Transcription by the Excellent Typing Woman, Katrina King.
William B. Davis is best known as the quietly menacing Cigarette Smoking Man on the long-running series The X-Files. For seven years he menaced, and sometimes helped, Mulder and Scully, seemingly dying a couple of times along the way, and met his ultimate fate in the series’ finale episode. He has appeared in numerous guest spots since then, but also had a modestly successful acting and teaching career prior to that. David recently published a memoir of his life so far, Where There’s Smoke…: Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man, a Memoir. I recently spoke to the veteran actor about the book and what it is like to reveal your life to the world.
POP CULTURE ZOO: I wanted to start off by saying I thoroughly enjoyed the book.
WILLIAM B. DAVIS: Oh thank you.
PCZ: What was the most interesting to me was when we get to the section on The X-files, I was like, “Oh yes! X-files! That’s right!” because I was so engrossed in the other things you were talking about.
WBD: Hahaha! Oh good, good! Oh, that’s great!
PCZ: So now that this book is published, what are your thoughts on having revealed your life to the world?
WBD: Oh that’s a difficult one, because in some ways it’s a vulnerability that almost, I hadn’t quite expected. It’s all very well to write things when you’re in the privacy of your own study, and you think, “Oh yes, this is interesting, and this is how this happened.” And then you put things out there, and you think, “Oh, I wonder how people will react to that?” And surprisingly, um, I have caused some offense where none was intended, in a couple of situations where I meant something in good humor, and someone has taken it…poorly in a way, not usually about themselves but about someone they knew. So it’s an interesting experience, there’s no question about that.
PCZ: Was that something that you were aware of when writing it? Did it alter anything that you might have put in or left out?
WBD: Oh yes. One tries to be sensitive to people, especially people one cares about, so there’s a certain selectivity. Well, there has to be anyway, because the book is only two hundred and whatever pages, and my life’s a lot longer than that. So some things have to be left out anyway. But there were certainly certain people, and certain situations, where I decided no, I’ll just be candid. This is how it seemed to me at the time, and it’s probably going to offend the people I’m talking about, but there we are. They can write their own book!
PCZ: There you go! It isn’t very often that a lot of us scrutinize our own life in such detail or go back and look at everything. Was there anything surprising about yourself that you discovered, while doing this?
WBD: Well, it’s a remarkable experience to do that, as you say. Whether I had particular insights about me? I certainly looked at situations with a different eye. One’s looking at one’s earlier life through one’s older life. And it’s almost like you’re meeting that person and saying, “Oh! Oh, he was like that, was he? I don’t know if I’d be like that now if that was me…” which it was! [laughs] So, yeah, I think, you’re always kind of re-looking at it, and re-examining it, and it’s certainly an experience that I would recommend to people. And I know some people who are not as well-known, who are writing memoirs just for the sake of writing memoirs, just for the sake of doing it for themselves. And I think that’s valid, too.
PCZ: So you certainly feel good having done it, now, you would say?
WBD: Oh, yes. Yes. Well, but it’s a little like those emails you write on the spur of the moment, and, “Should I have pressed send or not?” Should I have published it? But I’m certainly glad I wrote it.
PCZ: In the acknowledgments you mentioned that you spoke to a lot of people, and some people you hadn’t talked to in years, while researching the book. Was there anyone who was dubious at all about you doing this, or was everyone really supportive?
WBD: Most of the people were supportive, but there were a couple of situations, one in particular, where, I thought “This is a really funny story, and hopefully she will find it as amusing as I do and be delighted that we include it.” But I wasn’t sure, and neither was my editor. We didn’t want to cause offense. So I tracked her down. I hadn’t talked to her for, I dunno, thirty years, and said, “Hi, nice to talk to you! Look, I’m thinking of writing this… what do you think?” Well, she was not happy at all, as it turns out, so that got changed. But that was only time I actually said “what do you think about this?” because it was meant in good humor. There are some people I was critical of, and it was not meant in good humor. I thought they should be criticized and I was going to do it.
PCZ: There are a couple of acting things you talk about in here, that I found sort of interesting, and the first one was, you were talking about thinking like your character, or coming up with something that that character would be thinking while you’re in the scene. Is that something that you also teach, or is that something you kind of developed for yourself?
WBD: No, I definitely teach that. What seems to be clear, in film acting in particular, but I guess acting in general, but in film acting because the camera can be so close, you can really tell whether an actor is thinking or not. What you can’t tell is what the actor might be thinking about. I tell one story about this actor who couldn’t remember his lines, and I was sure the scene was going to be deadly. But when I actually saw it, it looked terrific! Because the actor was so focused, and so concentrated. But of course, he was concentrated on “What on earth is my next line?!” he wasn’t thinking of the character or the situation. But it looked well enough.
PCZ: Do you think that goes hand in hand with knowing the lines ahead of time, instead of repeating them right before and figuring them out right before the camera rolls?
WBD: I don’t know. This is an actor who had a long, long career, but he was actually younger than I am now, but he couldn’t seem to remember a line at all. And y’know, peoples’ memories do suffer. What I teach, and what I try to do as an actor, is I try to really understand why I’m saying what I’m saying at the moment. I try not to memorize my lines but to put myself into the imagined circumstances and think, what would I want to say? and finely adjust that and work with that until what I want to say is what the character says, and then you know your lines.
PCZ: You know what the character is about, and what they would say in the situation is obviously going to be that line.
WBD: Yeah, ’cause I remember once, years ago, talking to someone who taught film, and he said he didn’t like stage actors. “Why don’t you like stage actors?” And he said, “Well, they have dead eyes.” I realized that what he meant, in his experience I guess with stage actors, was actors who had memorized their lines. So in the scene, they’re actually looking up in their head to try and find the line that’s somewhere up in their memory bank, instead of staying in the context of the scene, and you can see that on camera on a close up of an actor.
PCZ: Oh, that’s true. I never thought of it that way, interesting. I’ve always kind of thought that stage acting, and actually soap opera acting, always seemed to me a good training ground for actors. Because you don’t have multiple takes, you don’t have a chance to do it again. You have to get it right and know what you’re doing before you get up on stage or act out a scene.
WBD: No, it’s true. In both those circumstances, especially if you’re playing a decent sized role, you get a lot of mileage. Whereas often, when you’re doing a feature film, there’s an awful lot of time waiting for lighting, waiting for set ups, and you just don’t get the practice, just the time doing it.
PCZ: We all know that Cigarette Smoking Man didn’t have a lot of lines in his first few appearances. Is it more of a challenge to play a character that doesn’t speak and is just standing there as opposed someone that has a lot of dialog?
WBD: You know, they say it is, but I’ve not found that for me. I remember that was sort of a truism when I went to theater school. Oh, listening is harder than talking. I’m not sure I’ve found that. Certainly not with Smoking Man. I guess, partly with Smoking Man, you kind of knew what he was listening for and why he was listening. Or you could easily invent reasons. Sometimes you can play a character who does a lot of listening and you don’t know why they’re really listening, and then it’s a little more difficult to stay kind of just with it. Whereas when you’re talking, obviously you’re with it and you have to be there because you’re talking.
PCZ: I was sort of intrigued and I guess hopeful in the sections about The X-files that you might be the one that would reveal that there was some sort of creative master plan for the show [laughter from Mr. Davis] for the mythology of the show. Especially for your character, but it appears that they were in fact kind of making it up from season to season. Did that ever get frustrating in trying to nail down your character and act from episode to episode?
WBD: Well it would’ve been a real challenge if I ever had to do the whole character all at once. If this was ever linked into some long stage play where you start at the beginning and you went right through to the end. But with television, and with episodic television, it’s in different pieces. So all you really have to do is play each piece. And if the piece doesn’t match what went before or what’s coming, it actually doesn’t matter, so long as your story, your backstory, your imagined circumstances for the episode you’re doing works for you and gets you in to do the scene that you’re doing. If you were doing theater, because you don’t stop in between, and it all has to link together, then you have to have a clear arc and it has to be thoroughly absorbed, but it wasn’t that difficult to go with the flow as it were. I mean, when the show first started, I thought I was the top dog, I was the big guy, and then all of a sudden I’m reporting to the Well-Manicured Man. Who’s he? Where’d he come from? [laughter] So I kept making these adjustments as we went along. It was fine. And it was fun.
PCZ: I was pleased to see that some of your views on the inconsistencies on the show reflected mine as a viewer at the time. I mean, you have this big two-parter where it’s revealed there’s an alien invasion imminent and then the next week it’s like, oh hey, we got a new case, let’s go! [laughter]
WBD: Right, Right, Exactly right!
PCZ: I wonder if you being not in every episode and kind of stuck in the day-to-day grind of it kind of gave you a unique perspective.
WBD: It may well have, yes, it may well have. David [Ducovny] said something interesting about the show too, earlier on I think. He said there was no accumulated experience. So things would happen but then as you say, the next episode there wouldn’t be any recognition of what had happened in the last episode. It hadn’t changed anything.
PCZ: Yeah, my kind of gripe was that if you discovered that your bosses might be in collusion with other people that are trying to kill you, you sort of don’t go to work the next day.
WBD: Yes, right! Yes, good point!
PCZ: You also talked about the experience of writing an episode, or sort of writing an episode, where it kind of ends up going into committee. Was that a little frustrating, knowing that you had some really solid ideas, and those kind of all went away for the most part?
WBD: Well, in one sense it was, but when I go back and looked at what I first wrote, I thought it’s probably good it went to committee, because what I originally wrote wouldn’t really have worked. But it wasn’t clearly explained to me what the process was going to be. So it was only in that sense that it was frustrating. I didn’t understand how we were doing it and really kind of what they meant when they said they would board the episode. But it was a great experience, and I loved working with Frank [Spotnitz], and loved the finding out how it would work, and just being a part of that side of the show. It was fascinating.
PCZ: You’ve also done quite a bit of directing for stage and other things, short films, and things like that. When you’re an actor, and you’re just going in to act a role, is your director brain also on, or are you able to turn it off?
WBD: That varies. On stage, it’s more difficult to turn it off. ‘Cause I think, “Why’re we doing this? We could do this this way… we could do some sort of blahblahblah.” But on the whole, I try to turn it off. In television it’s not too much of a problem, because the director’s don’t get too involved in your process usually, so generally, I think I’m able to keep it separate. Yeah.
PCZ: Having the experience both as an actor and a director, does that help you when you’re doing one or the other? Does it help you be a better actor, and help you be a better director?
WBD: It way helps me to be a better director. I really wish, in many ways, that I’d had more experience as an actor when I was an active director in my first kind of twenty years. I mean I had done some acting, and I had studied acting, but the fact of having been an actor so much now, when I direct it’s much like I’m working with my colleagues. It’s a much more empathetic understanding between me and what they’re doing and what I’m doing I think. As an actor, it can be challenging, because if the director tries to get in my process but their process is quite different from my process, then it can be frustrating. But it can also be very rewarding, so.
PCZ: It seems like a director would be more appreciative of you, as an actor, that you know what is about to happen and that you’re better prepared for it or can bring something to it.
WBD: I think quite simply I can often help director’s just by having an understanding of staging. I can just go…we can do this move here, and I can do that there, and that sorts that out, or that works. Because I have a sense of how to use the space, which comes from directing.
PCZ: And I was also quite pleased to see that you were unapologetically atheist and skeptical, in the book, and talking about specifically The X-files. There’s a lot of actors in sci-fi shows that are kind of like “well, you never know, there might be something out there.” As an atheist and skeptic myself it was very refreshing to see you take that stance. Is that something that you’ve felt all your life?
WBD: I’ve always been pretty agnostic. I even write in the book about kind of exposing my agnosticism when I was in grade eleven in a rural high school in Ontario and shocking both the teacher and all the students by implying that perhaps I wasn’t actually a Christian. What’s really interesting about that as a rural Ontario high school at the time, is there was no other possible religion you could be. You were either a Christian or you weren’t in a religion. Nobody was a muslim, or Jewish or anything. Or if there were in that school, I don’t think the teacher knew. It’s always been with me. What happened with The X-files was people assumed, because they don’t understand how an actor’s career works, they assumed that I chose to be in this series because I believed in these things. They’d come up to me and they would say, “Oh look, we’re going on a sky walk, we think we’re going to see some UFOs, why don’t you come with us.” or “here, you’ll be really interested in seeing this,” and they’d show me some evidence about Area 51 or something. And I’d say “I don’t actually believe this stuff.” They would be shocked. “Well why not?” And I would say, “Well, the onus is on you to prove that they exist, not on me to prove they don’t. I mean I can’t prove that they don’t exist any more than I can prove that fairies or leprechauns don’t exist.” But then they would say, “But we have proved that they exist!” Then I was stopped, because I didn’t know what their proof was, so I couldn’t really reply to them. That’s when I started to investigate and came across CSICOP which was then called the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal and is now just called the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. That’s what they do, they look at the proofs that people have presented for various paranormal or alternative claims, and they subject them to scientific scrutiny. I begin to see what it was they thought they had proved, and why those proofs normally did not hold up.
PCZ: Did you find that post The X-files you were offered a lot of roles on sci-fi and fantasy shows because of your association?
WBD: Yeah, yeah. No, and I still am actually. Yeah. The good news is, I’m not always necessarily offered the villain. Sometimes I get offered some quite nice characters, but yeah, they do trade to some degree on the fact that I have a certain recognition in that genre, for sure.
PCZ: So what are you doing nowadays, are you still teaching?
WBD: I’m not teaching a great deal, I’m going to direct my old school’s graduating project in the spring. There’s been a bunch of acting work right now, it’s not all sci-fi. I’m doing an action movie and I did a low budget science fiction film about parallel universes, and starting on a new series called Continuum, which I can’t tell you anything about, I’m sworn to secrecy, but it’s in the science fiction genre.
PCZ: I will definitely look that up, or find out what I can about it, but I’m definitely looking forward to seeing you again on screen. Hopefully large screens as well as small screens, and I have certainly appreciated and enjoyed your work over the years. Thank you very much for your time.
WBD: Thank you, it’s been a pleasure.