'Californication': David Duchovny, literarily speaking
Marty Beckerman of The Daily Beast wrote an interesting piece about David Duchovny earlier this week, in which the actor spoke of his teaching and literary ambitions of the past. In short, he wanted to be a teacher and use his summers off to work on his own poetry and prose. This idea led him to Princeton, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English literature, and then later to Yale, where he received his master’s but dropped out before earning his Ph.D. because his acting career had by then taken hold.
The Beast interview reminded me of a similar conversation I shared with Duchovny this past summer, when I visited the “Californication” set to write about Madeleine Martin, who plays his daughter on the show. Duchovny, along with series creator Tom Kapinos, was kind enough to talk to me between takes about not just Martin but a few other topics, including his literary life. And so after watching him do several takes of pulling up to a Venice house in the filthy Porsche that has become Hank Moody’s signature vehicle on the show, the actor arrived for a chat, though he had to cut away a few more times for a few takes inside the Venice home.
Duchovny stood in his typical Hank Moody uniform – black shirt, dark jeans, dark sunglasses shielding his eyes. He came off as warm and witty, though I got the sense that he wasn't one to give a reporter too much, no matter how personal the question was. Even before I talked to him, one of his handlers asked that the questions not get "too personal" in the first place, and it doesn't take a genius to know what that means. To that end, I actually admire the consistency with which Duchovny has not discussed (at least in any great detail) the personal issues that were once frequent tabloid fodder; for one, it's old news, and second, it really is none of our business, we just want it to be our business. But even a question about the kind of prose he's written, as you'll see, yielded little more than an "I dabble." Duchovny just won't give up too much, though there is actually something refreshing about this, despite the fact that my occupation is to actually pry into people's lives.
Here, now, is an edited version of the interview with Duchovny and show runner Kapinos, which centered primarily on literature's effect on both Duchovny's life as well as this show.
This season is built around Hank becoming a writing professor and from what I understand, you studied literature in school. Did that inform your character this year?
David Duchovny: I guess I taught in a similar capacity to him. I was a teaching assistant when I was in graduate school, so I kind of understand what that is but I don’t know if that informs it so much. I guess it’s just that I don’t feel too worried that I can’t pull off a lecturer, you know?
When you studied writing in the past, you focused on poetry, correct?
DD: Yeah, more or less.
Prose as well?
DD: Yeah, I dabbled.
Still dabble at all?
DD: [smiles] Yeah, I dabble.
What do you write?
DD: I scribble. Well, I’ve written a couple of screenplays that may or may not get done, and a television show here and there, things like that – I’m in this business now, so I tend to focus on writing that way.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but you once wanted to be a teacher?
DD: A teacher, and I thought I would write. I thought it was a good job with good vacation time to where I could take four months a year and be able to do what I wanted to do, which was write.
So how did you transition from that goal to acting?
DD: Just life. I think I was interested in writing plays and I thought I should learn something about acting if I was going to do that, you know? And it’s funny -- we hired a guy that I did my first play with at Yale, we hired him this year to be the mediator in a scene and he brought a Playbill from this thing that I did [while there]. I mean I had two lines.
Who was David Duchovny as a college student? Can you paint us a picture?
DD: Hmm. Aimless, yet focused. [smirks]
What was better – Princeton or Yale?
DD: God, I can’t say that because I might have to go back to either of them.
Were you a huge fan of literature growing up, then? What made you want to be a writer?
DD: Well, my father was a part-time writer, he wrote in his off time, so it was always valued. His father worked in the newspaper business for the Daily Forward – a Yiddish paper in New York, so I guess it was always kind of around and that seemed what I would do. So [studying to teach] was the way I was trying to figure it out, as I said, to how to [write] and make a living at the same time.
So with “Californication,” and also your character in “The TV Set,” is there a certain draw to playing a writer?
DD: No, because it’s really horrible to play writers because it’s usually really boring. It’s not dramatic. You can’t dramatize it. It’s not like a Jackson Pollock drip painting, where you can have the montage – I mean we do it sometimes, at the typewriter – but it’s, you know, it’s a well that’s been exhausted over time so writing, it doesn’t really come into it. It’s more of what the character is, not what he does but how he does it.
Regarding the specific writing that appears in this show sometimes, the voice we hear does really seem to fit the character. How much do you guys work on getting that voice down?
DD: All I ever said was, “If this guy is supposed to be a good writer, you better write some good ... when we hear it. It can’t just be crap.
Tom Kapinos: And I think that’s why we hear as little of it as we do [Duchovny laughs], because that stuff is hard. It’s hard to write things about someone being a genius, because you can never actually dramatize what it is they do well.
DD: Especially in two sentences.
TK: Yeah, so I feel like we’ve heard snippets, but it’s not about showing he’s a great writer; it’s usually there to serve the scene. If he wrote that letter to Karen in the flashback episode last year, well that was a heartfelt letter but I think it also says that he’s a good writer. But yeah, that stuff is tough. And I do remember David saying, “Yeah, it better be good.”
“God Hates Us All,” the book that, according to the show, really gave Hank Moody his literary fame, is now actually available for purchase. What was your involvement with this book?
TK: Nothing, other than I was told about it. I was offered the chance to write it but it didn’t seem like fun [laughs].
DD: So it was just ghostwritten, right?
TK: Yeah. I think Simon & Schuster [published] it.
DD: You could have had a book published by Simon & Schuster.
TK: Yeah, well …
David, did you have a favorite writer growing up? Or now?
DD: No, I’ll read anybody. I just started reading “Bleak House” yesterday – that sounds pretentious, it’s only 500,000 pages, but I love Dickens. I don’t know -- what did I read this year that I was into? Some David Foster Wallace because he killed himself – I didn’t know that, that he’d killed himself a while ago and I hadn’t heard [about it immediately] and I’d always liked him. And so I reread him this year. That’s the thing, if you like someone, you can always reread them.
As for poetry, was there a certain form that you wrote or liked?
DD: I like the villanelle. I’m partial to the sestina. [Duchovny grins -- it’s difficult to tell if he’s joking, or whether he just realizes the pretentious nature of the conversation]
And you do still write?
DD: Yeah, I do. I don’t know what type of poetry, though. It’s always like you write a poem when you can’t really say what you’re trying to say.
Can you say anything about where you guys see this “Californication” story line going, ultimately?
DD: We kind of have an ending in mind, which we came to separately, but we kind of had the same idea. I called him up and I said, “I see it ending this way,” and he said, “Yeah, I’ve always seen it ending that way too.”
TK: And it’s the kind of ending you don’t necessarily share with people, but yeah, we were very much in sync on that.
DD: Let’s just say sex change, OK? That’s all we’re going to say. It’s about time for Hank to understand how the other half lives.
Fair enough. Thanks, guys, for taking the time.
DD: Pleasure doing business with you.
-- Josh Gajewski
Photo credit: Showtime