"I would rather my child see a pig circumcised than a deer's mom getting killed": David Duchovny on his madcap fairy tale "Holy Cow"

We talked to the actor about the "X-Files'" return, becoming a novelist and what he really thinks about Vancouver

Published February 10, 2015 12:00AM (EST)

David Duchovny      (Reuters/Phil Mccarten)
David Duchovny (Reuters/Phil Mccarten)

Fresh off his seven-year run as troubled novelist Hank Moody on "Californication," David Duchovny has a whole slate of new (and not entirely new) projects on the go. Along with his new NBC show, "Aquarius," about a cop investigating the Manson family back in the late '60s, a long-awaited "X-Files" reunion is reportedly in the works, as is a return of Duchovny’s character to the forthcoming "Twin Peaks" reboot. “It's like my greatest hits album or something,” he jokes when we speak to him via phone from Los Angeles.

But Duchovny’s most surprising project has nothing to do with any of his acting roles. Rather, Duchovny, who comes from a family of writers and majored in English at Princeton, has finally published his first novel, and it’s not your standard Hollywood literary debut (it's certainly nothing like anything Hank Moody would write). “Holy Cow” is a madcap postmodern fairy tale narrated by a wisecracking teenage cow named Elsie who joins forces with a Yiddish-speaking pig and a turkey prone to bouts of Freudian psychoanalysis to flee their farm and seek refuge in countries where they won’t be eaten (and ends up unexpectedly uniting Israelis and Palestinians in the process). We spoke to Duchovny about writing in "cow voice," reuniting with Gillian Anderson, and whether he still hates Vancouver (fear not, fellow Canadians: He doesn’t and never did).

Where did the idea for this whole thing come about?

I guess I've always been aware of— I read this [book] back in college and it had all these details about the way that livestock is kept in this country, so it was always in the back of my mind. I just had a thought one day that if I were a cow, I'd want to get to India, and that seemed funny to me. I just kind of stuck with it, and I thought about where other animals might go to not get eaten, which led naturally to a pig in Israel and a turkey in Turkey. Then I had my three heroes, so I thought, what's the story here? and I let the characters take me on a journey.

Who do you see as your target audience?

It's an interesting question: I had the idea, many years ago in L.A., that this felt like an animated film. I did pitch it to wherever you can pitch something like that— two or three places— and they felt it wise to pass, because it has some likely political issues, likely drug issues, likely lifestyle issues. Animated films don't want to offend anybody; they have to cast a wide net, you know? I figured it was a long shot anyway.

So aside from knowing that my audience was not just kids, I never— in anything I do— think about an actual target audience or a group of people that might or might not enjoy it. That really hadn't entered my mind until maybe someone asks. I still don't know. I could imagine an audience full of adults; I could imagine an audience full of kids; I don't know.

I got the sense that if I was a kid reading it, this would steer me quite heavily toward vegetarianism. Was that ever your intention?

No, it's not a polemical book. I don't have any interest in converting anybody, and I think any kind of work of fiction that has an ax to grind becomes polemical, and that actually undercuts it as a work of fiction or entertainment. Incidentally, there are these issues that are circulating around the book, and, ultimately, all that I would hope is that you become aware of the world you live in and how food gets to your plate— or how anything gets to your house. Then you can make an informed decision.

Are you a vegetarian?

I am, yeah.

So you wouldn't eat a cow like Elsie.

Oh, I have, certainly. I grew up eating hamburgers and steak. Even after I knew where it came from, I still had the occasional steak. I'm not programmatic or perfect, and I'm not out there proselytizing for vegetarianism. Mostly, what bothers me about that whole issue is the cruelty in the way that animals are kept— chickens, pigs, cows, whatever— the overcrowding and the filth and their short lives, and the toll that it takes on the planet. It's actually a very inefficient way to get the protein and the nutrients we need on this planet. There's a lot of pollution, a lot of waste that comes from our meat-based lifestyle that doesn't have to be. There's a better way to eat for the planet. Again, this has nothing to do with the book. It's just in my mind.

It is interesting, because you do touch on a lot of very important themes but you do it in such a light-handed way. Did you have trouble writing the section where you're sort of allegorically explaining the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

No... What was fun about writing in the "cow voice" was that I could kind of make it whatever voice I wanted because, obviously, it doesn't exist. It became this voice of a person, and what really tickled me when I was writing was that this person knows about Homer but doesn't know what a television is. It became this very interesting, very knowing, very cynical, very funny voice, but also extremely naïve and innocent. I found that to be one of the most fun and interesting things to write like, so when it came time to talk about something like the Middle East, I just wanted to approach it like a child might approach it.

So Elsie's inner monologue isn't the same as David Duchovny's inner monologue?

No way!

Not a lot of preoccupation about Freud?

No, man. She knows some of the things I know.

How does your process differ from that of Hank Moody, whom you played for such a long time on “Californication”? I assume you have better habits when it comes to your writing.

Yeah. Well, he works harder than I do. It's hard for me to sit; it took me a long time, between having an idea and actually sitting down to write it. If that was my primary job, I would have starved to death long ago, so I respect Hank for actually getting anything done. It's not clear to me what his routine ever was... My routine seems similar to something I might have said on the show: just put your ass in the chair and keep it there.

Have your kids read the book?

My son hasn't. I know my daughter has read some of it and she likes it but I don't think she's finished it. What's interesting to me is that I think she's very proud of me. It's interesting to have a child proud of a parent. Of all the things she's proud of, it's that I published a book, and that's very sweet.

Well, it's something you've wanted to do for a long time, right?

Yeah, yeah, it is.

You've had such an illustrious career in film and television. What's different about writing a novel?

I grew up thinking of myself as a writer and of writing being a very noble profession. My father was a writer and my mother was a teacher and I went to graduate school for English literature, so writing and thinking about writing and reading was the formative mental experience of my youth. For me to be able to play in that arena now is very fulfilling. It fulfills a lot of training, a lot of desire, a lot of thinking I did in the earlier part of my life before I started acting.

The book is centered around the pivotal discovery that the protagonist has, when her whole worldview collapses. Do you remember a similar formative moment in your upbringing?

Like a loss of innocence? I don't know. I don't know if there was an event that was so specific and traumatic. I think, though, that it happens to all of us. To some of us it happens in a day or in a moment; to some of us it happens over a long period of time. I don't remember... there wasn't one thing that did it to me, but eventually you lose it.

Did you always intend for the book to have such a Jewish theme?

I kind of got led to it through the pig, and then my father is Jewish and so I had some familiarity with Yiddish, which is such a wonderful language. It was funny to write the chapter that has all the Yiddish words for "penis" because of how many there were. I called a friend of mine and said, give me some more, I need more Yiddish words for "penis"! I don't think of it as Jewish, but maybe. I guess maybe when we went to the Middle East, the characters became more obviously that way, but maybe that's my sensibility.

I think once I got to the pig's circumcision chapter I started to think that maybe it wasn't as much of a kids book as I had thought at the beginning.

If you do look closely at those Disney films, they've taken some pretty rough things under cover. It's always interesting to me that you can kill Bambi's mother but you can't circumcise a pig.

Yeah, I feel like in the kids movies the mother always dies in some horrific accident.

I know! I would rather my child see a pig circumcised than a deer's mom getting killed in front of him.

The main character is very aware of the chapter breaks, it's very meta. What made you write it in such a postmodern voice?

I don't know, I kind of just let her voice lead me to the style of it. I guess the screenplay thing comes from the fact that I had originally conceived of it as a movie, so why not have her conceive of it as a movie or have her agent tell her that she should target an audience that might make it possible to make a movie... and just write it out that way. Once I decided that the voice was younger, teenage, it really liberated me to do whatever the hell I wanted, stylistically. That was the freedom I had while writing it.

With your new NBC show, you're going back to network television after being on cable for a long time. Are you going to miss what cable offered?

No, I could've gone to try and do work anywhere. Actually, “Aquarius” didn't have a home when I found it and attached myself to it. I assumed that it was going to be on cable but then NBC bought it and I thought, this is very interesting. This is a cable show that a network is trying to do. I really respect NBC and Bob Greenblatt for trying to — people are always talking about moving an audience to cable. Networks do have to compete in that arena a little bit if they want to survive. We're doing 13 episodes, which is very much a cable model. Obviously, we have adhered to the standards and practices of network television, but the heart and soul of the show, I think, is cable.

Have you seen any of “The Fall” [Gillian Anderson’s new show]?

Yeah, it's a great show.

It’s kind of funny that you have both come full circle and you're back playing detectives again.

That's something that people think of a lot more than either I or Gillian ever think of. We're just actors playing roles.

Do you guys ever hang out these days?

No, she lives in London and I live in New York. I guess I see her once or twice a year. It's always nice to be in the same place but it's not often.

Rumor has it that there’s some sort of "X-Files" project in the works?

True, true. We're trying to get it done. We'll see... There's three big moving parts: me and Gillian and Chris, and we all have lives and careers and families and we all have to find a way to get to the same city for a few months at the same time.

Is it a movie project or a TV project?

It could be either. It's looking like either at this point.

I feel like there have been a lot of reboots of fan favorites lately — "Arrested Development," "Veronica Mars," "Twin Peaks" — either via crowd-funding or just sort of as a response to fan demand. Do you think that kind of give-the-people-what-they-want attitude to programming is a good thing?

I think what drove maybe those other shows to come back was that they were taken off in their prime. I don't think anybody would say that about "The X-Files." "The X-Files" was a huge show of its day, as opposed to something that was removed from the schedule in an untimely manner. Discovery is an amazing format, which is what Chris Carter came up with when he came up with the show and really ushered in an entire culture of science fiction that is so prevalent in television and film today. It's mostly science fiction. "Twilight" is "X-Files"; all that stuff. Chris was way, way, ahead of his time, so why not?

Do you think the show will be very different set in the present day?

We'll change the pictures of the president in Skinner's office so it's no longer Clinton or Bush... No; I mean, people are people and the unexplained is the unexplained. I imagine there will be a story line that feels current, but what makes the show successful is that it deals in universal and timeless things, I think.

I've heard you said you might be coming back to the “Twin Peaks” reboot as well.

It's like my greatest hits album or something.

One last question. So, I'm Canadian and I don't know if you know this, but you've made some enemies in the Vancouver community regarding a remark you made about 10 years ago. Vancouverites seem to be under the impression that you think their city is, like, a damp wasteland.

I never, never said anything like that.

Things were blown out of proportion.

It wasn't just blown out of proportion, it was misrepresented completely by somebody with the Vancouver Sun— I can't remember his name. I'll tell you the whole story if you'd like to hear it.

Yes, please.

I love Vancouver and always have. I've always felt away from pressures out there, so all this stuff was a great source of consternation to me, that any of this happened. I had a movie coming out and I went to New York to do press for it and we were in the process of moving the show from Vancouver to L.A. at that point, and that was when Conan O’Brien said, well, it would be funny if you say something opinionated about Vancouver and then we cut to the audience and there's a Mountie, a hockey player and a bear crying. And I laughed and said, that's funny, let's do that! So I got out there and talked about moving to L.A. and said something about the rain. I didn't say it was a wasteland. I don't know what I said, but never a wasteland. They cut to the... big laughs.

Next morning I got a call from Canada and it was front page of the news and this asshole journalist has reported it as if I held a press conference and said Vancouver sucks and it rains too much. So it's all on him, and he knows who he is. He's still alive out there. He took control of the story, and as much as I would have loved to apologize or say, that's not what I meant, that was the end of it.

We Canadians are sensitive.

To this day, it saddens me so much when I go to Vancouver that people want to talk to me about the weather, which is the most uninteresting thing in the world.

By Anna Silman

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