”You’re not going to try to take a shower with me, are you?”
David Duchovny wants to know. ”We can go swimming together, but I’m showering by myself afterwards. Understood?”
The ground rules thus established, the X-Files star invites a visiting reporter to join him for a dip at the public park in Vancouver where the actor paddles a mile almost every morning before heading to the set of his hit TV series. Arriving poolside at 11 a.m. sharp, Duchovny, 35, drops his jeans and offers his guest a journalistic coup. ”I decided to wear the same swimsuit I wore on the show,” he announces. ”The famous red Speedo, in the flesh.”
Famous, indeed. After Duchovny unveiled the teeny-weeny male bikini in an X-Files episode last fall, he nearly triggered a meltdown on the Internet. Fans burned up the computer lines with heavy-breathing E-mails admiring his form and speculating on whether he ”dressed” to the right or left (the consensus was at an angle). In fact, after two seasons on the air, Duchovny has become the hottest sci-fi sex symbol since that bald guy with the British accent on the Enterprise. Compu-groupies like the David Duchovny Estrogen Brigade roam the Net spreading gigabytes of personal data on the actor, from his dog’s name (Blue) to his romance with actress Perrey Reeves (who played a vampire in an X-Files episode last year). Of course, it’s not only on-line fanatics who tune in: As many as 17 million viewers a week follow the otherworldly adventures of Duchovny’s TV alter ego, Fox Mulder, an intense, UFO-obsessed FBI agent who utters dialogue in a monotone so deadpan it would give Sgt. Joe Friday goose bumps.
”Obviously it’s tapping into something the nation wants,” Duchovny says. ”I think it has to do with religious stirrings — a sort of New Age yearning for an alternate reality and the search for some kind of extrasensory god. Couple that with a cynical, jaded, dispossessed feeling of having been lied to by the government, and you’ve got a pretty powerful combination for a TV show.
”Either that, or the Fox network has an amazing marketing department.”
The pool Duchovny swims in is so huge — 138 meters in length, longer than a football field — that it’s actually got arrows painted on the bottom so people don’t get lost. Duchovny slips in and freestyles a mile in just under 30 minutes (his guest barely manages a half mile). Afterward, it’s lunch at the Yam Cafa, a health-food restaurant a short walk from the park.
Sipping vegetable juice at a table in the back, oblivious to the occasional stares from other customers, Duchovny seems an odd mix. On the one hand, he’s a die-hard Easterner (Manhattan upbringing, sardonic sense of humor, complete cynicism about the sort of supernatural shenanigans that take place on his show every week). On the other hand, he’s got some classic L.A. tics (he’s a vegetarian who practices yoga in his trailer). He’s odd in another way, as well: He’s way smarter than any TV star has a right to be. ”I’ll read his interviews and it’ll take me a half hour to decipher one paragraph of what he’s said,” says Gillian Anderson, who plays Agent Dana Scully, Mulder’s skeptical FBI partner. ”Stuff just pours out of his mouth.”
Exactly how brainy are we talking here? Brainy enough to win a scholarship to Manhattan’s elite Collegiate prep school, earn a B.A. in literature at Princeton (”I discovered what preppy really was,” he says of the experience, ”a level of Biff-dom I’d never seen before”), and receive a graduate fellowship at Yale, where he came within a mere thesis of earning a Ph.D. in literary criticism. Even during the dumbest moments of his life — like when he decided to chuck his scholarly career and become an actor — he’s turned out to be not so stupid after all.
”My mom was disappointed,” Duchovny says. ”I think she’ll always be disappointed, even if she is a little amazed that I was actually able to pull it off. But I was never fully convinced that I was meant to be an academic.” Duchovny’s mother, Meg, a teacher, raised David by herself (along with his older brother, Danny, and younger sister, Laurie) after her 1972 divorce. His father, Amram Ducovny (who dropped the h in his last name), is a PR man and author who wrote the Off Broadway play The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald, which ran for about a week in 1967. ”It was really long,” says Duchovny, who has since become friends with his dad. ”Oswald just sat there and didn’t say anything the whole first act. I remember asking my father how it was possible that he didn’t have to go to the bathroom.”
Aside from a memorable turn in a fifth-grade production as one of the three magi, David’s own theatrical genes didn’t kick in until grad school, when he began hanging out at the Yale drama school and commuting to New York to perform in coffeehouse theaters on the Lower East Side. ”He made the decision to become an actor in increments,” says actress Maggie Wheeler, who dated Duchovny around that time (she plays Janice, Chandler’s sometime girlfriend, on Friends). ”He’d put so much energy into academics and been so successful at it — switching to acting was a big deal.”
His first paying gig was swigging brewskies in a 1987 Lowenbrau commercial (”I was so nervous — I felt awful for the people who hired me,” he says). Next came a part in New Year’s Day, an artsy 1989 Henry Jaglom improv flick that persuaded him to head west. ”My agent thought I should move to California in case there was any ‘heat’ when New Year’s Day opened. And there was a little heat, but the only thing that happened was that I changed agents.”
A string of mostly minor films followed. He played a dial-a-perv in 1991’s no-budget erotic drama Julia Has Two Lovers (”A crewman kept falling asleep, so you’d hear him snoring during your take”), a born-again sleazoid in 1991’s The Rapture, a cinematographer in 1992’s Chaplin, a yuppie in 1992’s Beethoven, and one of Brad Pitt’s hostages in 1993’s Kalifornia. There was also some TV work, including a bit as a transvestite on Twin Peaks and a continuing role as the cuckolded narrator of Showtime’s racy Red Shoe Diaries. (”I’m the conduit through which America views the soft underbelly of women’s erotic desires,” he says of his off-screen character. ”Some say it’s the part I was born to play.”)
Then, of course, came the joy of X. ”David read for the part and was perfect,” says X-Files creator and executive producer Chris Carter. ”We were obligated to give the network a choice of at least two actors” — he won’t say who the other one was — ”but we knew David was it from the start. He was just very, very right for the role.” Duchovny, however, wasn’t certain the role was very, very right for him. ”Two FBI agents investigating the paranormal? It sounds like, ‘Oh, God! Nothing could be worse.”’
He took the job convinced that the series wouldn’t last a season.
Garry Shandling has sent a note — ”Enjoy this, you big queer” — along with a videotape of Duchovny’s recent appearance on HBO’s The Larry Sanders Show. As is customary on that reality-bending talk-show send-up, Duchovny guest-starred as himself — sort of. ”I told [the writers] I wanted to be as objectionable as possible,” he explains. ”Garry kept telling me, ‘People are going to think this is really you, that you really are a jerk.’ But I just said, ‘Who cares?”’ Duchovny was so perfectly rude and obnoxious on the show — ”When I get back to my hotel room, there better be a big f—ing fruit basket,” he sneered at Larry during one commercial break — that he and Shandling instantly became pals. ”David is actually a very funny guy,” Shandling says. ”He should do more comedy. Not that The X-Files isn’t extremely funny.”
”I’m finally beginning to understand star trips,” Duchovny says. ”My whole life I’ve heard about stars doing insane things and I’ve been, like, What is their problem? But I obviously have that in me too. I’ve felt myself having those Hollywood feelings, these infantile rages, mostly because I can get away with it. So now that I’m finally beginning to understand it — to see it in myself — I wanted to play it. That’s why I did the thing with Garry.”
But Duchovny’s willingness to play snotty on Larry Sanders hints at more than merely the actor stretching his range. This is a star who obviously enjoys the subtle absurdities of fame, who can put some intellectual distance between his life and his public image. Aiming all that heavy lit-crit artillery at himself, he’s capable of deconstructing the text of his own celebrityhood. Which is how one ends up in a health-food restaurant listening to him quote a Roland Barthes essay on the effects of photography on its subjects.
”At least I think it was Roland Barthes,” he says, biting into one of Yam’s yams. ”He wrote that the camera eroticizes whatever it looks at, just by making it the focus of its gaze. Being photographed gives you a certain energy in other people’s eyes, a certain buzz. I’m the focus of millions of eyes every Friday night because the camera is photographing me. That changes the way people see me. But it has nothing to do with me — it has to do with the camera.
”That’s the thing about fame. Ultimately you realize that you’re being appreciated for something that doesn’t have that much to do with you. So it’s not satisfying,” he says. ”It’s perfume. Nothing goes inside. It doesn’t give you anything deep or meaningful. You get Knick tickets — that’s about it.
”It’s like the Internet stuff — it’s flattering, but there are probably some things that I just shouldn’t know about. Being on TV and having so many people see you makes you self-conscious enough as it is. There are two things I don’t want to do in my spare time. One is talk about The X-Files and the other is think about how people are perceiving me.”
”Do I sound like I’m complaining?” he asks, forking into another yam. ”Publicists are always trying to make me sound happier in interviews. My manager is convinced that people will resent me if I don’t sound totally thrilled with my life.”
Certainly, Duchovny has lots to be thrilled about — and knows it ”The odds of being on a hit TV show are remote,”” he says, ”but what are the odds of being on a hit TV show that’s any good?”). Still, his life isn’t perfect. For starters, he’s in Vancouver 10 months a year, working an average of 14 hours a day. That makes his relationship with Reeves, who lives in Los Angeles, something of a strain. ”There’s really no way to talk about it in conventional terms,” he says. ”It’s not a conventional relationship. How could it be? We live in different cities.” (Reeves’ vampire, not incidentally, is the only X-Files babe Agent Mulder has ever taken to bed — although his relationship with Scully has more undercurrents than the Bermuda Triangle.)
Then there’s the boredom issue. Duchovny has just renegotiated a new contract — for a reported salary of $100,000 per episode — to do five more years of the show, which is a long time to be chasing little green men around western Canada. The series’ summer hiatus is only two months long, which means outside movie projects are tough to schedule (although an X-Files film is in the planning stages). To keep his brain from completely spinning down, Duchovny pens poetry in his trailer (he even whips up a William Carlos Williams homage on the spot: ”My Speedo/So much depends upon a red Speedo/Covered with rain”) and lately has been contributing story lines to the series (last year’s clones episode was his idea). Still, living to X-tremes can get dull. ”Being offered story lines and directing,” he says, ”it reminds me of playing with my dog. I’ll give him a choice between a tennis ball or a Frisbee — whatever it takes to keep him involved.”
Eventually, of course, Duchovny will have to investigate that ultimate unsolved mystery — whether there’s life after The X-Files. Will his fans ever let Fox Mulder go? Or will Duchovny turn into Bill Shatner: The Next Generation, doomed to tour X-Files conventions for all eternity?
”It’s weird. To me, the show is like a wave and I’m on top of it looking down. And right now it’s a biiiig wave, so sometimes it’s scary. But mostly I’m just detached from it all.” Still, he’s not worried. ”I feel I’ve got 10 more years of playing the guy. When I’m 45, I’ll start thinking about what else I want to do.”
He gets up to leave Yam’s. ”Sometimes when I’m swimming,” he says, ”I think that maybe someday I’ll put my red Speedo up for auction. Or maybe I’ll donate it to the Smithsonian. They can stuff it with two plums and a gherkin and put it on display.”
Yeah, but would the gherkin be to the left or the right?