For David Duchovny, the Truth Is Out There (And It's That He Can Do It All)

CUL PS David Duchovny 02
Mark Mann

"I look for the opposite and whatever it is, I'm doing."

Some dramatic actors have an underlying element of humor to them. David Duchovny is one of them. "I look for the opposite and whatever it is, I'm doing." In the new ensemble comedy The Estate (November 4), Duchovny joins Toni Collette and Anna Faris as dysfunctional family members looking to inherit money from a dying aunt (Kathleen Turner). "I feel like I'm a comedian who's drawn not like what people think of as a comedian." Next month, Duchovny will expand his published works (he's written five bestselling novels) with Kepler (Dark Horse Books, December 27), his first graphic novel, co-written with Phillip Sevy. New to the genre, Duchovny says "I didn't grow up reading comic books" but that the premise—a sci-fi allegory thriller in the style of Planet of the Apes—is a "fascinating subject." Considering Duchovny's claim to fame with The X-Files, his newfound interest in sci-fi is a surprise. "I always thought the alien stuff was so far-fetched." But don't worry fans, he does "believe that there must be other species. I just don't think we've had contact."

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The Estate really is an ensemble piece. Was that something that appealed to you?

I like to find the chemistry between the different actors that I'm working with. That's part of the joy of working. I don't want to sound pretentious, [saying it's] like playing different instruments, but you are, because everybody is a different thing. And in The Estate, you have Toni [Collette], who comes at comedy from a very realistic point of view, which I tend to as well, even though this is way more absurd than I usually am. And Anna [Faris], who's just her own comedic tone, which is cool. And Kayla Monterosa, who is just this freak of comedy. There are some performers that come out angular, like Jennifer Coolidge, and I would say, Lisa Kudrow, and Kayla is one of those and that's hard to play with because you're like, what the f***?

Even though you're known for drama, your comedic tone does seem to sneak through, even in dramas. Do you look for the humor in a character?

Yeah, I do. I've always looked for that. I look for the opposite and whatever it is, I'm doing. So if I'm playing a straight-up comedy, I will look for the sincerity or drama. I think I've always been drawn to it. I've always wanted to expand from that because I felt funny. I always come back to that Jessica Rabbit line, "I'm not bad. I'm just drawn that way." And I feel like I'm a comedian who's drawn not like what people think of as a comedian.

Does finding the humanity and humor in a character help you discover how you're going to play that character?

Absolutely. The humanity of anybody is their ability to laugh at horrible situations. To me, it's not supercilious or disrespectful. The deepest a human can be is to look at disaster and not go into denial.

In a lot of ways you're being more truthful when you crack a joke, because there's always some truth in comedy.

Yeah. When you can get to play characters like Richard in The Estate or Hank Moody [from Californiacation], you have these people who have no filter, they have no shame. There's a great power and liberation in that and it's just fun to play somebody that really is unaware of what people think of him, blissfully, or doesn't give a crap.

What was it about The Estate that you liked?

I just thought it harkened back to those raunchy Judd Apatow comedies, but also like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels or Dinner for Schmucks. If you took them seriously, they would seem like black-hearted, disgusting, horrible movies about terrible people, but they're just escapist fun of just watching people do the absolute worst things they can do.

You're right, raunchy comedies are hard to find these days. They're all big-budget superhero movies.

We've also entered into a very sensitive fluid political time. I think in the last five or six years, we've kind of entered into a period where we're not sure how we can make these kinds of comedies. I hope that it gets accepted and seen as exactly that, not as a political statement. Everything is looked at as a position paper now, which is unfortunate, I think, but necessary.

You've had a number of books published. What about writing is similar to how you would find a way to play a character?

I would compare it to television acting, where you have, if you're lucky, years to develop this character. There's a certain kind of process of sedimentation that happens over time when you're researching a book or when you're playing a long-running character. Things settle into a meaning or an expression that wasn't there before just by aggregation, by mental focus and time. It's rare in a movie that you're going to spend the kind of time that you're going to spend either writing a novel or making a long-running television show. And I found I liked that process. Writing is very much like, you fill up, you fill up, you fill up until you can't stop going, then you go. Whereas, acting is dependent on other factors. You're told how much work you're going to do on that day. It's a different pace. It's a different everything. But certainly, when I'm writing dialogue, I'm kind of speaking these voices in my head.

I definitely hear you when I read your dialogue. But with your new book, Kepler, a graphic novel, you're writing with somebody else, Phillip Sevy. What was that like?

Very different. First of all graphic novels, I have not read lots of them. And I wouldn't say that I'm a fan of the genre. I wouldn't say I'm not a fan. I didn't grow up reading comic books or anything like that. There's very little writing, that was the surprise to me. I like to write, that's one of the reasons I like to write fiction as opposed to screenplays. The screenplay has a very condensed blueprint, if you see good writing in a screenplay, run the other direction because it all should be in the dialogue. All the other good writing should just go away, because you can't film it. Our biggest challenge from the beginning was just how do we create the look of these Neanderthal characters and make them different enough from Homo sapiens. But also hominid enough to seem like we're all from the same family. Because the truth is, you can walk down the street right now and see a number of people who could pass for the Neanderthal. And I don't say that in a mean way, I just say that the distinctive bigger brow, a longer nose, bigger eyes, they're in us, we co-opted them, so they continue on in us. So the question was, how do we not make it a GEICO ad? Because we don't want it to be just out of the air or whatever. And how do we not make it that they're just humans? So it was always about the look, the look of the body, type of face. I kind of wanted to make an allegory about species because I'm fascinated by the history of hominids on this planet, that we don't really know. It's all pre prehistorical. So this is a fascinating subject that we don't know.

And it feels different from other types of writing you've done. Where did it come from?

It began when I was reading that wonderful book, Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. And I always loved the Planet of the Apes as a kid. I was too innocent to understand the racism of it.

You also have another great ensemble comedy coming out next year, You People. Anything you can tease about it?

First of all, I love Kenya Barris [the director]. I love him as a person. I think it's extremely funny. And Jonah Hill is a brilliant actor and comedian. And Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who I hadn't really ever met and hadn't watched much of—I mean, I've seen Seinfeld, of course—but she's amazing and fun to play with. And Eddie Murphy is Eddie Murphy, right? And Nia Long is really great, too. I think it goes back to what we were saying in the beginning. I just love being able to sit back in a scene and just look for my openings. Because these four were gonna give me those openings. They were going to take it to a place where I could then put my little two cents.

Because of The X-Files, I'm sure you must get some wild messages in your DMs. How many people message you about aliens?

Yeah, sure. Especially because last year, when all that stuff got declassified, people think I've got an inside scoop on the whole thing. And the truth is, I was never really that interested. As a kid, I did love those stories. But as an adult, I never was into sci-fi. I always thought the alien stuff was so far-fetched, but I do believe that there must be other species and other planets. But I just don't think we've had contact. When I started doing the show, I would get my fan mail, because I couldn't believe I was getting fan mail and I would take it home. I didn't have a service. And I tried to answer over the weekend—it was only in the beginning, so there wasn't a lot—and it was really those people that were spoken to, on a really deep level. So I did get a lot of really weird and sometimes sad letters about people, saying that they were abducted, and this and that. And did I have any advice? And I was like, here's a signed picture. [Laughs]

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