First published in GQ, November 1996
“I’ve been working with David for six weeks,”says Tim Hutton, who plays Raymond, musing over the pool table at Andy Wilson’s place in the West Hollywood hills. “And he’s still the same. You don’t get close.” He muffs the shot.
“Nice guy, though,” says Andy Tiernan, who plays Cyril, moving in with his cue.
Hutton nods then strolls over to watch the video of the dailies running on Wilson’s enormous TV. Maybe six weeks doesn’t sound so long in the everyday world but in the superheated instability of movie making time condenses and bonds are forged at an unnatural pace. This movie is certainly no exception. Aspects of it are so hair-raising you’d half expect to see everyone get married by the time it’s over.
‘X-Files’ star David Duchovny plays Eugene. Melanie Green, his manager, volunteers an assessment of the man accused of keeping his cool in the hothouse. “The thing about David,” she says, “Is he doesn’t get excited. I get really excited. I get excited for him.” Then, defensively, she picks up on the issue of Duchovny’s privateness. “He doesn’t want to bond if that means hanging out and drinking.”
Well, such is the remarkable state of affairs on the movie that hanging out and drinking has become not only what guys do anyway but the most reliable means of getting some scenes for the following day. It seems that the producers have vetoed a sizeable number of pages from the shooting script, leaving the director and the actors to make it up as they go along. They’ve had four writers in, who have supplied a story-line, it’s just that the producers don’t like the actual words.
It was David Duchovny, eager to squeeze in something completely different after shooting three series of ‘The X-Files’, with a fourth planned for the end of the year, who found the original script, ‘Playing God’. It chronicles the downfall of Dr Eugene Sands, a drug-addicted surgeon who, drummed out of the industry for malpractice, is persuaded to ply his trade for a psychotic mobster. The actor then saw some episodes of ‘Cracker”, from British TV, loved them and procured their director, Andy Wilson, to make the film.
A few hundred yards down from the corral of location vehicles, out on the Sierra Highway half an hour north of L.A., dozens of people are assembled by the roadside. Some are wearing sun-hats and reading magazines, others are gazing at a distant bend in the road. A pale grey Jaguar saloon swings into view, cruises towards the crowd then lurches off the highway onto a dirt layby. Eugene, blood all over his head, has to lean over and take the wheel from Cyril, who is completely drenched in blood. Eugene jumps out, races round to the driver’s door and heaves out Cyril, who appears to be dead. In the back you can make out Claire, deathly pale, blood soaking through her red dress. Eugene, grunting, drags Cyril to a hollow by some trees and dumps him. Back at the car, he throws a gun into the bushes and drives off again.
“And cut!” yells Andy Wilson.
Duchovny threads his way through the crew to get some cold mineral water and look at the video replay with the director. He’s panting. “That’s a helluva workout puff puff. They should have that at the gym puff. Corpse Carrying – it’s an Olympic event!”
“And Gun Toss,” adds Sam, the First Assistant.
Duchovny laughs. “Yeah – Corpse Carrying and Gun Toss. That’d be it.”
He puts his arm round Andy Tiernan’s shoulder and they study the replay. The master shot has to be retaken a few times then various mid shots and close-ups are put together. Andy Tiernan and Angelina Jolie, who plays Claire, are wandering about in an odd manner. It’s possible, of course, that Angelina may still be in character. She wobbles about on slim legs and high heels, her pallid face immobilised in a thousand yard stare. Tiernan, who can’t be in character because he’s dead, stands wretchedly in the baking heat, holding his sodden, sticky arm away from his body and baring his teeth in a demented grimace.
“It’s funny, isn’t it?” Andy Wilson observes, “When actors get blood on them they go all grumpy.”
Duchovny is far from grumpy, though. This movie business is a breeze – up in Vancouver, where they shoot most of ‘The X-Files’, he routinely does a fourteen to sixteen hour day six days a week for months at a time. In TV they like to get eight minutes a day but down here in Hollywood they think two minutes is more than adequate! Plus you can stand around between takes and eat turkey and mustard sandwiches and chat to the good humoured crew. Right now, hanging around by the Jag, Duchovny is roaring with laughter at something that Andy Tiernan, now in a better mood, has whispered in his ear.
“David!” shouts Sam from over by the camera, “We’re gonna need that kind of energy again in the next shot!”
“Suck my fuckin’ dick!” retorts the actor previously renowned for his elegance and restraint in the face of all but the paranormal.
Parked across from the catering truck is a glistening aluminium Airstream trailer with smoked glass windows. A white four wheel drive stands beside it. This is the star’s home from home, towed down from Vancouver by his driver and rented to the film company. Having eased out of Eugene’s striped sweater and slacks, Duchovny, still with seeping head wound, relaxes in tee shirt and jeans in the shade of the Airstream’s awning. He is fully focused, gives steady eye contact and, X-Philes will be pleased to learn, is even more laconic than Agent Mulder.
This little matter of the script, then, how are you coping? “What helps in this is a deep, abiding belief that everything’s going to work out okay.” He grins. “The problem with drastic changes at the last minute and with improvisation on a movie set is that you can mistake the excitement of newness for the excitement of greatness. Know what I’m saying? But every scene we’ve done has been really good. The skeleton of the story is there. The arc of the character has been set from the beginning. I knew basically how I wanted to play, where I was – it’s just the words, which are, in the end, very unimportant for an actor. Words are the melody but there’s a rhythm underneath that. Film isn’t primarily a verbal medium.”
This calls to mind one of the curious mannerisms of ‘The X-Files’, namely the inordinately verbose and solemn passages of exposition and summation that Mulder and Scully are obliged to deliver at regular intervals. The pleasures of an energetic, physical plot must seem rather attractive by comparison. “Well, I’ve been doing ‘X-Files’ for three years, it’s the same character – I tend to bridle a little bit at just being perceived as this person. Certain insecurities come up after a number of years. Am I going to be this person for ever? So there was an insecure motivation for me wanting to do something else, but the strongest motivation was the fact that I really liked the story of this film, and films don’t wait around.”
So punishing is the schedule in Vancouver that one wonders why Duchovny doesn’t just use these eight weeks to have a nice rest. “It was a question of whether taking time off or having a change of venue was going to be the most rejuvenating. I don’t tend to rejuvenate very well in a sedentary way. I don’t tend to rejuvenate very well at all! A week or two just sitting on my ass, that’s enough, really.”
As if on cue, an assistant approaches the trailer. “They’re ready for you on camera, sir.” Duchovny retires behind the smoked glass to get his bloodstained clothes back on.
The remarkable appeal of ‘The X-Files’ to an American audience can probably be attributed to its muffled but consistent endorsement of an array of topical paranoias. The paranormality that regularly engulfs Mulder and Scully is not constructed simply in terms of alien agencies that would unstitch the fabric of society – there is an additional crucial inflection that has the Government and its agencies turned, conspiratorially, against the community they are supposed to protect. In this fearful state of affairs, aliens acquire an ambivalence they never had in the days when America faced the simple, external threat of extinction by deranged Communists. These days the enemy is within and the aliens, in some instances, might actually turn out to be more supportive than the Government.
The ‘X-Files’ scenarios succeed in touching a nerve of disaffection that may find ultimate expression in Waco or Oklahoma yet runs unchecked through a body politic whose ranks swell with peaceable but increasingly suspicious ordinary citizens. In Britain, where our paranoia has yet to become so florid, ‘The X-Files’ impacts upon more conventional susceptibilities.
Now that certainty is a thing of the past, the comforts of the paranormal are in demand everywhere. The Brits, however, while buying eagerly into much that lies beyond our ken, are also up for a bit of aesthetic innovation. The lack of narrative closure in ‘The X-Files’ – whereby you get a whole story per episode yet it’s somehow never fully resolved – is a refreshing alternative for a TV viewership reared on impeccably structured dramas that take you, via the beginning and middle, to an unambiguous end.
Although Agent Mulder will be with us for at least four more series after the current run, syndicated and repeated throughout the English-speaking world, the fact remains that David Duchovny is still only Small Huge. Being a household name on TV counts for so very little in film. To be galactically, as distinct from globally, stellar – Large Huge – you have to crack movies. If David wants to get more than say, two million per movie, he’ll have to make an impact like Jim Carrey, who went from less than one to a current twenty over the course of just two films.
Not that Duchovny is in it for the money – he’s already got quite a lot. Not that he’s new to movies, either. ‘Playing God’ may be his first quality lead, but it was preceded by substantial parts in ‘Kalifornia’ and ‘The Rapture’ and useful roles in ‘Chaplin’ and ‘Beethoven’. Few of us will have forgotten, moreover, his role as the transvestite detective Dennis/Denise Bryson in ‘Twin Peaks’. But that was TV.
The man who would be Mulder was born 35 years ago in Manhattan. His mother, Meg, came from Aberdeen and is an elementary school teacher in Manhattan. Amram, his father, is a retired publicist. The parents separated when Duchovny was 11. After attending the élite New York Collegiate School, he went on to major in English literature at Princeton then took a Masters Degree at Yale.
Academia continued to be attractive. Duchovny signed up for a Ph.D and started to work on his thesis, titled ‘Magic and Technology in Contemporary American Poetry and Prose’. ‘Duke’ also wrote his own poetry and was very good at basketball. These pursuits fell away when he started hanging out with the Yale drama crowd. “It’s such an ascetic frame of mind required to write a dissertation,” he explains, “that once you step one foot out it’s very hard to have any efficiency in that world. It’s like a secular priesthood, it really is. I didn’t have that devotion.”
Less ascetic was the Lowenbrau commercial for which he auditioned when cash wore thin at Yale. He got the part and determined to pursue acting full-time. Not all his early roles were small. Before landing the movies people have heard about he had the lead in the low-budget ‘Julia Has Two Lovers’, where you get to see his bare behind. In 1992 he teamed up with Melanie Green, who persuaded him to read for the TV pilot of a new series to be called ‘The X-Files’. You know the rest.
It’s lunchtime on the shoot and Duchovny, assembling a salad at the catering truck, is having a remarkable effect upon some women. Which is to be expected, really. As well as good-looking – albeit with a slightly big nose – and the laconic business that we already talked about, he’s also extremely droll. But first some background…
In American supermarkets just before you check out they don’t have Sainsbury’s ‘Family Circle’ with features on the joy of summer fruits but an array of magazines full of stories about how a man’s dog sings like Elvis and sleeps with an actress from ‘Baywatch’. In one such publication, the ‘Star’, they have a feature entitled ‘David Duchovny’s Sex Files’. I wish I’d thought of that. It seems that not only is the Duke, ‘TV’s coolest star’, back with his ex, Perrey Reeves (he isn’t), but he’s seeing as many as six other women as well. Case 4, as the ‘Star’ has it, goes like this: “He’s also dating a sexy location manager from his latest movie, ‘Playing God.’ ‘David flirts with Molly Allen all day on the set,’ a set insider tells ‘Star’.” Clearly some ruthless investigative reporting is in order.
Back on the set David is talking with Molly about his bloody head, watched by other women from make-up, costume and associated. David dabs at his brow and says to Molly “Oh! I hit my head on the car door! Did I break the skin?” Everybody giggles, including the reporter who, while not running tape, is not missing a thing. Then David breaks into a riff which has them all howling. British readers will notice the absence of political correctness from this scene:
“It’s okay, I’m standing in for Maxipads (a brand of tampon). ‘Hey fellas – when she’s on the rag do you lose your rag? Listen – if your girl won’t use Maxipads then I’m your guy.'” As the riff develops Molly doesn’t just laugh, she throws in comments and pushes Duchovny playfully in the chest. TV’s coolest star winds down on a thoughtful note, with a glance towards the British reporter. “That’s the best thing Prince Charles ever said. I think it’s really cool he said that.”
After lunch, returning to matters of the mind, Duchovny starts to elaborate on the legacy of his academic background. “Sometimes somebody’ll say ‘You threw all that schooling away’ and I think ‘Possibly’ but what it did give me was discipline – from the root of the word – doesn’t it mean ‘student’ in Latin?” This must help in countering the asceticism of life inside a long-running series. “And life outside. I’m very private and possessive of the free time that I have. So maybe I’m a little closed off, maybe I don’t like to have dinner with people I don’t know and things like that.”
It’s becoming apparent that despite the beach-house in Malibu, despite his winning ways with the ladies, Duchovny inhabits a world of unbending rigour that is not sustained merely by your standard overweening self-absorption. The man is a little driven. “Yeah. I think it’s both a blessing and a curse for me – sometimes I think if I did a little less I’d be a little more free. But that’ll come later.” He goes on to describe his anxiety about such a change of gear: it’s something that has to be earned, you can’t risk it until you’re absolutely certain the work won’t go away, you do all the work you possibly can until you get to that point, and even then “I’m not there yet.”
How can Duchovny believe this? Will he ever be able to let go? He talks about his admiration for Harold Bloom, a Professor at his old university and a widely respected writer of psychoanalytic literary criticism. “He wrote about the Freudian struggle between writers – the precursor father-figure-writer and the son. He wrote a book called ‘The Anxiety of Influence’ in which he makes literature an Olympian struggle for fame and power. The true father-writer is almost always effaced. So, for example, if Eliot said the writer he was most influenced by was, say, John Donne, that would be a dodge. The true father would be repressed and that would be the one he would be in mortal combat with. That’s where the literary critic comes in and uncovers the true father from within the poem.”
Do you apply this to actors? “Oh yeah. Definitely.”
So who’s your father figure? He doesn’t hesitate, “Brando.”
Are you thereby effacing somebody else? “Haha! Montgomery Clift, possibly. I don’t know.”
Duchovny moves on to a notion he has brought up before: the curious proximity to great acting of failure. “Brando always had a real self-loathing about acting. He thought it was trivial, not masculine. But his work read wonderfully. Like, today, Nicholas Cage fails in a really interesting way. I’d rather watch him fail than other people succeed. Nicholson does that too. That would be the next level to go to – I don’t have the security or confidence to go there yet. I may not have the ability.”
This latter point is moot. One school of thought has it that Duchovny lacks range – as Agent Mulder he specialises in not doing very much and furnishing low affect in scenes of high excitement. More charitable armchair analysts of acting feel that ‘not doing very much’ is an unobservant term for an actor who has great control over the minutiae of expression. Within the frame dictated by the scripts, Duchovny-as-Mulder is able to produce fine shades of interiority for the FBI man with obsessions that lead him to the most unsettling margins. This view puts Duchovny in Steve McQueen territory, where toughness and vulnerability are evinced simultaneously, thanks to strong technique and intuition. Even McQueen lacks assets that Duchovny displays off-camera yet rarely uses in his work, namely strong verbal and physical comic skills.
Andy Wilson, when asked what his leading man is truly interested in, is succinct. “Basketball, Beckett and freaks,” he asserts. Speaking warmly of Samuel Beckett’s trilogy ‘The Unnamable’, Duchovny also enthuses about Joyce, Mailer and Pynchon and explains how he makes time for regular reading. Not a man to hang out much, as we have observed, the actor is wont to return to his Malibu house of an evening, work out, swim, then read a book in bed. At the moment he’s engrossed in a biography of Diane Arbus, acclaimed for her bleak and melancholy photos of freaks, misfits and plain, uncomfortable people.
Does he see any similarity between Arbus’ subjects and actors? “Actors are made freakish by the attention that’s given them. What’s happened to me is you start to think of yourself as an object. Maybe children who are not used to feeling like a subject – used to feeling like an interior being, used to feeling the object of something, who have been objectified – maybe they more easily become actors, maybe they seek that feeling again.”
Back at the shoot nobody is mocking David Duchovny. It’s the end of a long, hot day, and half the crew are packed into the tropically humid bar of an old roadhouse to shoot Eugene coming in and asking the barman for help. Andy Wilson, jovial as ever, is blowing raucously on his arm to demonstrate the fart sounds that, he says, his young daughters find hilarious at bathtime. Duchovny is shaking with laughter, causing Melanie Green to make a mock apology for her client’s intemperateness.
The camera rolls, the actor jumps off his seat, gets straight into character and does a longish dialogue scene. As soon as it’s over he berates the camera crew for farting during the take. They indignantly protest their innocence and start blaming each other. The sound crew then calls for complete silence while they record a wild track of background ambience. The boom operator has just yelled his warning when Duchovny, leaning nonchalantly against the bar, blows a loud raspberry. “That’ll match,” he murmurs.
Apoplectic and herculean attempts by forty people to control their guffaws prove hopelessly inadequate. A great groan of hilarity rocks the bar. The Duke grins. “It’s a wrap!” hollers the second assistant. “Six o’clock tomorrow morning, please!” Actors are jumping in cars so they can race back to the city for a beer. For Duchovny, it’s a solo drive back to the beach house for a work out. Despite putting aside time for that quiet read later, he’s having a very full day, just like in Vancouver. With every minute so thoroughly used up, is he, dare one ask, ever going to settle down and find time for family life? “If it’s going to happen, it’s just going to happen – I’m not making time for it. But I think I’m ready. I think about it more often. Recently. I sat down and thought ‘God, I’m 35!’ Yeah. I’d like to have a child in the next five years.” He ruminates for a moment, then announces “I’ve got to get to work!” He’s talking about finding a partner, not pumping iron in Malibu. You could be forgiven for not being quite sure, though.