From The Ivy League To 'The X-Files': David Duchovny's Big Break Before he became Fox Mulder, Duchovny was working on his Ph.D. in literature at Yale. He was going to be a poet — or maybe a novelist — or maybe a playwright ...
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From The Ivy League To 'The X-Files': David Duchovny's Big Break

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From The Ivy League To 'The X-Files': David Duchovny's Big Break

From The Ivy League To 'The X-Files': David Duchovny's Big Break

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

Now for the latest installment of our series My Big Break about career triumphs big and small.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE X-FILES")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As character) Are you familiar with an agent named Fox Mulder?

GILLIAN ANDERSON: (As Dana Scully) Yes, I am.

RATH: David Duchovny starred in one of the most iconic TV shows of the '90s - "The X-Files." But back when he was a 19-year-old studying literature at Princeton, Duchovny planned to be a poet.

DAVID DUCHOVNY: It's funny. At Princeton, Walter Kirn, who's a terrific novelist - he was a - he was a year younger than me, and he was an actual poet. And I think when I read Walter's stuff, I was like, you know what? I'm not a poet. And that kind of woke me up.

RATH: By the time he started his PhD at Yale, Duchovny had given up on fiction, too. He just hadn't lived enough to write anything good, he says.

DUCHOVNY: So I was thinking, oh, maybe I'll try to write a play, and I think I wrote a couple of one-acts. And then I thought, well, if I'm going to write things that are to be performed by actors, then it's probably helpful for me to know something about what that's like - what it's like to say words - might help me write words. So I had been in acting classes that summer. I was at Yale at that time, so I was probably 22 or 23. And I would ride my bike to the train station. And I'd get on the Metro North, I guess it is, and I'd take the Grand Central. I'd ride over to Marcia Haufrecht's class. Then I'd ride back to the station and be in New Haven, you know, later that night. So I did that twice a week for that year. I guess I went out to LA a couple of times, and I got close to getting jobs, even though I didn't get them. I think the first thing I got - I got a small part in a movie called "Ruby."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RUBY")

DUCHOVNY: (As Officer Tippit) Where'd you find her, Jack?

DUCHOVNY: And then I had a small part in "Beethoven" - the movie - not about the composer, but about the dog.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BEETHOVEN")

DUCHOVNY: (As Brad) We want to get in bed with Newton Auto air fresheners.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (As character) Excellent. That's great.

DUCHOVNY: And then I got a three-episode arc on "Twin Peaks." I played a transvestite drug enforcement agent.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TWIN PEAKS")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (As character) Dennis?

DUCHOVNY: (As DEA Agent Dennis-Denise Bryson) It's a long story, but actually, I prefer Denise, if you don't mind.

DUCHOVNY: But after, you know, I was pretty clear that I didn't want to do television. I thought I had the ball rolling with feature work - you know, that I'd just done my first lead. And so I didn't think I wanted to do a series, but I auditioned for "The X-Files."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE X-FILES")

ANDERSON: (As Dana Scully) Agent Mulder, I'm Dana Scully. I've been assigned to work with you.

DUCHOVNY: I had no idea what it was going to be or what it was. I knew that the pilot was good, but beyond that, I didn't know.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE X-FILES")

DUCHOVNY: (As Fox Mulder) Do you believe in the existence of extraterrestrials?

DUCHOVNY: It got picked up and then, you know, just - it kept going and going. And I hadn't done a lot of acting. I'd done some classes, but, you know, I did a few roles. My time on-set - maybe few months in my life. And then I had to do it every day for 12 to 14 hours a day to act. And after about two or three years of having to do this thing - acting - every day - even though it was the same part, I had to act every day and figure that out - I started to actually get to the point where I could access the things I thought I wanted to access from the very beginning.

I would say "The X-Files" is my biggest break, but not in the sense that most people would assume, in that it was a huge success, but in the way that I was describing to you - in the way that I had to go to work everyday. And, you know, to go from this idea of limitless potential that you have as a young person and - oh, I can do anything, just give me the chance - and then realizing, well, maybe you can't do anything. But then what you do? What do you do after you realize that? Do you give up? Or do you try and make your art out of your own limitations? And I think that's my biggest break.

How'd it end? The PhD - it never ended. My mother's still upset, but I never finished my PhD. No.

RATH: David Duchovny says he does finally have enough life experience to write a little something. His new novel is called "Holy Cow." It's out on Tuesday. And you don't have to be an author or an actor to send us your story at mybigbreak@npr.org.

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