As the Cigarette Smoking Man on The X-Files, actor William Davis was a master at instilling fear into the hearts of viewers while giving them much to ponder about this complex, enigmatic character. Like the character, there are layers to the actor and much about Davis’ life we never knew. It is ironic that a good part of his 60 year career was spent acting in and directing theatrical productions with the likes of Donald Sutherland and Sir Lawrence Olivier. Who could have thought this would lead to an iconic role on a massively popular television show dealing with the paranormal?
In his memoir Where There’s Smoke: Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man, Davis writes about his years on The X-Files, while offering an honest, lively rendering of his life prior to his worldwide stardom and since. I recently spoke with Davis about his book, his thoughts on his craft and, of course, The X-Files.
What inspired you to write your memoirs?
It was a number of things. It was first suggested to me by a professor of Canadian theater because I had such a unique background in theater in Canada. That’s a story that we wanted to tell to a newer generation as to what actually went on and how it actually developed. This was, of course, only part of it. Clearly I had a story to tell about The X-Files to fans of The X-Files.
The experience of writing a memoir turned out to be very...I’m not sure exactly what the word is, but certainly very intriguing, very absorbing because it forces you to come to terms with your life. I wanted to write a memoir that was not just simply a defense of what I had done. I also didn’t want to write, “Oh, I had a lovely time in my life and I met all these lovely people, and wasn’t that lovely!” So one had to dig in and, as you say, try to be honest but perhaps not going into every nook and cranny of one’s life but those that [I felt] I could look at and share with others. So it was quite exciting and it was quite exciting to go back in time and revisit earlier times in my life, specifically people that I hadn’t seen for fifty years and I’ve reconnected with in this process.
I’m noticing now you have a Canadian/British accent, which wasn’t apparent on The X-Files.
Actually that’s interesting because there are just a few words that really give us away as a Canadian. One of my little secrets on The X-Files was try to avoid using those words.
Did you make a concerted effort to sound American?
I often thought I should have but I really didn’t make a big effort. As an actor I find that very distracting to focus on the sounds that I’m making instead of the thoughts that are going on. I know some actors are wonderful at that. Meryl Streep is a particular example. But I’ve never been a good mimic. So while I had to pay some attention to the obvious Canadian-isms, I didn’t spend a lot of time trying to sound American.
In Where There's Smoke you state that certain aspects of the quality of theater, television, etc. have dissipated. Why do you think that is?
I think [these days] certainly there’s a sense of believing that you can jump to instant celebrity. That you can do a couple of audition classes and if you have some native talent you can become a star. Whereas in my time being a celebrity and being a star were less present as goals and people worked pretty hard at developing their craft. But it’s not fair to say that people don’t do that now, so if I suggested that I didn’t mean to.
You started out on the stage, learning not only the crafts of acting and directing but how to build a set and run a theater. Do you think actors these days would benefit by learning the nuts and bolts first?
No, not necessarily. I did those things because I was actually running a theater company when I was 20, and I was a theater director. So as a director/producer/artistic director it was important to have done all those things and know what they are. As an actor it’s not so critical. All that an actor really needs to know is what it feels like on the other side so they have a sense of what the other people are doing and how it all works together. But they don’t actually have to be able to do all those things. So no I wouldn’t say that an actor needs to know how to build a set. It doesn’t hurt. It certainly broadens the experience and actors who have worked in the production side are usually really welcomed by the production team. They understand each other and everyone knows what they’re going through. So it’s helpful.
You’ve seen the business from many different sides. Do you have a preference between theater and TV?
I enjoy them both and it’s really difficult to compare. Sometimes I prefer the theater simply because you’re working all the time. Usually. Depending on the size of the role you’re playing or if you’re directing. Whereas in film and television you do an awful lot of waiting. I just did a piece on a new series and we spent an awful lot of time just waiting for them to get ready, getting set up or whatever to do our few lines. So sometimes that is enervating. But having said that, the week before I was doing a low-budget feature with an interrogation scene and we were just acting all the time on this particular film, and that was terrific. I love the work. I don’t always like the waiting. Michael Caine said, “It’s the waiting we get paid for. The acting is for fun.”
You offer a great wealth of information about your time in Canadian theater. Would you ever want to write a book about it?
That’s an interesting question because I’ve been thinking, “What do I want to write next?” That wasn’t quite what I’d thought of. There are quite a few books on Canadian theater and I’m not completely up to speed on what has been written [about it]. Probably I’m more likely to write a book about acting.
Are you still hands on in The William Davis Center, your acting school?
The school I don’t own anymore but I’m still hands on to the extent that I sometimes teach there.
Cigarette Smoking Man was certainly an iconic character. How do you see him in hindsight?
Like all villains he, of course, didn’t believe he was a villain. He believed he was doing what he needed to do, while making the compromises that had to be made in the circumstances that he found himself. In some ways, while he was a strong, powerful presence, he was actually a compromiser. I think he’s idealistic. It’s interesting. I think I say in the book where we actually did an episode or part of an episode that we weren’t able to screen because it just didn’t look right. It was where we were all younger and we were idealistic and had a vision of what we were doing.
I think what is interesting about the character is the degree to which he was forced to compromise. And this is very common with many people. I think he gradually hollowed out inside. He just had to shut down this feeling and that feeling just in order to survive. And the smoking was all part of deadening the emotional nerve centers so he could cope.
What do you think of X-Files-inspired shows such as Fringe?
I don’t know Fringe well enough to really comment, but what was unique about The X-Files at the time was that it was always on the cusp of ‘is this real or isn’t this real?’, ‘are there aliens or aren’t there aliens?’ ‘are there paranormal things or aren’t there paranormal things?’, ‘what’s true and what isn’t?’ That was to some extent unique and fascinating at the time because it was when the Internet was just developing and we were going through the digital revolution, and we really didn’t know how we were accessing information and what information was reliable.
Even though we did get it on a computer screen it would disappear; we didn’t know where it went. So in that sense I think it was unique. But there have been many shows that have dealt with various paranormal activities and they make good stories, as long as people know that they’re stories.
Do you find that sometimes fans can’t or won’t separate the actor from the role?
I don’t find that very often. Not in my case. I’m really a very different person, fortunately [laughs]. When people meet me, after first going through the “Omigod, here’s that terrifying man again,” they see my crinkly smile and realize I’m not the same man at all. So that hasn’t been a big problem in that sense that I get confused with the character. I think that happens more with daily soap operas. There’s a certain quality that people identify with with the actor who plays the character. I think people identify Gillian’s iron strength, for instance, that she had with Scully. But that’s part of Gillian as a person and fans responded very favorably to that.
You talk in the book about animosity and arrogance between Gillian and David on the X-Files set. Did this affect your time with them on screen?
No, not at all and it didn’t affect my time with them off screen either. I was more reporting what I had heard. I think I say in the book that I hadn’t actually been present but that the tension was reported to me. But one was aware they were both kind of aloof. It was partly me. I’m not a gregarious type so if they’re not gregarious then it made it hard to find a contact point. No, I wouldn’t say [it affected us] onscreen at all. David was a little up and down and sometimes he had more energy and more life than other times. Gillian was always very present on screen. So, no, I don’t think it affected the working situation.
You wrote the season 7 episode “En Ami”, which you say in the book went through some major rewrites by Chris Carter. The basis of the story, however, was yours. Smoking Man was always linked to Mulder for obvious reasons but since he was with Scully for the entire episode, what are your thoughts on his relationship and interactions with her?
This is what prompted the whole idea for the story. Here we’d done seven years and I still hadn’t done a scene with Gillian. It seemed like an interesting relationship to explore and that’s what prompted the story. The character goes through a certain degree of conversion in that episode. It’s one of those things you never know: was that a good idea or not? It was kind of like once the villain starts to soften inside, have you lost something of the arc of the story? Certainly as an actor and for the development of the character it was interesting to explore how that exposure to Scully actually changed him and how he allowed some humanity to develop.
What’s next on your agenda?
I just did this low-budget science fiction feature and a pilot for TV and I’ve got another feature coming up in a couple of weeks. Then I’ll go to France and be with my wife for a month because I just got married not too long ago.
Yeah! Thank you. She works in the south of France so I spend quite a bit of time there now. That’s when I’m going to be germinating what I’m going to write next. After that I’m going to be directing the end of year project for the William Davis Center in the spring, so that’s kind of what’s on the plate.