In the basement of the FBI headquarters in Washington, there is a poster on the wall showing a flying saucer with the words: ‘I want to believe.’ Down in the bowels of the building, special agent Fox Mulder investigates the X-files: cabinets full of files on unexplained paranormal phenomena.
The bureau’s management sends female agent Dana Scully to the basement to keep an eye on him. Soon, the two form an iconic buddy-cop duo in The X-files. A TV series with the central message “The truth is out there”, that became one of the biggest TV hits of the nineties.
The role of Mulder turned American actor David Duchovny into a superstar. However, because of the actors’ strike in Hollywood, he cannot talk about his TV and film work at the moment.
Fortunately, that is not a problem because Duchovny is also a writer (four novels), director (he recently adapted his own book Bucky Fucking Dent) academic dropout (Princeton and Yale), and apparently also a rock singer (three albums). On 16 November, he and his band will perform at Paard in The Hague.
The X-Files recently became a topic of conversation when Duchovny himself took to the streets to strike. He carried a sign with a drawing of the famous UFO and the words: “The residuals are out there.”
Residuals are the money that actors are entitled to receive for reruns of programmes. However, many actors are paid next to nothing.
‘I’m going to come right out and admit it,’ says Duchovny (63) via a Zoom connection, lounging on his hotel bed in New York. ‘I didn’t write that text; the sign was handed to me and I thought: okay, fine. But there are all sorts of things that need to be addressed. Companies like Amazon and Apple almost see streaming as a kind of hobby.
‘It’s just a small part of their business, while for many people making films and series is their whole life. We’re all trying to organise this thing we call showbiz together and now suddenly, giant tech companies are disrupting that process.
‘I hope there will be a good deal soon, because film crews living on monthly pay-checks don’t have any income at the moment.’
Just a couple days after this interview was conducted it was announced that after a 118-day strike, a deal had been reached between the unions and the studios.
Duchovny himself will be on tour this month, as a musician. ‘We’re about to rehearse with the band and then we head to Scotland for the first performance of the European tour.’ He started playing guitar seriously about 10 years ago. ‘I’m a beginner when it comes to making music. As a kid, I had maybe one or two piano lessons and used to mess around on the guitar. It didn’t stick.’
Another attempt to dive into music at a young age turned into a fiasco. ‘I was attending Grace Church School in New York, and when I was about ten years old, I auditioned for the church choir. All my friends were already in that choir. Everyone passed the audition. Nothing. Could. Go. Wrong. The choir master sat behind the piano and played a note. I thought I was supposed to sing the next note that came after it. The idea, however, was for me to sing the exact note that was just played. I was brutally rejected.’
When he eventually started playing, a spark ignited. ‘I’m not a natural singer, but I’ve worked hard to get everything I can out of my voice. To my utter amazement, I started hearing all kinds of melodies in my head. I tried to sing them, but knew I needed help to move forward.’
That help came from musician Keaton Simons. ‘He has a little recording studio in his house and said: “Let’s work on your songs.” They were just a few sketches on my phone. I really wasn’t thinking about making a record.’
Soon Duchovny got to know more people in the music industry, and they gave him the confidence to share his music with the public. ‘I remember asking: “Can’t you tweak my voice with Auto-Tune if necessary?” But it’s hard to get away with that, so I started tackling every part of the songs. Even if it meant singing each phrase separately.’
What are his most important influences? ‘I only notice them when I’m done recording, as I’m not good enough to imitate other artists. But when I listen back, I can hear traces of 70s rock: Allman Brothers, Stones and, of course, the American songwriter Tom Petty. As for more recent music, I really like Wilco. And of course, I can’t sing like Elton John, but his seventies record Tumbleweed Connection is awesome.’
But in truth, Duchovny feels very uncomfortable with any and all comparisons. ‘Because I started so late, I feel like the guest at the party that no one knows yet.’
After recording, that was especially true for live performances. ‘Ten years ago, my biggest fear was singing in front of an audience. Eventually I gained enough confidence to do it anyway. And I don’t think the audience goes to a concert just to laugh at me, like: let’s expose an actor who thinks he can play, but is actually making a fool of himself, that’ll be fun.
‘I’m sure that in the early days, there were people who came to my shows for that reason. And I get the cynicism: that sense of “they only got a record deal because...”
‘But almost everyone who makes music has also done other things. That applies to actors too. Although I do sometimes see bands with well-known actors and think: “Well, that sucks.”’
WRITING AS BLOODLETTING
His music is not exactly cheerful. For example, in the opening track of his recent album Gestureland (2021), he sings: “I can’t remember the feeling when my chest wasn’t crushed by the weight.”
‘I don’t know whether I had darker thoughts than usual when I wrote that,’ he responds. ‘But when I’m working on texts, I’m usually not in a cheerful mood. Writing songs feels like bloodletting. I also listen to a lot of sad music myself and it actually makes me feel better.
‘I don’t know whether there’s a natural connection with acting but when I write, it’s like every song is a character I play. Every song is a different person and I have to work out what words fit the melody.’
Duchovny studied English literature at Princeton and Yale and everything pointed towards an academic career.
‘When I was about 25, I had only ever been in school. I kind of liked the idea of becoming a professor and working on novels during the summer break. I was also writing my dissertation at that time. In short, academic life was pretty okay.
WORLD OF PRETENSE
‘Still, I felt the urge to do something outside the university campus and explore the real world. It’s funny that I turned to acting, because that is pre-eminently a world of pretence. But it worked out so well that I never returned to the lecture hall. I probably won’t ever finish that dissertation.
The only way for me to get another academic title is through an honorary doctorate. So to all the universities out there... I wouldn’t say no to that.’
David Duchovny & Band, Paard (The Hague), Thursday 16 November, € 34
Through his portrayal of the nerdy Fox Mulder, Duchovny became an unexpected sex symbol. Especially the scene where Mulder steps out of the pool in a tight red speedo made a big splash. In the Netflix comedy The Chair (2021), which revolves around the intrigues at an American university, Duchovny poked fun at the scene. His novels are also completely roasted in the episode he features in.
In the series Californication (2007-2014), Duchovny plays the extremely seedy Hank Moody, an alcoholic novelist who sinks further and further into the hedonistic cesspool of Los Angeles.
Duchovny also stars in What Happens Later, which has just been released in the US. The romcom is directed by Meg Ryan, a fellow 90s superstar, and revolves around two ex-lovers who find each other again after 25 years at a snowed-in airport. As they wait in vain for their flight, they are forced to spend time together.
‘The whole film revolves solely around the interactions between Meg and me, which I found very interesting,’ Duchovny says. ‘When it turned out that she wanted to direct me, my immediate reaction was: “Yes. Let’s do it.” This is just going to be for fun, was my first impression. However, it turned into a beautiful love story about two slightly older people. We bicker a lot and try to play off each other in a comical way. But there is room for melancholy and emotional depth as well.
‘I could also channel my own less pleasant experiences into it. That’s what actors do, of course: use their own feelings. How do you do that? Well, that’s the great magic trick. Some actors talk about that in great detail. Please don’t do that, I tell them. Don’t give away the secrets of the craft.’