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David Duchovny is not quite the man next door

From The Sunday Times: The X Files star’s new movie The Joneses sees him as a man who has it all. Real-life however, is not so straightforward

David Duchovny, Hollywood star, husband and father of two, is in the throes of a new relationship — and, to tell the truth, which he usually does, it has left him with mixed feelings. On the one hand, his new setup makes perfect sense, especially given his occasionally nomadic lifestyle. And, of course, we all have to move on and can’t live in the past. But he is something of a traditionalist and doesn’t enjoy leaving loved ones behind. Yes, like many, Duchovny is facing up to one of mankind’s great questions: just how do we feel about the Kindle?

“I travel quite a bit, and being able to throw this little thing in my backpack so I can take my entire library with me is unbeliev able,” reflects the 49-year-old actor, pondering his handheld vehicle for digital books. And yet paper is a good technology, I suggest. “I know,” he sighs, “I don’t like the idea of reading a book on a screen. But I tend to be a reference reader, flicking back and forth, so it really is useful.”

For all the success of the now-iconic The X Files, the more recent Californication and a clutch of films, Duchovny maintains a sincerely deep level of interest in literature, kindled during his youth. He began his doctorate in comparative literature at Yale in the early 1980s (one of his tutors was the eminent critic Harold Bloom), but his thesis — on magic and technology in contemporary American fiction — remains uncompleted. “My career started, so I couldn’t afford the time to finish it, but I do retain an academic interest in literature.”

There are few actors in Hollywood who profess an academic interest in anything, never mind literature, but Duchovny is cut from a distinctive cloth. Many actors display a ready wit and intelligence, but few have his candour, or the likeable nonchalance that imbues so many of his performances and makes his characters men you’d genuinely like to hang out with. He seems pitched somewhere between his two television characters — more relaxed than The X Files’ Mulder, more together than Californication’s troubled novelist, Hank Moody. He likes to shoot the breeze — he can’t cook, for example, although he does make a good sandwich. “And breakfast,” he adds with a pause. “Sandwiches can also be good for breakfast.”

In his professional life, after striking it big with the first of his two famous series, he eschewed big-budget bluster, concentrating primarily on independent film. His latest movie is one that few other actors could carry. Written and directed by a first-timer, Derrick Borte, The Joneses casts Duchovny and Demi Moore as the heads of a super-stylish household, parachuted into a swanky suburban neighbourhood to charm their friends and sell their lifestyle. Selling is exactly what they are doing: the family is false, assembled by a conglomerate to beguile an unwitting and seemingly affluent clientele into wanting what the Joneses have. It’s a smart piece, if a little contrived, and Duchovny’s first-class performance sees it through. “It’s smart and funny, and I wish that I’d written it,” he smiles.

Duchovny does, in fact, write, as well as act and direct, and admits to a hankering for the highbrow world of academia. “Actually, I have an interest in finishing my PhD, but I just know I never will. It’s like if I almost became a surgeon — that doesn’t mean I am going to operate on anybody right now.”

This little aside reverberates quite loudly through Duchovny’s life and career. Just as he’d like to finish his doctorate, but won’t, he’d like to write and direct, but accepts that he might not get the chance. He would also have liked to quit television after The X Files, but, in the end, he went back. Like many of us, he seems to want what he can’t have. Unlike many of us, however, he’s making his peace with the fact.

As a writer-director, for instance, his sole directorial effort on film to date (he has tackled a few X Files and Californication episodes) has come with the comic drama House of D, about an American artist in Paris, which he also wrote, and which featured his wife, the actress Tea Leoni. “I have things in mind for writing and directing, but the scripts I write seem to fall into this independent world,” he concedes, “which I started veering towards as I was finishing The X Files, about 10 years ago.” He pauses for a moment. “And it is a hard world right now, when you want to make the kind of movies I am writing. I think they could be popular, and could do business, but it’s hard to prove that at the script stage. At some point, I think somebody is going to take a chance and give me some money to make one.” If not, he could put one out as a novel, perhaps? “It’s funny you should say that. I have been working on this script this past winter, and I think it is quite dense. I don’t know if it is a movie or not. I hope it is, but I am also going to turn it into a novel, just in case.”

As an actor, Duchovny’s identity was — at least until Hank Moody arrived to ruffle his unflappable hair — inexorably tied to his X Files character, Special Agent Mulder, who, along with Gillian Anderson’s Scully, sleuthed the otherworldly on our television screens from 1993 until 2002. They’ve also popped up twice on the big screen, successfully with 1998’s The X Files ($189m at the worldwide box office), and less successfully in 2008’s The X Files: I Want to Believe (few felt the same; it took $68m).

“I think all great successes help and hinder, but they help most of all,” he says, reflecting on whether Mulder has cast a shadow on his subsequent career. “It happens that an actor comes into public consciousness only in one form. You can’t come out in three television series in one year and show people everything you can do. But I’m happy it was The X Files and not something I thought wasn’t good.” His pride in the franchise extends to the most recent movie, although he accepts that errors were made. “It was a $25m picture and couldn’t compete with the summer movies like The Dark Knight. It was a sombre mood piece, and that might have been a mistake. I hope we get to do another. Gillian and I would both be interested in seeing where it goes.”

Quite where that is remains to be seen, but there is no escaping the fact that The X Files transformed Duchovny’s life. Indeed, for all the material success it brought him, during one of the first conversations we had, in 2005, with the series three years behind him, he expressed a firm desire to avoid further television work. He popped up on Saturday Night Live, and in an episode of Sex and the City, but these were one-offs.

In 2007, however, he reappeared, in Californication. Despite some early criticism about its racy content (some critics dubbed it The Sex Files), the show proved an enormous hit; Duchovny scooped a Golden Globe for the very first season, and nominations for the two that followed. “When I said to you back then that I had no desire to go back to television, I didn’t see how TV was changing. Now, you can do a 12-episode series and it doesn’t dominate your life. I actually think that doing a series like this is the most free form of filmed entertainment you can make.” During his nine-year stint in The X Files, he starred in more than 150 episodes. “I just wasn’t smart enough back when we were speaking to see that the TV landscape was changing.”

In that previous conversation, we had spoken about infidelity. At the time, he had been happily married for eight years to Leoni — with whom he has two children, a daughter, Madelaine West, now 11, and a son, Kyd, 7 — and we had joked about man’s inability to keep his trousers on. “They’re discovering that levels of serotonin are much lower in men, and that’s the chemical that makes you happy, and also makes you want to bond,” he mused at the time. “So men not only want to have sex with lots of different women, to propagate, or whatever that old argument is, but they also have less of the feeling of being part of something. So it’s harder for a man to bond and feel connected.”

A few years later, in the summer of 2008, he released a statement that he was “voluntarily entering a facility for the treatment of sex addiction”. The news appeared somewhat ironic, given our earlier conversation and the libidinous nature of his character in Californication. Shortly after the announcement, he and Leoni separated, although they had reconciled by the autumn of last year, and the family went on an extended holiday on the West Coast. Despite his candour, I wonder, why did he go public?

“I would be glad to tell you off the record, but it is not something I really want to discuss in public,” he replies. It’s a delicate subject, and one that was inflamed further when a British tabloid claimed a week after the split that he had had an affair with a tennis instructor, Edit Pakay, while still married. Duchovny denied the report and announced legal action. The paper printed a retraction. He now views the whole business with an admirable mellowness. “The tabloid world is busy, and omnivorous, so I was not taken aback by that story,” he says. “I don’t take any of it personally. I am not saying I enjoy it, but these things exist because people buy them, so it is not for me to say they should not print this stuff.”

His refusal to blame the press is refreshing, and he even jokingly suggests that tabloid interest at least shows people still care. “It would be nice for them to get the facts right — but it is just gossip, so it’s not of world-shattering importance. It may be hurtful for me personally, but mostly what worries me is that my children are exposed to it. Luckily, they don’t read that British newspaper. But the time will come, with the glory of Google, that they’ll find something some day. ‘Dad, what the f*** is this?’ Hopefully, I’ll be able to explain. In the meantime, I’ll get on with enjoying my family, my work, my interests.”

Which brings us back to literature, books and, of course, the Kindle. What is currently top of his hard drive? “I have gotten into David Foster Wallace, mostly as an essayist. And Richard Powers I like very much. But I tend to read with attention deficit disorder. I read 10 or 15 books at a time, always wanting to read something else.”

Which comes as no great surprise. In fact, it might even be typical Duchovny, always wanting what’s just out of reach.

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