At twenty-six years old, David Duchovny decided to switch from working on his doctoral thesis in literature to pursuing a career as an actor. He wanted to understand fictional characters from the inside out. Swiftly, he became a working actor, appearing in small roles in the early ’90s: Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, Beethoven, Twin Peaks, and as the honey-tongued host of the erotic series Red Shoe Diaries. He soon landed his most iconic role as Agent Fox Mulder in The X-Files, one of the rare shows that had popular success and developed a cult following. The show rolled out eleven seasons over twenty-five years, with several film adaptations.
Duchovny has also starred in two seasons of the show Aquarius and seven seasons of Californication, which chronicles the life of a bitter, sexually motivated writer in Los Angeles. He has directed one film and appeared in quite a few others, but his success has continually occurred in television, a medium that keeps pace with his slow and subtle mode of acting. The pleasure of watching Duchovny accretes over time. It’s his awareness, not simply his dramatic actions, that reveals the depth of his performances.
Duchovny returned to literature in 2015, when he published the novel Holy Cow, a fable of animal rights. At the time of its publication, he was fifty-five, older than the typical debut novelist—his father published his first novel at seventy-three, right before he died. Duchovny has released three more novels over the last seven years, each one seemingly more sophisticated in its tone, voice, and balancing of themes. His newest, Truly Like Lightning, was a decade in its conception and is perhaps his most ambitious work, with a large cast of characters and ideas, including Mormonism, corporate culture, drugs, faith, real estate, and the fading glory of Hollywood.
In the years following a divorce, Duchovny has begun a career in music, as a singer-songwriter of country, blues, and so-called “dad band” music. Like his acting, his songs and vocal delivery come with an easy, relaxed drawl; he once referred to his influences as “classic white-guy rock” artists like Tom Petty and the Beatles. He has released two albums, toured internationally to promote them, and at the time of this interview was working on his third.
Duchovny and I spoke on the phone in early 2021. At the end of our dialogue, he said he worried he’d talked too much, revealing a self-awareness I would not have expected in such a seasoned actor with decades of interview experience. He seemed like a man who couldn’t be bothered by that kind of trivial anxiety, and yet, as he explained, this is simply the way he appears to the world.
I. “WHAT NO WORDS CAN DO”
THE BELIEVER: You have a grounded, relaxed way about you. You’re known for this. Is this outward appearance reflective of what your inner life is like?
DAVID DUCHOVNY: I don’t know where that relaxed thing comes from. I really don’t. I don’t feel relaxed most of the time. When I first started acting, I was just getting auditions and not getting jobs, and the feedback would be like, “You’re too low-energy, or flat.” That’s the worst thing for an actor: flat. And I just kept saying to myself, You know what? I’m doing something. I know I’m not flat. I don’t feel flat, and somebody’s going to get it sometime. Somebody’s going to get it. And they’re going to see that I’m doing a bunch of shit in here. Somehow I had that belief. The fact that I was feeling it I thought was worthwhile. I was doing the work to feel it, even though I wasn’t necessarily coming through.
BLVR: People generally think of acting as an art form of manipulating external expressions and movements, but it sounds like you’re entirely focused on the internal side of things.
DD: Yeah. I mean, it took me a while to trust that I could work from the outside in. At first it was always: I can only work from the inside out. You know, everything else is bullshit and a lie. And if it’s not coming through, you’re fucked, I’m fucked, your movie’s fucked, we’re all fucked. But this is what I’m going to do, ’cause this is what I do. And then, as I got more confident, I got more playful. I was like, Hey, you know, there’s this situation where I can fake it till I make it. I can just go into the scene and throw it out there and fake it and then I start to feel it. You can actually fake something and then it becomes real. So I can work either way now. I’ll do both. I have no problem, at this point, being a total faker, and then seeing where that leads me.
BLVR: Does that ever seep into your life?
DD: No, no, no. I never approached life like an actor. People always say about acting, “We’re all actors! Everybody in life is an actor!” Well, that might be so, but I don’t approach it that way. I actually approach life with honesty as best I can, where I’m not going to fake anything and I’m not going to manipulate myself emotionally in any situation.
BLVR: Maybe, as an actor, you can observe that divide between honesty and manipulation more keenly.
DD: Yeah. Yeah.
BLVR: You use the word playful, which I certainly associate with your books but less with your acting.
DD: Well, that’s true. You can find places where I’ve been pretty silly as an actor, but it’s not something that the powers-that-be have ever sought me out to do. So it’s a function of the marketplace. I would say Californication is silly and lighthearted. But, yes, I agree with you. I think there’s a fullness to what I can do in a novel, a fullness to my tone, while movies and television shows usually have a more specific tone. The stretching of the tone is really hard to do in television or movies, because the tone is already established. And if you screw with the tone, you’re going to screw with the believability. You’re going to make the fans feel betrayed. But for me as an artist, that was the glory of it. It’s like, Oh my god, I’m going to take this guy who started here in a sincere place and I’m going to put him over in this absurd situation and he’s going to be the same guy. And he’s going to be as believable over here as he was over there.
BLVR: In film, comedy and drama are so polarized. A narrative is either one or the other, but rarely do we see both at once, which is a more accurate picture of life.
DD: That’s always my instinct, anyway, to bring the opposite into the room. And you really have to be smart about pursuing the projects you feel are going to bend and flex in that way. But when I’m writing, I’m the master of the tone, and I get to say what goes in and what goes out, from tragedy to comedy and back.
BLVR: Has the pandemic inspired new writing?
DD: It’s really sad because I was super-disciplined before COVID. I’d get up and stay indoors and write. But I haven’t really written since COVID. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I mean, this would be a perfect time for me to sit my ass down, ’cause my ass is already sat down. I also haven’t been making music. I guess I just haven’t had an idea, but I tend not to get ideas unless I write, so that’s a poor excuse. I won’t have an idea unless I sit down and try to write.
BLVR: So you work into the ideas often?
DD: It’s a little mystical for me, the process, because I’ll have different ideas that I think are worthy of exploration, but for one reason or another, I won’t sit down to pursue them. And then there comes a moment where I just go, Fuck it, I’m going after that one. And that’s how it happens. And right now I’ve got a couple ideas that I kind of like, but I don’t know what they are until I write them. It’s like: you think you have an idea, you think you have a book, you think you have a story, and then it changes so much in the telling and in the writing that, you know, you don’t know what you have until you try.
BLVR: When you have that feeling is the writing consistently successful?
DD: I tend not to be blocked. I tend to be the opposite of that. It’s painful in the sense that it’s just difficult to write—it’s hard living—but the act of writing: it’s not stingy with me. I can just kind of do it. I mean, it’s not always great, but if I have a block, it would be about ideas, not about the writing of the ideas.
BLVR: You said it’s a hard living. How does this lifestyle relate to the life of an actor? Is acting easier?
DD: Yeah, it’s easy. But there are different kinds of hard and easy. I think we have different meanings attached to them in that way. I mean, being an actor is really easy in that you’re told where to be and what time to show up. And they give you the clothes and they do your hair and makeup and then you do your shit. So if you’re a guy that thrives on a schedule, as I generally do, it’s really good for me because I get a call sheet the day before that says: “Be here at 7 a.m.” And I know I’m going to be working until 8 p.m. And it’s good for my head. It’s a good routine. I like it. That part’s easy. But the art of acting is as easy or hard as you want to make it. It’s like any art. Different things come easier to some people than others. The hard part of it is that it’s so viscerally and publicly scrutinized.
BLVR: Is the art of acting easy for you as well?
DD: There are parts of it that remain elusive and therefore interesting to me. And there are parts of it that come easily to me. And then I have to push beyond if I want to make it meaningful or challenging to myself in any way. But then again, you know, I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older that if things come easy, that doesn’t make them not worthwhile. In many ways, that’s your gift. That’s the part of your talent right there. Like, if you’re playing music and write a song in ten minutes, people assume it can’t be that good.
BLVR: But those are the best songs.
DD: Right. So when I say it’s easy to me, that might be my best stuff. And why the fuck do I want to do the stuff that I’m not great at? Why would I work my ass off trying to do that? Well, I would do it to challenge myself. That would be fun. But as I’ve gotten older, I really respect what just flows in any art form, even though we are kind of taught to discount that, as the Puritans we are. We think nothing can come without hard work, but the hard work just came before. It just became easy later, after the hard work.
BLVR: I read that you got into acting through your writing. You wanted to inhabit fictional characters. Is that true?
DD: Yeah. I wanted to write plays. I started off writing poems in high school. I don’t even know what that means, but I did. And I got to college and I was just doing my college work. I didn’t write much. I wrote a short story or two and some columns. I did take a class with the poet Maxine Kumin at Princeton, but that was all. And then when I got to Yale for graduate school, I was not writing much ’cause I was just working so hard in the English department. And then I started hanging around the drama department because I was bored and didn’t have a social life. The people I met there were fun. And I got interested in playwriting ’cause I thought, Well, these people are collaborating. I was twenty-three years old and I was holed up in the library all the time. And it wasn’t my nature. I wanted to play with other people. And then I thought, Well, if I’m gonna write plays, it makes sense that a playwright would need to know something about acting, for the people who are going to try to say his words. When you take an acting class, you also really learn what no words can do. That is, of course, less true for playwriting, and certainly not for novel writing. For screenwriting, however, I think it’s indispensable for someone to learn how much you can say without a spoken word, how much work there is being done without a writer.
II. MAGIC AND TECHNOLOGY IN CONTEMPORARY LITERATURE
BLVR: You initially were on the path to academia. What attracted you to that?
DD: I just saw it as a workable life where I could get a PhD and then I could get a job teaching at college and hopefully get tenure and then I would be free to write whatever it was I was going to write while I taught. I’d have security, some money, and at least be a creative person in my downtime. That was the hazy plan, but there’s something sad about spending the bulk of your time doing something that you don’t quite believe in. And it’s not because I think it’s a phony enterprise or anything like that. It’s just, I wasn’t that guy. I wasn’t Harold Bloom, who I took a class with. I wasn’t any one of a number of the teachers I’ve had who live and breathe this stuff and have a passion for criticism. So I knew I could possibly do it. I could fake it. But I also knew there was going to be something sad about that life. So I was staying open. Teaching was a positive. I did enjoy that. I think it’s obviously very worthwhile, although at a college level, you know, I think most of the teaching’s been done.
BLVR: Are you still a big reader?
DD: Yeah. Not so much contemporary stuff. But this past year my reading has really suffered because I read the newspapers more than I ever did. I mean, I always used to read the newspaper, but not like I do now, and I really feel like it’s detrimental to me as a reader and as a writer, but that’s where we’ve been for the last few years.
DD: The twenty-four-hour news behemoth has patterned us all into feeling like we have to check in constantly. I used to feel like I could wait till tomorrow to know the news. But I don’t feel that way anymore. Every five minutes something world-shaking is about to happen. You got to keep checking. And I hate it. I don’t think it’s true. I don’t think it’s true at all, but I think it’s all part of the capitalist machine.
BLVR: Your thesis in grad school was on magic and technology in contemporary literature. Who were you reading for that?
DD: One was James Merrill, who did a lot of Ouija board poems. So that was obviously magic. And Robertson Davies, a Canadian author. Ishmael Reed, Thomas Pynchon. Norman Mailer’s Of a Fire on the Moon. That’s an amazing book of his gonzo journalism style. It’s his Executioner’s Song before The Executioner’s Song. He’s reporting on the event that he becomes a part of. It’s about NASA and the moon launch, but Mailer is such a superstitious guy. He’s all about what having a man walking on the moon is going to do to the tides. What is all this technology going to do to the magic of the moon? And the thesis of my thesis was: In ancient history or prehistory, magic was a way to get things done. Magic was a crude technology. Before you have airplanes, you have people who magically can fly. But when you have magic, there’s black magic and good magic. You had the Faustian bargain and Robert Johnson at the crossroads. So there was a sense in which magic was a moral field. There was this field of power open to some people, but if they exercised it in a certain way, there was an ethical claim against them. Then technology comes along and has no morality attached to it. Technology is merely science executed. And writers like Mailer and Reed were infusing the discussion of technology with the moral fields that have been applied to magic, because they were doing the same things in their literary works. Scientists were remaking the world in a way that was somewhat unnatural, and the question is: Should we do that? I remember hearing that there’s never been a weapon that’s been invented by humanity that hasn’t been used.
BLVR: If you make umbrellas, you need it to rain.
DD: Right. So the question then becomes: Just because we can do it, should we? Can we treat [dangerous technology] as black magic and say no? But then again, I never wrote my thesis. So I’m just bullshitting right now. I don’t know if I could have gotten there, to that point. I guess it was a little ahead of its time.
BLVR: Considering the subject, it’s interesting that you didn’t write about science fiction.
DD: It is interesting. In retrospect, I never had any interest in science fiction. I don’t think I’ve read any science fiction. This was probably before people took science fiction seriously as a dissertation-worthy topic too.
BLVR: And yet science fiction is central to your legacy now.
DD: Right. For sure.
BLVR: Is that a dissonance for you?
DD: For me, the way I see the job of an actor is not what’s on the surface: the words. Let’s say I’m working on The X-Files and it’s about this crazy paranormal shit or this science fiction shit or all this nutty stuff. And so people think, Oh, you must be interested in that because you’re playing that role. And I would always take that as a compliment. I didn’t have to somehow trick myself into believing these things. It’s not that. It’s, How do I get myself to feel like I’m believing in those things? The actual words make no difference. In acting, the idea of belief that I am exuding is what makes a difference. And I have to get there.
BLVR: You want to believe.
DD: Right. I’ve got to believe. I’ve got to work on something else underneath the words.
BLVR: Are some roles harder to believe in?
DD: Well, that’s just bad writing. ’Cause if it’s good writing, you can believe it. You can figure out the belief because it’s human and it makes sense. If it’s bad writing, you’re going to end up having to fake it. And that sucks. But, you know, they can’t all be winners.
BLVR: When you write fiction, do you believe?
DD: Totally. When I’m writing—and you may feel this too—there comes a point in the writing of a story, which always has characters in it, unless—is there a novel without characters? There probably is, but I don’t know. But there comes a point at which the characters start speaking through me as themselves. They start taking over. It sounds a little like insanity, but they have a voice at some point. And then they’ll steer the plot in different directions than I’d expected, which is fascinating and wonderful. I will find myself speaking out loud when they’re talking, and they have to have their own separate entities in a way. And that’s super-fun and wild.
BLVR: How long are these writing sessions?
DD: My preferred writing day is 5 a.m. to 11 a.m. Just slam some coffee, ’cause coffee makes me feel like I’m brilliant for ten minutes. And if I can have that feeling of brilliance for ten minutes, I’ve got the momentum. That is a beautiful day. And then when I had my kids at school, I’d be done by 1 p.m. and they’d be home. I had a few wonderful winters in New York I spent that way.
III. “PEOPLE PAY TO HEAR IT?”
BLVR: Is writing novels similar to songwriting for you?
DD: No. Songwriting to me is totally different. I really do feel like the songs are already there somewhere in the air, and you’ve just got to sit down and open yourself to them. I won’t write a song unless I tell myself I’m going to sit and write a song. I’m not good enough. It’s not natural. I’ll only write a song if I go, OK, tomorrow morning I’m going to fucking sit down and I’m going to write a song.
BLVR: But if you don’t have an idea…
DD: I have a lot of ideas that are stored away that I’ve never tried. I’ve got chord progressions that feel like they’re going to lead to nice melodies to me. I’ve got phrases in a notebook in my iPad. I’ve got a file that is just a bunch of notations of chord progressions and lyrical fragments. I would start just, like, noodling around with one of those. Try to get a song out of it.
BLVR: So it’s a kind of channeling, but also it’s mundane work.
DD: Well, there is work. The work of it was sitting down and screwing around with chords for a while, or having the idea of that line and being smart enough to write it down because I knew it was song-worthy at some point. But I’ve got to get myself down. It’s almost meditative. I’ve got to give myself a break enough to just start fooling around with it.
BLVR: And you didn’t really start doing this until you were in your fifties.
DD: Yeah, it’s weird.
BLVR: What happened?
DD: I had started to teach myself guitar, I think when I was fifty, and I was learning songs I liked, old rock-and-roll songs that were simple enough that I could play them. A lot of these chord progressions are a part of human nature at this point. They’re in our pop music culture. G–D–A minor is all over the place. Nobody owns that. And the whole trick is that the melody and lyrics go on top of these. So one day I heard a melody that I thought was decent, and then I just started putting words on it. I mean, it’s hard for me because I have no ear at all, you know? I knew I was never gonna sing.
If you had talked to anybody in my family, anybody that knew me, the last thing they would have said is that I’d be a singer. My mother is ninety-one, and it’s a source of consternation for her. She doesn’t know me that way. She only knows the boy who didn’t make the choir. Because I didn’t make the choir when I tried out for it. I tried out for the choir ’cause my friends got paid to be in the choir. I think they were given eight dollars. And that was a big deal back then. But I failed my audition. It was a horrible, horrible moment of my life. I was humiliated because I auditioned in front of the entire choir and those were all my friends. And they were like, “Oh, everybody makes it. Nobody ever gets kicked out. The church needs as many people as it can get.” And I didn’t make it! So my mother remembers that guy, who didn’t play guitar. And she never heard me singing around the house. And if I did, it was not good. So I tell her I’m going on tour, and she’s like, “People pay to hear it?”
IV. “THE VICISSITUDES OF THE DAY”
BLVR: You stepped away from acting for a minute to focus on writing. Is that how you see it?
DD: I worked a couple really hard years doing Aquarius and The X-Files at the same time. So I had two shows going at once, and that was more work than I wanted to be doing, but it was fine. Now I’ve got a couple of things I’m really excited about, but there’s no doing them yet, because of COVID.
BLVR: What are you working on now?
DD: Well, I sold my novel Truly Like Lightning to Showtime as a series. They bought a pilot. The character is a cowboy. He’s very stoic and nonverbal. It’s a cowboy thing.
BLVR: Are you writing as well?
DD: No. I have two collaborators. I got two guys who wrote and directed The Peanut Butter Falcon. It’s almost like torture, adapting yourself. So I asked them to adapt and direct it and I’ll play it. I’ll probably just give notes. But I’m not a control freak. It’s a real collaboration. That’s what I’ve always felt about making movies or TV shows as a writer. It’s so deeply collaborative. You can’t really do it alone. People can bellyache all they want about that. That wasn’t what my book was about. That wasn’t my book on-screen. Well, of course it wasn’t! It’s a new thing. It changes the story. Literally. I did the best I could with the novel. I suppose I could tinker with it till I die, but it’s close enough to what I had imagined it might be, and now I don’t want to try to imagine it as a television show. Personally, I can’t switch gears. So I need somebody else to come put fresh eyes on it. They’re going to see stuff I didn’t.
BLVR: The work becomes a living thing, beyond you.
DD: When people cover songs, they bring out something new. It may not be as good as the original—you may always have a warm spot for the original—but you never heard the song that way before. And think about the idea of the writer, the novelist, as opposed to the idea of the director or the auteur. The whole auteur thing, it’s just baloney, because filmmaking is a collaborative art form. There’s no way you’re an auteur. You may have a strict vision. You may have a great eye for material. You may have a great eye for hiring. And maybe an auteur is somebody who’s really good at hiring people that are better than them. But there’s no way a director is a novelist. No one has that level of control. In filmmaking, you rely on the kindness of strangers, and I love that, because then you’re better than yourself. I mean, a novel is only going to be as good as I am. In a film, I can be better than me.
BLVR: It’s a unique form of mass collaboration.
DD: I was reading about the making of the film Mank. David Fincher and other people associated with that film were talking about his perfectionism and the way he kind of tries to tire actors out so they just begin acting instinctually rather than performing things. And I really am impressed by it, but it’s so not in my nature to work like that. I mean, I see the fruits of his work and they’re amazing, but I don’t aspire to make films in that manner. I’m turned on more by the accidents and the lightning in a bottle and the vicissitudes of the day. And he seems to be more turned on by the complete control over this huge, mammoth operation that is the making of a film. He has amazing concentration and vision, and that sounds very different from anything I could ever imagine myself having.
BLVR: Yeah, you’ve often used the word lazy when describing your work ethic, and you emphasize working smart, not hard. It’s a little Taoist.
DD: I love Lao-tzu. The Tao Te Ching is one of my favorites. Toilet reading. You come away quickly with something amazing.
BLVR: I enjoy how so many of the novels and poetry of Taoism were published anonymously.
DD: I think all my books should be published anonymously. We live in an age where so much criticism is not about the work at hand. It’s about either the creator of the work or the politics of the work. And that’s distressing to me on many levels. But I certainly have pride. I don’t want to make it seem like I’m not proud that my name’s on a book or a movie, but it would be interesting to see how it would be discussed if there were no names. People know me first and foremost as an actor, and that becomes part of the critique, and I know I’m going to see X-Files puns in the reviews. But I just want to say, Can you be better? Can you do better? Does it make sense in this review to say that I went to Yale? Does that make me a writer? The tenor of most reviews is: Oh god. Another actor writing a book… But he went to Yale! So he knows how to write! But neither of those statements has any kind of validity. Anybody can try to write. It doesn’t matter whether you are an actor or an airline pilot. And it doesn’t matter how much school you had. You can write or you can’t.
I just read this review of a posthumously published Harold Bloom book, and the reviewer basically was attacking Bloom for criticizing books for what they could have been instead of what they were. Which is exactly what she was doing. I was like, How blind can you be? It’s so prevalent now. When I’m reading reviews of TV shows or films or books, the reviewer comes in saying, Ah, this is what I thought I was getting. And then they criticize this thing for not being what they wanted it to be. But your job is to criticize what it is. You’re admitting your bias right off the bat! You see it in these franchises, because people get so proprietary of them. That whole Game of Thrones thing. People are going nuts because it’s not something else, instead of asking: What is it? What actually happened?