As part of a series called "My Big Break," All Things Considered is collecting stories of triumph, big and small. These are the moments when everything seems to click, and people leap forward into their careers.
Here's something you probably know about David Duchovny: He played one of the 1990s' most iconic roles, FBI agent Fox Mulder in The X-Files.
Here's something you probably don't know about David Duchovny: Only six years before landing that role, he was a Ph.D. student studying literature at Yale University, planning to become a writer.
In fact, he'd originally planned to be a poet.
"It's funny," he says. "[As an undergraduate] at Princeton, Walter Kirn — who's a terrific novelist — 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 kinda woke me up."
Then Duchovny thought he'd write fiction. But as a 20-something graduate student, he felt like he didn't really have anything to write a novel about. He hadn't really lived yet. So he turned to the theater, thinking he'd give one-act plays a shot.
But he struggled at that, too.
"I thought, 'Well, if I'm gonna write things that are gonna be performed by actors, then it's probably helpful for me to know something about what that's like,' " he says. " 'What it's like to say words might help me write words.' "
He spent a summer in New York City, taking acting classes and auditioning for commercials — a friend had told him that a commercial would pay as much as a summer's worth of bartending. Right at the end of summer, he landed a role in a Löwenbräu beer commercial, then headed back to New Haven to keep working on his Ph.D. He continued the acting classes, commuting between Yale and New York City twice a week.
"I would ride my bike to the train station," he remembers, "I'd get on the Metro-North ... and I'd take it to Grand Central. I'd ride over to Marcia Haufrecht's class. Then I'd ride back to the station and be in New Haven later that night."
He worked on acting on the other side of the country, too; short trips to Los Angeles turned into longer trips. After a year or two of fruitless auditions, Duchovny started to land a handful of small parts — a cop in the crime drama Ruby, a sleazy businessman in Beethoven ("the movie not about the composer, but about the dog," he jokes).
Then came the three-episode arc on Twin Peaks, where Duchovny memorably played a trans woman named Denise Bryson.
("Dennis?" says Agent Cooper, surprised at how different his old friend looks. Duchovny, wearing makeup and a wig, smiles. "It's a long story, but actually I'd prefer Denise, if you don't mind.")
By 1992, he'd already starred in a feature film (The Rapture) and thought he was done with TV. But then his agent convinced him to audition for a pilot called The X-Files.
"I had no idea what it was gonna be, or what it was," he says. "I knew that the pilot was good. But beyond that, I didn't know."
He got the part. Now, looking back at that first season can be a little painful for him.
"I hadn't done a lot of acting," he explains. "I'd done some classes. I'd done a few roles. My [total] time on set? Maybe two 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 ... I started to actually get to the point where I could access the things that I thought I wanted to access from the very beginning."
He says, of course, The X-Files is his big break.
"But not in the sense ... that it was a huge success," he says, "but in the way I had to go to work every day. To go from this idea of limitless potential that you have as a young person — 'Oh, I can do anything! Just give me the chance!' — and then realizing, well, maybe you can't do anything.
"But then what do you do? What do you do after that happens? 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? I think that's my biggest break."
Twenty years later, he's finally lived enough life to write a novel, he says. It's called Holy Cow. And as for the doctorate —
"How did it end? The Ph.D.?" he says, laughing. "It never ended. My mother is still upset, but I never finished my Ph.D., no."
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.