For most of his life, William B. Davis (BA 1959 UC) was best known as an accomplished theatre director and acting teacher. Then he became the mysterious and taciturn Cigarette Smoking Man on TV’s The X-Files. In his recent memoir, Where There’s Smoke… , Davis dishes about his time as the show’s main villain, his theatre career (he still directs and acts in films) and more. Lisa Bryn Rundle investigates.
Do people meeting you ever expect you to be a bit ominous, like the Cigarette Smoking Man?
Well, my wife – whom I only recently married – was attracted to the dark side of the character, but I think fell in love with me because I was actually quite a lot nicer.
What is the key to embodying a character who speaks very few lines?
The mind has to be active. You have to be thinking. Curiously, it doesn’t necessarily matter what you are thinking…
What would you think about?
I put myself into the imagined situation. Although I confess, being an acting teacher, I may have had occasional thoughts about how the other actors were doing.
You’ve worked in theatre with greats like Maggie Smith and Donald Sutherland. Do any memories stand out?
I worked with Donald Sutherland at U of T. The first play we did together – Dark Side of the Moon – we were both doing stage crew. We rattled the thunder sheet together.
When I was directing Two for the Seesaw in Chesterfield, England, we cast Donald and we had a marvellous time working on that play. And we also cast Jackie Burroughs, so it was a little Canadian production in the middle of the Midlands.
Does theatre feel ephemeral compared to TV, and does that bother you?
I remember asking one of the X-Files writers if he wanted to write for the theatre and he said no, because it doesn’t last. And I was shocked. Because, to me, it’s the other way around. Shakespeare, Congreve, Molière, we still know them.
Your X-Files character was almost a Forrest Gump of evil, the embodiment of every conspiracy theory. Did playing him ever make you paranoid?
No, not at all. What worried me far more was how paranoid the rest of the world was. I’d talk with groups of fans and ask how many of them thought there were aliens among us. And maybe 40 or 50 per cent of the hands would go up. And then I would ask how many of them believed in government conspiracies. Every hand went up. Every single hand. And this was during the Monica Lewinsky years when Clinton couldn’t keep private meetings with an intern secret.
So I take it you are more Scully than Mulder.
Yes, yes. Totally.
Watch an interview with William B. Davis from “This Conversation”