A lifetime ago, before he starred in “The X-Files” or “Californication,” before his fame as a heartthrob or experiments as a film director, David Duchovny planned to be a writer. As an English literature grad student at Yale in the 1980s, he figured he would make a living as a professor and scribble in his free time. He tinkered with poetry and dabbled in prose, writing a novel that a publisher liked but said needed work. He ground away at a dissertation and started writing plays but sensed that he needed time onstage to hone his ear for dialogue. He tried out for some campus productions, and what began as a lark became a revelation. “I got swept away,” Mr. Duchovny, 60, says over the phone from his home in Malibu, Calif.
After years of academic solitude, acting was a relief, he explains. He enjoyed collaborating with others and finding a more emotional, more vulnerable side of himself. The “athletic, high-wire” nature of performance recalled his time on sports teams (he played basketball at Princeton, from which he graduated in 1982) and drove home how much he had missed “passing the ball around.” Giving life to words on a page felt hard, but it was also fun, whereas pursuing a Ph.D. wasn’t fun at all. To the surprise of those who knew him as shy, soft-spoken and bookish, Mr. Duchovny decided to abandon his dissertation and “keep pushing” at acting. He left that first novel in a drawer.