Monday, November 28

Shondaland Interview: David Duchovny Is Just Getting Started

Today, Duchovny shows no signs of slowing down. This month alone, he’s promoting two very distinct projects. First up is The Estate, a dark comedy in which a family of truly terrible people (Duchovny, Toni Collette, Anna Faris, Ron Livingston, and Rosemarie DeWitt) attempt to win over their terminally ill aunt (Kathleen Turner) in the hopes of becoming beneficiaries to her wealth. In the film, which is in theaters now and on demand November 22, Duchovny plays Richard, a laid-back dimwit who expresses a creepy fondness for his cousin Macey (Collette).

On the other end of the spectrum is Kepler, Duchovny’s first graphic novel, which comes out on December 27. Co-written with and illustrated by Phillip Sevy, the book is a Planet of the Apes-esque “allegorical thriller of environmental disaster, colonialism, religion, history, and adolescence,” according to the publisher. Or, as Duchovny describes it, “a human coming-of-age story with a different hominid.”

Shondaland recently had a wide-ranging conversation with Duchovny about these projects, his creative process, and why he refuses to cave to today’s “walking on eggshells” mentality.

SANDRA EBEJER: 2015 was a big year for you. You released your first album, as well as your first novel. What was it about that time that sparked these personal creative projects?

DAVID DUCHOVNY: I think a lot of it had to do with getting off of a couple of long-running shows. I was finishing things up around 2014, 2015 and was a little directionless coming off [the TV series] Aquarius. I had wanted that show to go for a couple more years, and it didn’t, so I was kind of reassessing. I guess I was in a bit of a holding pattern.

I told myself that I had identified as a writer my whole life, much like my dad, who published his first novel when he was 73. It was just like, put up or shut up. And the music just came out of left field. The function of divorce [from Téa Leoni] was learning the guitar and soothing myself in a way. It was a new skill that came out of the disappointment and heartbreak of divorce. I’d say those two vectors, an emotional one and a career one, left me in an open space, and that would have been what contributed to a creative change in direction.

SE: Since that time, you’ve done so many different projects in acting, directing, producing, writing, and music. How do you decide what to dedicate your time to?

DD: That’s a really good question that I’m bad at answering. It’s a proclivity of mine to have split focus. I love collaborating, and I will set myself up in collaboration with different people along different spectrums of creativity. It’s easy enough to disappoint myself and not work on something, but it’s harder to have somebody else out there who’s like, “Hey, what are we doing on this?” That can be tough. Unless it’s a novel, I don’t like to be the sole driving force on something. I like to collaborate. I like to have ideas. In my fantasy world, I have a production company where a bunch of people are brilliantly executing my half-baked ideas but haven’t gotten there yet.

SE: What’s your creative process like as a writer? Do you write every day and see what comes from it? Or do you have a specific idea that you come up with and then follow?

DD: It’s idea driven. If I have an idea that I’ve interrogated long enough and thought, “Okay, it can withstand a novel treatment,” then at some point after doing some research — and when I say, “Doing some research,” I mean hiring a researcher [laughs] — I’ll start to write. I haven’t written in probably a year, so I don’t get up every morning to write. But when I am writing, I write almost obsessively and hard. I wake up early, and I write for a long time when I’m inspired.

SE: Both your father and grandfather were writers. Did they have any influence on your work?

DD: I never met my grandfather. I just learned about him when I did the DNA show [Finding Your Roots]. I was just flying [to L.A.] yesterday from Arkansas, and I was going over the stuff that I learned about my grandfather, so it’s interesting that you asked me that question now. He was constantly writing, it seemed. None of his stuff exists [anymore] because it was in Yiddish and wasn’t archived. Even the people at the Forward [news site], who’ve done a lot of research independently of that show, said that they hadn’t been able to find any of his actual writing, just references to it. But the references are plentiful, so he was busy. My dad was kind of anti-establishment. Even though he had a 9-to-5 job, I always felt like he was not quite in the accepted workaday world. I guess [he was] a bit of a rebel in his own mind, and that point of view influences me to this day. I’ve never felt part of the accepted interpretation of what’s going on out there.

SE: Were your parents still alive when The X-Files came about? Were they aware of your success?

DD: Yeah, my dad died in 2003. My mother just died a month and a half ago. My dad was perplexed. I didn’t grow up knowing any actors. We were not showbiz adjacent in any way. My mother was all about reading books, as was my dad. My dad had known that I was an academic, and he said he didn’t think that the kid that he knew — he left our family when I was 11 — was going to live a sheltered life in academia. The kid that he knew was more out in the world. So, that [aspect of my success] made sense to him, even though he didn’t care for movies, and he certainly didn’t care for TV. But he dug it, I think. He lived in Paris, so he would get letters from French fans of The X-Files, and he thought it was a kick.

SE: You have two very different projects out this month and in December. What attracted you to The Estate and the character Richard?

DD: I’m always attracted to things that I think are funny, that hit my particular funny bone, and I felt this was in a genre I had never been in, which is a farcical dark comedy. It reminded me of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels or Dinner for Schmucks. Not that I missed that genre, but it’s certainly something that we haven’t seen in a few years just because we’ve kind of been walking on eggshells around each other. I saw clearly that [The Estate] was in a tradition of comedies of people acting badly, but it would seem very fresh because people haven’t been acting badly in film and television in the last three or four years. So, I thought, “Okay, it’s fun to kind of go against the current a little bit.” I have to say I’m really pleased with the results. It was exactly what I thought it was going to be, which is very rare in this business.

SE: As someone who entered the world of publishing fairly recently, do you struggle with that “walking on eggshells” mentality that we seem to have these days?

DD: I haven’t in terms of the novels. I refuse. I remember when [my 2018 novel] Miss Subways was coming out, I was kind of girding myself because it’s a female protagonist. I thought, “Is anybody going to say, ‘You have no right to write as a woman or to write a woman’s point of view’?” I didn’t get a lot of that, but I was actually welcoming the conversation because I feel strongly that it’s all within a writer’s purview. All the words, all the points of view, all the experiences are within a writer’s purview. It’s just a matter of whether you do it well or not.

The dictum is always write what you know. Does that mean write what you’ve experienced? Or write what you know, and then interpolate it into another story, another consciousness, another thing? We’re all asking for empathy; that is the definition of empathy. I’m trying to write a woman’s consciousness. So, you could slap me and say, “How dare you?” Or you can love me and say, “Wonderful! We should all be trying to get outside our own experience and walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes.”

SE: What was the inspiration behind your newest book, Kepler?

DD: It was inspired by that book Sapiens [by Yuval Noah Harari]. I was struck by the undocumented history of hominids and the fact that there were definitely smart, distinct, competitive, competing hominids aside from Homo sapiens on this planet at one point in our prerecorded history. I was like, what the f--k happened to them? We definitely killed them [laughs].

I’ve always loved Planet of the Apes. A formative moment in my childhood experience is when Charlton Heston comes across the Statue of Liberty. My mind was blown. I saw this chance to write a story that had a twist that was that big. I was like, I could do a jiujitsu reverse on that reveal and also write to what I thought was a fascinating unrecorded history of our planet. I thought I could — in the way that science fiction does, allegorically and almost heavy handedly — address these kinds of huge questions that we are addressing as a society right now.

SE: Were there any challenges to writing it as a graphic novel?

DD: When I have an idea, I’m thinking, “What is it? Is it a television show? Is it a movie? Is it a novel?” This was conceived of as a huge, expensive television show, and the hurdle was: What do [the Neanderthal characters] look like? Kepler wants to be an allegory for human experience. It has all the humor that our experience has, but I didn’t want it to be ridiculous right off the bat and have these goofy guys with beards and long hair and big forearms.

What were the hurdles? They were really for Phillip [Sevy]. Like, can you make me a Neanderthal that isn’t laughable? Can you create a whole new race of hominids that is believable, that descended from this bonobo monkey? I have a species of hominid that is descended directly from a type of bonobo matriarchal monkey on the planet Kepler. I don’t know if you know much about [bonobos], but they’re our closest primate relative, along with the chimpanzee. They share, like, 99.5 percent DNA with us. And yet, they’re matriarchal, and they resolve conflicts with sex rather than violence. So, they’re super-different from chimps and from how we’ve evolved. We’re probably a mix of the two. We’re not as nasty as chimps, and yet we’re obviously not matriarchal. And we don’t appear to resolve most conflicts sexually or else we’d have a very different political system here.

SE: When you look back on your career and all the things you’ve done, do you see a through line to your work or a theme to the types of projects that you’re attracted to?

DD: I think humor would be one. To find that vein of absurdity or humor in anything I do is essential. To me, that’s the key to any character. I don’t know how I could play a character that was humorless because to me that’s an absence of humanity and I wouldn’t know how. Maybe the Neanderthals didn’t have a sense of humor, and that’s why they were doomed, not because they were slaughtered by us.

A through line — it’s hard to say because at first I would have taken any job that anybody would give me. I started fairly late as an actor, so I needed to pay the rent, and I was running from this idea that I had jettisoned the entire career as an academic to chase this ephemeral thing. People ask me about my decisions — they weren’t decisions; they were like, “Yes.” [Laughs.] So, I don’t know what the through line would be. As I’ve gotten further on in my life and career, it’s about the process. You hear people say that, but it’s true: You have to let go of the result. These things are so collaborative, you never know what’s going to happen with them when the sausage finally gets made. So, it really has to be: Am I enjoying talking to this person about their project? Do I want to spend a couple of months [working with them]?

SE: Are there any artistic projects you’d like to attempt?

DD: I really want to make [my 2021 novel] Truly Like Lightning as a three-year limited series. I want to tell that story visually. I think it could be a powerful show. There are a couple ideas that I’m developing as television shows right now. One is about college basketball, and the other has a bit of a Neanderthal in it as well. I appear to be obsessed. I have limited amounts of ideas, so I’m going to milk them for all that I have.

SE: This is your Neanderthal phase.

DD: Yeah [laughs]. What sparked this creative period? Neanderthals. And cousins.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


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