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The Sunday Times: "The return of David Duchovny"

David Duchovny is back in the big time as a sleazy, jaded sex addict in the hit show Californication. But is television’s new pin-up acting?
Interview by Chrissy Iley

David Duchovny was Agent Mulder for nine series of The X Files. He was defined as the character who thought much, said little and was possibly asexual. Bored and frustrated with the constraints of a long-term TV series, Duchovny wanted something else. Not necessarily something more, but something different. For the past five years he has concentrated on writing, directing, acting in independent movies. He has been developing a comedic side but he has been seen by few. He has to work at achieving lightness, but he’s good at working hard. He graduated from Princeton in 1982, then won a scholarship to do a master’s in English literature at Yale. His thesis was on magic and technology. He has always said that because of his immense education he had a brain the size of a house and a heart the size of a pea. Working on levelling that out has been a life’s work but one that’s finally come to fruition.

Perhaps he needed to be away from prime-time TV that long to make the emotional impact he has as Hank Moody in Californication, about to end on Five. As the writer with writer’s block and a man who loves all women but is still in love with his ex-girlfriend, played by Natascha McElhone, he spends a lot of time with his clothes off in sexual disillusionment. He’s tortured, funny and a bad boy: utterly appealing. And not just to women. He’s the new gay icon. Californication is to the second half of this decade what the New York babes of Sex and the City were to the first. It poses the right questions. It’s the zeitgeist. Makes you laugh, makes you cry.

It would all be very neat if that was it. This is the new sexualised David Duchovny, who has moved from X Files to Y files, finally laying Mulder to rest. But despite claims about wanting to leave that all behind, he’s about to start the second X Files movie. And he’s just finished a small but pivotal role playing the husband of Halle Berry in Things We Lost in the Fire.

It’s raining black rain in Manhattan when we meet in a hotel bar where he’s the sole customer. Duchovny’s voice is velvet and mumbling.

He has a yoga-hard intelligence and soft, sultana eyes. He has an inbuilt cynicism, a distance between himself and the world. Yet he is raw, honest. Does it feel different to him to have slipped back onto the radar?

“I feel lucky to have survived so long as an actor. You know that at some point it goes away again. So I had this dream in my head that I could go back and direct if it goes away.” He’s 47, doesn’t look it. But perhaps he is aware there is a limit to his standing as a sexual icon. Was he happy for those low-key learning years or did he miss being part of a No 1 show? “I was missing doing something that a lot of people were watching. Missing being challenged on a day-to-day basis.” Were you missing attention? “I don’t think so. But it felt fun to do something that people were watching, because most of the stuff I’ve done over the past five years, for whatever reason, has been small or not watched.”

In the past five years he’s been doing clever comedies like Trust the Man, where he played a sex addict, and Connie and Carla, starring opposite two women playing drag queens. And most recently The TV Set, which he sees as a personal turning point. It’s a comedy in which he plays a drama-series writer. He plays against type with a big, grizzly beard and ugly clothes that make him look fat. Sigourney Weaver and Ioan Gruffudd play the TV executives who want to emasculate his script. It wasn’t released in the UK but now it probably will be.

“It was fun for me personally because I was learning how to do comedy. People are always saying about me, ‘I didn’t know he was funny.’ I’m going to put that on my gravestone.”

He’s close friends with Garry Shandling of Larry Sanders fame. It seems they’ve had many long and tortured conversations about whether they are funny. Funny is how he plays Hank in Californication. “I try to feel funny. It’s a mood. There’s a certain sensuality and a certain passivity to him. I don’t think of him as particularly sexy.”

Of course he is sexy, not just because he’s funny but because he’s clever and wrong and sharp and soft. A bad boy with a good heart. He grimaces. “The sex scenes are especially unsexy. They’re just awkward, you know. Some people might be turned on by awkwardness. I’m not one of those guys. There are 10 sweaty guys hanging lights over you while you…”

There are lots of sex scenes. Sometimes brutal – he gets slapped – sometimes tender and sometimes surreal, like when he’s snorting a line of coke from a woman’s bare buttocks.

“Ah yes, what’s that line?” he recalls. “You can’t snort coke off a woman’s ass and not wonder about her hopes and dreams.” It’s a good line. I wish somebody had said it to me. “It’s not too late,” he says, deadpan. “I have different feelings about coke and marijuana, say. Marijuana rarely leads to violence in my experience.

“The 12-step programmes may have helped thousands of people, and I’m all for that, but addicts give drugs a bad name for the people who can actually do them, handle them and not get addicted. People always want to rush to say, ‘He’s an addict.’ People have called this character a sex addict, and to me that’s weird. It’s been written that you can be a sex addict within a marriage.”

He himself has been married to the actress Tea Leoni for 10 years. He picks up a promotional DVD of Californication. “Look, they put an apple on this and a snake. This show is nothing to do with temptation. When I did The X Files, everyone would ask me, do I believe in aliens? It was a way in, a soft entry point. This character is in a lot of pain. Is this character me? You find things in your character that you relate to, you exaggerate things, you play down things that don’t belong.

“On The X Files, people were asking me, ‘Do you believe in this stuff?’ Yes, maybe. But on a very deep level it had nothing to do with me. What are people saying to me now? Do I believe in sex? Yes, I believe in sex, sure. Some might be interested in tits and they might think that’s what this show is about, and it never really was. It’s about a guy who has a lot of sex. Do I believe in tits? Sure, I’ve seen them. I know they are real.”

Before his marriage he was known to be a man who liked women. He told me at the time: “It was a turning point in my life. A conjunction of timing, maturity, luck and attraction. All the pieces fell into place. When you’re married you have to deal with yourself. You can’t sublimate your pain with drugs and other women. Or should that be women and other drugs?”

I believe he and his character Hank Moody have a lot more in common. The series is about a man who is sublimating his pain through women and other drugs. You feel that whatever acting role is consuming Duchovny, he plays against it in real life. For instance, now he gets to talk about love and sex on screen, he’s more cerebral off screen. When he was Mulder, on screen he never talked about sex. Off screen, he took delight in sexual teasing. He once told me, I remind him, that his sexual fantasy was to be a vagina. “I remember telling you that, but I don’t know what it’s about, though. I do not have this fantasy about being a vagina. I lied to you.”

Women love Duchovny because they believe he does have female sensibilities. In the days when he told me he wanted to be a vagina, he also told me he was concerned about what was most important to a woman: “Is it the orgasm, the clitoris or the moisture?” I told him it might be love. Women have sex so that they can fall in love and men fall in love so they can have sex. “That’s so cynical, the idea to tell a woman you love her in order to have sex. I never did that. But maybe I didn’t have to.” He probably looked at them in such a way that they believed they were loved, so that the woman can create her own fantasy. That’s what he does in Californication.

He looks thoughtful. “Hank is very passive in a way. He’s never the sexual aggressor. He’s often on the bottom. Is he feminine in that way?” he questions. “Is he really sublimating his pain with sex? I think that’s the way you give sex a bad name. You can’t say if you were really happy you would do that.”

One thing for sure, Duchovny is no longer searching. He’s incredibly comfortable talking about his wife. On his wedding finger he has letters tattooed instead of a ring. “She liked wearing a wedding ring but I didn’t.” He has his daughter Madelaine West’s name on his ankle. Madelaine West is now eight and Kyd Miller is five. They are currently being tutored. Leoni is doing a movie in Manhattan, so they are out

of school temporarily. “I treat them very differently. I’m harder on him, I can’t help it. She can get away with more. When she cries I will do anything to stop her. When he cries I tell him to stop. I try to watch that but it’s instinctual.”

He says: “My wife loves Californication,” dismissing any idea that she might be insecure enough to worry that her husband is naked in front of other women. She particularly liked the scene where he got hit twice just after having sex with a girl he had no idea was underage. “Her reaction to chaos is to laugh; mine is to control it.” Does it feel like you’ve been married 10 years? “I don’t know. I don’t know what time feels like. I know there was an AD for me and a BC: when I was not a public person and when I was. There are two demarcations in my life. I suppose I first became well known in ’93.”

In that year he was established as the languid-voiced narrator of the sexual-fantasy series Red Shoe Diaries. You see, he’s always been interested in sex. He’s talked about the perfect timing of meeting his wife. She talked about it too. She would ask herself, would you ever want to get married again? And answer no. Then she met Duchovny and then asked herself, did she want to marry David? And the answer was suddenly yes. If they hadn’t met, then perhaps he’d still be sublimating his pain through sex. Isn’t it harder to meet people you want to be involved with when you’re famous? “No, it’s really easy.” Maybe harder to trust them? “What is this trust? People are attracted to what they are attracted to. It’s rare that somebody is attracted to your soul. If they are attracted to something and it’s fame, then it’s fame.” Were you not attracted to your wife’s soul? “Well, eventually. Not straight off, not when I saw her picture. We were set up by my agent. Tea was going to be visiting the office and I happened to have a cover of Entertainment Weekly or something, and she was on it. On that cover she was sitting with her head over her knees and she had her legs going up… I can’t say she was displaying her soul.” What do you find sexy? “If somebody is comfortable with themselves, they appear sexy to me.”

Duchovny often comes over as uncomfortable with himself. It doesn’t quite fit that he graduated from Yale to star in commercials, later as a transvestite in Twin Peaks, and to wrap his silky voice around Red Shoe Diaries. It seems odd that Mulder and The X Files came out of that. And even odder that after beseeching “Is there life after Mulder?” he should want to embrace him again. He once said that you wouldn’t want your favourite athlete to come out of retirement, you’d want to remember them as they were. And he once told me that the relationship with Gillian Anderson was reduced to: “I trust her to show up and not waste my time. She does the same. We don’t socialise.”

You can’t help but question his enthusiasm for the X Files film. “It was the television show that I was ready to leave. I wouldn’t go and do the TV show again. That would be serving the same apprenticeship.” The film does involve Anderson, though. “I think we’re good,” he says without emotion. “We haven’t had a lot of contact over the last few years. Not out of any kind of enmity: we just drifted naturally into our own space. There were times that we were definitely tired of one another. It was eight or nine years of intense work and a lot of life changes.”

The pressure during that series was so immense that at one point, while trying to serve his apprenticeship as a writer, he had to co-write an episode with the series’ creator, Chris Carter, with whom he was not even speaking at the time. There’s a tight pause. “It is possible that we didn’t talk during the writing of that script. I honestly don’t remember. None of that matters now. I’m happy to work with Gillian again. It could be weirdly uncomfortable, which is always good, isn’t it?” So he does thrive on discomfort.

“I don’t hate the show, I don’t hate the people, I just got tired and I was ready to move on… I wanted to make comedies because I hadn’t. I’m not good at making decisions or planning. I didn’t have a check list or the idea that I needed to get somewhere.” He’s still on the journey. Things We Lost in the Fire is a haunting film. He plays his character with tenderness, warmth. He is a lawyer and father of two young children who is killed in a random act of violence. “The script is emotional and it’s smart. It feels true. It’s not melodramatic.” In the movie he’s been married to Halle Berry for 11 years.

“There’s a kind of mixture of excitement and boredom there. It’s not neat. It seemed more like a real tragedy.”

You believe in him as a father, both in this movie and in Californication, as someone who tries to do the right thing even if he doesn’t succeed. He always used to say that the irony of playing Mulder was that he was playing a hero. “And that’s something a man learns that he needs to do. To try to be heroic.” Duchovny has always tried everything with alpha-maleness. Not just one degree at Yale but two. To do basketball and yoga at the same time. To peak with alpha-male perfectionism while awakening in him all that is sensitive and feminine. There’s one episode of Californication where Hank’s father dies and he learns that all along his father only pretended not to read what he’d written. He loved him but didn’t know how to show it. It resonates. It’s one of Duchovny’s favourite episodes. Does it in any way reflect his relationship with his father and how he felt when he died?

His Russian-American father divorced his Scottish mother and left the family when Duchovny was 11. He was an advertising executive but left to write novels. Finally, when he was 73, Amram Ducovny (they spell their surnames differently) had a novel called Coney published. “I think that’s an incredible story regardless of the merits of the book. I really…” he searches for the word, “am touched by his perseverance.” Such an ambiguous thing to say. You imagine their relationship was complex. “It was surprising to him that I was successful as an actor. It was never anything that I expressed interest in as a child. There was nobody that we knew in show business. I think he was tickled by the balls of my making that decision given the other opportunities that I had.” Did you have much in common with him? “We talked a lot about writing. He walked around describing things to himself in his head. Sometimes he was hard to talk to because of it. People in your family, they just hurt you unconsciously.”

He was brought up with his mother as the primary carer. Maybe that contributes to why he has an easy empathy with women. He’s aware, though, that men who love women are often a danger to them. He has compared his character Hank to Warren Beatty’s character in Shampoo. But the hairdresser was shallow and unlikable.

“The comparison is that they are both products of their time. Shampoo is set at a pivotal social moment. One era is ending and we are entering another. In the ’60s you can f*** anybody and it’s all cool, and in the ’70s you realise that maybe people are not prepared for f***ing each other so much: they get hurt and there are actually recriminations to your liberated behaviour. It has political depth. Californication is also about a man’s journey and how it’s affected by the times we live in. He’s certainly more likable because he’s smart.”

Does he love or hate himself? “Ralph Richardson said of Olivier: he’s in love with himself, he’s just not sure if it’s reciprocated. That’s what he’s like.” And could you describe yourself in the same way? “If I had to sum myself up, that’s as good as it gets right now.”

Californication is on Five on Thursdays at 10pm and is repeated on Five US

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1 coments:

Claudia said...

No one does sleazy as well as David. :) I for one am THRILLED to see him back in action, and perhaps, at his very, very best.