David Duchovny is making a mess of things. He is cooking sticky tofu and has cut his block of bean curd into neat cubes without reading the recipe first. When he finally does so, he realises that he has missed a crucial step: pressing the excess water out, which he has to do before chopping, so that the tofu crisps up in the oven. Then he notices that he needs parchment paper, which he doesn’t have, and garlic, which he can’t find. Rifling through his cupboards in search of the elusive alliums, he turns to the camera with a wry smile. “This could be a disaster.”
Duchovny is best known for playing Fox Mulder, the besuited, obsessive FBI agent in “The X-Files”, one of the defining TV dramas of the 1990s. Today the actor is in his kitchen in Manhattan wearing a moth-eaten Alice Cooper T-shirt and powder-blue trousers. As we cook together over Zoom, I can see bawdy cartoons by Robert Crumb on the walls behind him, alongside vintage black-and-white photographs.
The kitchen looks like it’s designed for display rather than practicality. Duchovny admits that before the pandemic he hardly ever used his pots and pans. Lockdown has forced him into a new domestic role, he says. It’s not just that his favourite restaurants were closed. For much of the past year he has also been looking after his son single-handed.
Like many divorced parents in the age of social distancing, Duchovny and his ex-wife had to work out how their children were going to cope with divided households. For Duchovny, the usual back-and-forth of shared custody has given way to a new arrangement. His 21-year-old daughter West has a pre-existing condition, so he and his former wife decided that she should stay with her mother, while their son Miller lived with Duchovny. As a 17-year-old “he is out in the world and probably being less careful,” Duchovny says.
The cooking part has not been going well. “I’m not disciplined and I’m terrible at following recipes,” he says, a point he has already proved. He thought he’d cracked it when he made delicious-looking brownies one day – but when Miller took a bite, he discovered an inch-long insect entombed inside. As Duchovny dusts his tofu cubes with cornstarch before putting them in the oven, Miller takes a break from his virtual high-school Spanish class to deliver a succinct assessment of his father’s efforts: “He is trying to poison me.”
The show of domesticity does not comport with Duchovny’s public image. In 2014 his marriage to Téa Leoni, an American actor, collapsed after his widely publicised infidelity and treatment for sex addiction at a clinic in Arizona. At the time, life seemed to be imitating art. Duchovny had spent the previous seven years in a hit TV show called “Californication” playing Hank Moody, a washed-up writer who is better at getting laid than laying words on the page, and is trying to maintain his relationships with his estranged wife and daughter in the face of his indiscretions. Duchovny won a Golden Globe for the part – but lost the fight to save his marriage.
“To have had to shack up with my son for a year is one of the most valuable things to have happened to me”
Duchovny’s acting tends to occupy a narrow emotional range between gentle irony and mild sarcasm. In “Californication” he kept the turmoil beneath the surface: this was family breakdown played for laughs. In life as on screen, Duchovny is deadpan. He barely moves his mouth when he talks, as though he is trying to keep a pair of marbles in his cheeks.
Unlike Moody, Duchovny talks earnestly about his guilt. He knows he has caused his children “heartbreak” and confusion, and in this respect the pandemic has had a silver lining. “To have had to shack up with my son for a year is one of the most valuable things to have happened to me,” he says, sitting on the counter top while we wait for the tofu to bake.
His experiments in the kitchen are also a link to the daughter he won’t see until covid clears. We are making a recipe from a vegan cookbook that West made Duchovny for Christmas. It’s a gift that suggests a mix of encouragement and gentle reproach: a child reinforcing her dad’s responsibilities.
You’d think that cooking would be one of the easier creative challenges Duchovny has faced. “The X-Files” turned Duchovny into a global celebrity, but like many actors who become associated with one character early in their career, he has sometimes struggled to leave Mulder behind. Though he has had other TV hits, the scent of alien ectoplasm still haunts him. He finds the typecasting frustrating: “I did a pilot in 1993 and now you’re telling me this is who I am until Doomsday?”
“I did a pilot in 1993 and now you’re telling me this is who I am until Doomsday?”
His attempts to redefine himself have included two new careers: as a musician and as a novelist. His lugubrious brand of rock music has drawn faint praise. One critic wrote that it was “by no means a total embarrassment”. His novels have been more successful, earning warm reviews from critics who are often inclined to sharpen their knives when celebrities diversify. The New York Times called “Bucky Fucking Dent”, a baseball novel, a “home run”. These days Duchovny prefers to present himself as a novelist who does some acting.
This creative moonlighting brings us back to parenthood once again – not, this time, Duchovny with his children, but to Duchovny’s own father. Amram Ducovny (who dropped the H because he got fed up with people mispronouncing his name) had a day job as a PR man in New York for the American Jewish Committee, an advocacy group. In his spare time he published novelty books such as “How to Shoot a Jewish Western”, in which he attached funny captions to old film stills.
But Amram burned to write serious fiction – with destructive consequences. “He felt he wasn’t able to write with three children and the job,” Duchovny says, “so he checked into the Chelsea Hotel for a couple of months and never came back.” Duchovny’s mother, who worked as a teacher in New York, viewed the writing as a pretentious alibi. “She would have denigrated him for the ruse he was a writer, where in fact he was just a man leaving his family.”
“I’m always very distrustful of people who say they love acting”
Sure enough, there turned out to be another woman. When Duchovny was still in his early teens Amram left New York for Boston and then Paris, and the relationship between father and son withered. “It was a formative loss,” he says, one which shaped his own attitude to post-divorce parenting. “I’m sure I made all the mistakes my father did not make, and I assiduously tried to avoid the ones that he did make.”
Though Duchovny claims he has distanced himself from the sins of his father, he has pursued the same dreams. “I grew up in a household where writers were heroes. I wanted to be admired by my father and one way to do that was to be a writer.” He went to one of America’s oldest private schools, followed by Princeton, where he majored in English. In graduate school at Yale he studied with Harold Bloom, a renowned literary critic. After doing a master’s thesis on the early novels of Samuel Beckett, he started a PhD.
He realised that an academic career didn’t excite him the same summer that he got a part in a beer commercial. He began to audition for TV work and discovered that he liked acting. “I had spent many years cultivating my intellectual side”, he says, “and all of a sudden I was in a space where that had no purchase, and where it was all about the stuff I had been told not to do – getting angry, laughing, crying, being unreasonable.”
Despite his acting successes, Duchovny never lost his ambition to write. Amram finally published his first novel when he was 73, three years before he died. “I was happy for him,” Duchovny says. “He completed a piece of his self-conception that was bugging him his entire life.” Duchovny claims not to resent him for walking out to pursue his dreams. He identifies with his dad’s frustration, he says: “When I talk about him, I’m also talking about myself.”
After 20 minutes in the oven, we check the tofu. It is now golden and crispy, but Duchovny’s has stuck to the tin foil he used in place of parchment paper, and he has to prise it off before we make our sauce. I have smugly pre-squeezed my lime and pre-chopped two cloves of garlic. “Hey, you’re cheating,” Duchovny laments as he gets to work. When that’s done, we mix the garlic and lime with three tablespoons each of soy sauce and maple syrup, toss in the tofu and set the saucepan on the hob to simmer over a medium heat.
While the pan bubbles away, I ask Duchovny about his own reinvention as a novelist. He began to write fiction when he was making “Californication”, echoing his on-screen character. The claustrophobia he felt after years of making “The X-Files” had developed into a dissatisfaction with acting in general. “I’m always very distrustful of people who say they love acting,” he says. “For me it was not only the sense of being coddled, of sitting in the make-up chair and having your hair done. It was also speaking somebody else’s words.”
So he set out to write his own. His first book, “Holy Cow”, was published in 2015, a short jeu d’esprit that he had originally pitched, unsuccessfully, as an animated film to Disney and Pixar. Drawing on his actor’s gift for voices, a cow called Elsie narrates her own story as she escapes an industrial farm in America for a new, more bovine-friendly life in India. She’s accompanied by a turkey trying to get to Turkey and a pig trying to get to Israel. “Perhaps it was the pig getting circumcised that turned Pixar off,” he says.
Elsie’s zany, kid-friendly quest is peppered with ironic in-jokes to keep adults engaged. Its lightness functioned as a defence mechanism, Duchovny says. “I could shelter from any critical barbs that were gonna come at me – late starter, actor passing himself off as a novelist – by saying it’s just a kids’ book, a bauble.” His next two novels, aimed at adults, showed ever greater determination to show off his seriousness: one was a Bildungsroman about a wannabe writer working as a peanut seller in Yankee Stadium, the other was inspired by Irish mythology and the poetry of Yeats.
“Perhaps it was the pig getting circumcised that turned Pixar off”
His latest, “Truly Like Lightning”, continues the trend. Set in Trump’s America, it follows a Mormon living in the Californian desert struggling to keep his tract of land from the clutches of a rapacious developer, who wants to turn it into a ritzy gambling town. Although they are opposed to one another, the two main characters represent the same extreme strand of American individualism. Into this narrative Duchovny weaves other big-ticket concerns: financial deregulation, the demise of the American public-school system and climate change. Told in brisk if unspectacular prose, at times it feels like Duchovny is determined to tick off a shopping list of liberal complaints one by one. “I wanted to write, if not the great American novel, then a big American novel,” he says.
Though its ambition overburdens the book, the cinematic scope and desert backdrop clearly appealed to the executives at Showtime: the TV network has already optioned the book. If it gets made, Duchovny would play the lead. That would force him to confront his own abilities as a writer, he says with a smile. “Sometimes, in the past, I would be on set saying, I can write better than this. I won’t be able to say that any more.”
By now our sauce has thickened into a molten goo, and after stirring it to make sure that it coats the tofu, we reckon it’s ready to taste. At this point Miller wanders in. He immediately regrets his timing. “Wanna try it?” Duchovny says, pointing to the saucepan steaming on the stove.
Miller casts a sceptical eye towards his father’s latest creation. “I’m scared,” he says. Duchovny attempts to calm his nerves. “I guarantee you there are no bugs in it.”
“I don’t know,” Miller says. “It’s brown.”
Eventually he relents and gingerly spoons a piece of tofu into his mouth. “Careful, it’s gonna be hot,” Duchovny warns, a little too late: Miller is already panting as he gets scalded.
When Miller can finally get the words out, he is grudgingly positive. “Hey, that’s not bad,” he says, surprised, as he bites down on the crispy tofu. Perhaps Duchovny is finally settling into his new role.•
Simon Willis is a freelance writer and former senior editor of 1843