David Duchovny takes his first steps towards big-screen super-stardom
with his new movie Playing God and the eagerly-awaited X-Files feature
At the beginning of 1993, David Duchovny was teetering on the brink of movie
stardom. After working his way up through a string of supporting roles in
such films as Beethoven, Ruby and Chaplin, Duchovny
had just appeared opposite Brad Pitt in the stylish road movie
Kalifornia and looked destined to become one of Hollywoods hottest
leading men. All he needed was a starring role in a major movie.
It was at this critical moment in time that Duchovnys career took an
unexpected detour. While waiting for a suitable film to come his way, Duchovny
agreed to play the leading role in a science fiction mystery/thriller series
called The X-Files. Convinced that the show would last 12 episodes
at the very most, Duchovny saw The X-Files as the source of some healthy
exposure and believed that it would help him bide his time before he made
his next movie.
"Initially, [Playing God's appeal] was
just to kind of get away from The X-Files and have a vacation of sorts."
Instead, of course, The X-Files swiftly became one of the most popular
and acclaimed TV series of the decade, thus forcing Duchovny to turn his
back on the big screen and concentrate on Fox Mulders investigations
into the unexplained and extraordinary.
Now, with The X-Files entering its fifth and possibly final season,
it seems fitting that Duchovny is returning to the big screen in his first
starring vehicle, Playing God. Shot in the Summer of 1996 (during
The X-Files third season hiatus), the film toplines Duchovny
as Dr. Eugene Sands, a famed LA surgeon who loses his medical license after
performing an operation high on drugs, and subsequently agrees to work as
a gunshot doctor for a local gangster.
An intriguing cross between a contemporary crime thriller and morality play,
Playing God couldnt be much further away from the hi-tech,
fantastical world of The X-Files. And for Duchovny, that was an important
factor in his decision to star in the movie.
"Initially, [the films appeal] was just to kind of get away from The
X-Files and have a vacation of sorts," the actor explains. "It was working
with a new crew and new people and a new story and a new character. So it
was really kind of liberating and rejuvenating in that way.
"But what drew me to the role were the kind of interesting moral questions
of the character; of somebody who feels that he was put on Earth to do one
thing - namely be a surgeon - and have that taken away, for good reasons,
through a fault of his own. And then, do you continue to practice? Do you
continue to do what you think youre supposed to do, or do you listen
to other people who tell you you cant do it any more? Do you save the
life of somebody who takes lives; do you save the life of a killer? Is that
a good thing?
"These were interesting questions that I didnt see addressed in movies
that often. And the character, to me, was always like a minor character in
a movie, and I thought this was a very original character to see. So I wanted
to do that."
"The worst part about surgery is like the
worst part about acting. You get up at about four in the morning."
As the first film Duchovny has starred in since opening The X-Files,
Playing God represents an important test to see if the actor can
successfully break away from being identified with Fox Mulder. Should the
public respond badly to the movie or his performance, it might become harder
for Duchovny to resist his worst nightmare - being typecast.
In view of this fact, it seems somewhat surprising that Duchovny didnt
try to play safe by choosing a more conventional film than Playing God
as his follow-up to The X-Files. Yet the actor maintains that he never
felt the need to appear in a more mainstream project, and doesnt actually
perceive Playing God as a risky career move.
"There might have been thoughts on the part of other people; on the part
of my manager, my agent and things like that. But I think they know better
than to try and tell me anything," he laughs. "Well, my manager told me to
do The X-Files, my agent told me not to...Ive forgiven them
both. Ive forgiven Melanie for telling me to do it and Ive forgiven
Reesa for telling me not to!
"I didnt feel [choosing Playing God] was courageous. I just
wanted to do something different and I feel like The X-Files, even
though its an odd TV show, its a TV show. Its extremely
mainstream. I didnt feel the need to be in a movie that had to make
$100 million or to find a mainstream audience because Im already doing
that. So my responsibility was to find something that I wanted to do, rather
than something I thought people wanted me to do."
To portray Dr. Eugene Sands in Playing God, Duchovny studied real-life
surgeons at work. "I cant say it was fun to hang out with them," he
remarks. "The worst part about surgery is like the worst part about acting.
You get up at about four in the morning.
"I went in to watch a brain surgery and surgery on an infection on
somebodys legbone...The brain surgery was difficult to watch. Its
all very difficult because the patient, you may not notice, is anaesthetized
during surgery because theyre cutting you open. And so its hard
to look at somebody defenseless like that. Its very strange to watch
an unconscious person get cut open and dealt with in that way.
"I had a friend that divorced her surgeon husband and she said she didnt
trust him because he was more comfortable dealing with people when they were
unconscious. Its a strange relationship you have with your surgeon.
He cuts you open when youre not looking. So there are all like weird
[psychological] things to think about, apart from the blood and the gore
and the knives and things like that which you would think of off the top
of your head. Its a weird psychological place to be in."
"In terms of the psychological deficit,
I think we all know why he might take drugs: reality is overrated; its
no good, so we want to feel better."
Duchovny also read about drug abuse and its effects before starting work
on the film. But his extensive research hasnt affected his personal
view on the subject. "As an actor, I have no moral judgment," he explains.
"An actor you cant have a moral judgment. You dont go, Is
this bad or is this good? Is this true? is the only question
you can ask. Is this real? So it was interesting, as watching
surgery was interesting.
"It was interesting to figure out psychologically why a person like that
would take drugs and then [to learn about the] physical manifestations; really
wonderful kinds of little things about what drugs do to your body. And to
play them with a sense of reality is a lot of fun; its like learning
a new skill. So now I know how to do that."
Some cinemagoers have found it hard to believe that such an accomplished
doctor as Duchovnys character in Playing God could take drugs.
However, the actor is quick to point out that drug abuse is a surprisingly
common problem among members of the medical professions, and feels that Dr.
Sands predicament is wholly believable.
"In terms of the psychological deficit, I think we all know why he might
take drugs: reality is overrated; its no good, so we want to feel better.
In terms of somebody who knows what drugs do to you, I think thats
exactly why he takes drugs, because Im sure he thinks,
Im the boss of the drugs. Drugs arent going to boss me
Besides challenging the popular image of David Duchovny as Fox Mulder,
Playing God also presents a different side of Duchovnys co-star,
Timothy Hutton. While Hutton is usually associated with the caring and
sympathetic characters he has played in such films as Ordinary People,
the actor shines as Playing Gods main villain, Raymond Blossom,
the infamous counterfeiter who secretly employs Dr. Eugene Sands to be his
"I think its a great role for Timothy," says Duchovny. "He came into
public view being a sensitive, vulnerable [character]. Her does it so well.
From Ordinary People on, hes a wonderful actor in that vein.
But I think Tim has a lot of acerbic wit to him and a lot of hardness that
he can also bring to his acting, and I think this is a great role for him
in that he can be nasty. And I dont think people are used to seeing
"I saw it as a character study; I wanted
to do my movie of the week writ large and Andy wanted to do his Pulp
The two actors come to blows in the movie when Dr. Sands has a fling with
Blossoms girlfriend, Claire. Duchovny helped cast the relatively unknown
Angelina Jolie as Claire, and was delighted by here performance in Playing
"We read a lot of women," he recalls. "A few of them were good; really good,
and they would have been good in the movie. And we were kinda trying to decide
who it was going to be, and then there were a few more women coming in that
day. And Angelina, I think, might even have been the last girl to come in.
She cam in wearing like this black raincoat, it was 95 degrees out and she
looked like hell - I mean she looked terrible. And I thought she had this
weird like Eastern European accent and when she spoke I couldnt understand
her. But when she read, it was like, Wow! That girl just won herself
a part. It was one of those great moments where she left the room and
the director and I both said, Shes the one, and then we
had to convince the people with the money to go with somebody nobody knew.
"It was a great moment because it was really reaffirming to watch somebody
come in and win a part, rather than somebody come in and get handed a part
because theyre on the cover of Entertainment Weekly," he continues.
"As an actor, its really nice to see that happen. Also as an actor,
its great to be in a position that Im in, where I dont
have to audition right now! But it was really wonderful to see that happen
in Hollywood and it can only really happen at the level of this movie - a
$10- $12 million movie. If it had been a $40 million movie, we wouldnt
have been able to cast her."
Playing God marks the feature film debut of British director Andy
Wilson, whose previous credits include the UK version of the drama series
Cracker. While Duchovny is quick to praise Wilsons work on the
film, he does admit that they didnt always see eye-to-eye while it
was being shot.
"The making of the movie was difficult because we never had a script that
was like set in stone," he explains. "So a lot of the times we were coming
to it and trying to create it on the day, and Andy had a certain vision of
the movie that was different from mine. And I realize that, as Im getting
mostly positive responses to the movie - which is great - a lot of it had
to do with what Andy did. Specifically, that is, making it exciting, making
it funny and not making it a melodrama, which is how I saw it.
"I just dont think its good
idea to tell you what happens in the movie because I dont want to know
what happens in any movie that I go in to see."
"I saw it as a character study; I wanted to do my movie of the week writ
large and Andy wanted to do his Pulp Fiction. I think that the
good thing that happened was that we collided and neither of us could make
the movie that we wanted to make, and in the end it turned out to be something
better than what either of us would have done alone. And when I see people
respond to it, I think that whats happening is that it became kind
of an adventure movie, which I never saw it as.
"I realize that most adventure movies in Hollywood dont have an idea
to begin with; they just explode things trying to find an idea. Its
like, If I blow up this building, maybe an idea will be beneath it.
And if theyre lucky, theyll find one. Our movie started out as
an idea movie, and then became an adventure movie of some kind. So I feel
like thats why it works on that level; it actually has a foundation
of, Okay this is a character study, and now bring in the games, and
the toys, and the chase, and lights, and stuff like that."
Of course, no matter how big a hit Playing God proves to be, it will
almost certainly be overshadowed by Duchovnys next big screen outing,
the X-Files movie. Shot earlier this year under the dummy title
Blackwood, the film is believed to expand upon the weekly
series ongoing alien conspiracy storyline, and is destined to be a
massive worldwide hit at cinemas next summer.
Like the rest of the films cast and crew Duchovny becomes cagey when
asked about X-Files movie. However, the actor is quick to dismiss
claims that he has been ordered not to discuss it by Fox executives.
"Im allowed to say whatever I want," he declares. "Its funny
because the worldview that is kind of portrayed on X-Files is this
one of conspiracies and like monolithic propaganda machines, and its
funny when people ask us about the X- Files movie, its as if
weve been like programmed to speak a certain way about it!
"I just dont think its good idea to tell you what happens in
the movie because I dont want to know what happens in any movie that
I go in to see."
"I wanted to win an Emmy. But I think there
are great actors in that category."
Without giving anything away, then, can Duchovny drop some hints about
"I can tell you that its more along the lines of the shows that we
do that deal with my past and extraterrestrials and what is generally considered
to be The Conspiracy. And you would think that; I mean, youd
probably make the assumption that it wouldnt be the Jersey Devil
episode or the building that tries to hurt people [Ghost in the Machine]
"Its a combination of the five years of the show, dealing with whatever
this conspiracy is. Whether or not there is extraterrestrial [life], where
are they, what happened to them, whos hiding them, whos killing
them, what are we doing genetically with them....All of those questions are
addressed in the way we do it, which is fictionally. And so thats what
the movie is about.
"Its a perfect plot for what it is," he promises "Without sounding
like a salesman, I have to commend [writer/producer] Chris Carter because
if you havent seen the show, it stands alone as a movie and if you
have seen the show, theres enough new stuff so that you wont
feel like youre watching a reprise of the last five years. So it actually
works really well."
Straight after the production of X-Files movie, the cast and crew
started work on the series fifth season. Even in its fifth year, the
show is steadily continuing to grow in popularity and theres no signs
of discontent or boredom from its viewers. Duchovny admits that he remains
baffled by the series success, and still finds it hard to account for
the shows almost universal popularity.
"I think that it came at the right time and it was a good show and it was
about something that the other shows werent about," he muses. "You
know, its not a doctor drama, and as good as ER is, thats
all it is, and Chicago Hope... Thats all they are. Theyre
great TV, but thats what they are; theyre soap operas set in
a hospital. Its not a cop drama. As good as NYPD Blue is, as
great as Law and Order or any other Emmy-winning show is, these are
cop dramas. The X-Files is something completely different - it has
a little bit of both. It has a little cops, it has a little medicine, it
has a little soap opera and it has a lot of scary stuff. So I think its
just unique in that sense.
"...at first when I started to realize
that people knew who I was, I always felt guilty because I thought they had
just met me and I had just forgotten them."
"Beyond that, its well executed and its well written, its
well shot and I think its well acted. Its just a really good
show that happened to come across the screen at a time when aliens were hip."
The X-Files hit the headlines recently when Gillian Anderson won a
prestigious Emmy Award for her portrayal of Dana Scully, while Duchovny went
home empty handed. Although some tabloid reports have suggested that Duchovny
was deeply jealous of his co-stars victory at the Emmys, the actor
laughs off all such suggestions and maintains that his career isnt
driven by awards or accolades.
"An award is really just like a qualified opinion," he explains. "I want
them, and it makes you feel good for 20 minutes, but it really is just the
opinion of the people who got together to give the award. And opinions are
nice, theyre fine, but you cant have everybody love you, and
youd better stop trying or else youre gonna be very unhappy.
"I wanted to win an Emmy," he admits. "But I think there are great actors
in that category. Im just stunned at the amount of good actors...I
mean, they left four or five great actors off that list. They could have
exchanged us five for five other actors on TV and nobody would have complained.
I mean they might have complained a little, but they would have said,
Yeah, well those guys are great too.
"It just seems like such a competitive category and the kind of work that
I do on the show is not the kind of work that wins awards really. I dont
have an alcohol problem, I dont have a personal relationship, I dont
do the things [that normally win awards]."
Even if he doesnt win an Emmy Award for his work on the show, theres
no disputing the fact that X-Files has changed David Duchovnys
life. As Fox Mulder, Duchovny has become a household name everywhere from
Aberdeen to Zaragoza, and stands alongside ERs George Clooney
as the hottest actor on TV today.
Naturally, success has come at a price, and in Duchovnys case, the
price has been the gradual but total loss of his privacy.
"I certainly dont plan out what it
was like for me to be famous. I can tell you that I never gave it a
moments thought what it would be like for my family."
"The initial thing thats odd is that people always have an advantage
over you because they know you and you dont know them," he remarks.
"So at first when I started to realize that people knew who I was, I always
felt guilty because I thought they had just met me and I had just forgotten
them! And I was constantly trying to get peoples names and trying to
remember them, and then I gave that up a long time ago.
"Its a weird transition that you have to make. And then, without whining,
without making myself a tragic figure, there is no replacement for the loss
of your privacy. Its a huge sacrifice [and] you dont know what
youre doing when you make that sacrifice. You didnt know it was
going to be that way and you didnt ask for it. You certainly must have
known that it might have happened, but you didnt say, Please,
everybody know me, everybody take away my privacy. And once its
gone, theres no underestimating how painful and strange that is. And
The X-Files has not only thrust David Duchovny into the spotlight,
but has also intruded into the private life of his parents. Incredibly, both
his mother Margaret and father Amram receive fan mail from X-philes and are
frequently asked for their autographs!
"Thats something I feel guilty about," the actor reveals, "because
I never thought about it. Ive just been told that theres a picture
of my sister in a magazine, thats kind of like, Whose sister
is this? Is it Brad Pitts sister? Thats kind of fun, but
then I think, I dont want people to know what my sister looks
"I certainly dont plan out what it was like for me to be famous. I
can tell you that I never gave it a moments thought what it would be
like for my family. So I have a certain amount of guilt about that. I think
my Dad likes signing autographs, so I dont feel guilty about that.
But in terms of safety, I do; I feel a responsibility and I dont know
what to do about it."
Such is the interest in Duchovnys parents that his mother was shown
sitting in the audience of The David Letterman Show when her son appeared
on the top- rated chat show. "The funny thing about introducing her on
Letterman is that when I first started to do talk shows, my mother
only had two requests: Dont mention me and Dont
mention where I work. Like Im going to go on Letterman
and go, My mother: she has a job over at..., you know!
"So of course, when I first went on talks shows, I really only talked about
my mother because theyre the only stories you have; about your parents.
So she was mortified. But when she came to Letterman and they introduced
her, and put the camera on her, Letterman actually said, Your
mothers a handsome woman. So I told my mother later and she said,
What does handsome mean? and I said, He thinks youre
a man and then it got worse from there!
"I think it can get mean and it can get
nasty when [the press tries to] set people against each other."
"The thing about my mom is that shes not impressed by much; shes
actually not impressed by anything. So we go on Letterman and you
know theres the usual hysteria thats involved whenever youre
supposed to be in public place and arent actually there. People have
had time to wait and hypnotize themselves into thinking that youre
Paul McCartney. So I walk out there and theyre screaming, and my mother
go asked for her autograph! My Dad wants to sign autographs, my mother does
not - especially not on a check. And so my Mom signs a couple of autographs
and she comes over to me, my sister goes, Mom signed an autograph,
its funny and my Mom goes, 25 years of teaching and
nobodys ever asked me for my autograph. Thats my mothers
point of view on the whole thing and I think shes right."
Public interest in all things Duchovny increased even further earlier this
year when the eligible bachelor was romantically linked with actress Téa
Leoni (Flying Blind, The Naked Truth, Flirting with
Disaster). Although Duchovny fans were distraught by the news that the
couple had secretly married in New York City on May 6th, the actor is pleased
to report that his fans have generally come to accept and even like his other
"I had my fans and she had her fans, and now my fans are her fans," he says.
"Theres more people interested in both of us now."
By marrying another TV star, it would seem that Duchovny has made certain
that his private life wont be leaving the headlines for the foreseeable
future. However, the actor insists that having a celebrity wife actually
helps him deal with being under constant scrutiny from the worlds press.
"Its somewhat easier because we both understand the kind of thing
thats going on," he explains. "But I dont think we expected that
much right when we got married, because it was like a physical imposition;
there were actually people [standing] in our way!
"I think it can get mean and it can get nasty when [the press tries to] set
people against each other," he continues, "or if one person in the relationship
is doing well and the others not. I expect and will be very happy to
be called Mr. Leoni at some time in the future because thats
how much I think of her talent. So those are the kinds of things you have
to deal with.
"In terms of more people looking, I dont feel the difference. The odd
thing is that people ask you about your wife; Hey, hows your
wife? Or the people hate me because Im married to her. I realize
that everybody hates me now."
Besides facing constant scrutiny from the media, Duchovnys marriage
has another problem to contend with - namely, the fact that his wife is based
in a different country to him. While Duchovny has to spend most of his time
in Vancouver, Canada, to make The X-Files, Leoni is based in California,
"What has to stop is not the picture-taking
but the intrusion onto peoples lives and the lack of respect for human
decency that occurs."
"Its hard because I get a little time off, and then Im traveling
during it and trying to get back [to LA] to be with Téa," he says.
"But I only see it for this year. I will only do it for this year; whether
theyll move the show to LA or I wont be on the show any more.
It has an end.
"I know that we can make it to May and its not a dramatic relationship;
theres not a lot of anxiety in it. Im not like sitting on a set
on a Tuesday afternoon going, Ive go to get to LA and deal with
this crisis because Teas hair color is wrong. Its not like
that. Its just so easy...Ill be lonely up there and want to be
with her, but its not like I feel the relationship is in jeopardy."
Duchovnys experiences with the press and paparazzi photographers have
transformed the actor into a keen advocate of new privacy laws.
"What has to stop is not the picture-taking but the intrusion onto peoples
lives and the lack of respect for human decency that occurs," he states.
"People will say, Well why dont you be like the old timers and
pause and pose for five minutes, and then well leave you alone.
Well then thats not true; you pause and you pose for five minutes and
they still follow you down the street and they still get in your car!
"Ive been involved in chases, Ive been involved in trying to
lose people. And its frightening, especially if youre trying
to go home, because once you get home, if you lead somebody to your home,
then anybody can go there.
"98% of the people in the world are harmless and wish you well, but it only
takes one person to not. And thats what youre constantly on guard
The actor argues that existing privacy laws were created at a time when hi-tech
equipment such as long-distance lenses didnt exist and are now effectively
defunct. Perhaps even more importantly, he believes that the current situation
could harm the entire nation in the long run.
"And the truth is that anybody interesting,
anybody worth their salt, anybody that you really want leading your country
cannot stand up to that kind of scrutiny. So instead we get plastic people
"Whats going to happen is that youre going to get people who
will not go into public life, who will not serve, who will not entertain
because they dont want to give [their privacy] up. Because Im
telling you, if I had to make the decision again, I might seriously consider
not going into it. And thats regardless of the fact of whether or not
you think my contribution by being on The X-Files has enriched your
life in any way.
"Say I was a politician, and somebody who actually had something specific
to give to this country or to give to the people and I didnt want to
be scrutinized; I didnt want my sex life scrutinized, I didnt
want my family like scrutinized, I didnt want my mother held up to
any kind of scrutiny, and I didnt go into public service. The entire
nation suffers for it. And well get the leaders that we deserve: plastic,
public figures who stand up to this kind of scrutiny. And the truth is that
anybody interesting, anybody worth their salt, anybody that you really want
leading your country cannot stand up to that kind of scrutiny. So instead
we get plastic people who can. And you know were gonna get the kind
of country that is a result of that."
If David Duchovny hadnt chosen to pursue his career as an actor, its
a good bet that he would be working as a university professor right now.
A brilliant student, Duchovny was working on his Ph.D. at Yale University
when he decided to abandon his dissertation and try his hand at acting.
"In terms of making a decision to be an actor rather than a professor, I
never actually made the decision," he clarifies. "It was more of a gradual
slide from one thing into another, rather than walking up one morning and
going, No to Thomas Pynchon. Yes to Marlon Brando. It wasnt
Surprisingly, Duchovny believes that his experiences as a student have benefited
his acting career.
"I think that the discipline I created in being a good student and going
as far along that life that I did has served me really well as an actor,"
he elaborates. "I think Im one of the more disciplines actors that
I see and I think that it helps me, because acting is all preparation. Like
most things in life, when you get there theres no telling whats
going to happen, but if youve prepared as much as you can, then you
can let everything else go. Youre not actually trying to execute a
plan; youre confident enough to know that youve done enough work
and something goodll happen."
"Being sincere is easy. Comedy is difficult
and I would like to be challenged in that way."
Despite his enthusiasm for his current craft, Duchovny does admit that acting
make much use of his Gray matter. "It doesnt really challenge me
intellectually...I have come to believe that theres a lot of different
types of intelligence in people and in each person and acting doesnt
challenge any kind of intellect.
"The X-Files is heralded as a smart show, and its a lot smarter
than most of the other shows, but its not nearly as smart as a lot
of books that you and I have both read. So its not that; it challenges
you emotionally, spiritually as a person and those are other kinds of
"I guess Ive heard the phrase emotional intelligence thrown around
recently...and I believe in that. And I think thats the kind of
intelligence thats challenged in acting. Not the intellect really."
If Duchovny is looking for a greater acting challenge, he could always try
his hand at comedy. Although the actor has demonstrated his flair for parody
in the spoof chat show The Larry Sanders Show , he confesses to being
both excited and scared by the prospect of starring in a big screen comedy
or even a sitcom.
"Comedys hard," he says. "Being sincere is easy. Comedy is difficult
and I would like to be challenged in that way. For instance, Téa I
feel is a brilliant comedian, so I am inspired by her physical comedy in
that way. I wouldnt mind trying some of that.
"I dont know if I could do it. Its scary to be challenged...Id
be terrified to try and do a situation comedy. I would need a lot of help."
Move over Jim Carrey - David Duchovny, comedy superstar, is on his way...
Thomas, Mike. December, 1997. "Trust in God." Xpose #17.