David Duchovny: ‘I wasn’t seeing stuff I was desperate to do’

In 2015, deep into an acting career that had kept him busy for the better part of three decades, the then 54-year-old David Duchovny released his first novel and his first album. His hit series Californication had just concluded after seven seasons, and while he was hardly done with acting – another, shorter-lived series, Aquarius, premiered that same year – he was in the mood to explore what else he could do. Six years on, his writing and his music aren’t so much side projects as side-by-side ones: this year, another restless surge of activity has seen Duchovny release his fourth novel, Truly Like Lightning – a knotty all-American saga of Mormonism, capitalism and the vanishing old west – and his third album, Gestureland.

Out this week, Gestureland is a melodic, well-produced set of stonewashed California rock and country – music for long, lone drives on stark highways, delivered with some of the studied, brooding intelligence you might expect from TV’s Fox Mulder. It’s not going to set the charts alight in the year 2021 – its two predecessors didn’t either – but neither has it been made for any such purpose. Opaque but evidently personal in its lyrical content, it’s the work of a man out to challenge himself.

“If I was observing from the outside, I’d say this is a guy who’s trying to take some kind of shackles off,” he says over the phone from his home in Los Angeles. He audibly inserts air quotes around “shackles”, as if he wouldn’t put it quite so solemnly himself. “And I guess the restrictions of being an actor are, you know, you use your instrument in the service of somebody else’s words and visions. Not that I don’t love acting – I do. But there was more that I wanted to express, at least in terms of words, which I guess is the common denominator between the songs and the novels. And both forms offered me a point of view that I wanted to share.”

Making music was not, in fact, some kind of quiet passion that had been burning in Duchovny’s veins all his life. “I only started playing guitar about 10 years ago,” he admits. “I was a music fan, of course, and listened a lot, but like most people, I never thought that this lifetime was going to be one in which I played or wrote any music. I didn’t get it it early: kids can pick it up quickly, but as a 50-year-old, it’s tough. I’m not a good player. I’m never going to be a good player.” He pauses, a little sheepish, realising he’s all but slagging off his own album. “I mean, I’m good enough to throw chords together! I can make a lot of different sounds and I can write songs off of sounds. I learned I could hear melodies, and that was a big surprise to me.”

Duchovny sounds both modest and coolly relaxed about his diverging artistry. He talks cheerfully about his work, but in a drawling, dude-ish tone that suggests he doesn’t much care if you share his enthusiasm or not. Above all, he’s keen to fend off any neat, publicity-driving personal narrative: his creative choices, he suggests, are subject more to chance than strategy. He didn’t act at all between 2017 and 2020, though when I ask if that was a conscious hiatus to focus on writing and music, he balks.

“I mean, if I was being a canny brand-maker, I would say absolutely yes, that’s what I was doing,” he says with a wry laugh. “But the truth is that I wasn’t seeing stuff that I was desperate to do. And I didn’t have to do it. I was trying to develop a couple of shows in that time that got far but not far enough; I hitched my wagon to a couple of non-starters. I didn’t line up with the marketplace for those three years, and that was fine, because I was trying to take a more hands-on approach than just attaching myself as an actor to something. And it’s just … it’s fucking hard. It’s a nightmare. But it’s worthwhile.”

Among those addled projects was an attempt to adapt his second novel Bucky Fucking Dent – a father-son reconciliation story tied up in the characters’ mutual baseball obsession – for television. It may not have come to pass, but he’s hopeful that Truly Like Lightning might get luckier: it’s being developed with the Showtime network, and he describes it as being “at the pins-and-needles point where it’s either going to move forward or not”. He’s writing the script in collaboration with others: given that he also intends to play the lead role, he’s loath to make the project too insularly his own.

I wonder if he was burned by his previous experience as a writer-director on the 2004 indie film House of D – a heartfelt but critically dismissed coming-of-age comedy with an improbably matched cast that included Duchovny, Robin Williams and Erykah Badu. “I always wanted to do more,” he says. “I love directing: I did several episodes of The X-Files and Californication, and it was great. But I’m a little spoiled as an actor. You get to do your stuff and go home, and the longest you have to spend on a movie is three months. When you’re writing a movie, however, that’s going to be your job for a year and a half, at least. You have to love this thing so much that you’re going to do it for a year and a half, talk about nothing but, and then a year and a half after it comes out, you’re going to talk about it some more.”

Still, even as an actor, Duchovny knows more than most about long-term commitment to a project. He returned to his breakthrough role, as transgender DEA agent Denise Bryson in the second season of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, 27 years later for the mild-melting Twin Peaks: The Return. (“That’s what I got into acting for,” he says of the character.) He played Mulder, the curious, credulous FBI agent of paranormal matters in The X-Files, over a period of 25 years, on and off – spanning nine initial seasons, two feature films, and a two-season reboot five years ago. Did he never tire of the character? “Oh, no,” he insists. “What was interesting when we went back to do like the reboot seasons, was how daunting it was at first. How do I do this guy again? Who is this guy? He was a bit lost to me at first. But then I thought, well, now he’s older. He’s different. And so am I. So it’s not like trying to do the same thing.”

While his co-star Gillian Anderson has flatly asserted in interviews that she has no interest in return to the series for another reboot, however, Duchovny is more open to possibilities. “I know what Gillian said, but there’s no reason for me to say anything like that,” he says. “Maybe she said it just so that people would stop asking her. But for me, life is life: I don’t know anything about what’s coming, I don’t just say no to things like that. It’s not how I function.”

With or without The X-Files, acting has found Duchovny again. Last year, he returned with his first big-screen role in seven years in the aptly 90s-couched horror The Craft: Legacy, and he’s been working solidly ever since – minus an undramatic bout of Covid last year, from which he recovered with little incident. Later this year, he’ll be seen in the all-star ensemble of Judd Apatow’s new pandemic-themed comedy The Bubble – checking off at least one name on a list of directors he’s eager to work with.

For as much as he’s enjoyed his time and efforts spent away from acting, Duchovny says, there are certain projects for which he’ll gladly drop everything. “Series TV is a demanding schedule, so I didn’t mind for a while just taking a breath and going, here I am now. What do I want to do? What do I want to say, and how do I want to say it? It’s good to step off.” He pauses. “But then if Scorsese calls and says, you know, screw Leonardo DiCaprio, I want to work with you, of course I’m there.”

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