David Duchovny: 'My fantasy was to be Nietzsche'

David Duchovny made his name with the profound hokum of The X-Files. But he's no fool, as Matthew Sweet discovers
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The Independent Culture

David Duchovny - the favourite pin-up boy of paranoiacs and conspiracy theorists everywhere - has never been shy of a bit of sauce. Before The X-Files put him on his bank manager's Christmas card list, he made ends meet by taking roles in soft-core sex films on cable TV. In his twenties, he posed for a magazine with a china teacup nestling snugly over his genitals. (His idea, apparently.) In his last movie, Steven Soderbergh's Full Frontal, he played a Hollywood executive who dies with a smile on his face while lying face up on a massage table. And on the set of his latest, Connie and Carla, he brightened the lead actress's week by taking a Polaroid shot of his bottom and secreting it, along with a wax dildo, at the bottom of her handbag - hoping that one evening, rifling for her Amex card in some chichi Beverly Hills sushi trough, she might empty these objects out on to the pressed linen, and blush to the same shade as the floral arrangement.

David Duchovny - the favourite pin-up boy of paranoiacs and conspiracy theorists everywhere - has never been shy of a bit of sauce. Before The X-Files put him on his bank manager's Christmas card list, he made ends meet by taking roles in soft-core sex films on cable TV. In his twenties, he posed for a magazine with a china teacup nestling snugly over his genitals. (His idea, apparently.) In his last movie, Steven Soderbergh's Full Frontal, he played a Hollywood executive who dies with a smile on his face while lying face up on a massage table. And on the set of his latest, Connie and Carla, he brightened the lead actress's week by taking a Polaroid shot of his bottom and secreting it, along with a wax dildo, at the bottom of her handbag - hoping that one evening, rifling for her Amex card in some chichi Beverly Hills sushi trough, she might empty these objects out on to the pressed linen, and blush to the same shade as the floral arrangement.

So naturally, when I meet him for a one-to-one on one of the Dorchester Hotel's chintziest wipe-clean three-piece suites, the conversation turns to the work of John Milton. " Areopagitica," says Duchovny, blinking his sweet little sultana eyes, "is a touchstone in literature because it's an answer to Plato's banishment of the poets, and an answer to censorship. That's why it fascinates me." Marvellous stuff.

In Connie and Carla, Duchovny plays Jeff, a regular kind of guy who finds himself getting all hot and flustered in the presence of one of his brother's work colleagues - which would be fine, if she wasn't a drag queen setting West Hollywood's premiere dinner theatre alight with her Liza Minnelli tribute act. What Jeff doesn't know is that under the pan-stick lurks Connie (Nia Vardalos, the writer of the film and star of My Big Fat Greek Wedding), who, with her best mate Carla (Toni Collette), is living undercover as a male impersonator in order to escape a gangster who wants to throw them from San Pedro harbour in concrete stilettos. The film owes much to Some Like it Hot - Duchovny's role equates nicely to Marilyn's - and a little to Twelfth Night.

"The movie is in a long tradition of gender confusion comedies," notes Duchovny. "Nia will bring up Shakespeare if you let her. If you don't try and stop her." Connie and Carla, he points out, credits the Bard with the coinage of the term "drag". The margin of the first folio, one of the film's rouged showgirls insists, offers an abbreviation of the stage direction "Enter dressed as a girl" as drag's etymological root.

I tell him I don't buy it. No Shakespearean character ever enters dressed as a girl. Boy actors appeared dressed as girls on the Elizabethan stage, but the transvestism of the characters always ran the other way. "So," he declares, "it would have to have been 'Enter dressed as a boy'. Drab queens. That's not very fabulous. But you know what the best Shakespeare stage direction is, don't you?" Exit pursued by a bear? "Let me shake you by the hand," he exclaims, as though I've just explained the Taniyama-Shimura conjecture.

He wonders whether the creature was played by a man in a bear suit, but I suggest that as the bear garden was so close, it might have been cheaper to bring on the real thing. "So this bear," he reflects, quietly appalled, "who's going to be baited by mastiffs the next day, has to suffer the embarrassment of chasing a woman dressed as a man? And that's supposed to be evidence of the maturing of Shakespeare's comic vision? Sending his characters out to be viciously mauled by bears? Maybe he never wrote it. Maybe somebody else put it in to drum up sales: 'Nobody's going to see The Winter's Tale, let's put a bear in it.' Kind of like the original special effects movie."

What else would you like to know about Duchovny? He's of Jewish-Scottish extraction. He's allergic to metal. His school nickname was "doggie". His voice is so soft and dry it sounds like a bush fire. His sister, Laurie, gave birth to twins last week. (One weighed in at five pounds, the other at four, and both are doing just fine.) His parents separated when he was 11. His father, Amram, was PR executive for the American Jewish Committee - until he decided to pack in work and move to Paris to write novels. His mother, Meg, a schoolteacher, was left behind in Manhattan to raise three little Duchovnys. He was at Yale with Jennifer Beals, who, in 1993, turned down the part of Agent Dana Scully because she remembered his tiresome campaign to get her into bed. ("He used to follow me around and ask for dates," she recalled in a recent interview.)

Duchovny did not attend Yale simply to wait by the Coke machine for Beals to shimmy by. After gaining a good degree from Princeton - his senior thesis was entitled "The Schizophrenic Critique of Pure Reason in Beckett's Early Novels" - he transferred to Yale to work on a PhD. I ask him to give me the pitch.

"I have no idea whether it makes any sense or not," he ventures, "but it was about magic as a form of technology - a way to get things done and move things around in an efficient way - and technology as magic, as a way of performing great feats that 300 years ago would have been considered magical. A blender. Things that we take for granted. Fire.

"Magic is a field of knowledge that has moral boundaries. There's good magic and bad magic. There are good witches and bad witches. And technology is a field of knowledge without moral boundaries. Looking back, we try to read a morality into something like the Manhattan Project, when the fact is that if we can figure out how to do something, we'll generally do it. And I was going to discuss this in relation to contemporary writers who were trying to put technology within certain moral strictures. Norman Mailer, Ishmael Reed, Thomas Pynchon. With Gravity's Rainbow it would have worked best."

How diligent a student was he? "I didn't do a damn bit of work on it," he sighs. So how long did he spend sitting on the grass pretending to do his preliminary reading? "Not long. Maybe I wrote a chapter. But it was on an old Apple Mac and I'd never get it out of the hard drive. It's at my mother's house now."

Does he think that any of his Hollywood contemporaries have half-finished doctoral theses idling in their parents' attic? Might Tommy Lee Jones have 100,000 unpublished words on The Faerie Queen lurking in his bottom drawer? "Maybe they just don't talk about it," he speculates. "But if I ever got mine I would definitely want to be credited on a movie as Dr David Duchovny. I suppose I could be David Duchovny ABD - which is a slightly shady designation which means 'All But Dissertation' - but it sounds a bit too much like ADD, as in Attention Deficit Disorder."

He lies back in his armchair. "I haven't talked about any of this stuff for years. I think the brain is like the bottom of the ocean; there are these layers of rock, some fossilised. But sometimes they get drilled and it releases a noxious substance that sometimes hurts the sea life, and sometimes enriches it." Ah, now, I saw that episode of The X-Files.

Duchovny's life has been free from little grey aliens, fag-toting CIA spooks and mutant hillbillies for four years. Plenty of time to get a global phenomenon in perspective. "Every year had its own hurdle," he recalls. "The first year it was just survival. I'd never worked that hard before. Fifteen hours a day. It was enervating. How do I work to memorise these lines? In The X-Files there was always something new to memorise, but once you'd got the character there wasn't really anything new to act. The second year it was a matter of working out how to have fun while I did it. The third year was, 'Well, OK, I've survived - so how can I start to be creative again?' It was only at that point that I had any energy left to do anything other than go home and prepare for the next day's work."

Just for the record, the fifth year was the one in which he threatened to leave the show unless it shifted its production base from Vancouver to Los Angeles. (His bosses agreed.) The seventh year was the one in which he sued the Fox network for fees they owed him for the sale of the show's syndication rights. (They settled.) The eighth year was the one in which he appeared in only a handful of episodes. (At a fee of $400,000 a time.) And the ninth year was the one in which he returned to wrap up the series with a two-hour special. (Entitled "The Truth", but offering nothing of the kind.) Now, he says, he's ready for another round of UFO-spotting, but only if it's on the big screen. "A movie's different," he reasons. "A television series is like a marathon that you're forced to walk, but a movie is like a sprint."

And The X-Files, he concedes, not only made his face one of the most disseminated images on the planet, but allowed him to test his aptitude for directing and screenwriting. Without that experience, he would never have made The House of D, an independent picture of which he is the writer, director and star. Nor might he be working so hard to get My Dark Places - a script based on James Ellroy's account of his participation in the police investigation of his mother's murder - on to the screen. "I feel comfortable now at this point in my life to be creative," he muses. "I think that's what I originally got into it to do - to write. And it's taken me long enough to get here."

He suspects that those old themes he intended to consider in his doctoral thesis might make some kind of return in his next screenplay - and the circularity of this movement seems to please him. "You have a fantasy when you're young, that you're going to be Nietzsche," he drawls, "that you have access to the profoundest truths. But screenwriting doesn't sustain a great deal of critical thought. You have to be careful of pedantry and cant and preaching. I don't really have anything profound to say. If I had, I imagine I would have been a philosopher. But I don't, really. On the other hand, I'm not an idiot, either."

Absolutely not. He's a smart guy who just happens to like taking Polaroid pictures of his bottom.

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