As The X-Files returns, David Duchovny talks about feeling vulnerable, those Gillian Anderson rumours – and why he and his co-star should be paid the same
A small crowd has gathered in front of the Fox theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. Carrying rolled-up copies of Variety magazine and holding up mobile phone cameras, they press their flesh as close to the metal barricade as possible. They are here to see David Duchovny, most famous for the newly resurrected science-fiction drama The X-Files, whose star is being unveiled on the Walk of Fame today. Duchovny’s closest confidantes are here, too – X-Files creator Chris Carter, Californication co-star Pamela Adlon, his manager Melanie Green, his brother – but they’re outnumbered by the strangers, the autograph seekers, and the tourists who will stop anywhere they see a fence and some security guards in LA.
Duchovny is a recovering sex addict and a famously private man. During the ceremony that follows, his friend, the comedian Garry Shandling, refers to him as a “sensitive, vulnerable guy”. A few hours later, at a nearby hotel, I ask Duchovny if this is true. In his slow, laconic drawl, he says it is. “You know, Garry can stand there and tell you I’m this or I’m that,” he says, “but that’s not really the narrative that’s out there, and that’s OK.”
Duchovny’s hotel room is an ornate, whimsical pastiche of styles and patterns. The entire building reeks of a pungent perfume, as though the staff were covering up an even more heinous smell. It is a fitting location in which to discuss one of the more artificial, touristy traditions of Hollywood, one about which Duchovny seems ambivalent.
“You know, we live in an ironic age,” he says. “To hear Garry go up there in this quite probably cheesy ceremony from another time – you know, campy, kitschy, in a crappy part of Hollywood – it could be just awful. If you pull back a certain way, you want to just run. Listening there, I don’t know what Garry is going to say, and I hear him try to say heartfelt, loving things as a friend, and I’m like, ‘Yeah, he’s really trying to communicate, and that’s beautiful and ballsy.’ Because people are out of that habit. It’s so hostile the way we communicate socially now, and so ironic and so meta and distant and multilayered. To hear a guy go out there and say, ‘I love Dave.’ I felt exposed.”
Duchovny has spent a major part of his life being exposed. The 55-year-old has now been a globally recognised face since The X-Files premiered in 1993. That fame offers a variety of perks, but it’s also a burden for someone as seemingly introverted as Duchovny. His battle with sex addiction led him to check into a rehab facility in 2008, and his on-again, off-again marriage to fellow actor Téa Leoni, with whom he has two children, has made them both fodder for tabloid speculation. In 2008, he threatened to sue the Mail On Sunday over a story alleging he had an affair with a Hungarian tennis instructor, which both parties denied. The Mail on Sunday retracted the story. That aside, he retains a reputation as a bit of a playboy and there continues to exist a prurient public interest in his private affairs.
Gillian Anderson was the most notable no-show at Duchovny’s Walk of Fame event, but she did send a letter that was read aloud, a mock eulogy that ended with her jokingly saying, “He’ll always be my shining star. May his soul rest in peace.” As Agent Dana Scully, Anderson spent nine years and two motion pictures playing the foil to Duchovny’s dogged, obsessive Agent Mulder. Their fictional relationship developed from a tense partnership to a tortured romance, which in the new six-episode series has soured into a breakup. Their dynamic chemistry made fans campaign to see them together, both on screen and off. Rumours persist that Duchovny and Anderson have, at one point, been involved in a sexual relationship. (It doesn’t help that neither appears to be in a committed relationship, or aren’t letting on they are.)
That Duchovny still has to answer questions about their relationship visibly frustrates him. “Gillian and I are not lovers, or boyfriend and girlfriend,” he says. “There seems to be a certain kind of Twitter contingent that wants us to be together. It’s odd to me, because I’ve never had the fantasy of wanting two people together that aren’t, or are.”
We arrive at the subject of Anderson’s recent revelation that she was offered less than he was to do the new series. “I’ve done everything I can to help that whenever I could,” Duchovny says. “I think we should be paid the same to do The X-Files.” He rises in his chair to hammer home the point further. “You can ask Gillian. She knows that I have always wanted us to be paid the same, for as long as I’ve known there was a discrepancy. Hollywood payment is not fair, and it doesn’t always parcel on gender lines or race lines, or anything like that.”
In fact, Duchovny has had his own war over money with 20th Century Fox. His exit from the show in 2001 followed a lawsuit filed against Fox for allegedly underpaying him millions of dollars in ancillary profits. The suit was settled out of court and he returned to the role of Fox Mulder for the final episodes of the TV series, and a second feature film, 2008’s The X-Files: I Want to Believe.
In addition to the financial rewards, the new series has offered Duchovny the challenge of finding a way to take Fox Mulder into the next stage of his life, without rehashing what he’d done two decades earlier. “I think it’s just the acknowledgment that 20 years have passed, at least,” he explains, “and the opportunity as an actor to try to say, ‘I can’t play it the way I played it when I was 33 or 32, because that would be obscene and weird’. It’s like seeing a 95-year-old guy in a toupee, you know.”
Instead he wants Mulder to age gracefully, meeting the march of time head on, rather than clinging to the tricks he employed as a younger man. “We don’t have to change Mulder, but he’s going to keep getting older, if I get to play him. While one’s character doesn’t change, there are little adjustments we make unconsciously. As we learn, as we lose, as things fall away, as new things happen. So I thought, ‘Wow, what an opportunity.’ I can be Mulder 20 years later. He’s still going to be Mulder, but I’ve got to figure out what’s the difference.”
I ask Duchovny how he thinks he’s changed himself. Does he ever wish the rest of the world could understand him the way friends like Garry Shandling do? “The need to be truly known, I feel, is an intimate, interpersonal thing. The need to be truly known seems very weird. Who really needs their innermost self to be known by more than two or three or four people?”
But I want to know, I say: I’m here to know. Wouldn’t it be better just to let it all out?
“If I appear indifferent or aloof, it just really means that I’m vulnerable and that I’m afraid,” he says. “So, what I’m actually saying is that, when people say, ‘Well, I’m just like anybody else’, that’s actually true. Although it just sounds like bullshit coming out of my mouth. But all that’s just kind of fear in those moments where you’re completely out of control in a crowd, or being consumed in some mass way.”
But crowds come with the job. Like anyone who’s lived with fame as long as he has, Duchovny possesses a certain physical presence that comes from needing to be concerned with appearance on a semi-regular basis. For today’s festivities, he’s wearing sneakers, jeans, a black T-shirt and a leather chain with an elaborate silver charm at the end – an ensemble befitting a man seen as something of a rebellious bohemian, an image cemented by some of the roles he’s chosen. In the acclaimed TV drama Californication, he played a brilliant writer and rakish sex addict – a part some took to be autobiographical.
Duchovny’s early roles enhanced his image as a rebellious, offbeat figure. In the thriller Kalifornia, he played a graduate student researching serial killers who unknowingly shares a ride across the US with an actual serial killer (Brad Pitt) and his girlfriend (Juliette Lewis). For a while, it appeared that every project he signed up to would be just as transgressive – the erotic serial Red Shoe Diaries, Twin Peaks – but The X-Files changed everything. His face ended up on magazine covers, action figures, trading cards, and in the dirty minds of male and female admirers across the world.
After he left the show, two years before it finally ended, he made a run at leading man status. But his big swing at blockbuster filmmaking, the Ivan Reitman comedy Evolution, stalled at the box office. After that, he wrote and directed the indie drama House Of D, co-starring Robin Williams, but that also failed to make an impact.“I don’t take a lot of pleasure in being happy in my performance if the thing doesn’t work,” Duchovny says now. “If the thing works, I’m pretty happy. Then, I’m more or less happy about what I’m doing.”
What reallymakes him happy, then? In another life, he was a prep school kid who grew up in New York City, and later an Ivy League graduate studying under literary critic Harold Bloom and pursuing a PhD. On a lark, he auditioned for a commercial for Löwenbräu beer and got the job. By 1988, he’d secured a small role in the Mike Nichols film Working Girl and decided to make a go of acting. Since the end of Californication, he’s found time to publish a book – a talking animal fable called Holy Cow – and write another one. He’s released an album of soulful traditional rockand directed episodes of Californication and Bones. But, he tells me, it’s basketball that still has his heart.
I ask what position he played as an undergraduate at Princeton and Duchovny’s eyes light up. He shifts in his seat and smiles. “I was a guard, but I was a shooting guard.” In an Esquire profile dating back to the original run of The X-Files, he says the most memorable moment in his life occurred on the basketball court: a bit of last-minute heroics to secure a victory for his high-school team. “Is that shot still the highlight of your life?” I wonder. I see him transition back to seriousness in a flash, ready to correct me. “More accurately, it was a game-winning assist.”
For a man who just sat through a celebration of his career, Duchovny seems quite preoccupied with the unselfish nature of both basketball and acting. I can see that he really does take pride in having made the smart pass to win the game, and his language becomes more and more impassioned the deeper we get into sports talk. “I watch basketball,” he says, “and I hear those guys talk about themselves, and I just know who gets it and who doesn’t. And I’m like, ‘You will never win a championship. Oh, you might win a championship.’ Because basketball is a beautiful game. It’s not just about skill; it really is about understanding that team, whatever team you’re on. Every team’s got a different key.”
For now, he’s back with his original X-Files team, and having viewed the first two episodes, it’s clear that Fox Mulder has lost his faith. It’s as though more of Duchovny has seeped into his greatest creation. Mulder was a character defined by unwavering belief, but the actor who portrays him is sceptical of most things: strangers, social media, the very concept of fame.
“Mulder was always the engine and Scully was like the brake,” Duchovny says. “And now we had the guy who wasn’t putting his foot on the gas and she’s not putting her foot on the gas, either. I thought, ‘Well, where is the energy coming from?’ We had to get moving, and it was hard for me to try to figure out how to drive the show without being the guy who’s driving the show. I’m not sure if I succeeded.”
No one has publicly ruled out further adventures, and ratings in America have been quite good. But even if this is the end, Duchovny will still be busy. His Charles Manson drama Aquarius is coming back for a second series, and his next book, Bucky Fucking Dent, is scheduled for release later this year. It’s based on an unproduced screenplay that’s been sitting on his shelf for a few years, and returns to his love of sports, specifically baseball. “[The book] takes place in 1978 in New York, with the Yankee/Boston Red Sox pennant race as a backdrop. It’s not a baseball book, but it does use that as a backdrop. It’s a father-son story, with a love story thrown in as a curveball.”
And what of his own family? He has two children with Leoni – Madelaine West, 16, and Kyd Miller, 13. Duchovny and Leoni live five blocks apart from each other in New York, and co-parent. “You know, I get asked, ‘Are your kids proud of you?’, and I’m like, ‘I don’t understand that question. I don’t care. I’m proud of them. It’s reversed. I’m watching them. I couldn’t give a shit if they watch me.”
Duchovny sees himself as a bit of a teacher, a career both his mother and sister went into, and one he, too, considered before his leap into acting. He’s hoping to teach his children some of the endurance he has used to keep moving forward in showbusiness, in spite of lawsuits, divorces, tabloid scandals and unsatisfying projects.
“That’s what I worry about with my kids all the time. It’s not so much [a question of] are they going to win, but are they going to come back after failing? Are they going to get hurt too bad? You want them to remain vulnerable and real, so losing is going to hurt. Failing is going to hurt. But you really want to teach them somehow. I don’t know how, because you can’t just say, ‘Hey, be resilient.’ But I think if I look at my career and I look at myself, I’m pretty resilient and maybe that’s what that [Walk of Fame] star means to me: I can make it, and I kept at it. I kept trying.”
Still, it’s hard to shake the feeling that this entire day – the Walk of Fame, the interviews, the photos, even The X-Files – isn’t really who Duchovny is. So, what, if anything, does his new star on Hollywood Boulevard actually signify?
He pauses and sighs. “That nothing lasts for ever, but maybe this [star] will last for a while after I’m gone, and that’s kind of cool.” Duchovny smiles. “You know, you can come back here and step on me.”