The Californication star on sex addiction, Nietzsche and secondary infections.
Q: This spring you're starring in a movie called The Joneses, in which you play the "father" of a cool but fake family that a corporation assembles to coax their neighbors into buying stuff. I suppose a lot of celebrities do the same thing.
A: Yeah, sure. I haven't sold that much. But the culture that's embracing Twilight and Paranormal Activity and District 9 and 2012—you could kind of say that The X-Files sold that.
Q: You helped release a media virus.
A: Exactly. And now it's reinfected people. I guess it went dormant for a while.
Q: You passed through a period of genuine pop-culture frenzy during those peak X-Files years—sort of like what Robert Pattinson is going through now with the Twilight phenomenon. I'm curious about how it feels to live in the aftermath of that.
A: When you're in the middle of it, you think, "This is the way it's always going to be."
Q: You do?
A: Yeah. In a way. You just think the next one is going to be bigger, the next one is going to be bigger—this is what happens, you know? And then that doesn't happen. It doesn't really happen for anybody. Then you kind of think that maybe it's your fault that it's not happening. You struggle against it for a while, proclaim too loudly that you want to do something else. And eventually you just make peace with it. I think at one point my wife [Téa Leoni] just said, "One day you're gonna realize that it was a huge show, and it was important for a lot of people, and you can be proud of it." I was always proud of the work and of the show. But I was never quite proud of being associated with it exclusively.
Q: Being stuck with it as the primary part of your identity.
A: Yeah. Yeah. Not that I didn't like the character. I guess as an actor and a writer and a director there were many things I wanted to do, and in my mind this was reducing me, and my ego was fighting against it. It was like, "No, fuck you, I'm more than that, I'm smarter than Mulder"—whatever. Ridiculous formulations! But that all passes and then eventually what you get is just gratitude for having gone through it, and kind of relief that it's not quite like that right now.
Q: You lived on the West Coast for a while, but about a year ago you and your family moved back to your hometown, New York City.
A: The move back—it's mystifying to me. I don't think Téa and I really realized what a big deal it is to move kids around, so it's taken a year just to kind of let the dust settle. It's very different being an adult in New York as opposed to being a kid or being a young single guy. There are certain things that I still love about it, but a lot of what I used to love is not what I want to do anymore.
Q: Like what?
A: Like hang out on the 21st Street playground all day and play basketball with a bunch of 10-year-olds. Although now I could really dominate.
Q: Why'd you make the move?
A: Growing up in Malibu is a certain kind of childhood, and we weren't sure if that was the only childhood we wanted to expose the kids to.
Q: What were you wary of?
A: In Malibu? Sun damage. The car culture, driving them everywhere. And then, in a way, the image of women that you get when you grow up in Malibu—everybody's in bathing suits and has belly rings. I wanted my daughter to see a woman who didn't have a belly ring. And on the Upper East Side you don't see too many of them. If you did, it would be pretty gross.
Q: They're there, though.
A: They're just hidden under the support hose.
Q: My favorite episode of Californication is the one in which you're attending a dinner party in Los Angeles, and this badass writer and recovering alcoholic named Richard shows up, and you goad him into drinking a glass of whiskey and he winds up guzzling a lot more and totally going off the rails and stripping off his clothes and tucking his family jewels and jumping out a window.
A: That's the first episode from this year, and I directed it. Thank you. That actor is my oldest friend from high school, Jason Beghe. Everybody knows now that if you're friends with me, you'll have to tuck your penis and show it on television. All my male friends know that I'm coming at some point to make them show their manginas.
Q: Remind me not to be friends with you.
A: Jason has been my friend since I was 14. You know his work—he's the cop in Thelma & Louise that they put in the trunk, and he was in a George Romero movie called Monkey Shines.
Q: Your character, Hank Moody, rattles off a couple of good lines in that scene about how an addict can't succeed in recovery until . . .
A: . . . yeah, he's gotta hit bottom! Well, Hank has not been involved in any 12-step program yet. Maybe that's in the offing for Season 4. I don't know. We'll see. You kind of don't want to see Hank recover, in that way. And I don't see him accepting that kind of a program. He's such an individualist and an egotist.
Q: I'm fascinated by the idea of the hyperintelligent person who's resistant to the tropes of recovery—especially the slogans.
A: Yeah. "Let go, let God."
Q: Right. "Fake it till you make it," etc.
A: You know what? I know exactly what you're saying. It's interesting to read David Foster Wallace on it. Because he was a guy who was supremely intelligent—a different order of intelligence, at least in his writing. And he went into a 12-step program thinking "This is all bullshit," and he writes about it and says that he's kind of amazed that it works. He actually embraces the simplicity of it. But I don't know if we're gonna go there.
Q: Go there in Californication?
A: In the show, yeah.
Q: I didn't know if you meant with me.
A: I'll take you.
Q: I just finished reading David Carr's book The Night of the Gun —he's the New York Times media columnist who fought his way back from addiction to cocaine and booze. He says that those 12-step slogans saved his life. It seems like brainwashing, but I guess ultimately you've got to accept that it works.
A: Yeah. "It works if you work it." That's another slogan.
Q: There's a point in The Joneses where your character makes a toast "to secret lives." Considering what you went through in 2008—announcing you were going into rehab for sex addiction—do you feel any anxiety about delivering a line like that?
A: No, no. . .
Q: Because that whole episode is barnacled onto your bio right now.
A: I hate to think of it that way. But it's probably right. A barnacle. Maybe not forever—I would hope. No, I never have concerns like that. Probably because I never think of a character that I'm going to play as any reflection on who I am. It's just words on a page that I'm going to try to make human.
Q: Is it a burden, though—that part of your story?
A: I mean, maybe it's annoying, but it'll pass. The gifts that I've been able to receive in my own personal life greatly outweigh any kind of annoyance or dissatisfaction. Nietzsche has this term—it's Latin, but it might've been a Greek perspective. It's amor fati. Love of fate. The way I understand it is, there is no other response to fate. You can't change it. It happens. So, I mean, what's a better response for your own personal happiness—to hate it or to love it? What happens if you say, "I'm happy with everything as it played out, because I have to be"?
Q: That's liberating.
A: It takes a while to get there. Because sometimes you want everything exactly the way you want it. I have pride. I don't know if it's arrogance, but I'd like to be seen as an artist. I don't want to be reduced to a headline. And I think whenever sex is involved—whenever the word sex is involved—people kind of lose their consciousness immediately. It's like the red flag to the bull. Whatever constructive or educational dialogue that might come out of it—I haven't found yet that the waters are calm enough to actually have that conversation. I hope as a culture that we do it. It's nothing to be ashamed of, or lose your head over, either.
Q: In past interviews you've been surprisingly open about your marriage to Téa Leoni.
A: I don't talk about really personal matters. But yeah, I always had the sense that it was a really strong and profound match for me. And I was always very sure of it, as I still am. It always seemed to me that this was something I could talk about because I really thought it was always going to be there. It's 13 years now—it'll be 13 years in May. Whatever happened in the past year—obviously it's profoundly personal, but it's kind of just strengthened us as two people with one another in ways that I never could've imagined. We're really good.
Q: There's that other Nietzsche quote . . ..
A: "We're really good"?
Q: No. "Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger."
A: Yeah. People love that. They say that all the time. I used to say, "Whatever doesn't kill you leaves you susceptible to a secondary infection."