Interview: William B. DavisMay 20, 2017
Known to many as Cigarette Smoking Man from hit TV series The X-Files, William B. Davis has had a long career in theater, film, and television, both in front of and behind the camera. Recently we had a chance to talk to William about his long career, his iconic character in The X-Files and his thoughts on the existence of aliens.
So were you always interested in acting, was it a conscious choice, or was it more of a happy accident?
William: I started acting when I was quite young, ten or eleven, I was doing some stage work and radio work. When I went to University I was still thinking of myself as an actor, although while I was in University I switched from acting to directing, but I was still in the profession. At one point I decided I really had to make a decision on what profession I would choose do and I interviewed people in both professions so I could make a really sensible decision. Now here I am, almost eighty, and I have not yet made that decision, I’ve been basically doing what came next. So I guess the answer to your question, more simply is, yes.
What is it about directing that peaked your interest?
William: Well, partly because when I started acting, because I was young, I really had no idea what I was doing, it was just sort of fun. Then when I started to direct it really became like serious work, like something someone might do for a living or a career whereas acting was more like play. Since then I’ve learned a lot more about acting and how it is also a serious profession but at the time I didn’t see that so much. I think I really still prefer directing, I think I like being in control, I don’t like having to wait around a lot and as an actor, you’re always waiting, as a director you’re never waiting, so things like that.
Now you’ve spent a large part of your career, I guess I could describe it as the field of teaching of sorts, you’ve been an artistic director, opening your own center for actors. Have you always enjoyed working behind the scenes like that, helping others improve their talents?
William: Yes, yes I have. Directing and teaching are moderately similar in that way as you’re always trying to get the best performance from whoever it is, whether it’s an actor in a play or a student in a class. The challenge always, eventually is, what makes people tick, what makes them do what they do, that’s the challenge of the story, the script but it’s also the challenge of the actor, how do they get to do what they need to do, whatever the situation is, whether we’re talking about in class or in rehearsal.
Can you tell me what the circumstance were that led to you getting the part of Cigarette Smoking Man on The X-Files?
William: I was still really primarily an acting teacher and director but I had gone back to acting, more to kind of refresh and rekindle my work as a director and a teacher, so I was doing some acting while running my acting school. I was auditioning for whatever was available so my agent sent me out for it, so I auditioned for this pilot for this series about alien abduction and the part was for a senior FBI agent with three lines, I didn’t get that part, I got this part with no lines and the rest is history so they say.
What was the reaction when you read the script, not only about the character but about the show itself?
William: Well I’m a really poor judge of what’s going to be successful. I thought this is a strange piece, I can’t imagine a series on alien abduction being successful, I was happy to do this one gig, get paid my one salary and that’s really all I thought about it. I didn’t think it would get picked up and of course, it did, and even when it got picked up I was still skeptical whether it would be very successful, and slowly it became what it became, so my reaction was very slow in developing.
I find it interesting that you play a character on The X-Files that’s hip deep in cover-ups yet personally you are a skeptic or nonbeliever in the paranormal. You must have a lot of interesting conversations with fans on this topic.
William: I do and it was interesting. In the early days, before people knew that I was skeptical, they assumed that because I was in the series that I had somehow chosen to be in this series because I believed in these things. They would bring me things, like new information on Area 51, updates on UFOs, and finally I said you know, I don’t actually believe in these things and they said you don’t, why not and I said well, the onus is really on you to prove to me they exist, not for me to prove that they don’t. Then they would say well, we have proved that they exist, and at that point I would stop because I didn’t know what proof they had come up with. So at this point I had to find out for myself and that led me deeper into the skeptical world, work that people were doing on the skeptical side, to actually study the issues of whether it’s alien abduction or it could be alternative medicine, all these things have been put by various organizations under scientific scrutiny, so I got involved with a lot of people and a lot of organizations.
The character Cigarette Smoking Man has certainly polarized fans, some think he’s pure evil while other think he’s just misunderstood. How would you describe him and how much fun has it been to play this character?
William: Well it’s always fun to play the villain, ask any actor and they’ll tell you they prefer the villain. One thing about acting is you get to do what you would never do in life but you do it the way you would do it if you did do it. So to have that type of power, to develop those conflicts, I mean you don’t think of yourself as a villain, I don’t think any villain thinks they are a villain, they think they’re doing what they need to do in the circumstances and the challenge for the actor is to find what those circumstances are that require me to behave the way I’m behaving. That’s a great challenge and fun to do.
Did you have a favorite episode of The X-Files that involved the Cigarette Smoking Man?
William: My favorite episode would probably be Talitha Cumi, I think it was season three, and it was actually based on a Dostoyevsky novel, where this alien comes back to the world and starts healing everybody and I have to stop him from doing that because it’s too soon for Christ to return. We had a number of really interesting scenes in that, one where he’s in prison and we’re interrogating him but he’s fighting back quite well, another scene with Mulder’s mother where I get to boast about my water skiing skills, there’s a lot of fun things in that one.
The X-Files is going to be returning for ten more episodes next year. What do you think continues to peak fans interest and are you going to be a part of this?
William: I am going to be part of it, I don’t know if I’ll be in all ten, but I’ll be in the first episode and the finale I believe, I don’t know about in between. It’s pretty interesting that it still has such a fan base because a lot of the original fans, they’re a lot older now but there’s a lot of new fans, we find them at conventions and so on, it’s like the children of the baby boomers are getting involved, maybe not in the same numbers because there’s so much diversity in television and entertainment now but the ratings were really good for the last six we did so there’s obviously still a lot of interest there.
You’ve worked in theater, film and television. Do you have a favorite medium to work in or do you basically follow where the good script takes you?
William: Well I certainly do the latter quite a lot, the script is definitely the key. As a director I probably prefer the theater because that’s really where my roots are and I’ve doing more theater directing lately. Very few people get to see what you do so I’m not like television or big movies but it’s very rewarding. As an actor is quite variable, I haven’t done a lot of theater acting recently and theater acting is a bit of a crap shoot, because if you get the right script and the right actors and the right director it can be amazing but if you get other actors and directors it can be not so amazing and can go on for a very long time. The thing about film acting is, it’s in a sense quick, you do your scene once, maybe several times in that day but you don’t do it for three months, the same scene.
You did some recent work on the TV show Continuum. What do you think the state of the entertainment industry in Canada is right now, specifically television?
William: That’s a good question and I’m certainly not an expert on it. I mean, I’m delighted when we do get some television shows like Continuum, and another I’ve been watching lately Motive, which is set in Vancouver, we don’t pretend they’re in Seattle, we’re actually allowed to speak with our Canadian accent, Da Vinci’s Inquest was a big one a while ago but they’re not that common. Most of the work we do in Vancouver is tied into American shows, usually with a lot of American talent in them. Television, in general, is getting quite confusing because people don’t watch it in the same way, I remember when there were three channels, everyone would watch one or the other but now it’s so diverse, as a viewer I love being able to watch things without dealing with commercials.
So what are you working on now and what do you have coming up in the future?
William: Well, I just died again, a knife in my eye this time in a movie called Game Over, Man. It was just a little cameo but a pretty startling death scene. Then just before that I did a, I don’t know how much it will be seen because it’s a Sherlock short story by Stephen King that’s been adapted and I played an aging Dr. Watson, but it doesn’t get publically shown unless King actually looks at it and says oh yes, let’s distribute that.
Before I let you go, I have to mention that I saw a picture of Cigarette Smoking Man on your official Facebook fan page with the caption ‘Trump Announces New F.B.I. Director’. That is incredibly funny and somewhat scary all at the same time.
William: Yes, I know. Wouldn’t that be something? I did an interview the other day where we kind of played that game, we pretended that I was in fact in line for the job. It was good fun.
I want to thank William for taking the time to speak with us