As straight-faced conspiracy theorist Fox Mulder on TV’s long-running The X-Files, David Duchovny has captured the minds of sci-fi geeks and the pitterpattering hearts of his female fans. Prior to his cult superstardom, there was already a cult of Duchovny fans familiar with his work in indie auteur Henry Jaglom’s New Year’s Day and Venice/Venice, as the crossdressing DEA Agent Dennis/Denise on Twin Peaks and as the “Red Shoe Diaries” narrator, Jake.
Possessing a wicked sense of humor, Duchovny was perceived nonetheless as dry and even humorless until his hilarious turn on The Larry Sanders Show, in which he played himself, albeit with questionable sexual preferences and the hots for Larry.
Bonnie Hunt’s romantic comedy Return to Me marks a return to comedy for Duchovny. The film is difficult to categorize easily. While Return to Me is very funny, it’s never schticky, and for every comedic moment, there’s also a beat of intense tragedy. Duchovny plays it all with heart, sensitivity and subtlety.
Recently, I spoke with Duchovny about Return to Me, his sense-of-humor and, of course, The X-Files.
Although you’re a funny guy, we rarely see you in a comedy role…
I had no idea it was funny. I was offended when I saw the movie. I thought it was like a sci-fi thing. I’m sitting in the theater and I’m going “Jesus, I’ve been had.” No, what happened with this script was that I heard that Bonnie Hunt had written a script and was going to be directing one and I knew her from doing Beethoven, which is some fine comedy if you want to go back that far.
And I always really liked Bonnie. We’d actually remained acquaintances, not really friends, but we’d check in every now and then. I called my manager and said I want to see that script that Bonnie Hunt is doing. She sent it to me, and I read it and I thought, “Okay this is a real straight ahead sentimental love story. If Bonnie Hunt directs it, it’s going to be a sentimental love story with this great sense of humor and that doesn’t exist in the world as I see it.” You know, Hollywood pictures, as I see them.
What is great about Bonnie, she says now she never would have given me the script for fear that I thought I would have to do it because we were friends. I think she’s lying. She basically didn’t want me to do it. That’s why she didn’t give me the script. But it really is truly divine that she would never hand me the script and say, “Let me direct.” As soon as I read it, I said, “That’s the movie I want to do, let’s do it.” We called Bonnie, and Bonnie said I’d love you to do it. It was really that simple.
What did you find attractive about the character and the script?
I liked the innocence of the entire movie and the innocence of the character in that I thought it would be fun as a person and as an actor to try to go back in time in my own psyche and life to where I believed in love being that pure and simple and the world being that simple. So I thought it would be a nice vacation to be this guy for three months and stay in Chicago during the summer.
A vacation? It seems like a pretty tough role to play?
I didn’t say it was easy. It was a hard vacation. The acting is deceptively simple. Minnie and I made a decision like right away--we had this discussion, this could be really embarrassing if this movie is bad and if this movie is not told with a sense of humor and told in a straight ahead fashion. We’re gonna look just horrible. But, okay, now what’s your reaction to that? You go, “Okay, the way to save my own ass is to wink at the audience and say, “ don’t really buy this, I’m slicker than this part.” You know, “I’m above it. I really understand that I’m playing an innocent and it’s not the real world.”
You save your own ass and you ruin the movie. So what you have to do as an actor is you’ve got to really believe in that fairytale world, or else it’s not going to work. And then you put your ass on the line, because if it’s bad, you look like an idiot. So we decided to believe it and to play it straight in that way and to play it committed and to play it sincerely and to trust Bonnie to bring the humor out of the interplay of the characters, rather than the actors saying, “I understand this is funny. Let’s all laugh, because I understand it’s funny.” You know like this Burt Reynolds-winking-at-the-audience. And so we made the right choice. We trusted Bonnie, and she was trustworthy. She did a great job. Does that make sense, what I said?
I seem to be talking for a long time, which makes me think that I’m not getting it. I think what’s really tough about viewing the movie and being a critic and a journalist is that it’s deceptively simple. I think it’s really a complicated movie and I think what Bonnie’s done is deceptively simple. You know, I think she’s done an amazing job with making something seem seamless so seamless and easy. And, when you think about, she’s actually created a genre that is just screwed completely up all the time. And she’s made a movie that you can cry at and laugh at and it’s not like a Hollywood computer program movie. And Julia Roberts isn’t even in it. Last time I looked. Is she still not in it? At least they’re sticking to their guns and not putting her in it at the end. I take that as a compliment.
In this age of nihilistic stories, do you think we need movies like this?
I don’t know if we need it. I don’t like people that say, “We need more movies like this.” And I would never say, “I did this movie because we need more movies like this.” Or I did this movie because “now I have a daughter and I want her to see movies that have no violence.” Well, that’s just bullshit. That’s not why I did the movie. I don’t think you should make movies for those reasons because then you’re doing Soviet art. You’re doing art for the State or art for the Church or whatever. And that’s not art. That’s not gonna work. I mean, no one’s looking at Soviet art over the last fifty years because it’s State-ordered with an agenda that’s political and not artistic. So, I don’t think we need more movies like this, but when I sat in that theatre and I watched it and the movie was ending--because I had been in the movie, I knew when it was gonna end--I was sad because I felt, “I want this world to go on.”
Even though you knew the secrets behind the magic?
I really enjoyed the experience of being in this world--it was like Moonstruck. That’s the last movie I can compare this feeling to. It was like I really appreciated the world you created. I feel like I was with those people for two hours and I kind of wished that the lights were gonna go up in two minutes because I wanted to stay there. And that was a really weird feeling because I was there! And I knew it wasn’t that happy all the time. And yet I still wanted to be there. And I think we need more movies like that. We need more movies made by a director who knows how to create a whole world and how to control the tone of the piece so that you feel comfortable.
What do you think that tone is?
You’re not condescended to. You’re not manipulated. I mean, you are manipulated in this movie because you are going to cry. I mean, bad things do happen. Good things happen. But you’re manipulated in a good way in that I think that it’s somehow not cynically motivated. I mean, Terms of Endearment was a great film for that, too. I mean, the great romantic funny/sad movies. Like Moonstruck and Terms of Endearment. I would hope that there’s something of that in this movie. When I saw it, I felt that way and that has nothing to do with trying to sell it or being in it or whatever. I just think Bonnie did a great job.
With your hilarious role on The Larry Sanders Show and now this romantic comedy, are you starting to see more comedy scripts come across your desk?
No, I realize that until I die, people are gonna go, “I didn’t know you were funny.” That will be the last thing I hear before I expire. It’s just something they don’t want to believe.
Even though your appearance on The Larry Sanders Show won an American Comedy Award for Funniest Male Guest Appearance in a TV Series?
I didn’t want to say. That’s very true. I have, but I’m telling you I sit here day after day when I do publicity, and they will continue to do it. I don’t know. Maybe because I’m deadpan or whatever it is they say I am. That’s fine. I’m fine with it.
Or because they like you so much on The X-Files?
That’s a nice interpretation of it. I don’t know. The other interpretation could be because I’m not funny. But eventually I will get scripts that are funny, I think. Well, I just wrote this X-Files episode that I’m directing, and it’s funny. I hope. And Tea and Garry are in it--my wife (Tea Leoni) and Garry Shandling--and I know they’re funny, so they’ll save my ass. He did a great job. He plays Mulder in the movie version of The X-Files and Tea plays Scully. It’s interesting. To direct comedy, that’s a whole new thing. The whole timing becomes different when it’s cuts and camera and things. I began to appreciate Bonnie’s work even more.
What did you learn from Bonnie?
I think what Bonnie does really well. When you think of most funny scenes, it’s usually two people trading jokes. But with Bonnie, she created the atmosphere of funny in a scene of people without punchlines. And you find yourself laughing in general rather than laughing at the joke, and I don’t know how she does that, but that’s a really interesting quality and really unique, I think. There aren’t many directors who can make a group scene funny without the joke.
And what about old schoolers Carroll O’Connor and Robert Loggia?
Well, you’re obviously gonna learn something from somebody’s who’s been doing it for fifty years, no matter what they do. What I like most about working with actors of that experience, they just don’t care. And I love it. It’s such an amazing place to see someone get to in their life where they’re actually doing something for some other reason than “I want to please someone else.” It’s so powerful and simple and you’re so miles away from it and you just know that that’s where you want to get. To watch Carroll and Robert not give a f*ck about anything was just a great experience and I mean that as the highest compliment.
Are you worried about pleasing your X-Files fanbase?
I was thinking about that yesterday because it’s a question that doesn’t get asked that specifically, but it’s a question that’s flirted around: “How do you react to your fans?” or whatever. I started thinking about it, “You know, I’m in this world, too. I like other people’s work. I mean, I’m a fan.” And I started thinking about it musically, “Okay, I’m a fan of the Beatles.” I would never try to tell the Beatles what to do. I would never say, “You know, Beatles, if you want me to stay a fan, you’re gonna have to keep making songs like ‘Hey Jude’ and not that crazy stuff you got on the White Album because that really offended me.”
I don’t understand. I don’t know where that reality comes from. Because if the Beatles--maybe not the Beatles since they no longer exist--that’s a bad example--but if the Beatles were to make an album I didn’t like, I would go, “I hope I like the next one.” I wouldn’t go, “Bad Beatles. Don’t do that. Don’t try to do something that I don’t like. Do what you’ve done. Keep doing what you do. Until you die. That’s what I want you to do.”
I don’t get the idea of trying to do something to please a nebulous kind of fanbase idea. I would think, I would hope that if they were truly fans of my work, that they would be interested in what I was doing and not what they wanted me to do. I don’t know. Maybe I’m crazy.
Do you think they’ll forgive you when you leave the show?
Forgive me? Yeah, they’ll forgive me. They’ve got a hundred-and-seventy of them. How many more can we make? Have you seen the last two weeks? Man, we should stop. They’re getting pretty bad sometimes. A little thin. Seven years of a plot-driven show? It’s not like LA Law, with a new cases coming in and out every week. This is plot-driven, and you’ve gotta have a good plot. I mean, a hundred-and-seventy plots; it’s not easy. Our writers are really good, but they’re tired. They’re tired.
So you won’t be returning for another season?
Maybe. I mean, I’m not out of it right now. I’m not under contract, but something could happen. I could be back. But I don’t know right now. Honestly, I can’t tell you a.) whether there will an eighth season and b.) whether I’ll be in it. There’s a very good chance there will be an eighth year and I won’t be in it.
Are things cool on the set?
Things are great on the set. I mean, the set has never been the problem. The set is great. We have a great crew, great directors. I mean, our crew works so hard. I was directing last Thursday night, and we did thirty-five set-ups. On a movie, you’ll do eight, and that’s a big day. We did thirty-five. We just work our asses on this show to make it look like it’s a movie. They are amazing. Our crew is amazing. And overworked. And I can’t believe them. The set is great. Whatever problems I have are with other aspects.