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David Duchovny revs up his movie career

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The camera closes tight on the grieving husband, his white tuxedo shirt stained with the blood of his wife, killed just hours ago in a car accident. His face, until now a frozen mask of disbelief, begins to crumble. And then the tears, a great torrent of salty misery, wash his face. His gulping sobs eventually turn to gasping anguish, as the silent crew breathlessly witnesses what few have seen before: David Duchovny — emoting.

For fans of The X-Files, it will be the equivalent of Garbo Talks. Duchovny, best known for his deadpan portrait of oddball G-man Fox Mulder, collapsing into a sobbing, heaving, Daytime Emmy-award-worthy heap of grief. Mulder’s had his upsets, of course; tears have been shed. But not with the utter poignancy, the extreme abandon of architect Bob Rueland, the character Duchovny plays in Return to Me, a romantic comedy (and it does get funny) about a widower who falls in love with the woman (Minnie Driver) who receives his dead wife’s heart.

”He didn’t make a big deal about preparing,” the movie’s director, Bonnie Hunt, says of shooting the scene, ”and everyone on the set was so moved. He literally had a cameraman crying when he was done.”

”That’s because I insulted him,” Duchovny cracks nearly a year later, while killing time in his X-Files trailer — a messy hodgepodge of boredom therapy (exercise ball, CDs, books) and still-fresh fatherhood (a copy of On Becoming Baby Wise, a Kermit the Frog doll); last April, he and wife Tea Leoni welcomed their first child, Madelaine West. His new family interests him enormously, as does his first foray into romantic comedy. What leaves him cold is the frenzied speculation over his return to The X-Files for an eighth season (”Fox knows my terms,” he says blithely of negotiations with the show’s studio), and any surprise over the aforementioned waterworks. ”You just service the script,” he says simply. What depths of sense-memory despair did he plumb to uncork such sorrow? ”That’s my secret,” he says. ”But I’ll tell you that it doesn’t work the whole time. If you’re shooting a scene for three or four hours, what was working in the beginning gets pretty stale. It’s kind of like Andrew Dice Clay’s bit about jerking off. He keeps this Rolodex in his head, and he’s like, ‘Nah, not working tonight.’ Acting is a lot like that.”

Hunt — who also cowrote and acts in Return to Me — says she had no problem imagining Duchovny as a dashing comic lead, a ”Cary Grant type.” She’d worked with him on 1992’s Beethoven (technically a comedy) and ”we kept in touch. I’d see him in stuff, and I just wanted to see him flap his wings more. I think he’s a great actor and I felt creatively frustrated for him.”

The feeling was mutual. After seven seasons on Fox’s murky hit and occasional parts in even darker films (1991’s The Rapture, 1993’s Kalifornia, 1997’s Playing God), Duchovny was itching for light. A chance plane encounter with another Hunt pal provided the scratch: ”George Clooney mentioned Bonnie had written a script he liked,” says Duchovny. ”I got a copy, thought it was great, and called her. I asked why she hadn’t considered me right away — I was a little hurt,” he adds with a small smile. ”She said she didn’t want to impose on our friendship.”

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