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The Guardian: Agent provocative

The Guardian
Agent provocative
Libby Brooks

He’s loved by millions, gets paid millions and stars in a hugely successful TV series. So why is David Duchovny so annoyed by his co-star’s pay dispute? He tells Libby Brooks about his poetry, the X-Files movie and his dream of bringing the World Cup back to Scotland

He looks a lot like Mulder. There is the same air of wearied naughtiness. But the familiar face, free from the softening broodiness of his X-Files persona, morphs from wounded pup to bond-broker bastard. In exquisitely tailored midnight blue, he is less the visionary canker and more the acquaintance of American Psycho’s socialite psychopath, Patrick Bateman.

At 38, Duchovny is a big star on the small screen, a Hollywood bankable yet to prove his mettle in movies. Internationally identifiable as his wry, doubting alter ego Fox Mulder, the completion of the first X-Files feature film, which has grossed $80 million in the US, has coincided with further television demands. This February he accepted a reported $4 million to appear in 40 more episodes of the ludicrously popular series, which begins its sixth year in the States this September.

He is taller and more awkward off camera, gangly limbs in glossily formal shirt and tie. Unscripted, he sustains the ability to speak in sentences. He is bright enough to recognise the debt of gratitude he owes to the X-Files, professional enough to pitch it as a debt of honour and, initially, convincingly untouched by either. But one senses immediately that there is little he’d like to talk about less.

“If I could make my choice right now I wouldn’t do it, but I made a commitment. What I want is not important,” he says without lustre. “I signed a piece of paper, I’m a professional and I’ll do the best I can.” Beginning with 1993’s pilot show, the series quickly became an industry phenomenon. Garnering a library of literary analysis, a thriving merchandising industry, and the obsessional devotion of a legion of ‘X-philes’, it is now shown in more than 60 countries, and in the US alone is watched by around 25 million viewers.

Every other month sees another report that Duchovny wants to leave the show for good. But if he is equivocal about the X-Files albatross, he glosses it well. “Only in the sense of the time it takes to do it. It’s 10 months a year, then last year 12 with the movie,” he says with glib professionalism. “It’s not that I’m not able to do other characters, but I don’t have time to. I feel trapped by the job, not the character.” He is equally unmoved by his own popularity. The Internet is regularly clogged with drooling consideration of ‘Spooky’ Mulder’s motivations as protector of difficult truths, while Duchovny’s previous life as butt-exposing bit-parter in a selection of dubiously titled B-movies, including The Copulating Mermaid, has caused much tabloid titillation.

“I’m flattered by the attention, if it means they appreciate what I do, but I think that it would be wrong to really believe that they are as obsessed as they seem,” he says, downplaying insistently. “People like to play at being obsessed with certain things. It’s like kids screaming at the Beatles. After a certain point the kids are screaming because that’s what they want to do. They are pleasuring themselves by getting so excited. It really has nothing to do with me or the show.” Nothing to do with the show’s alleged provision of a niche outlet for new-age spiritual yearning, and that peculiarly Stateside conspiracy-theorising cynicism? “It’s not really for me to say. Apparently the show has [tapped into the zeitgeist], because we’ve decided that it does and we like to talk about it that way. Those are the only terms you can put it in but I still think that it’s wrong.” So it is possible to over-analyse the X-Files? “I think that’s one of people’s greatest joys” he parries neatly. And is it possible to over-analyse Mulder? “Oh no. He’s a very complicated individual. You can think all about him that you want.” He smirks. Does he? “Not any more.”

The feature film itself is enjoyable enough, although in celluloid translation offers little more than an extended double episode with added vista shot potential. All that is missing is the option to make a cup of Téa in the tense bits. The plot has been closely guarded, to the extent where scripts were numbered in order to identify leaks.

The film opens with the X-Files closing and Mulder and Scully being re-assigned. It delves further into the mythology of the cult concept, ultimately exposing the truth behind an international project that threatens to alter the future of mankind, and contains a sufficient splattering of in-jokes to satisfy series trainspotters. The teasing relationship between Mulder and Scully is explored in greater depth than ever before.

And what of his co-star Gillian Anderson who, depending upon which gossip column one reads, he is alternately biffing or bonking. “We work long hours together, many months out of the year, we’re both still alive and that’s a testament to a successful relationship. I trust her to show up and be prepared and not waste my time, and she trusts me to do the same. We don’t socialise.” Duchovny came to acting the long way round. Born in New York to a Scottish mother and Polish-Russian father, he talks oddly about his American identity. “The sense of foreignness came from my mother. It was important for her that I remembered that I was half-Scottish. It didn’t mean reading me bedtime stories about Bonnie Prince Charlie, but there was a difference in outlook. I was a foreigner to my own mother. She didn’t understand me.” It is a surprisingly powerful remark to throw away like that.

Duchovny’s parents divorced when he was 11 and he is similarly, deliberately, sanguine about its effect. “It was a primary incident in my life, but everyone has profound experiences in their childhood. Some are more easy to spot than others. People say: ‘Oh divorce, that’s a red marker,’ but sometimes I’m happy it’s like that, because I don’t need to search for that event.” Much to his teacher mother Meg’s delight, he appeared bound for a career in academia, sailing through Princeton then Yale, where he gained a master’s degree in English literature. He was awarded a graduate fellowship to pursue a PhD in American literature, which he swiftly abandoned. His first professional acting assignment involved beer swilling for a Lowenbrau commercial. He left academia, he says, because he wanted to try real life, away from the cloistered campus atmosphere. “So I ended up in Hollywood, which is the obvious choice.”

He denies that there is any frisson for fans in the knowledge that those envied eyes are connected to a fully functioning cerebellum. It is, of course, an entirely professional issue: “People like you to do the job you do. Do people want a chef with a PhD? If your meat is overcooked, they don’t care that the guy went to Yale.” But Duchovny’s academic credentials, along with his poetry writing and vegetarianism, are oft vaunted as proof of his otherwordly charm. Indeed, in this month’s edition of the American magazine Movieline, he ‘shares a poem’ called Cliche Juice: “Home is where the heart is and my heart is/ out travelling. Up into the wild blue yonder,/ wingless, prayerful that this miracle of flight/ will not end, just yet.” The poem is fascinating in context rather than content: why someone so sharp, so darkly professional would be tempted into an act so revealing.

He was inspired as much by a passion for his art as by what his art was not, he says. “What acting wasn’t made me very passionate. It was not thinking, it was feeling. It was athletic, in the sense that it was instinctual. You could lose your self-consciousness, you become like an animal without notions of the past or the future. And that felt good.” After inevitable low-budget beginnings, Duchovny went on to play a cinematographer in Chaplin, and one of Brad Pitt’s hostages in the serial killer thriller Kalifornia. His role as a canine-confounded yuppie in big dog film Beethoven hinted at comic potential. But his latest ex-X-Files excursion, Playing God, slumped at the box office, averaging an audience of 20 per screening.

A dedicated Buster Keaton fan, rumour has it that Duchovny’s true talent lies somewhere further left field. After all, he did play a transvestite agent in Twin Peaks. Many who saw his Emmy-nominated guest appearances on the Larry Sanders Show last year, pronounced him too clever for the X-Files. In one of the Sanders episodes, Larry feared (wrongly) that his old friend Duchovny fancied him – a comic role which he played up hilariously.

On comedy he really begins to chatter. “Certain X-Files are comedies,” he says. “I don’t mind Mulder’s straight face, because when I’m funny that’s the kind of funny I am. I’m not Jim Carrey funny.” He has already checked out the British competition, it would appear. “I was flipping through the channels last night and they had this show Top Of The Pops on. They were funny. Very funny. Very witty.” He is eager now. “Two guys going on about the soccer. Then they got up and sang a song about soccer. About three stripes on the shirt?” Skinner and Baddiel are finally identified. “First I thought it was so corny: these guys were funny and now they’re doing this kiss ass patriotic soccer song. Then I thought it was kind of better than the Bay City Rollers.”

Duchovny is more of a basketball man himself. It’s patently obvious that he was always picked first for sports at school. “Is that a trick question? I was always a very good athlete…” he announces evenly. “As a kid, probably if I’d had one of those horrendous parents who make their child focus on one thing I could have been a professional athlete, but thankfully I didn’t.” He wouldn’t expect that from his own children. (Duchovny married Deep Impact actress Téa Leoni last year. She previously starred as a photo-journalist in the comedy series The Naked Truth. It is rumoured that the pair plan to embark on an update of I Love Lucy together, though they strenuously deny it.) “Sitting here with this privileged perspective I say I’d be a wonderful enlightened parent, but we’ll see what happens. When push comes to shove.” He pauses, once again the convivial professional, relishing the wordplay.

His expectations for himself are measured too. “I’d like to bring the World Cup back to Scotland.” No you wouldn’t. “Yes, I’m ambitious, it just doesn’t take any specific dreams.” He would like a full creative life and a personal life that has decency, he intones rather bleakly. “Jim Carrey wrote himself a $10 million cheque and dated it five years in the future, then it actually happened and it was this big moment. I’ve never had anything like that with money.” Although he is hardly impoverished. “Yeah, well I don’t get paid that much. It was never a goal, a nice side- effect.” Is there any subject that elicits some fire? Perhaps he could explain last autumn’s dispute over Gillian Anderson’s pay, which led to a distinct frosting of relations on set? Duchovny was quoted as saying that his higher salary was related to his seniority in the series.

“The truth is in Hollywood you make as much money as you can get. If she’s making less money than me she should blame her agent, or her lawyer or herself. She shouldn’t blame the fact that she’s a woman, or me,” he gabbles, with more detail than is strictly necessary. “Demi Moore gets paid more than me, and I work just as hard as her. Is it because she’s a woman, is it because she has breasts? I resented the implication that I’m making more money than I deserve. I thought it showed a lack of class.” Duchovny is suddenly warming to his subject, leaning towards me, wrapping and unwrapping his long legs. “The other thing that pisses me off is when women want not just equality but separate but equal. Men and women are two very different things. They should be treated by society with the same laws, get paid the same amount for the same job and all that stuff, but to say we’re not different is just bullshit.” The silkiness is out the door now. The toffee tones are becoming brittle. “Even with the show, people say ‘Why is Scully in danger, why must Mulder save her?’ It’s ridiculous! Somebody has to be in jeopardy and someone has to save them.” He articulates each word peevishly.

“Mulder has lost every fist fight he’s had on the X-Files. Scully has won almost every one.” This is clearly a sore point. “Gillian is 5ft 2in, I’m 6ft, the odds are that I’d probably win more. However, because she’s a woman, Scully can’t lose a fist fight. You become tyrannised by this notion that women must not only be treated equally but they must never fail. It’s crap to me and it makes for bad drama.” But surely those precise pressures have been the subject of a recent backlash in the States. “There will be and there should be because it’s fucking ridiculous. America is being tyrannised by sexual bias suits. You can’t say to somebody: ‘If you don’t fuck me I’m going to fire you’. But an employer saying one time: ‘Gee that girl has nice tits’. I shouldn’t have to lose my business because of that. If you are offended by it, you can say so.

“But people’s lives are being ruined, and I believe that the cause of feminism is actually being set back.” When you start addressing art as if it has to be politically correct,” he argues, you are making a mistake. “Art can’t serve an agenda. By it’s nature it is disruptive, anarchic, mean. The best jokes are at somebody’s expense.” Would he like to be making those jokes? “I don’t know. We all want to be loved…” And he certainly is loved. “It doesn’t impact on me personally, it’s abstract. I’m acceptable and attractive enough. But I have this fantasy that people find me more attractive than I really am because they like what I do.” The silk has returned seamlessly. “Because something comes from inside me. I like to make believe that,” he says, unconvincingly wistful. “It’s the little lie I tell myself.” The liquid eyes are sparkling hard. “Does it convince you?” The X Files movie opens on August 21

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