As a college freshman I suffered from insecurity, in part because I was, in fact, a ridiculous person, bizarrely small, with braces on my teeth. People assumed I was a child prodigy until I began to speak. Girls were nice to me in the same way that they would be nice to a hamster. I fantasized about wild encounters with females but knew they'd never happen unless my own involvement could somehow go undetected.
Worst of all, I lived in a dorm room next to a kid from New York named David Duchovny. He was smart, athletic, talented and confident. Over the next few years, we didn't hang out a lot, but we did play a fair bit of a pinball game named Xenon. I took the left flipper, he took the right. When we dropped in a quarter, the machine would say, in an alluring female voice, "Enter Xenon," which represented pretty much my entire college sex life.
I sensed that women found Duchovny attractive, because when they saw him they would instantly start weeping, writhing on the ground and speaking in tongues. (Standing there, ignored, I'd announce, "But I'm better at pinball.") Occasionally a beauty would disappear into his room, and seconds later the stereo would be cranked to deafening volume. I never understood how they could talk with the music so loud.
One day freshman year Duchovny showed me a paper he'd written on "The Wasteland." It could have gone straight into a highbrow lit-crit journal. Years later, after graduation, we met in Greenwich Village, and he showed me a short story he had written -- again remarkably good, funny, elegant. Duchovny could write like a dream. And so he went off to graduate school, to Yale, to study in the English department under the likes of Harold Bloom. He was destined to become a professor, novelist, poet, one of our great men of letters.
But then he dropped out of school. He later explained what happened: In class, Bloom asked some kind of incomprehensible question, and a student answered, confidently, "That would be like a world without adjectives," and Bloom said that was exactly right. Duchovny had not the foggiest idea what either person was talking about. He fled to Hollywood, got a small television role on "Twin Peaks," then got a huge role on "The X-Files."
On the "X-Files" set, Duchovny worked 16 hours a day, a virtual prisoner. "It was like being in a cult. I was a machine, an acting machine," he says. He did well, made some money, got himself a gorgeous movie-star wife and a couple of kids and some beachfront property in Southern California. In many respects his life has not been what you'd call a failure. (I have spent much of my adult life dropping his name at every opportunity, including this one. There was zero chance I'd get three months into this new column without dropping the D-bomb.)
But throughout this period, Duchovny wanted to write. A couple of years ago, he sent me a screenplay he'd written, "House of D." Since then, he scraped up the money to film it and then directed it and acted in it. It premieres next month. I took a train to New York City recently and tracked him down in the Village. We had a cup of coffee, walked around a little, visited a movie set. People stare at him, and he's friendly, but he keeps gliding. When you're a celebrity, you have to minimize the friction. Don't get snagged on anything.
Here's a verbatim exchange from our conversation in a bistro:
Duchovny: "I don't have many friends."
Achenbach: "I'm your friend."
Duchovny [delicately]: "But we're not close."
"House of D" is a tale of escape. It's about a kid in New York City raised by an overly attached mother and befriended by a mentally handicapped janitor. It's a "small" movie, as Duchovny puts it. No explosions, gunplay, special effects. There's nothing particularly Hollywood about it. His next screenplay is about a kid and his father, bonding over baseball. He's spent years in the celebrity bubble, but he is writing Woody Allenish, small-scale comedy-dramas set in 1970s New York.
In "House of D," Duchovny plays a grown man returning from France after a 30-year exile. The character has realized that he's spent his adult life posing. He has to rediscover his authentic self. You don't need to be a genius to see that Duchovny has realized that he really wants to be a writer after all, and that this ambition is driven by envy.
Yes, you know it's true: He wants to be me!
Joel Achenbach's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org