David Duchovny is a smart guy. Not just in the way he carries himself, or the manner by which he speaks, or the random pools of knowledge he can dip into at any given point in a conversation, but the fact that he is, indeed, a smart dude. For over 30 years, the New York-born star has tried his hand at essentially every medium in pop culture. He’s conquered television multiple times, he’s helmed feature films, he’s written books, he’s recorded albums, and he’s toured across the world. And at 57 years young, he’s still the hippest, coolest, and perhaps strangest celebrity out there, an old-school personality that keeps things fresh with every random project he’s attracted to from year to year.
(Read: David Duchovny gives a Track by Track breakdown of Every Third Thought)
Tonight, he’s closing the filing cabinet yet again on The X-Files, which rounds out its 11th season on Fox. Ahead of the finale, we spoke to Duchovny about his incredible storied career, which warranted a conversation that takes us all the way back from 1982 to his days at Princeton to his ’90s heyday searching for the truth alongside Gillian Anderson and right into the sunny aughts of Californication. In between, he shared a number of great anecdotes about his longtime friend, the late Garry Shandling, and made a case for bringing Bonnie Hunt back behind the camera. So, grab a pack of sunflower seeds, put on some Zevon, grab a handle of whiskey, and enjoy the decades-spanning journey below.
Big year academically: You had just graduated from Princeton with an AB in English, you had the honorable mention for a college prize from the Academy for American Poets. At this point in your life, where did you think you were heading?
If we’re going to go back to college let’s also put in Phi Beta Kappa and Summa Cum Laude. [Cheers.] No, I didn’t think about acting at all. I never would have even had that one thought about acting. I never knew an actor. In fact my best friend from high school who is now on a show called Chicago P.D., a guy named Jason Beghe. He had gone to college and become an actor, and I thought that was crazy. I had never knew anybody who was an actor, never knew anybody’s parents who were actors, had never had any interest in actors, or even in acting. So no, I would have not had that thought.
What were you planning on doing, writing?
Yeah. In ’82, I was applying for fellowships for graduate school, to pay for graduate school. I ended up getting a Mellon Fellowship, which was for people that might go into business, because they needed to make money, but could actually be good academicians — it was to give them the wherewithal to afford graduate school rather than just enter the workforce right away.
So the idea of the Mellon Fellowship was to access certain people that might feel the need to go into business right away and steer them into academia if that was their real interest. That was me and I got a Mellon Fellowship and that paid for Yale in ’83, so I really didn’t know what I was going to be doing when I graduated Princeton. I didn’t really have an idea. I mean graduate school was kind of a default setting for me there, and that’s what ended up happening.
And you eventually worked on your PhD?
Once I got to Yale in ’83, I was in the PhD Program.
Was this around the time you started writing “Magic and Technology in Contemporary Fiction and Poetry”?
Yeah, that was the dissertation topic.
It went unfinished, right?
If I had finished it, I’d have a PhD, which I don’t. I have what they call an ABD, which is all but dissertation. So I did my class work but I didn’t write “Magic and Technology in Contemporary American Fiction and Poetry”.
Would you ever want to go back?
Yeah, I mean I’d love to have written it. In some ways, I think The X-Files kind of became that in a way. It’s one thing to say, I’d like to write it, but the truth about academia and liberal arts, and at that level, English literature, it’s that kind of specialized. That kind of inside knowledge and grasp with current discourse in criticism that you need to write something like that. I’m hopelessly out of touch with whatever the trends are now in academia. So, it’s not like I can pick up a pen and figure it out at this point.
Working Girl is one of your first minor roles where you’re kind of a slick haired yuppy, which you later played in Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead and Beethoven. What do you remember about this time in your life? What were some of your fears? What was the leap like from academia to acting?
I was doing a lot of auditions. Twin Peaks was the only show I had ever guest starred and got by auditioning. I failed at tons of auditions. And always failed on television auditions. And would always get the same backhanded compliment and feedback, which was he’s a movie star, not a television actor. That’s what they’d say. That’s why I can’t pay the rent, because I’m a movie star. I was scared.
I felt like I had given up a fairly secure way of life as an academic, and one towards which I had worked since 9th grade really. Hard working through high school, through college and then through four years of grad school, so 12 years of my adult life had been working steadily towards one area. And I threw it all away to audition for Lowenbrau ads and guest star on Parker Lewis Can’t Lose, which I don’t get. I’m not even getting those roles.
And I’m like, “What the fuck am I doing? Oh, you’ve really screwed up your life.” And ’88 was a tough year. ’87 and ’88 were probably the toughest years for me.
When you landed the role of Special Agent Denise Bryson on Twin Peaks, did you feel like things were starting to turn around?
No, it was really with The Rapture. When I got The Rapture, which was a role that a lot of people at that time wanted, they weren’t going to go with a name. So a lot of young actors wanted that role. It was a hot script. It was a movie that was open to people that weren’t famous, so it was a real coveted kind of thing. And I got it. And that was like, “Okay, I’m being cast in movies, in roles that I want to do,” so I felt like maybe that was going to be the break. It didn’t turn out to be the break, but that’s how I felt when I got that. So it wasn’t really Twin Peaks, because I felt that was TV too and I really didn’t feel like my future was in television. I thought it was in movies.
Was it intimidating to work with David Lynch? Was there an aura to him, like this guy’s working on another level?
Yeah, I thought so. Twin Peaks was on network television, which is amazing when you think about it. That was on ABC, so it was just a one-of-a-kind thing to be happening on television at that time. It was really a harbinger of what cable would do 20 years later. I didn’t work directly with David, unfortunately. I started on the second year and did a three-episode arc. He was largely gone at that point. So I didn’t get to work with him until I came back and did the reboot a couple of years ago. And then I got to actually be directed by him, because he directed all of it, and I actually acted with him. So that was a really great kind of full circle moment for me.
That’s wild. After all these years.
Yeah. I had never really met him. I think I may have met him at the wrap party, back in the day for the TV show. Just as his work is completely himself, he himself is completely himself. And that just puts you at ease, because you just feel like this is an honest person. I may not be able to communicate the way that I communicate with other people, I have to figure out a way to communicate with him, but he’s honest and he’s just here to do the show and do the scene. I felt completely comfortable. It was weird because I was shooting Aquarius at the time, so I had a buzz cut and I had to shoot it on a Saturday night because I really didn’t have any other time, I was working. So I worked all week on Aquarius and then got up on a Saturday afternoon and went down and turned into Denise for the evening and that was it. It was really just one night.
Were you surprised that you were part of The Return?
Well, when I heard they were going to do it, there had been rumors for awhile, I think it had come together and fallen apart a few times, and I was just hoping. I was just hoping, I didn’t know. Obviously I knew wasn’t part of the core of the show, but I mean I always loved the character, and I was sad when the show was cancelled after two years, because I really felt like my character was kind of ground breaking and was going to be interesting, you know if they would bring me back. And even in this iteration of it, as happy as I was to come back, I do wish I’d been able to do a little more.
With The X-Files, producer Frank Spotnitz has previously stated you brought a lot of character ideas to Fox Mulder. What were some of your earliest contributions?
I remember — and I teased Chris [Carter] about this over the years, and this will date the pilot script — is that the description of Mulder was more MTV VJ then FBI agent. And I’d say to Chris, “You want this a little more MTV VJ, or what should we be doing here?” But I think he just meant there was a certain irreverence to it, and that’s really what was always key to me, was to keep the reality of it. We have to stay with the reality that these are actual law enforcement agents, but beyond that, it’s not Law and Order, where personalities are in the back seat.
This is a maverick guy, this is an irreverent guy, things are going to have to come out in the humor, and it’s going to have to come out in the humor in the face of crazy shit — of scary shit. So, for me, and Chris, and the writers over the years, and the directors over the years, it will always be a struggle between my natural irreverence that I brought to the character and punctuating the tension of the scene. You know, if I don’t take it seriously, how’s the audience going to take it seriously. So there’s always that back-and-forth between me and the writers and the directors. That survived to this day.
Do you prefer the mythology episodes or the Monster of the Weeks?
It just depends. Back in the day, I think I preferred the mythology because those usually delved into our characters back stories. They were more significant emotionally to play as an actor. Back then, I would have been hungry to flesh this guy out and not have it be Law and Order, but have it be the story about a man, who happens to be an FBI agent. Not an FBI agent who happens to have a tiny personal life.
So, back in the day, I think both Gilly [Anderson] and I would be excited to have an episode where we’re finding out shit about our characters. Monster of the Week would turn into more of a procedural, more of a straight procedural, and could get boring for us. Although over the years, even Monsters of the Weeks, the writers had transformed those to being about Mulder and Scully in a way or having humor in them as well.
Aside from yourself, who would you peg as the MVP X-Files writer?
Well, Chris really. Chris gets so much shit from fans it seems, but I think they forget that without Chris, there’s none of this. And Chris really set the frame of the show, and not only that, he had the strength of ego, the strength in his own abilities as a writer, producer, director, to allow other writers to kind of hijack the show occasionally. And when you think about it, there’s no show like The X-Files, where the showrunner has allowed all different types of tones. You can call them television auteurs, writer-directors come on and do their thing.
Vince Gilligan, Howard Gordon, Alex Gansa, Glen Morgan, Jim Wong, Darin Morgan, he allows all these different voices to come in and hijack his show for a week. I can’t believe that the fans don’t recognize what a great showrunner he is in that sense because all other shows that you look at have a sameness of tone from week to week. This show never has and doesn’t and that’s a testament to Chris, and to Chris alone. Not to anyone else. It’s like if a President is as good as the people he surrounds himself with. Just look at the Trump presidency. It’s the same with a showrunner.
At one point, he even had Stephen King come on for an episode.
Yeah. Quentin Tarantino was supposed to direct one at one point, and that didn’t happen. Then we had our house directors who were really strong and who taught us a lot, taught Chris and I both a lot about the art of directing. David Nutter, Rob Bowman, Kim Manners, who’s dead now, these are people who are really gifted television directors and taught me a lot about directing. Just being directed by those guys so much, I kind of intuited a lot of what I know about directing from them.
But, they’re not back on these newer seasons.
No, because now we’re really into a television auteurs mode, where writers are directing their own stuff. It didn’t happen a couple or three episodes this time around. But also Kim [Manners] is gone, [David] Nutter is always busy, and Rob [Bowman] was running Castle for years. And even Bill Roe, our DP who is directing now, he’s one of the guys running The Blacklist. So everybody is doing great and I’m sure they’d love to come back, but it’s hard for them to pick up and come to Vancouver and direct one episode when they’ve got their other stuff going on.
Did you express any interest in writing and directing more for this past season?
I did. I said if I could come up with something, I’ll direct it, but I was very aware that we’re only doing 10 and that I would have to be light in one before and a little light in one after so I could prep and post. Ultimately, I just thought if I didn’t have a story I was dying to tell, it’d be unfair to put that pressure on Chris and the rest of the writers so that they’re like, “Okay, now we’ve got to get Mulder out of half of this show, and then half of this show, and there’s only 10 of them.”
Photo by Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock
One of the funniest bits of The Larry Sanders Show was your ongoing man crush with Garry Shandling, a gag you actually carried over into The X-Files. Did you two ever discuss doing something for Californication?
Garry use to visit us on the set, and I talked to Tom Kapinos from time to time about trying to figure out a role for Garry, but Californication was not really Garry’s signature style. I don’t know if that would have worked. But my man crush on Garry extends beyond death. I still have a crush on him. So we didn’t know this was going to be a lifelong thing when we started goofing around with the idea.
What was the spark between you two?
I don’t know. It was weird, because still to this day, it’s the best thing that anybody has ever said to me on a set. I went and, at the time, I was getting VHS tapes up in Canada of Sanders’ sets of the show, and told my agents over the break I’d just like to host SNL and do Sanders. I don’t want to do a movie, I just want to take a break. So, I hosted SNL, and they got me on Sanders. I had never met Garry and I sat in the audience and watched him do a talk show segment with somebody and he walked right by me and it was clear that he had no idea who I was.
They told me Garry loves you, he loves you, he wants to have you on the show. Bullshit. Obviously, he had never, ever seen or heard of me. So, we do get formally introduced in a hallway where we are going to shoot the scene, for a scene in that first show. It’s kind of half-written, half-improvised, and we do one take, and Garry turns to me and he just stares at me, kind of cocking his head and he goes, “How old are you?” I said, “33,” and he goes “What took you so long?” And it was like the best thing.
While he was alive, I used to always say, “You saying that, to me, gave me more confidence to continue to try and work in comedy forever.”
Do you think he ever would have gone back to the series though? To do another limited run?
Sanders? Hard to say. Garry was so obsessive and such a perfectionist with that show, with his work in general, that the toll of doing just the 12 that they would do, the physical toll, the mental toll, emotional toll on him was immense. And I think as he got older it would have gotten harder and harder. The way he worked was so intense, that it was hard on him. So I don’t think so. But I think he would have done other work. I don’t know if it would have been a show, but he was doing stand-up, he was transforming the way he kind of related.
Return to Me is one of the most underrated romantic comedies of the last 20 years. Why you think Bonnie Hunt hasn’t written and directed since?
That’s an excellent question. Bonnie is really a unique comic voice. You talk about women directors, Bonnie Hunt, to me, should be way up above Nancy Meyers, who’s directing supposed romantic comedies. I see Bonnie as … somebody’s got to bet on her right now. Bonnie’s the one for me. Not only is she a great actress, she’s a terrific director. She’s a great writer with her partner Don Lake. I’m not sure what happened there.
Certainly, it wasn’t a big hit. It was with MGM, which was a smaller studio, and it didn’t have a ton of money behind it. It was a modest hit. I think what happened partly with Bonnie is that her sensibility is a little more old-fashioned and a little cleaner. A few years after that is when you have cable and Judd Apatow transforming comedy into a rougher, more sexually oriented arena. Bonnie really works clean and works from a different time. I hope she reads this. I miss her. I think it’s an excellent question and I don’t know why.
I can’t tell you.
You tried your own hand at writing and directing with House Of D, which starred the late Robin Williams and Anton Yelchin. Have you revisited it recently?
I haven’t watched House Of D in awhile. I think it has the flaws of any kind of first movie. It was a personal, kind of a smaller film. A film that I’m surprised got made at all, because it’s really not the kind of film that gets made.
Are there any other passion projects, given the correct circumstances, that you’d like to helm?
Yeah, I’ve got Bucky Dent that I wrote as a novel. We have financing and if I can cast it in the window of time that I have, I think I’ll be able to make it this summer.
Enter Hank Moody, another Golden Globe-winning role of yours. Originally, Californication was supposed to be a movie, right?
I think Tom Kapinos , he had started writing it as a movie. He had about 50 pages, or maybe half the movie, and he kind of set it aside because he was trying to write pilots. His wife Megan said, as he was pitching ideas to her because Showtime had asked him for a pilot, “Why don’t you just send them the 50 pages of that movie and call that a pilot?” That’s how that happened.
Do you ever feel the show went too far?
Yeah. But it wasn’t my show. So sometimes Tom and I would have a disagreement about certain things. Sometimes I’d win and sometimes I wouldn’t. The show is best seen as kind of an absurd fantasy. As Tom always said to me, his fantasy that a world existed where a writer was attracted to women.
What was your favorite part about playing Hank?
I think that he was really a truth teller. Incapable of lying, in a way. Just didn’t give a fuck about what other people thought about him. It was very powerful in that way. But my favorite part of working on that show was the cast. To work with Natascha [McElhone], Evan [Handler], and Pam [Adlon]. To work with Tom. We had great directors, great crew. It was a very happy set, it was a very fun set, it was a very funny set and it was a fun show to make.
It’s so hard to shake iconic characters. Was it a relief when Hank Moody finally took off ? At what point did you realize that was happening?
don’t know because, in retrospect, I realize that was probably a concern and I certainly took the role because I wanted to do a comedy, so that was first and foremost. That was in reaction in a way to the role on The X-Files. I remember talking to my friend Peter Berg, who is a director, and he was like, “Yeah man, you just totally reinvented yourself. Nobody does that, nobody does that,” and I was like, “Yeah, it’s great, it’s fun. I didn’t think of it that way, but yeah.”
It seems like you were really gunning for the comedy genre after all those years in the woods.
Well, it was just where my interest was — partly through Garry and also through my wife, Tea [Leoni], who I thought of as so funny. And I thought I want to do what they’re doing. And obviously I thought I had it in me and I wanted to try. So I guess that’s where my intent was. It could be X-Files, but it was probably because of the way I present myself. I always get like, “Oh yeah, I didn’t know you were funny.” That will be on my gravestone: “I didn’t know you were funny.”
It’s the more subtle humor.
In 2015 , you published your first novel (Holy Cow: A Modern-Day Dairy Tale) and you recorded your first album (Hell or Highwater). Are there any other art forms that you wish you could have explored, or that you still want to explore? By now, you’ve done pretty much everything.
I’d like to write and direct a play, but I don’t have anything happening right now.
Looking back, if you could have ended The X-Files at any given time — so from where you are now to the beginning — is there a point that you felt like, “Yeah, this is good, this is enough, we can fade to black, I think we did it”? Or have you always wanted it to keep going?
Well, I left at the end of the eighth year and I felt like I was done with the television show at that point because I just felt like running 20, 25 shows a year at this level of original story telling was just impossible, when you think about it. Every X-Files show has to really almost be like a movie and, I mean look at Black Mirror. They’re doing 10 a year. So we were doing 20 Black Mirrors a year, 25 Black Mirrors a year. So, you know, it’s not like doing Grey’s Anatomy, where somebody fucks somebody and then somebody gets mad and then somebody cries, and somebody dies in the hospital.
It’s not a soap opera where you can kind of spin out like that. So you’ve got to come up with a decent idea, a movie worthy idea every damn week, and that’s impossible. It’s amazing that they did it at that point for eight years, and I thought we were going to turn it into a movie franchise. Even after I left, I didn’t think the show was over. I thought, “Okay, we’re going to continue to do movies and we’ll turn it into a movie franchise and that way we’ll only have to come up with one movie idea every three years, rather than 25 a year.”
With Gillian Anderson saying she’s finished, do you think Season 11 is the last?
I don’t know. Like I said, I thought I was done after eight. I’ve thought I was done many times. I can’t speak for Gillian, I don’t know. I think it’s unfortunate that that’s part of the discussion because it’s getting in the way of people appreciating what it is we’ve done. It’s only seen in the lens of “these are the end,” when in fact, look at it through the lens of, “Here’s 10 more.” It’s unfortunate.