There was not a single empty chair in the Branford common room at 3:35 p.m. Sunday afternoon. By 4:00, almost 100 students had crammed into the room, sitting on laps, windowsills and the floor, chattering excitedly and sipping cups of tea. When David Duchovny GRD ’87, star of television series “The X-Files” and “Californication,” finally entered the room, the students immediately fell silent.
“Don’t be quiet on my account. You’ll be sorely disappointed,” Duchovny quipped.
Over the next hour and 15 minutes, Duchovny answered students’ questions and shared stories ranging from working on the set to encounters with crazy fans to his policy of never reading his own Wikipedia page.
Before beginning, however, he motioned to the young girl sitting on the floor in front of him.
“I have my daughter West with me so couch your questions accordingly,” he said.
It was at Yale in the late 1980s, where he earned his master’s degree in English literature, that Duchovny became involved in acting.
“I was interested in writing for screen and television but I wanted to know what it was like to speak the words,” he said. “So I started hanging around the Drama School like a stray dog and sat in on classes.”
After landing a part in a Cabaret show, Duchovny began taking acting classes in New York City twice a week. In 1988 he moved to Los Angeles for a role in “New Years Day” (1989) and got an agent, leaving Yale and his unfinished dissertation behind. While it would “make [his] mother proud” were he to finish his dissertation, tentatively titled “Magic and Technology in Contemporary Fiction and Poetry,” Duchovny said he is “just hoping for an honorary degree at this point.”
Still, he said his time in academia greatly affected his later career.
“There’s some truth to the idea that acting is instinctual, not intellectual. I had to unlearn some of the intellectual side,” he explained. “But I got there through relaxation, not dumbing down. The more relaxed you can be, the more truthful you can be.”
Duchovny admitted that he never planned to be a television star.
“I didn’t want to do television because I was a snob like everyone else,” he said. “But life has a certain way of happening to you, as much as you try to steer it.”
He decided to take the role in “The X-Files” for the money. The story itself, he said, “wasn’t really my thing.”
“It still isn’t really my thing,” he added, laughing. “I thought it was just a silly science fiction show — I was wrong every step of the way.”
While Duchovny is best known for his roles in front of the camera, his true loves, he said, are writing and directing. He gained experience while working on “The X-Files,” he said, and went on to write and direct “House of D” (2004), a movie about an American artist living in Paris.
“Being a director is kind of like having no skill at all,” he said. “It’s like being a general — you’re not necessarily the best fighter or the best anything. But you’re able to marshal everyone in the right direction.”
Duchovny told stories of on-set embarrassments like being attacked by a stuffed animal while filming a scene with special effects, and crazy fans, including one about a woman who had a picture of him and his wife, actress Tea Leoni, tattooed on her arm. He shared the awkwardness of being caught singing along to Bree Sharp’s song “David Duchovny” (“I didn’t realize my name rhymed with so many things,” he noted), and revealed that his favorite line from the movie “Zoolander,” in which he played J.P. Prewitt, a retired hand model, is “I’m a finger jockey.”
Finally, one student asked: “Have you ever edited your own Wikipedia page?”
Duchovny’s answer was simple: “No.”
“It seems like cheating in a way,” he said. “It’s better not to know what people are saying. The truth is, I’ll only remember the hurtful things because that’s human nature.”
Seven students interviewed, only some of whom were “X-Files” fans, said they were impressed with the talk.
“It was insightful,” Adam Thomas ’12 said. “I didn’t realize he did so many other things. It was interesting to hear how he brings acting and writing and directing together.”
Will Wong ’09 said he was impressed with Duchovny’s down-to-earth demeanor.
“It’s great that he seems to be able to separate his real life from his screen life,” he said.
And for Duchovny, “real life” includes watching television with his children. When asked about his favorite shows, he said the only ones he watches regularly are the popular Disney show “Hannah Montana” and the Nickelodeon series “iCarly.”
“Sometimes we’ll be flipping through channels and one of the early episodes of ‘X-Files’ will be on and I’ll just think, ‘Wow, I sucked.’ I did a lot of learning on the job,” he said.