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A tempting role

From The Sunday Times
September 2, 2007

Californication is the juicy new series that lured David Duchovny back to TV. We ask him about its appeal

David Duchovny is tired. He’s been shooting and reshooting the same scene all day – and, for an actor who likes to improvise, this means he’s had to think of fresh funny stuff for almost every take. He’s just finished fending off a crowd of hacks who are slightly shocked by the sex-and-drugs-and-rock’n’roll nature of his new television series, Californication, and he’s batted them back with his usual Ringo wit: “David, what do you think you will take more heat for, the nudity or the smoking?” “I think it’s the nude smoking.”

So, when he slumps on the sofa in the ultra-modernist house the crew have been working in all day, he squints in the sunshine and speaks slowly and quietly. He’s also slightly uncomfortable if anyone mentions the X word – as in Files, rather than porn. Because, while the American headlines around Californication are about the sex (there is plenty of it, fairly graphic and extending into most peccadilloes) and the mayhem (boobs, alcohol and drugs being unfashionable on American television since Janet Jackson’s Nipplegate moved the broadcasting watchdog to the far right), this is also Duchovny’s second big shot at playing a 21st-century screwball Cary Grant, after mysteriously lousing it up last time.

The X Files, across its nine seasons, put Duchovny and his co-star, Gillian Anderson, into the stellar championship division – not quite in the Premier League with movie stars and footballers, but way ahead of most rock stars and almost all TV stars (and this, my child, was in the days before reality shows, when TV stars really were TV stars). Duchovny clambered off the X Files ratings train early and, for a while, was set to be the next George Clooney, with witty roles in twisted comedies such as Evolution and wry cameos, including a hand model in Zoolander. He said he’d never work in television again. Yet here he is. “It was a character I liked, and it didn’t matter to me what the medium was,” he shrugs. “It was more a sense of humour I liked, an adult humour I hadn’t been able to do or hadn’t seen or hadn’t had available to me for a long time – if ever. It reminded me of movies I love from the 1970s, like Shampoo – dark adult comedies with actual situations and real adults. Sure, they can be childish, that’s the essence of comedy, but they’re not children.”

So, does that mean today’s comedy is childish? “I think American comedies are – British comedies are a little more adult,” he smiles, charming the Englishman. “It seems they are appealing to everyone, even 12-year-olds, but 12-year-olds wouldn’t get this show.” Certainly, they wouldn’t get in to see this show if it was on the big screen. Duchovny plays Hank Moody, a New York writer in the Will Self mould whose masterwork, God Hates Us All, has been made into a romantic comedy called A Crazy Little Thing Called Love, starring Tom and Katie. He’s rich. He’s lost his girlfriend, mother of his beloved daughter, to an interior designer and sinks into the waves of depravity that wash through LA.

Does Duchovny, a father of two with his wife of 10 years, Téa Leoni, worry about depicting fractured family values? “What appealed to me was that the guy supposedly without morals was the most moral person when the chips were down,” he explains carefully. “Not having the right morality, necessarily, but – well, ‘a walking id’ was how he was described in the pilot. He doesn’t really have desires, but he doesn’t have any ‘no’, either. If you gave him booze or coke or a woman, he would take that. Being a good father was part of that.

“But I wouldn’t know what family values are – I’m just making it up as I go along. In terms of the right god and the right school and the right approach to drugs and sex, all that stuff, to me it’s not set in stone. I’m not a just-say-no guy – I could never say that.” He seems wary of taking that thinking further, so switches back to the character. “What seemed real to me was that he was not some driven guy who was going to do every joint – he was a man who had lost something, lost his will.”

You wonder if he feels for his character’s compromise. Duchovny was born in New York to a working-class Scottish mother and a Russian father, so he felt like an outsider. He won a scholarship to a big-money prep school, then a place at Princeton, and studied under Harold Bloom at Yale for his masters – “I knew the work of Derrida and Paul de Man,” he smiles. “It’s like surgical text-books: I know how to read them.” Then, suddenly, he won the lead role in an ad for Löwenbräu beer.

“I would understand a serious novelist like this guy selling his book to be made into a movie and hoping it would resemble it, or be different or better,” he smiles. “There are times you do something and thought you were doing something else. But I think if you really checked yourself, you would know you’d had a feeling that it might not be exactly what you were telling yourself it was. I don’t think there are any huge surprises in life, like there are in this show, where a guy gets completely blind-sided by the triviali-sation of his work. I think we all make compromises little by little, then one day turn around and say, ‘Oh, I’m a hack.’ ” Does he feel he’s made those hack compromises? He pauses, shrugs. “Sure, yeah. I wouldn’t want to name them, because that would belittle the people who made them with me, and I don’t know if they were making compromises.”

He clearly no longer feels the X Files role was a compromise, though he spared no scorn for his character’s gullibility in interviews at the time, describing Mulder as the worst FBI agent ever. He’s just signed up for the second X Files movie, along with Anderson and the show’s creator, Chris Carter. He’s seen and loves the script. What brought him back into the fold?

“There has not been a show that has made it as long as we did, at as high a level of achievement as we did, ever,” he says with pride. “Alias went for five seasons, Lost has done four – I mean, come to me when you’ve done eight and are still one of the best shows on television. And there was so much interest in it. So . . .” He shrugs again. Is there a craving for that global fame again? Does he want to go back to the days of X Files Beatle-mania? “I wish,” he laughs. “I don’t think you could ever feel like a Beatle. They knew they were doing something great, I think. Although . . .” The thought trips mischievously across his face. “Maybe they didn’t, because they weren’t together as long as we were. In fact, we were better than the Beatles. I mean, come on, 1962 to 1970? They couldn’t even make it to a ninth year.”

Californication is on Five from October 11

Thanks to The Sunday Times!

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