X-Factor Actor


by Jack Hitt

David Duchovny is sitting at a table in the 5757 restaurant of New York's Four Seasons Hotel, wrangling a breakfast menu the size of a road map. He's dressed in rumpled trousers and a tank top----straight out of bed. The room is filled with hip elegance---buzz-cut men in suits, the Japanese personages who own them and women whose burdensome gems make an odd crunching noise when they strike the table.

We agree that we should have slipped down the street to a Greek diner for some runny eggs and toast. Peering at each other like two kilroys over the tops of our folio menus, we talk about Duchovny's hit television show, The X-Files.

The show is poised to become the next Star Trek. A cult following sustained the program during its infancy on Fox. Then, last year, it bolted in the ratings, the biggest Nielsen spike of the year. It also beat out ER and NYPD Blue for the Golden Globe in best drama, and it landed an Emmy nomination for best drama. Attention executives at the next table: The X-Files is huge in Japan.

Duchovny plays agent Fox Mulder, an Oxford-trained psychiatrist who believes that his sister was abducted by aliens. Mulder is assigned the nagging paranormal cases known in FBI shop talk as the X-Files. His partner is agent Dana Scully, a medical doctor who is the incarnation of Cartesian rationality. She began the series as a spy planted by Mulder's bosses to keep tabs on him. The timely premise of the show---and the reason the two agents can never close a case---is that Washington is a town of liars where cover-ups are endemic. Conspiracies abound and you can trust no one. "If you look at the people in the militia groups and the conspiracies they believe, we kind of traffic in that," Duchovny admits. Then the topic switches to the Oklahoma City bombing. I remind him that the show's creator, Chris Carter, bragged not so long ago: "I'd be flattered if I could create a lot of paranoia." I ask Duchovny if he's troubled by the weird connection between X-Files and real life.

"Well, there is a connection," Duchovny blithely says. He puts down his menu, and in the same noirish mutter he has perfected for the program, he explains himself. "I think the show is simply of our time. I don't believe that art creates what happens in life. They are definitely connected, not just causally. There are literal-minded folks who say, 'You know, ever since Jurassic Park came out, people have been getting killed by dinosaurs, and it's Steven Spielberg's fault.' To me, that kind of connection never makes much sense. The people who advocate thought police have always been with us. They date as far back as Plato. But art and life are connected. Unfortunately, when artists are under attack, they try to make the case that there is no connection---that art is over here and life is over there. Well, there is and always will be a connection.

There is a story to tell and it well get told no matter what," Duchovny goes on. "It will be told religiously, financially, artistically, politically, even fanatically. Yeats said, 'A terrible beauty is born.' That's what we're watching now. It's always scary to see who you really are. People are trying to ascribe blame---'If you hadn't made The X-Files, the world would be a better place.' I'm not saying the world's a better or worse place because of the show. I'm just saying that it's a little more crowded."

When I point out that some fans believe the program is practically a documentary, he says, "There are people who think Melrose Place is true. That's a much scarier prospect."

If you haven't guessed, Duchovny was not always a Hollywood actor. He has a master's in English and was an ace Ph.D. candidate at Yale, studying modern literature with some heavy-weights of contemporary American belles lettres---Harold Bloom, John Hollander, Jay Hillis Miller and Geofrey Hartman. How does he incorporate the life of the trained mind into the medium of the tight butt?

"I find that you really make few decisions in life," he says. "You may think you're making decisions. But as Kiergkegaard said, 'The moment of decision is madness.' If you could look inside your mind at that precise moment, all you would find is craziness, madness, confusion. I think he was talking about every kind of decision, even ordering food." Duchovny wobbles his menu as illustration. "But at some point, you just say"---and he slams his fist to the table---"'OK! OK! I'll have the museli!' "So you see," he continues, "I never said, 'Today I am an actor, yesterday I was a graduate student."

The graduate student is very much present. Although Duchovny is now more famous for the way his butt nestles in a pair of Speedos (in one episode, he stepped out of a pool, and his fans are still burning up the Internet over it), he is never far from that student who discovered The Faerie Queene in the college library. When I mention that many actors suffer a mid-career crisis and suddenly strive to show the world that they are serious, he says sullenly, "I guess I have the opposite problem. I'm trying desperately to get people to appreciate me as a sex symbol." Then he smiles.

It's not something he does often, and for good reason. When this 35-year old grins, he looks like a eager teenager with big teeth. He loses his trademark gloom and seems almost goody, as if with the addition of three freckles under one eye he might start delivering newspapers on a Schwinn.

On television, he almost never smiles. And there's not really much to smile about: in three seasons his partner Scully has been abducted, almost killed and hunted by monsters and voodoo doctors, plus has been pursued by megaworms and (possibly) Satan, fled vampires, outwitted liver-eating cannibals and been chased by an array of other cyberfiends and traditional bogeymen. In the face of all this evidence, her skepticism about the paranormal has weakened. No longer a spy on behalf of the agency, she's now squarely in Mulder's camp.

Somehow, though, the show manages to take up a fresh case each week that pits Mulder's willingness to believe against scully's quickness to doubt. At least once an episode, Mulder stares down some incredulous government toady and barks something like, "you can deny all the things I've seen. You can deny all the things I've discovered. But not for much longer, because too many others know what's happening out there. No one, no government, has jurisdiction over the truth."

Duchovny makes this work by dint of his minimalist acting. He downplays every line, every scene. The old existential hero of noir believed in only two options - life or death. The former was a brutish and short affair before the eternalness of the latter. All one could do was conduct oneself with suspicious cool until the inexorable finale arrived from the muzzle of a gun or with a shove from the roof. But agent Mulder is a postnoir hero for our times. He believes in more options. Life or death? Why be so narrow-minded?

Despite the show's shadowy mist-enscene, its quite upbeat in its presumption in an age in which almost everyone believes in some kind of paranormal phenomena - crop circles, cattle mutilations, alien abductions, exorcism, channeling, time travel, healing crystals, past lives, old astrology, new astrology, premonitions, Virgin Mary (or Elvis) sightings, rebirthing, satanic ritual abuse, ESP, aura perception, mental telepathy, spontaneous combustion, recovered memory, harmonic convergence, telekinesis, spoon bending or palmistry. The X-Files holds out the marginal likelihood for all these and more. Death may not be the last step, just the next one. Or in the parlance of the show, there may be something else within the limits of "extreme possibility."

Mulder periodically mutters phrases that could easily serve as bumper stickers for the fin de siecle: "I wan to believe," "Trust no one" and "The truth is out there."

"Its a New Age show, definitely," Duchovny agrees while poking at his muesli. "It's a secular religious show. It's saying that miracles do happen. Critics have said that the show is dark, but its actually light not in tone or execution but in philosophy. Most TV shows depict the world as being extremely dangerous. the x-files ushers you into a world of latter-day saints where we can still have magic. The time of miracles has not passed, it says. We're living in it."

In one episode, Mulder contemplates his faith in his sister's abduction: "This belief sustained me, fueling a quest for truths that were as elusive as the memory itself - to believe as passionately as I do was not without sacrifice. But I always accepted the risks to my career, my reputation, my relationships, to life itself." If you're thinking "to boldly go where no man has gone before," you're not alone. Even the grammatical construction known as the otherworldly infinitive prompts deja vu.

In Hollywood, they're talking X movie. X novels are published by harperprism, and topps brings out a monthly X comic book. An X cd is under way, said by producer David was to be a search for the "midpoint between moody ambient music and death metal."

Last June X-Philers, as they are called, gathered at a convention in San Diego to exchange enthusiasms, listen to speeches by supernumerary characters and to wear FBI-style name tags. Since then, similar conventions have been held or are planned for more than a dozen cities.

America Online, Delphi, and other computer services sponsor discussion of the episodes and allow viewers to download FAQs (frequently asked questions). There are online simulations in which fans can assume roles from the show. Here, one can speak the secret language of true fans who gush over Duchovny's WPDF (wounded puppy dog face) or his tendency to be V&C; (Vulnerable & Cute). Only aficionados can talk about the CITDBTB (Conversation in the Dark by the Bed), the time when Mulder tells Scully about his sister's abduction.

Online, one can learn the arcana of the show: Mulder is the maiden name of creator Chris Carter's mother. The agent's computer password is trustno1.

The clock next to Mulder's bed always shows 11:31 because November 21 is Carter's wife's birthday. Both Carter and director R.W. Goodwin had cameos in last season's finale as, respectively, an FBI agent and a gardener. Scully's name is a homage to Lost Angels Dodgers announce Vin Scully. Online gossip even suggests that the evil Krycek may somehow be related to Carl Kolchak from Kolchak: The Night Stalker, Daren McGavin's atavistic serioes from the Seventies.

The differences between the X-Files and its ancestors are illuminating. The Twilight Zone and the Night Stalker always maintained a dimension of ambiguity in their spookiness. The twilight zone's famous syncopated theme song reinforced the show's either -or premise: Is it true or just a dream? You decide. Doo-doo-doo-doo.

The X-Files asks no such question. Strange shit most certainly does happen in this world: That really was an alien clone dissolving into an aquamarine puddle of ectoplasm. The ambiguity is left to be found in how we explain the mysteries of the universe. Scully wears a cross, but her sister consults crystals.

"The belief in other worlds is a time-honored human endeavor,: Duchovny says. "Not to show any disrespect for organized religion, but it is a similar enterprise. People want to believe in another place, a better place, where good people are rewarded. This world is definitely not that place.

"I would like to see Fox Mulder take on a life of his own," he continues, "and actually have a Joseph Campbell journey, rather than have him merely play through a series of unrelated experiences. I see it more as an interior journey: Why is this man in so much pain? Why is he obsessed? Why would anyone want to live their life this way? How do we heal him? How do we show him the truth?

Going through the Duchovny oeuvre on video, I find a strange similarity in the characters he has played.

"I probably got it from Yale - this horrible, all-leveling relativism," he explains. I ask him if he intentionally chose those roles. He reminds me of his Kierkegaardian view of decision, not to mention the unusual desperation of any young actor. He took what he could get. In The Rapture, he plays a group-sex slut who falls into bed with Mimi Rogers before both of them join a apocalyptic Christian cult. In Kalifornia, with Juliette Lewis, he was part of yet another homicidal Gen-X road movie. He also hosts and occasionally stars in The Red Shoe Diaries, a piece of cable-TV erotica. Duchovny plays his characters low. With a good script, this method makes him look subtle; bad scripts, he is blessedly unnoticeable.

"The best actors," he says, "convey the idea that they never truly get there. The viewer senses failure and disappointment from them. I love when you can smell failure in an actor's performance, because acting is really about displaying yourself for money and for people you don't know. There is a great cost to your personal life. With Brando, for example, I always feel he's showing me that it's painful, certainly humiliating, maybe even wrong and bad to act. The best actors have an air of failure even at the height of their success."

Apropos of that, I ask him if his sudden cult fame on The X-Files doesn't make him afraid that he'll become the William Shatner of the next millennium - a victim of typecasting who, 20 years from now, will occupy the center seat of Hollywood Squares 3000.

"No," he mumbles, "my fear is different. I fear that people will get to know me. You see that guy sitting over there?" He points at a businessman across the room. " When you become a celebrity, it's harder to walk into a room and observe that man - maybe rip off a move or gesture and use it later. All of a suddenly that man looks at me and thinks, Oh, it's that famous guy, and then he's not himself anymore. He's suddenly the performer. He's acting. That's death for me."

It's peculiar that an actor this contemplative would be asked into that lion's den of glibness, Saturday Night Live. But when you're the star of a hip series, you're fair game. He's hard at work on his SNL hosting duties the week we get together.

"I played basketball with the writers last night," he says. "You know, I have to win their confidence. It was a good game. Thankfully, Lorne [Michaels, the producer] wasn't there. He would just post up."

Attending a performance of SNL is like going to a wake that has been under way for years. The audience is forced to wait behind ropes in different lines, depending on whose guest you are. I'm there on a press pass. Others are friends of friends of the actors or producers.

When I take my seat, my neighbors turn out to be Duchovny's brother Daniel and sister Laurie, who looks like a young Audrey Hepburn.

All I pick up in the way of gossip is that a skit in which Duchovny played a younger version of Rod Stewart - tonight's musical guest - was cut because it hurt the aging rocker's feeling to be reminded of the mortality thing.

The family is, like any family would be, giddy that their very own David is hosting Saturday Night Live.

Duchovny's monologue is OK, partly because it includes a prepared videotape.

Between skits he wanders around backstage. Once, just before he goes on, Duchovny catches his sister's eye in the balcony and makes a scissoring motion beside his head. Apparently, she has recently cut her hair. He seems to like it and flashes her that big, goofy smile.

For a brief moment, the friendly guy I talked with over muesli radiates from the stage. Then it's back to work. The writers are smart enough to have given Duchovny roles that suit his acting. In one skit, his part is so low-key - it's a Richard Gere imitation - that he has almost no lines at all. He must only mug expressively and it brings down the house.

Later that night, at the Rockefeller Plaza skating rink, thousands of Lorne Michaels closest TV and film friends convene for an end-of-the-season bash. A decade's worth of People magazine covers mob the bar for drinks.

Throughout the night, Duchovny's face pops up in the dense crowd, bobbing like a loon on a pond before disappearing. At one point he surfaces near me. He's locked in a full nelson administered by Kevin Nealon, SNL's longest-serving comedian. Duchovny glances my way and dimly recognizes my face. Am I part of the crew? Did I help him with his coat tonight? Did he meet me in Seattle? Duchovny interprets my smile not as a greeting but as a performance. He thinks I am acting, because I'm aware the X-Files guy is here.

He breaks eye contact; he look miserable. Nealon guffaws and applies a bear hug, then drags him back down into the thick crowd of celebrities.

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