Duchovny's Commanding Second Act
Very few actors manage to create a Zeitgeist-defining character, let alone two, but David Duchovny—best known for playing alien-obsessed Special Agent Fox Mulder on The X-Files—has defied the odds with the Showtime original series Californication, which earned him a second Golden Globe for his portrayal of misanthropic, sex-addled novelist Hank Moody. The role was largely informed by Duchovny’s time as a Yale doctoral student in his 20s, a decade before he became a household name.
“I envisioned that as my life: staying in academia to make a living and then taking summers off to write my novels,” Duchovny says. “I understand the self-loathing and the resentment, and the discipline that it takes to sit down in front of a typewriter or computer every single day, whether it’s going well or not going well … I didn’t need to research how to be a professor [for Californication’s third season] because I’d already been a teaching assistant when I was pursuing my Ph.D.; it was a very clear memory.”
“The key to Hank Moody, certainly for me in acting him, is that he’s one of those guys who don’t give a fuck, just like Larry David’s character, which is a wish-fulfillment fantasy for all of us.”
It's bizarre to think of a TV and movie star qualifying for Ivy League graduate degrees— prior to succeeding in Hollywood anyway—but in conversation Duchovny is accordingly cerebral and insightful. When asked about his knack for playing self-assured characters despite his personal insecurities (he is quoted as saying, “I’ve always been overly concerned about what people think, which has resulted in a lot of inner turmoil; I try not to give a damn but inside I'm a huge ball of worry”), he waxes poetic about the creative individual’s place in our stratified, hypercritical society.
“That’s a part of the human condition,” Duchovny says. “In this age of media and Internet access, we are much more talkative than ever before. We all participate daily in this shaming of the exiles and deifying of the leaders. We care about perception because we’re all utilizing human consciousness; we aren’t loners—we don’t live alone as animals—so it’s written into our genes in a way.” Nevertheless, social anxiety bothers him less than it did in the past: “As I get older, I’m less attentive and concerned with it. I don’t want to not give a fuck about how other people feel, but I don’t need to go on Twitter and see what everyone is saying about what I did yesterday.”
This brand of carefree authenticity is the defining trait of his Californication character. “The key to Hank Moody, certainly for me in acting him, is that he’s one of those guys who don’t give a fuck, just like Larry David’s character, which is a wish-fulfillment fantasy for all of us. Hank is not going to rein himself in at all because his life is a performance of his work. He’s superstitious that if he isn’t interesting, then his work won’t be interesting.” It is a quality Duchovny admires in the lucky few who possess it. “I’ve run into certain geniuses of individualism—they are very few and far between—who live their lives completely on their own terms; they are very powerful and have a great amount of happiness. We all should aspire to that.”
Bringing such an “uncensored id” to the screen has been one of Duchovny’s favorite experiences as an actor, and he says that “TV is a better written medium at this point” than movies. “When the work is good and interesting and funny and moving, that’s when I have fun,” Duchovny says. “I’ve been guilty of not having fun occasionally, and nobody likes to watch that.”
One of those downers was getting typecast as Fox Mulder for many years, essentially parodying and regurgitating the character in Evolution, Zoolander, and various sci-fi videogames.
“A show or movie with the staying power of The X-Files happens so rarely, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime event for an actor, and a certain residue accrues to a person when they are involved in something like that,” Duchovny says pensively. “There was a prejudice within the Hollywood community where they didn’t know I could do anything else. I understand the residue and I don’t resent it, but certainly I am happy to have created another character that’s so different, in a different genre, and I would love to keep doing that.”
However, Duchovny looks forward to filming a third X-Files film in the near future. “As far as the X-Files movie I’d like to do next, if we get a chance to do it, would be a return to the heart and soul of the mythology, which is the alien-oriented conspiracy. I think it’s natural for The X-Files to have another movie in 2012, so we’ll see if we get to do it.” He defends last year’s widely panned I Want to Believe, as well as the polarizing last few seasons of the television run: “I was happy with it… I have nothing but respect for [ X-Files creator] Chris Carter and the writing staff.”
In the meantime, Duchovny predicts that he will play Hank Moody for another two to three years. “One of the great things about doing cable is that going past seven years is not part of the network’s financial model, so I’m not afraid we’ll go too long,” Duchovny says. “[ Californication creator] Tom Kapinos and I have a similar vision of how we’d like to go out.”
As for the uncanny similarities between Hank Moody’s family-jeopardizing libido and the scandalous tabloid headlines about Duchovny’s marriage to actress Téa Leoni, the actor says he is not a Method actor and his off-camera struggles do not affect his performance: “I understand why people ask that question, but there is never a personal-life connection between my characters and myself. I’m a professional and I can access what I need to access, so there’s no bleed-over. I didn’t need to believe in aliens to play Mulder. As for my personal life, everything is fantastic right now.”
And those youthful dreams of literary stardom?
“I wrote a novel when I was in 23, which was lousy—more a work of perseverance than anything else, too formless and stream-of-consciousness—but it’s still sitting in a drawer somewhere,” Duchovny says. “I’ve always considered that to be my first identity; it’s something that I hope I’ll get back to at some point. I know it can’t wait forever.”
Marty Beckerman is the author of Generation S.L.U.T. (MTV Books) and Dumbocracy (Disinformation). He has written for Playboy, Discover, Radar and Huffington Post. His website is www.MartyBeckerman.com.