From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
David Duchovny regularly competes in triathlons. But when his brother brought over a tandem bike to his Malibu home, Duchovny and wife Téa Leoni made it a mere 10 feet. "We got on it, and we kind of stalled, and we just went whap," says Duchovny. "We fell over. We just lay there for, like, 10 minutes laughing with the bike on top of us."

Fortunately, their other recent collaboration went more smoothly. The two co-star, along with Robin Williams, in the drama House of D, Duchovny's debut as a feature film director and writer. For the actor, whose nine-year run on TV's The X-Files ended in 2002, crafting the coming-of-age tale was an opportunity to emphatically move beyond the world of little green men and Internet iconhood. "Before I jumped into the next 10 years of my life, I really wanted to do something new, something that would challenge me," he says. "And now that I've got kids, there's something else that's important, so failing doesn't feel as horrific."

In fact the worried one was his wife. "It was nerve-racking because I imagined that I would be the jerk who would ruin his film," says Leoni, 39, who asked Duchovny for her role just before he offered it to an older actress. But getting bossed around by her husband "sort of turned me on." The couple don't appear onscreen together: Leoni plays the unstable mother of a teenage boy, whose experiences are based on the '70s-era New York City neighborhood Duchovny grew up in. Duchovny portrays the character as an adult. Still, casting your wife as your mom? Admits Duchovny: "It may have been weird for her, a bit."

On the bright side, they got set visits from their daughter Madelaine West, 6, and son Kyd Miller, 2. "They had fun because there's Tootsie Pops on the craft-services table," says Leoni. "We can get them to go anywhere as long as there's Tootsie Pops." The low-key family usually doesn't stray far from their four-bedroom Malibu house. "We hang out at home with the kids, just sticking close to our comfort zone," says Duchovny. "We're pretty simple." Except when it comes to monikers. The kids go by their middle names. "She's never been Madelaine and he's never been Kyd," says Duchovny. "But I hope he becomes Kyd at some point. A week before he was born, I read a T.S. Eliot essay about [playwright] Thomas Kyd. It said Shakespeare was jealous of him. So I thought, 'That's who you want to be—the guy Shakespeare was actually jealous of.' "

Duchovny, 44, knows a thing or two about the classics: A Princeton grad and former Ph.D. candidate in English literature at Yale, he started acting in school plays while working on his thesis. "I kept running into all these Yale actors who seemed to be having such a good time while I'd have to go home and work," says Duchovny, who began his professional career flogging Löwen-bräu beer in TV ads. After a string of quirky roles—including a transvestite detective on Twin Peaks and Brad Pitt's hostage in 1993's Kalifornia—he landed the creepy cult hit The X-Files.

He soon hit it off with Leoni, whom he had first encountered at a 1992 audition for possible Tonight Show guests. "They didn't tell me another actor was going to be there," says Duchovny. "She was so charming, she took over the table. So of course she booked the show and I didn't. From that moment on, whenever I heard her name, I had a sour reaction." When their mutual agent offered to set them up five years later, Duchovny was reluctant, but agreed. They wed in 1997, after just four months of dating.

Next up, Duchovny will costar with Julianne Moore in the forthcoming comedy Trust the Man; Leoni with Jim Carrey in Fun with Dick and Jane. And then there's one more project to work on. "When my daughter was 9 months old, I got a tattoo," says Duchovny. "It's a compass with the letters N, S, E and the word 'West' written out. I need to get one for my son, too, because it's not fair to just have one."

Ericka Sóuter. Sona Charaipotra, Lisa Ingrassia and Amy Longsdorf in New York City and Lycia Naff in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Sona Charaipotra,
  • Lisa Ingrassia,
  • Amy Longsdorf,
  • Lycia Naff.