prestigious Collegiate prep school in New York City on scholarship and went on to Princeton and then Yale, where his Ph.D. thesis was to be titled "Magic and Technology in Contemporary American Fiction and Poetry." Tired of the academic life, Duchonvy moved into acting after his first audition led to a spot in a national beer commercial. For the next four years, he climbed the Hollywood ladder. After memorable turns in three offbeat roles-the transvestite detective in Twin Peaks, the biker turned religious zealot in The Rapture, and the narrator, Jake in Showtime's erotic series Red Shoe Diaries-he landed a high-profile part in the Brad Pitt-Juliette Lewis vehicle Kalifornia. Thought the reviews for the film were generally dismal (Entertainment Weekly said it was full of "ostentatious bad acting"), Duchovny was next offered the role of FBI agent Fox Mulder. He didn't think much of the future of the sci-fi adventure series, considered it little more than a paycheck. For his final audition, he was urged to wear a tie. He chose one decorated with pink pigs.
Now, six years later, at age thirty-eight, Duchovny makes $110,00 an episode. His last film, a movie version of The X-Files, paid $4.5 million. He has an actress wife, celebrity pals, a $3 million oceanfront house in Malibu, a fan club called the David Duchovny Estrogen Brigade, another called the David Duchovny Drool Brigade. He is famous worldwide, his trademark monotone delivery dubbed into more than forty languages. An entire Web site is devoted to poems about the red Speedo bathing suit he wore in one episode ("Little red Speedo, so privileged is it/Upon those fine buns, it proudly does sit"). Recently, he swept the first annual TV Guide Awards, being voted sexiest male, best-dressed male, and favorite actor in a drama. It's a lot to live up to. Maybe too much for a guy who says his most memorable moment so far in life came during a varsity basketball game in high school-a last-second pass from the top of the key that led to a game-winning layup.
"You know," he says thoughtfully, taking up the conversation again, stroking his chin like a professor mulling over a thought, his mood lightening a bit, as if this bit of personal revelation has opened a door. "I always feel, when somebody calls you a star, it's like they're saying fag. You know what I hear when somebody says star? I hear pussy. I don't know why. Maybe the best things about celebrity are the things like being able to get that seat on the plane that you wouldn't normally get, but that's kind of like cheating. They're not being that nice to you. You're getting good service, sure, but in the end they're thinking: pussy. I know they are. They're thinking: He couldn't take it if we didn't bring him those special chocolates. They're thinking: He couldn't take it if he had to sit in coach."
"Do you feel any different now than you used to feel before you were famous?"
"No. I feel the same. That's why I think sometimes that these interviews don't go exactly the way people are expecting. You've already been lionized. By talking about it, you're just belaboring it. You're showing people that you're actually less than what they think you are."
"What do people expect?"
"I think they probably think that I have no worries. People think celebrities don't have to worry about human things like sickness and death and rent. It's like you've traveled to this Land of Celebrity, this other country. They want you to tell about what you saw. But I can never quite shake the idea that if my work was good enough, I would never have to say anything. If my work was good enough, I would never have to do publicity. Just doing this interview makes me feel insecure. Like I'm doing this because if I don't pimp my personal life, the people out there in TV land won't watch me."
"Good. What else?"
"You mean, like, they think that your life is great because you get to have sex with an actress?"
"No. No. And anyway, as you know, my wife is pregnant. What I'm talking about is a bigger love. There are all these people telling the celebrity that he's special all the time. That's what people want, right? You're raising a kid and you give it food and shelter and, most importantly, you give it the feeling that it's special. I think people react to celebrities like that-I mean, they treat celebrities like children. We've been talking around it for a while, but if I had to pin myself down, I'd say celebrities are treated like everybody's kids. For hundreds of years, that was the major form of entertainment: The grown-ups sat around and watched the kids play. Now they sit around and watch the television. The actors are the kids. On the one hand, people think they own kids; they feel that they have the right to tell the kids what to do. On the other hand, people envy kids. We'd like to be kids our whole lives. Kids get to do what they do. They live on their instincts, they get to fuck up again and again. They get to-"
"Excuse me, David," a woman interrupts. She's carrying a walkie-talkie.
"I'll be right there," he says.
"So what message do you have for all the people out in TV land?" I ask, moving to wind things up.
"What message do I have? I don't know. Just, well-grow up, you know? Everybody just grow up."
I raise my tape recorder, make a show of snapping it off. "That's a wrap. Thanks for your time." I proffer my hand. He takes it.
"Where are you going?" he asks.
"I'm gonna leave now, I guess."
He throws me a big smile, an expression similar, perhaps, to the one known to his fans as the V&C-vulnerable and cute. He muscles my hand playfully to one side, pulling me a bit off balance, a brothers' game, Indian wrestling. "Don't go."
"I don't want to hold you up. You have work to do."
"Come oooooon," he razzes, sounding very much like the kind of person he was for many years, a scrappy jock from the Lower East Side on an asphalt playground. "Hang out. I'll be back."
Duchovny is slumped at the kitchenette table in his trailer, enjoying his lunch break. He has shucked his navy blue suit in favor of jeans and a T-shirt. He is relaxed, affable even, playing a guy shooting the shit with a friend in a corner booth of a diner. He probes the contents of a Styrofoam container, the daily special from his favorite vegetarian restaurant, driven by special courier to the set, near a national park in Calabasas, an hour northwest of Hollywood. "Oh, my god," he says with a mock horror, poking at a large eggplant, skinned, in a viscous brown sauce. "I think I've just found John Holmes's penis!"
"Did you ever hear about John Holmes's last request?" I ask, following this new script. "He wanted his wife-she was known as Misty Dawn, the anal queen of porn-to witness his cremation. He was afraid someone would cut off his dick and keep it in a jar."
"Now that's something original for your mantle!" enthuses Duchovny. "John Holmes's penis in formaldehyde. Didn't he die of AIDS? Was he gay?"
"I don't think he was gay, but he probably hired himself out for the right price."
"Typical actor," deadpans Duchovny. "How much money do you think he made in porn?"
"Not that much, I don't reckon. He was part of the early days, before video."
"The men never make as much as the women." He prods his eggplant with a plastic fork. "I'd like to hear the male porn stars go public the way female actresses in Hollywood do." He jabs a fist in the air. "Equal pay for equal work!"
"It's supposed to be a hard job."
"No pun intended," says Duchovny whom a former girlfriend has called "a sex monster," "an absolute beast between the sheets." Following the episode in which Duchovny wore a red Speedo, Internet chat rooms blazed with debate-did he dress left or did he dress right? "I don't think I could do it in front of people like that," he says. He takes a bite of his food, chews reflectively.
The trailer has the words STAR WAGGONS emblazoned on the outside. It goes wherever he goes. It is homey in the fashion of a motel suite, with neutral carpeting and blond-wood cabinets holding all manner of electronics and remote controls. Against one wall is a storyboard for a late-season X-Files episode he has written and will direct. Called "The Unnatural," it is a period piece about an alien masquerading as a Negro League baseball star. There is a La-Z-Boy recliner at the far end of the living area, a stuffed Blue's Clues puppy on a shelf, an action figure of Agent Mulder on the sofa-Duchovny thinks it resembles Noah Wyle of ER. Also, in evidence, half hidden behind some boxes, is a Lucite statue: his American Comedy Award for Funniest Male Guest Appearance in a Television Series. He won it two nights ago-a dark-horse candidate, beating out Steve Martin and Jim Carrey-for his turn on the final episode of The Larry Sanders Show, a goofy homoerotic bit in a bathrobe that played on Sharon Stone's titillating leg-crossing business in Basic Instinct.
"What's that for?" I ask, pointing to a large wooden thing in the corner.
"It's a Pilates box. For working out."
"Do you get good results?"
"I want to get back to this idea of what makes me uneasy about this whole profile business."
I form my thumb and index finger into the shape of a handgun, point in his direction. "Shoot."
"When you're being interviewed, people are asking you to take yourself very seriously. And the problem is I do take myself very seriously, but not in the way that they think. You're caught in between a sound bite and a sentence, if you know what I mean, and sentences are scary becauseyou don't necessarily want to give that away. First of all, it's your currency as an actor to remain hidden. And secondly, you don't know who you're going to hurt-your family or friends. I've gotten into fights with my brother over things I've said. People have actually shown up at the school where my sister teaches. My mother says, 'Don't ever talk about me.' We were having a discussion once, and we got onto the subject of my being public. I asked her, 'How does that feel?' And she said that sometimes she'll see me in a magazine or on some gossip show an seh'll think, They shouldn't be talking about him; he's mine. I don't think she'll mind reading that. Actually, come to think out if, I'm not so sure I want to read, '"He's mine," says his mother.' That could be misconstrued, too, I guess."
"You sound a little paranoid."
"Like they say, the truth is out there."
"If you were the journalist, what would you ask?"
"Sometimes I like talking to actors about acting. I love talking to musicians about music. I love it when people ask a writer or a musician or an artist, 'How do you think of that stuff?' I love that question."
"And the answer is?"
"You just do it because it's something you have a facility for."
"Not exactly a headline grabber."
"No, I guess not. But one time, I sat next to Robbie Robertson at a dinner. You know, the guitar player from the Band? I talked to him the whole night about music. And he loved talking about it. So I guess there's a way to do it."
"Maybe it helps when you're another celebrity."
"That's probably true. It's hypocritical, but I like to hear the very human aspect of it, too. What is it like to be you?"
"There you go. The human part. It's what people want to know."
"Yes. And the answer, I'm afriad, is always disappointing. It's like when somebody says to you: 'Oh, your intensity during that scene was incredible.' And you say: 'I know, I had diarrhea that day. I had to get off the set fast.' That's the human part of acting. That's what acting's all about. Basically, the less complicated you are, the more primary your motivation is, the better actor you are. You take it down to the basics: eating, pissing, shitting, fucking. Those are the kinds of emotions that read. They're strong and good. They come across."
"I've seen eating," I say. "I've heard you take a piss. How much time do we have left?"
"I don't know. They'll call me. I'm incubated here. I'm the incubus."
"Personally, I'm waiting for the succubus."
"I had this idea for a story for the show about a succubus. I wanted the succubus to be this beautiful nightmare apparition. A succubus, historically, is the explanation for wet dreams-why men orgasm in their sleep is because a spirit woman has come to them in the night and made love to them. I wanted the succubus to fall in love with Skinner [Mulder's boss]. I always loved this idea that spirits exist but they don't understand human relations, so they misinterpret shit all the time. And the idea was this succubus wanted to hurt or kill any woman that Skinner came into contact with, and Scully would have been a victim."
"The jealous succubus. I like that!"
"They used the idea, but they made her into a crone. A crone in a red raincoat."
"Pardon me for saying so, but this sounds distinctly like the idle fantasy of an expectant father. When is Téa due?"
"May." He takes another bite of eggplant. "So tell me," he says, pointing at me with his fork, talking with his mouth full. "You have a kid, right?"
"How long am I gonna go without?"
"Conservatively? Probably a while."
"Like how long?"
"It depends upon how she feels about using the apparatus again."
His eyebrows rise. "Are you saying I might be facing a mayonnaise jar?"
"No, it just becomes an Issue. It's not just sex anymore. It's something that has made an indelible impact."
"So how long?"
"At least a couple of months."
"A couple of months! Shit! A couple of months. Hmmm." He puts his fork down, does a little drum solo on the tabletop. "When Garry Shandling and I were in Hawaii, we were working on this cock-size transexual joke. It was my concept and the Shandling perfected it. It was basically: I don't want to brag about the size of my cock, but I got a sex change and a guy was fucking me the other day and he said: You have the biggest pussy I have ever fucked! What do you think?"
"Honestly? I think you should go back to the drawing board."
"It is kind of a long way to go for such a stupid joke."
"How did you meet Shandling?"
"We met on his show. The first one I did was '95, I think. It was called 'The Bump.' It was about people getting bumped off talk shows. Here's a good one. You're looking for human stories? Here's a human story for you: It actually happened to me the first time I was on Letterman. I was bumped. I had flown all the way-"
"What? You know that story?"
"It's in all the early clips."
"I'm so sorry," he says-mock horror again. "There I go repeating myself for the masses."
"Occupational hazard, I guess."
"Did I ever tell anyone why I was bumped?"
"I don't think so."
"Because that blowhard Bill Cosby wouldn't get off the stage."
"There you go! Exclusive new material! The inside scoop!" He drums his hands on the table, hits an imaginary cymbal. "You think you have enough now?"
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Sager, Mike. May 1999. "David Duchovny isn't really a television star. He just plays one on TV." Esquire Magazine.