West Duchovny Wants to Make You Uncomfortable

The 24-year-old actress talks the SAG-AFTRA strike, growing up in a family of actors, and the importance of her newest project, Painkiller.

West Duchovny new faces
Photograph by Elias Tahan; Treatment by Ashley Peña

This interview was conducted prior to the start of the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike.

It was important for West Duchovny to change the date of this interview. She saw the SAG-AFTRA strike on the horizon in mid July, and wanted to make sure she could speak to press without crossing the picket line. It’s a complicated situation: she’s proud of her latest project—Netflix’s Painkiller, a look at the opioid crisis through the eyes of its victims, perpetrators, and opponents—but she’s also aware of the need for her industry to change.

“My mom used to say to me, ‘Do whatever you want, just don’t be an actor,’” Duchovny says over Zoom from her New York City apartment. Her mom would know—she’s Téa Leoni, best known for her roles in films like Fun With Dick & Jane and TV shows like Madam Secretary. Her father, David, also has experience in the field, though you may know him better as Fox Mulder from The X-Files or Hank Moody of Californication. Growing up between Los Angeles and New York as the child of two working actors, the 24-year-old (born Madelaine West Duchovny) had a well-rounded view of the acting industry, compounded by her own personal experience. “We aren’t living in the same world that we were even a decade ago,” she says of her support for the strike. “Things have changed, and this process is definitely necessary.”

Despite her mother’s advice, Duchovny couldn’t stay away from the family business—though she did try. “I grew up around people constantly asking me if I wanted to act, and I just got sick of it,” she says. When she signed up for the school play her senior year of high school to help out a friend, however, something clicked. “I just fell in love with it,” she recalls. “I’d never felt that way. Nothing came as effortlessly, not necessarily the talent, but the passion for it. And I knew if I didn’t shoot my shot, I would probably regret it forever.”

Duchovny started landing small roles on TV shows before her big break came twofold. She was cast in two streaming shows: Saint X, a psychological drama released on Hulu last spring; and Painkiller, streaming on Netflix August 10. “Both the projects feel really meaningful and educational to a certain degree,” she says of the shows which, together, have the ability to propel Duchovny to stardom. “It’s not just entertainment. It’s the best case scenario that these are my introductions to the industry, because I feel so strongly about both.”


Both projects are dark, their subject matter disquieting at times—but these are traits that drew Duchovny to the roles in the first place. “I like telling stories of the female experience and how gritty and scary it can be,” she says. While Saint X (based on the Alexis Schaitkin novel of the same name) is a fictional tale about a young woman trying to solve her older sister’s Caribbean-set murder, Painkiller is based in truth. It’s a story of actual evil, true tragedy, emphasized at the beginning of each episode when real people honor those they have lost from the opioid crisis.

In Painkiller, Duchovny plays Shannon, a young woman who gets swept up in the Purdue Pharma fanfare, becoming a pharmaceutical sales representative for Oxycontin. In record time she goes from an Ohio State graduate with no prospects who’s living with her mom and lowlife stepdad to a successful young woman driving a bright blue Porsche, carrying designer bags, and flirting with wealthy doctors. She drinks the Purdue Kool-Aid, initially convincing herself of the drug’s benefits, no doubt influenced by the increasingly hefty paychecks.

“For a while, she thinks she’s helping people—and [Purdue is] telling her she’s helping people,” Duchovny says of Shannon. “But it gets harder and harder for her to keep up with all the red flags.”

Duchovny’s Shannon shows a different type of moral compass as the job’s benefits cloud her better judgement. There’s a clear internal struggle as Shannon considers her options, weighing her own selfish, twentysomething impulses with the possible greater impact her choices could have on society. “The scenes that felt so significant were the ones where she was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m helping people, I’m doing good,’” Duchovny recalls. “And then suddenly she gets confronted with the possibility that maybe she’s not doing good, maybe she’s not helping people, but actually hurting people. How long can you keep up that performance in your own head?”


Shannon is one of the only gray characters in a very black-and-white story. Painkiller is made up of bad guys and good guys, victims and offenders. For that reason, you may find yourself supporting Shannon, pushing for her to escape the Purdue cloud and the grasp of her emotionally abusive coworker and mentor Britt, portrayed by Dina Shihabi. Shannon realistically isn’t the one who deserves sympathy, but you can’t help but root for her throughout the six-episode series.

Duchovny, though, is far easier to root on. She speaks about her work with a passion, and is clearly aware of Painkiller’s significance. “There was this common, deep desire to do the story justice because it is so important,” she says. “If we can put this story out there and expose the issues, then that’s a huge accomplishment.”

Duchovny hopes people watch Painkiller and mobilize—because the truth of the matter is, the opioid crisis is still ongoing. Painkiller will be the second show covering the topic (Hulu’s Dopesick starring Michael Keaton was released in 2021 and garnered critical acclaim as well as an Emmy, Golden Globe, and SAG Award for the actor). While it would be naive to think a few streaming shows can end a 20+ year epidemic, it’s understandable to hope that the increased coverage might aid in eradicating the issue. At the very least, Duchovny just hopes Painkiller helps to get the word out, and motivates people to educate themselves further on the topic. “It’s cool when art can incite action or make you feel like you want to do something differently,” she says. “I want people to be angry.”