If you weren't a fan of "The X-Files," you probably don't know how funny it could often be. Sure it was creepy, and weird, and confusing. But every so often, the writers would throw in an oddball episode with a dry sense of humor—and David Duchovny, as the tireless, laconic Agent Fox Mulder, would hit it out of the park. Comedy has always been an underrated skill for Duchovny, now 47, but Hollywood has done him no favors in getting the word out. You might've missed the glimmers of his talents in movie duds like "Evolution" and "Connie & Carla." He's long seemed like a capable actor and a highly intelligent guy—he has a graduate degree in literature from Yale—who never quite landed in the right role. But finally, the perfect gig has come along: in Showtime's new comedy "Californication," which debuts Aug. 13, he plays an unhinged novelist named Hank Moody who's got a bad case of writer's block, an even worse habit of saying whatever pops into his mind, no matter how rotten—and an ex-wife (Natasha McElhone) and a daughter who have just about given up on him. The show is sexy, profane and darkly funny, but Duchovny has another trick up his sleeve: it's also got heart. During a break in the action while shooting on location in Venice section of Los Angeles, Duchovny spoke with NEWSWEEK's Devin Gordon.
NEWSWEEK: Since "The X-Files" ended, you've been focusing on movies. What about this show made you decide to come back to television?
David Duchovny: It's exactly the type of comedy that I like. It's a throwback to adult sex comedies from the 1970s, like "Shampoo" or "Blume in Love." Nothing like that has really come my way in my career, and I don't see that sort of thing out there very much. Those kinds of things aren't getting made.
What do you think of this guy you're playing? Do actors even think that way, or do they try to avoid having opinions about their characters?
Well, it was definitely a consideration when I first read the script. One of my reservations was that I thought the guy was kind of an asshole. My wife read the script, and she thought I shouldn't do it. She said, "I don't get this guy." But I told her that I thought I knew the way to do it, and then when she saw the pilot, she said, "Wow, I was wrong."
What didn't she like about him?
She just thought he was an ass. Just a nasty guy.
But aren't those characters the most fun to play?
They are, but you're talking about a series here. You're gonna have to play this guy for a while, and people are gonna have to tune in to see him. It's not just one movie or one episode. It's the lead of a series. So these are things to think about. But I just had this abiding belief in the way I could play him.
Is Hank Moody supposed to be a good writer, as in literary, or a more like a skilled Hollywood writer?
He's supposed to be a really good writer. He's supposed to be a guy in the mold of Faulkner or Fitzgerald, who came out here to Los Angeles thinking they could make an easy buck and ended up getting kind of swallowed up by the place. I think of him more like a Jonathan Franzen or Dave Eggers, if those guys were all of a sudden writing scripts. Maybe they are. But he's not like that "Sex and the City" author—he's not frothy or light. He's supposed to be some kind of heavyweight.
Where does the title of the show come from?
We chose it because we couldn't think of a better one. When I first signed up for this, I said, "I'll do it, but it can't be called 'Californication'." And they all said, "Sure, sure, we'll find another title." [Laughs.] But they never did.
And yet, here you are.
Yeah. It's OK. It's only a title.
Obviously, there's a Red Hot Chili Peppers song with that title, but I've read that the term actually predates the song?
Yeah, [series creator] Tom Kapinos told me about this. So many people were moving to California in the 1970s that Oregon was getting some spillover, and they weren't happy about it. So the phrase was, 'Don't Californicate Oregon.' Basically, the idea was, don't let what happened to California happen here.
OK, but what does it mean in regards to the show?
Well, for me, the reason I didn't like that title was because it put the emphasis on the sex in the show. To me, that's not what it's about. It has elements that I like, but we live in a world where people make snap judgments, and I just thought people would hear "Californication" and think it's "Playboy After Dark."
It's great to see you get a chance to be funny—we saw that in some of the quirkier "X-Files" episodes, but otherwise not too much.
It's fun, but it's terrifying. With anything else, you can get a range of reactions—you're good, you're bad, you're OK, you're fantastic. With comedy, if they're not laughing, you suck. There's only one criteria. That's scary.
I have to ask the obligatory "X-Files" question. Before this interview, I read media clippings about you that have gone back six, seven years, and one of the funny patterns is that the subject of you guys making another "X-Files" movie always comes up, and your answer is always, "Yep, it's gonna happen soon, we're just about read to go." And then you skip forward a year in the clips and you're saying, "Yep, we're just about ready to go." So where does it stand now?
We're just about ready to go. [Laughs.] But I truly believe that I might be telling the truth this time.
What's different this time?
Everybody is willing to come together and to do it. People are actually working toward having a script.
Do you want to do it?
Yeah, I think the time is right. Enough time has passed for this to seem like an interesting job, rather than something I should do because it would be successful or because everyone wants me to.
Back to "Californication": one of my favorite parts of the show is your character's rocky chemistry with his ex-wife.
It's the fundamental dynamic of the show. When Tom and I were talking about this, I told him, "I love the pilot script, but what's the show?" Because there's no workplace here—this isn't an office show. It's not the bar. It's not the hospital. It's not the courtroom. So that's a lot of pressure on me to be an interesting character, especially since I'm basically doing nothing. Tom told me that the heart of the show is: What if you got it right with a woman the first time, but you screwed it up? How do you get that back? It's all about this guy getting his family back.
What is wrong with Hank, from your perspective?
I think there's a lot right with him. But what's wrong with him? He's not writing—that's a big thing. There are some people in this world who have lots of talents, and then there are people who have one thing. Like, my brother became a cinematographer when he was 17. He loves it. Knew it right away. This guy is a writer and for whatever reason, he can't do it anymore. And he just hates himself, and he's terrified, so he'll do anything to distract himself from the fact that he feels like he's dying. But in terms of his honesty, his need to tell people what he really thinks—I admire that. To me, that's the most enjoyable thing to play about the guy. Tom is always saying, "This is a character who doesn't lie."
How are you in the complete candor department?
I subscribe to the saying: All truth is good, but not all truth is good to say.
You have kids, right? How old?
Eight and five.
I live in New York, and maybe this is just my anti-Los Angeles prejudice, but I always assumed it would be tough to raise kids out here. It seems like everything's more in your face in Los Angeles—wealth, fame, sex, drugs.
It is tough. And that's part of what "Californication" is all about. There's a line in one of the episodes we've filmed already where this woman is trying to get my character to go to a fund-raiser, and I say, "I'm not much one for causes." And she says, "Don't you wanna save the environment for your little girl?" And I say back to her, "I wanna save my little girl from the environment."