David Duchovny: Hiding in Plain Sight

David Duchovny explains his esthetics of self-protection, talks about his foray back onto the big screen in Playing God, and lays out the strategy for "The X-Files" movie(s).

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In his hit TV show, "The X-Files," David Duchovny plays Fox Mulder, an FBI agent who specializes in cases with paranormal or extraterrestrial aspects to them. He's paired with Gillian Anderson, who plays the cynic to his believer. Duchovny's acting style is so understated that you feel as if you're watching Mulder's innermost thoughts. Either that, or he's about to fall asleep at any moment.

After nearly 10 years of relative obscurity in mediocre films (including New Year's Day, Showtime's Red Shoe Diaries, Julia Has Two Lovers and Kalifornia), plus a memorable turn as transvestite FBI agent Dennis/Denise on Twin Peaks, Duchovny has finally become a bona fide star--_The X-Files_ is watched by an average of 20 million viewers weekly. Now, with the upcoming stylish crime drama Playing God, the 36-year-old actor is looking to return to the big screen.

I'm following Duchovny through a field toward what looks like a goat with its viscera hanging out. On closer inspection, it is a goat with its viscera hanging out. Granted, it's a fake goat, but the flies buzzing around its head are real. Blood oozes from its nose and eyes. A little girl in a black beret squats next to it. "This isn't scary enough," she says. "It isn't?" asks the director, who, along with the fly rustler (I kid you not) heads over to see what else can be done. Just as I think I hear the word "maggots," I catch up with Duchovny and we get settled in some director's chairs at the edge of the field.

That's Piper," Duchovny says, pointing to the little girl. "She's Gillian's two-year-old daughter. She's been on the set since the day she was born, so she's used to seeing squirming, alien worms. She thinks that's normal. But when she saw Santa Claus this year, she went apoplectic--screaming and crying. I'm glad I'm not going to have to pay her therapy bills."

"So," he says, turning back to me. "I hope you don't want to talk about aliens. We can if you really want to, but ..."

"Don't worry," I say. "I've seen a total of about six minutes of The X-Files, and I could give a shit about aliens--"

"Really?" he says, looking me over. "Most journalists expect me to answer all their questions about aliens and spaceships..."

"I don't have any questions about aliens. If they're coming, I hope they don't take me. I'd rather talk about poetry ..."

Duchovny laughs. He earned an undergraduate degree at Princeton and was working towards a Ph.D. in literature at Yale when he decided he'd rather be an actor.

"My editor thought you might take a look at this," I say, removing a wad of disorganized fax pages from my bag. Duchovny takes a page and reads aloud: "As Parmigianino did it, the right hand bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer and swerving easily away, as though to protect what it advertises ..." He starts to laugh. "Jesus, this is one of my favorite poems. How did she know? It's called 'Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror' by John Ashbery. It's about a man who's painting his self-portrait, but he's looking into a mirrored ball, and the closer he gets to it, the further away his image seems to be going. For me, that would be the acting style that I'm trying to do. I'm trying to protect what I advertise. That's my stance on any kind of self-expression. That's as far as I need to go." He pauses, then says, "You could look at this poem for weeks, just weeks."

Duchovny reads for about five minutes, until I realize that if I don't stop him, he probably will read it for weeks. I take the poem out of his hands and shove it in my bag. He looks up, startled, and you can see the ironic, absentminded professor he might have become.

"I was wondering if you thought there were warning signs for Ph.D. candidates, telling them that they're really in the wrong line of work and would be happier as actors."

Duchovny doesn't hesitate. "OK. One: instead of staying home and grading papers, you smoke a joint, grab a Three Musketeers bar and go to the movie theater. Although that could apply to just about all graduate students. Two: while teaching, all your references are to television shows and popular movies rather than literature. Which is much appreciated by the students, but not by the faculty. Three--"

"Would you have made a good teacher?" I interrupt.

Duchovny thinks it over for a few minutes. "I think teaching college is a very important job, yes, but these kids at Yale were already better educated than most people in the world when they got there. I think the real heroic teachers are the ones who work with kids, like my mom and my sister do."

"What were you like as a teenager?"

"A good athlete, a good student, a pretty good kid. I didn't really feel a need to blow up any buildings."

"You were brought up on New York's Lower East Side. Do you go back there often?"

"Oh yeah. I love the Lower East Side. Everybody talks about how different groups of people are moving in and changing the texture. But the drugs remain the same--it's just different ethnic groups selling them."

"What about the hookers?"

"I'll always remember walking past 12th and 3rd one day when I was too young, and there was a woman saying, 'Piece of pussy for five dollars.' I remember thinking, 'How much for the whole thing?' I remember more about her than about women I've spent significant amounts of time with. That says nothing about me, but a lot about memory ..."

"Are you kidding?" I say. "It says everything about you. If you'd had five bucks in your pocket that day, you probably wouldn't even remember this story."

"Who says I didn't have the five bucks? No, it's just that I never thought she'd talk to me, and when she did, she was offering me a piece. What was she saying about me? That I couldn't handle the whole thing? Would five bucks be for a quarter pussy? Would 20 bucks buy the whole thing?"

"As long as we're talking about sex ..."

Duchovny groans.

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