Sometimes chemistry surfaces in a gaze, or even a glance. It’s true for the self-indulgent novelist Hank Moody and his longtime, long-suffering love/baby mama Karen van der Beek, the on-again, off-again nexus of Showtime’s sexy, LA-centric comedy Californication. And it’s true for the actors who play them, David Duchovny and Natascha McElhone. “Even just the looks they throw each other,” says the show’s creator, executive producer and sole writer Tom Kapinos. “It’s like you believe that this is a couple who have been in love for a long time and can’t quite shake each other.”
The difference, of course, is that Hank and Karen’s magnetic attraction is fueled by a rocky but always intertwined history, a shared child, codependence, and mind-blowing sex. Duchovny and McElhone’s spark comes simply from two actors savoring each scene—funny, sexy, or sad—they share together.
They’re not entirely from different worlds, but certainly different continents. Duchovny, 52, was born and reared in New York City—his father, a writer and publicist, his mother, a teacher and school administrator—and, befitting an actor known for radiating a cool intelligence, attended Princeton, then Yale before Hollywood beckoned, ultimately culminating in his breakout role as Fox Mulder on The X Files. McElhone, 41, was born in Brighton to an Irish journalist mother (her British step-father was also a journalist and media pundit) and graduated from the prestigious London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, eventually moving from the theater to high-profile film roles as a warmly elegant love interest to leading men including Anthony Hopkins, Jim Carrey, Brad Pitt, and George Clooney. Duchovny has two children with actress Téa Leoni; McElhone has three sons by her late husband, plastic surgeon Martin Kelly. Both actors split their time between LA and their homes in New York and London, respectively.
“Natascha and I have just been able to have a very easy working relationship, and I didn’t know that was going to be the case because I didn’t know Natascha and I didn’t know anything was going to work” says Duchovny, whose only insight as to why their particular back-and-forth frisson succeeds is because they make it work. “People talk about chemistry. I always think it’s your job to make it happen if it’s not there, to create it—that’s what an actor is supposed to do.”
McElhone doesn’t try to analyze it too deeply, either. “How do you define chemistry anyway?” she wonders aloud in the British accent she casts aside for the character. “You can’t really analyze it for real. You can’t break it down into its component parts. And if you do, then of course it’ll evaporate,” she says.
“We don’t hang out or have an overly established, entwined friendship so it keeps it really about the work, which is pretty great,” she adds, admitting that at the end of the day both actors generally retreat to their respective families. “We mostly connect as our characters. And I love it like that.”
Whatever they’re doing, it’s working. Californication is entering its sixth season in early 2013, and no matter how far afield either character wanders (Hank in particular wanders with just about everyone with two X chromosomes that crosses his path) somehow the audience is still rooting for them to figure out that they belong together—no easy feat for any television coupling. “From the beginning, I was like, ‘Well, what is the show about?’ I didn’t want it to be about tits and ass,” explains Duchovny, despite Hank’s boundless appetite for the latter items. “It’s about this relationship. You say, ‘What if you got it right the first time’—that was the line that Tom hooked me with—‘but you screwed it up in some way, and how do you get it back and how do you make it work?’”
“That’s really the only dramatic through-line,” agrees Kapinos. “Hank is in love with this woman, he messed it up and he can’t quite get back to it, but that’s what he wants more than anything else. It’s enormously tricky, but somehow in the casting we got it right. I knew we had it right with David, and then Natascha came along and from the pilot you knew they had something.” The producer says from the outset his leading man “fit so seamlessly into what I wrote in the pilot, a lot of people said, ‘Did you develop this for David Duchovny?’ That wasn’t the case. The script existed way before he [came along], but it’s just one of those really nice, serendipitous examples of actor meeting material and it all fitting together. I just kept writing Hank the way that I knew him and he kept fitting right in there. That said, I started to hear little things in my head that were the way David might do something,” says Kapinos.
“Natascha is a more traditional example of me watching what she was doing, and that definitely informed the character over the years,” he adds. “She was able to give you the sense that she was just slightly out of his league and he was always going to be shooting for her and she would keep him at arm’s length. Somehow we just lucked out there. You go out searching for that and it’s hard to put exactly into words what you’re looking for, but we definitely got it right with those two.”
Evan Handler, who plays Hank’s literary agent and best friend, Charlie Runkle, breaks it down: “They’re both awfully attractive, aren’t they? That never hurts. And look, they’re both good at what they do.” But Handler admits he’s surprised Hank and Karen’s will-they/won’t-they dynamic still fascinates. “It’s been puzzling as hell to all of us, really. David and I said at the end of shooting the pilot, ‘That was a lot of fun, but how do you get a season out of it?’ Then we said the same thing at the end of the first season: That was a lot of fun, but how do you do more?’ We always kind of laugh that we kept saying that—and yet it’s been more and more.”
“That’s the hardest thing, to keep fresh,” agrees Duchovny of the central relationship—including the upcoming season, in which both characters’ now-unfettered love lives left even the performers a bit confused on occasion as to where they stand romantically. “Like, ‘Where are we exactly?’ Because there’s nothing in the way, and yet we’re not together. ‘Why is that?’ We can’t quite figure it out. She’s not involved with someone else. She’s not getting married to someone else. She’s not pissed at me about something. I’m in love with her, but I’m not pursuing her,” he says.
“The short answer is that there’s no way to keep it f resh, because either you’re together or you’re not,” he shrugs. “Either one of you is with somebody and that’s the problem or the other one is with somebody and that’s the problem. There’s not that many permutations, outside of amnesia. I don’t think we’re going to go there yet. That’s the soap-opera version of it: ‘Hank has forgotten who he is.’”
McElhone suggests that, via Hank’s through-the-looking-glass-style sexual misadventures across LA’s hedonistic landscape, the show always engages the audience enough that “you feel when you come back to Hank and Karen like, ‘Oh, okay, there we are again. The compass has sort of reset itself.’ You come back to the home base where it all seems mundane and dull and his other life is so much more exciting—but the people don’t think that! They seem to want them to be together.”
Duchovny says playing the centerpiece of the show’s funny, frank take on sex, addiction, and self-destructive behavior hasn’t changed him personally. (“I’ve never been the kind of actor who has to live a certain way in order to play a certain guy, so there hasn’t been any of that.”) But the opportunity to play Hank Moody h as h ad a profound impact, he admits, especially when it came to satisfying a long-burning desire to show off his ability to mine laughs after his serious, smoldering stint on The X Files.
“It made me less frantic artistically, trying to show something, trying to prove something. Being able to succeed in this role comedically—and so different from The X Files—made me less insecure, less irritable and more aware of what I can do. Rather than saying, ‘Hey, I’m funny, guys! I’m funny. I’m funny,’ just going and being able to do it meant a lot to me, as a professional and as a person.”
Alternately, McElhone says she’s unchanged by walking in Karen’s hippie-chic shoes—for the most part. “I mean, other than having to do an American accent! Maybe that slightly changes my syntax.” But she’s discovered that many other people feel her character’s romantic travails acutely. “I remember after the first season, someone came up to me, literally took me by the shoulders and shook me and said, ‘You have to leave that guy!’ I was like, ‘It’s okay, I’m not with him. And he doesn’t really exist. It’s a character.’ They’re so attached to it that they overidentify with her plight and they want to rescue her. It was kind of cute…but not really.”
“We’re making a comedy—we’re not trying to solve these problems,” adds Duchovny. “We’re certainly not showing them in the dark light that they might be. This is a guy who has been drinking steadily for six years and has very little negative to show for it. When people say to me, ‘Hank Moody is my hero,’ I say, ‘You might want to think about that!’ Because this is not a life that ends well outside of the comedy universe. If you were to take it into another universe, it’s a tragedy of wasted talent, wasted love, whatever you want to call it.”
Still, the audience is hoping for a happy ending for Hank and Karen, albeit one that’s perhaps another season or two away. Kapinos knows their endgame: “I have it, roughly,” he reveals. “But we’re having so much fun, we all still like each other—which is a minor miracle—and so I’ll do it forever and run it into the ground!”
Duchovny dreams of a not-so-cheery closure. “Part of me wants to get to repercussions,” he says. “I don’t think Hank is going to die, but I always wanted him to die. I thought that would be a great way to end the show: It just catches up with him, eventually. My image was that he was going to marry Karen on his deathbed, basically, and that he was going to get it all. And not be able to enjoy it.”