Setting up for a fifth season of 'X-Files,' David Duchovny is tired and
proud at the same time: 'I get worried that it's never going to end.'
When David Duchovny started dating Téa Leoni, the sitcom star and rising
movie actress, she told him she had never watched "The X-Files."
"I don't know how to explain it. It's a
really stupid science-fiction show, but it's good."
In fact, she told him, she thought the television
show that had made her date (eventually her husband) a global star, an object
of Internet sexual obsession, a multimillionaire and a ceaselessly written-about
magazine cover boy, was just a stupid science-fiction show.
"I said, 'I don't know how to explain it. It's
a really stupid science-fiction show, but it's good.' I said, 'You just have
to watch it, because if I explain it, it's going to sound like what it is--a
lame, dumb-ass show. But you watch it and somehow it's good.' "
He delivers this with his usual deadpan aplomb,
the one quality that Duchovny most shares with his small-screen alter ego,
Fox Mulder. He gave Leoni a few of the best tapes ("Clyde Bruckman's Final
Repose," "Jose Chung's From Outer Space" among others), she fell in love
with the show--and him--and now he's sitting in his roomy trailer on the
20th Century Fox lot, his upholstered recliner within view of a couple of
snapshots of Leoni lovingly tacked to cabinet doors. They've been married
"They said it wouldn't last, you know," he
says with a sigh.
Ditto for the show that went from being a tentative
add-on to the Fox network schedule five years ago to a blockbuster series
that fuels millions of insatiable fans and has already spawned a
much-talked-about movie, shot this summer under a cloak of secrecy and slated
for release next summer.
"I'm married. My wife lives in L.A. I have
to go work in Vancouver. That's a great hardship."
All those contradictions about the show that
Duchovny tried to explain to his wife reverberate even more so as he stands
at a crossroads in his life and career--or at least at the curb of it.
For four seasons, Duchovny has made eccentric
FBI agent Mulder, who investigates unexplained cases related to paranormal
phenomena (the so-called X-Files) and believes his sister was abducted by
aliens, into one of television's smartest and most watchable characters--as
opposed to the nut case the character could have been.
But as he wrapped up work on the "The X-Files"
movie and prepared to head up to Vancouver in Canada for a fifth season of
the television show, Duchovny was tired of Mulder and proud of him at the
The actor worries less about the movie roles
he will be offered after "The X-Files" and more about when after will begin.
"I get worried that it's never going to end," he says ruefully.
If he could, he would have the show end after
this fifth season, but the chances of that happening are practically nonexistent,
so he's asking that the show be moved from its Canadian locale to Los Angeles.
"I'm married," he says. "My wife lives in L.A.
I have to go work in Vancouver. That's a great hardship."
Whether he's really delivering an ultimatum--move
the show or I won't be back--seems up to interpretation. His agent indicates
that it's not a threat. "David will do the show," says Risa Shapiro. "He
loves doing the show."
"We've been thrown together, two people
who don't know each other, and we've been forced to spend more time together
than married people do. So you can't describe our relationship as 'like'
or 'dislike.' "
In the space of one interview, Duchovny zealously
defends each season's body of work ("You're talking about 24 hours of television,
15 of which can stand up to any movie that comes out over the year") and
laughingly skewers the sometime-windiness of scripts packed with scientific
and FBI jargon.
"It's like, who's writing this? Do you ever,
like, stand up in the middle of the room down there in L.A. and try to read
it out loud?" He chuckles. "Off a page? Forget about memorizing it and making
it, like, talk. Just try and read it."
(This, by the way, is nothing the producers
haven't heard directly from him.)
The unconsummated on-screen chemistry between
Duchovny as Mulder and co-star Gillian Anderson as his partner, FBI agent
Dana Scully, is palpable. But in real life, Duchovny and Anderson have a
relationship as much a conundrum to outsiders as any X-File.
"We have a relationship that is completely
odd and fabricated," Duchovny says. "We've been thrown together, two people
who don't know each other, and we've been forced to spend more time together
than married people do. So you can't describe our relationship as 'like'
or 'dislike.' "
Sounds a little frosty.
"It is frosty," Gillian Anderson agrees when
she is read Duchovny's description of their relationship. "But it's accurate."
She laughs. "It's not that we don't like each other. It's complicated."
Duchovny says he was annoyed that Anderson
chose to make an issue of the fact that her salary was half his when she
complained publicly at least half a year ago that she deserved a salary increase.
"To make it a gender issue is total [nonsense],"
he says. "That's not what it is. It's just a seniority thing--seniority in
terms of the initial contract, which stipulates all subsequent contracts.
That's just the way it goes--and the way it's always gone. . . . There's
nobody out there who gets less than they can get. I want her to be as happy
as she can be. If that means making as much money as she can, then I want
her to make as much money as she can. That's why I didn't like the tone of
the pronouncements, because it has nothing to do with me. Her contract has
nothing to do with mine."
"I don't naturally gravitate to overstatement.
My natural instinct is to make it as real as possible and as subtle as possible."
Anderson, who just won an Emmy for her portrayal
of Scully, says she got a raise after the season ended.
She won't discuss whether her complaints about
earning half what Duchovny made meant she was literally being paid half of
his reported $100,000-per-episode salary (a figure he neither confirms nor
"I feel uncomfortable talking about the numbers,"
she says. "It's about what's fair for two people working equally on a show."
Whatever the salary, if Duchovny had his way,
he would be making a transition from television to movies. In fact, he had
a working movie career before "The X-Files" with roles in several films,
including Henry Jaglom's "New Year's Day," "The Rapture" and "Kalifornia."
There was also a turn as the narrator of the fuzzy semi-porn "The Red Shoe
Diaries" Showtime movie and subsequent series. But none of those roles were
the kind of substantial or prestigious ones his television stardom may now
make available to him.
Duchovny is testing his big-screen muscle in
a quirky, uneven film called "Playing God," which opened Oct. 17 to a
disappointing gross of $1.9 million. The movie's relatively small budget
and odd subject matter mean lower stakes for him personally as he takes on
his first starring film role.
Still, as he made the rounds of talk shows
in the last few weeks promoting the movie, he was peppered with questions
about whether he could make the transition from small screen to big. On NBC's
"Today" show, he was moved to conjure up the hypothetical pairing of one
of film's great stars with one of television's most banal shows:
"If Robert De Niro had started in 'Charles
in Charge,' he still would have had the career he had," Duchovny said
confidently. "I think it's just fate."
"I'm sure my nose wasn't an asset until
I was David Duchovny. Before that, it was, like, 'Yeah, that kind of
Jewish-looking guy with the kind of big nose.'"
'Come with me, I have to take my clothes off,"
Duchovny says in that nasally Mulder monotone that leaves you wondering if
he's just stating a fact or deliberately being playful. In any case, he's
just emerged from the closed set of the "X-Files" movie--known by its working
title, "Blackwood"--into the bright sunshine of the Fox lot, and he wants
to shed his rugged outdoor gear of nylon pants, black turtleneck sweater,
down vest and hiking boots. (He reveals no clues as to why Mulder is dressed
in this get-up for the movie.)
Understatement is his choice whether he's acting
or being delightfully wry. It's the sort of thing that works perfectly for
"I don't naturally gravitate to overstatement,"
he says. "My natural instinct is to make it as real as possible and as subtle
In seconds, he's emerged from the trailer's
bedroom in jeans. He's tall and so lean he's almost skinny. His light brown
hair falls in wisps over his tanned forehead. Now a swimmer and yoga enthusiast,
he grew up an athlete as well as a student, and his greatest disappointment
at Princeton University was that he never went beyond junior varsity as a
basketball and baseball player. His heartache over falling short of success
in the two sports he adores didn't interfere with his studies. He graduated
in 1982 summa cum laude.
Duchovny is not a pretty boy like Tom Cruise
or a chiseled matinee idol like Mel Gibson. The nose is a little too long
and thick, the jaw a little too rounded. He can take a bad picture. Nonetheless,
his look is a sort of late-20th century imperfect urban handsomeness. On
screen, he radiates an offhanded sexual allure--as much a function of his
looks as his droll smartness--that has captivated legions of women fans.
A devoted cadre of them have practically burned a hole in the Internet writing
"I think the camera loves him, his facial
expressions," says Shapiro, his agent. "I find that with actors who do become
movie stars, it's about loving to watch them."
"I don't think I look like a lot of other people,"
Duchovny muses when asked how he felt about his looks. "I like that I look
like my father and mother put together--that's a Russian Jew and a Scottish
Lutheran, and I like that it all looks mixed up. . . . I'm sure my nose wasn't
an asset until I was David Duchovny. Before that, it was, like, 'Yeah, that
kind of Jewish-looking guy with the kind of big nose.' "
He sits back in the big lounger in his trailer
between calls to the set. His beloved mutt Blue, usually with him on the
Vancouver set, is not with him on the studio lot. "It's not a good set for
her," he says. "It's all cement."
His lunch arrives, but he doesn't touch it.
"You don't want to see me eat. It's ugly," he says. He nurses a hot pink
potassium drink instead.
The subject of "Playing God," his new movie,
intrigued him--a surgeon who loses his license because of drug use and gets
tapped for his surgical skills by a violent underworld figure (played by
"You've seen this character in movies when
bad guys get hurt and can't go to the hospital so they go to the bad doctor,"
Duchovny says. "I'd never seen him as a focus of a movie, and I thought that
was an interesting story to tell."
The movie turned out to be less the character
study Duchovny wanted and more a "colorful ride."
"I think it's a good movie," he says. "It's
not the movie I wanted to make. Like a lot of movies, you think something
going in and you want to make a certain movie, but then it takes on a life
of its own, something Frankensteinian."
"The touch of our hands on 'The X-Files'
is more arousing than a kiss on another show."
His agent and manager are looking for scripts
for Duchovny now. "I would love to see him do a comedy at some point," Shapiro
Duchovny is not averse to the idea of a comedy,
though he's not high on the romantic comedies that were so popular this summer.
"They look silly to me," he says. "I don't
want to do a movie just because it's a romantic comedy."
Duchovny says he doesn't care what the genre
is as long as the script is good.
"If there was a science-fiction script that
came my way that was the best script I ever read, I would do that."
Anyone who works with him--or interviews him--knows
what a dry wit he can be.
"He told me when he first came to Hollywood
and would read for sitcoms, no one thought he was funny, because his delivery
was so dry," says "X-Files" creator Chris Carter. "He's one of the funniest
people I know. He's got a comedian's timing."
Duchovny was sublimely funny as himself on
"The Larry Sanders Show," the HBO series starring Garry Shandling that satirizes
the talk-show business. He did two shows, but it's the second one, in which
he played having an unabashed crush on Sanders, that won him one of his two
Emmy nominations this past year. (He didn't win.)
But at the moment, it's Mulder that his fans
are waiting to see him play when the show has its fifth-season premiere next
Sunday. The start date is later than usual because the cast and writers were
working on the movie this summer, and Fox was reluctant to put the season
premiere up against the World Series. (In an unusual marketing ploy, the
movie will pick up where the show leaves off when it reaches the end of the
season next spring.)
One thing you probably won't see is Mulder
and Scully kissing. (Though all bets are off on the movie.) The sexual tension
will likely remain sensed but unplayed.
"And that is enough," Gillian Anderson says.
"The touch of our hands on 'The X-Files' is more arousing than a kiss on
Duchovny attributes whatever sexual tension
exists in the show to Mulder's and Scully's mutual respect.
"I think it's sexy when you see a man and a
woman caring about what the other one thinks."
This will be their lightest season so far--only
21 episodes as opposed to last year's 24.
"My approach is: whatever works. If it
means holding your bladder, OK. Sometimes I'll be leaving my trailer and
go, 'I have to pee. Nah, that'll work for the scene.' Then, of course, you're
out there for two hours. So it doesn't work for the scene."
"Personally I'd like to do 20, because I think
it's a grueling schedule," says Duchovny, who has done 97 "X-Files" episodes.
"I think the quality suffers when you turn out more product. I could easily
take away six or seven from last year and be very happy."
"Off the top of my head? 'Teliko,' " he says
and pauses. "See? I've already repressed them from my memory."
But he hastens to add: "At our worst, we're
still watchable. That's just me--I want them all to be great."
He says he has studied all the seminal acting
techniques, but sometimes he just uses something basic.
"My approach is: whatever works. If it means
holding your bladder, OK. Sometimes I'll be leaving my trailer and go, 'I
have to pee. Nah, that'll work for the scene.' Then, of course, you're out
there for two hours. So it doesn't work for the scene."
After four seasons, Duchovny is weary of the
questions about Mulder or how he's like Mulder. For instance, he has said
before that he does not believe in paranormal phenomena.
"I've changed my mind," he cracks.
There is little Duchovny or the writers can
or would do to change Mulder at this point. If anything, Duchovny wants to
make sure that Mulder is not treated by his FBI colleagues with any of the
newfound deference accorded Duchovny.
"It's important that Mulder is a joke to everybody
else," he says. "What I like most about Mulder is his integrity, his lack
of interest in what other people think about him. That's what makes him a
Duchovny asks to make changes in script or
emotional content when a scene seems wrong. When Scully first tells Mulder
in last season's "Memento Mori" episode that she has brain cancer, the writers
wanted him to cry. He objected.
"That's not interesting to me," Duchovny says.
"It may be true, some people may react that way. But in my life, most people
try not to feel. I see actors trying to feel. To me that's unreal. We go
through life trying not to cry."
Instead of crying, Duchovny played composed
but struggling. "Who cares if I'm crying. Are you crying watching?"
And when Scully misled Mulder on how sick she
really was, potentially putting them in danger, Duchovny thought his character
was being too sympathetic too often. He would have been angry.
"I said, 'I would love Mulder to be an unreasonable
and objectionable human being at this point and maybe get mad at someone
who's dying of cancer.' To me that's more interesting than going, 'Hey, brave
soldier, buck up.' "
"I ended up asking her [Leoni] every
day until we got married. It was like our little thing. I still ask her.
She'll say, 'Ask me,' and I'll ask her. She never said no."
The writers let him adjust Mulder's attitude.
"It didn't help. The show still sucked. It
was called 'Elegy' " he recalls. "That was a bad, bad show. I mean, you had
the killer nurse. It was bad."
Of course, this season the biggest change is
not in Mulder but in Duchovny, who now sports a thick gold wedding band.
His bride wears a matching one.
Their agent got the idea to fix them up as
she sat chatting with Leoni in her office and fielding a call from Duchovny
at the same time.
"As an agent, you put things together all the
time," says Shapiro, who was struck by her clients' similarities.
"They are both extremely good-looking people,
they are both extremely well-educated, they went to private school in Manhattan,
they went to Ivy League schools, and they are both about to have great movie
careers. He wasn't dating anyone, she wasn't dating anyone . . ."
But Leoni, the star of the NBC sitcom "The
Naked Truth" and an actor known for her physical comedy, passed on her agent's
suggestion at first. She'd heard the rumors about Duchovny being a lady's
man. ("But that's not really true," Shapiro says.)
The agent suggested that Duchovny show up at
a party that she knew Leoni would be attending. Unfortunately, Duchovny got
there as Leoni was leaving.
"Hi!" he said.
"I'm going home," she said.
"That went well," Duchovny told his agent later.
But eventually each asked Shapiro about the
other, phone numbers were exchanged, and they started chatting long distance,
Vancouver to L.A., around January. They dined together three weeks later
"She's so--" Duchovny pauses, contemplating
how to describe Leoni, "smart and funny, and she's so loyal. She's honest
and she's kind. The most gentle person I've ever met. And she really seemed
to care about me. Which shocked me. I thought, 'I don't want to [mess] this
He quickly asked her to marry him.
"I ended up asking her every day until we got
married. It was like our little thing. I still ask her. She'll say, 'Ask
me,' and I'll ask her. She never said no."
By May, they were sneaking off to New York
to get married. "Well, we're old," says Duchovny, 37. Leoni is 31. "We know
what we want."
Through a publicist, Leoni declined to talk
about Duchovny--as he had warned. "We're not going to cross-pollinate that
They are a favorite target of paparazzi who
followed them incessantly on their wedding day in New York and snapped them
around Los Angeles house hunting.
It's a long-standing issue for Duchovny, who
chafes at the relentlessness of the photographers as well as the fans.
"I understand why people get a little nutty,
but it's annoying too. Some people grab you. You're walking around in your
little bubble and all of a sudden there's somebody grabbing your shoulder
and you're, like, 'What ?? ' Yeah, I'll say, 'Don't touch me.' And then it's
like, 'Ooh, what [a jerk].' There is no way to win in any situation."
"The most important thing for me is that
I'm ready to do my best work now because of this show, because I had to go
to work every day, 250 days out of the year. And act. If I had gone from
doing one or two movies a year, I would have never gotten that self-training.
That's been the greatest gift of the series for me."
Not that he expects you to feel too sorry for
a guy with a house on the beach in Vancouver, a house near the beach in L.A.--and
all the free Nike gear he can cart home. That's one perk of celebrity that
he truly enjoys. (One of his few extravagances is a collection of sneakers
that numbers about 100.)
Duchovny didn't come to acting until his late
20s, when he was deeply involved in another career: academics. He was working
on a doctorate in English at Yale University, preparing to write his
dissertation, "Magic and Technology in Contemporary American Fiction and
"Sings, doesn't it?" he says.
He went to New York one summer in hopes of
earning $2,000 tending bar. His best friend, a struggling actor, suggested
Duchovny try to get a commercial instead.
"He brought me to an audition and I got a couple
of callbacks," Duchovny says. An agent expressed some interest as long as
he promised to take a class. His acting training was nil, save for a small
role in a Yale playwriting student's production.
After a while, Duchovny was spending more time
in New York studying and auditioning than he was working on his thesis. So
he made the leap to full-time aspiring actor. Suddenly it wasn't just a lark,
it was his potential livelihood. He felt himself stiffen up.
"There was a period there," he says with a
chuckle, "when I decided to become an actor when I was probably doing the
worst work I'll ever do and having the worst success." And he was 28--old
to be starting an acting career.
"I'm glad it worked out," he says, "because
it was certainly a stupid thing to do."
Probably more memorable than his movies is
Duchovny's role as the transvestite FBI agent in David Lynch's television
series "Twin Peaks."
He expected "The X-Files" to have a shorter
run than the avant-garde "Twin Peaks" and be no more memorable than his smaller
parts in movies.
"Whatever money or power that I get from being
able to choose what I want to do because of doing this show, that's incidental,"
Duchovny says. "The most important thing for me is that I'm ready to do my
best work now because of this show, because I had to go to work every day,
250 days out of the year. And act. If I had gone from doing one or two movies
a year, I would have never gotten that self-training. That's been the greatest
gift of the series for me."
Carla Hall Is a Times Staff Writer