''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.''