After the short-lived career as a graffiti artist but before the long-lived career in which he pretended to be an FBI agent chasing UFOs, David Duchovny worked as a bartender. This had some unintended consequences, like the time he ran down the street shirtless, pursued by a man with a knife.
As we cross Fifth Avenue, Duchovny points out the spot, at the corner of 13th Street. It was a hot summer day, circa 1979, and when Duchovny came in to work to prepare his station, he took off his shirt before slicing the limes. “The chef was a real martinet. He said it was against the law to be handling fruits with my shirt off. I think I told him to fuck off. The next thing I knew, he was coming at me with a knife. I ran—not only because he had a knife, but because there had been a story about this guy that he had bitten somebody’s nose off.”
Now 44 years old, Duchovny moved to L.A. seventeen years ago and is still mildly astonished to be raising children who aren’t New Yorkers—children incapable of dealing with chef rage, among other urban hazards. As we amble through the Village, he points out which blocks were dangerous when he was a kid and smiles. He says, “I appear to be walking down the street with you, but I’m actually walking in the New York of my mind.”
The New York built of memories is a city that many longtime residents find more potent than the one made of concrete. It’s also the subject of Duchovny’s debut film as a writer and director, House of D. Set in 1973, the film shows the painful coming-of-age of a 13-year-old boy (Anton Yelchin). Our hero shares some autobiographical elements with the adolescent Duchovny: an apartment in the Village, a Catholic school, a job as a meat-delivery boy. But the major plot elements are fiction: the dead father, the relocation to Paris, the friendship with a retarded janitor (Robin Williams).
“I wanted to make a movie that was sentimental and not cynical,” Duchovny says. The film is sweet and genuinely moving, if a bit earnest—the sort of autobiographical feature one would expect from a 24-year-old rather than a 44-year-old. Like Zach Braff’s Garden State, another East Coast memory piece, House of D is both easy to like and easy to sneer at.
Today, with the weather crisp, Duchovny is wearing a black cloth jacket, black jeans, and sunglasses. He strides down the sidewalk with his spine perfectly straight, going unnoticed except for one pair of Korean tourists; when they approach, he graciously poses for photographs. “My favorites are the ones who call me Scully,” he jokes. “I can tell they’re really fans of the show.”
“Like many people, in moments of weakness, I think that popularity means you’re bad and a hard-edged cynicism means you’re good.”
“The show,” of course, is The X-Files, the aliens-and-conspiracies drama that debuted in 1993 and earned Duchovny an online congregation known as the David Duchovny Estrogen Brigade, whose members were familiar with every last detail of his biography, down to the title of his unfinished dissertation at Yale (“Magic and Technology in Contemporary American Fiction and Poetry”). As Fox Mulder, the believer paired up with Gillian Anderson’s skeptical Scully, Duchovny presented a new archetype of action hero and, hence, of manhood: reserved in a way that managed to communicate both diffidence and obsession. After years of ever-more-convoluted plotlines, the series collapsed under the weight of its own mythology sometime in 1999, but struggled on for three more seasons (the last one without Duchovny). By the time it ended, the actor had been left in that peculiar trap of fame: familiar, beloved, and stuck in the amber of his own TV past.
Since 2000, Duchovny’s résumé features just five movies. Setting aside a cameo in Zoolander, they’re two flop comedies (Evolution, Connie and Carla) and two middling indie dramas (Full Frontal, Return to Me). Although he had proved remarkably versatile through the shifting genres of The X-Files—on any given week, he might have to handle horror, a police procedural, or an absurdist comedy about robotic cockroaches—he seemed unable to break through. It wasn’t for lack of trying: Duchovny says he’s looked both for scripts that would yield commercial success and for ones that “terrify” him. But he never got the role that launched him past his cult following: “I never had a Colonel Parker to figure it out,” he says with a sigh.
Given that Duchovny was paid $400,000 per episode by the end of his run on The X-Files, he doesn’t need to work: He can always stay at home with his wife, actress Téa Leoni (who plays the brittle mother in House of D), and their two young children, Madelaine and Kyd. And he’s had some luck Colonel Parkering his own path this year, with a series of projects on the way, including Trust the Man, a romantic comedy he filmed in New York, due this fall. And then there’s a second X-Files movie. Although there’s no script yet, he expects it to film early next year. “I’ll look up the old crew,” he says. “Hopefully, not too many of them are dead.”
As we wait for the light to change, Duchovny suggests that some of his failures after The X-Files were self-inflicted. “Like many people, in moments of weakness,” he says, “I think that popularity means you’re bad and a kind of hard-edged cynicism and nihilism means you’re good.” A few years back, he wrote a comedic script called Yoga Man, an update of Shampoo featuring a yoga instructor on the make. A smart idea—which he then rendered noncommercial by perversely avoiding plot resolution and throwing in the O.J. murders. He spent a year working on it before setting it aside as a botch. (He’s now working on a new script about New York in 1978, called Bucky Fucking Dent.)
But it’s House of D on which he’s currently pinning his hope—and it’s a sweeter concoction than many of his fans may expect from him. Where does he get this gooey caramel center? “You’ll laugh,” Duchovny warns, before delivering what he sees as the key to his personality: “I think that I’m extremely joyful. Even though I don’t usually express myself that way, it’s dying to come out.”
We pass by Grace Church, where Duchovny used to play basketball, and where he married Leoni in 1997. The ceremony was in the church’s backyard: “I’m half-Jewish, my wife is divorced,” he says, still slightly piqued that they weren’t allowed inside. “It doesn’t matter that my mother taught there for twenty years.” A few blocks later, Duchovny announces, “This building used to be an A&P—Dr. D struck there.” That was Duchovny’s nom de graffiti: In 1971, he and a few friends decided they were taggers. The 10-year-old Duchovny wielded a Magic Marker, not spray paint, and was so scared of getting caught that his name was just a scrawl.
Just a few blocks away, on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Eighth Street, Duchovny finds the location that provides his movie’s title: It’s where the young protagonist stands outside the Women’s House of Detention and gets advice from an inmate on a high floor (played by Erykah Badu). Duchovny remembers when this sidewalk was full of pimps. But the House of D got knocked down in 1974, making way for a community garden; the West Village has gentrified enough in the past 30 years that the garden served as the location for Miranda and Steve’s wedding on Sex and the City.
But then, Duchovny has changed, too. When he moved to L.A. in 1988, he didn’t know how to drive; after failing his test twice, he thought he’d have to move back east. When he returned to film Trust the Man, he found he’d lost his native ability to bear up under a storm: Walking to the gym in two-degree weather, he thought he would start crying. “I caught pneumonia,” he confesses. He grins self-consciously. “I was so ashamed of myself. I’ve gotten soft.”