The X-Files Lexicon’s Exclusive Interview with William B. Davis, actor and author of Where There’s Smoke: Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man
Conducted by Matt Allair (05/22/2012).
Page Editor: XScribe
Within the entire history of The X-Files Lexicon, I don’t recall a publicist actively seeking us out to request an interview, yet Rachel Sentes, the publicist for Mr. Davis, approached us as far back as late January. This also offered a unique opportunity. Thus far few, if any, of the major talent from The X-Files, either in front of the camera or behind it, have written autobiographies. This issue has always offered up a set of challenges for people seeking to learn more about the series, or the nitty-gritty of how the television business works. Chris Carter, in the past, had consciously wanted to cultivate mystique about The X-Files and the other shows produced under the Ten Thirteen Productions banner.
The business of such interviews has been similar to untying a Gordian Knot, seeking answers that will fill in the puzzles of the greater whole, with the hope that when these puzzles have been put together and viewed from a distance, they will offer some insight and meaning about the series. But having a major talent from The X-Files write such an autobiography offers a new set of challenges; the basic questions get resolved to the point of view of that talent, but then you have to dig deeper and fill in the blanks of what wasn’t answered. Thus, it becomes a balancing act, serving the needs of promoting that autobiography, and satisfying your own intellectual curiosity.
To Philes, William B. Davis needs no introduction as he was known, in character, as the infamous, and nefarious C.G.B. Spender, also known as The Cigarette-Smoking Man. What many fans might not realize is the illustrious career that Mr. Davis had enjoyed prior to his stint on The X-Files. A career that began as a Canadian child radio and television actor, then transitioning into a thespian of stage, and a Theatre Director for Canadian and British Rep, a man who has managed to cross paths with Donald Sutherland, Sir Lawrence Olivier, and Maggie Smith.
While some of his recent observations have triggered some consternation amongst fans, I nevertheless found Mr. Davis to be good-natured, charming, candid, and fascinating, with a degree of self-reflection, confidence, and contradiction that was interesting to observe. The interview proceeded as follows...
Matt Allair: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today, it’s really an honor to speak with you.
William B. Davis: Yes, no problem.
Matt Allair: What prompted you to write this book? Were you getting a lot of outside demand for such a book?
William B. Davis: I wouldn’t say a huge demand for the book, but some very interesting demand for the book. From very different sources. The first one that came up was a professor of theatre in Vancouver, who knew of my history of course with The X-Files, but he also knew of my unique background in Canadian Theatre, actually predating even television. There was obviously a story to be told, so that started me thinking, then I began to read memoirs of friends of mine and other colleagues, famous and otherwise. I became more and more intrigued at the idea of trying to tell this story, which is bizarre. I mean it’s been a very strange life that I’ve had, as one wanders through many different, fascinating areas, it becomes a social history, as well as a personal story. Of course, it leads eventually to that extraordinary event called The X-Files.
Matt: Were there any key individuals who helped you with getting the book finished?
William: Yes, there were certainly people I worked with, of course the editor provided by the publisher, and she did a lovely job, Jen Hale. There is a Canadian friend and author, David Helwig who read the manuscript twice, and gave me very good advice, and one or two other people who read parts of the manuscript and gave me suggestions. So I had quite a bit of help in that way, but it’s definitely written by me, it’s my voice, it’s not a ghost writer, it’s not an alternative writer. People who know me well say they can hear me speak in their reading of the book.
Matt: Since the book has been finished, have there been any other stories you recalled that you wished you could have included?
William: (laughs) Hundreds. Yes, well when you condense your life to two-hundred and eighty pages, when you lived as long as I have, there are so many things that didn’t make it in this version. Who knows what I might do in the future? It was hard to decide what to put in, and I just kind of followed my nose. There’[re] some very strange things that are in there, including my divorce in 1961, which was an event in itself. There’[re] certainly other stories, other people, other things worth to write about.
Matt: I understand that Donald Sutherland has been a long-standing friend. Watching him from afar, did you learn anything watching him transition from being a stage to a film actor? When you started to act on film, did Donald Sutherland offer you any advice?
William: No he didn’t, actually, I wasn’t in contact with Donald during that period where I was beginning to act on film. But the truth is, there’s not a huge difference between acting for theatre and acting for film. Some subtleties of course, but his transition from a raw actor, from a raw person, from the Maritimes in Canada who’d only seen one play, I think, [to] the time he arrived at the University of Toronto. Who was awkward and gangly as well, as was I, as we were both tall and quite young. His development, the discipline he learned through working, he went to university and he wasn’t pleased with his years at school, but in the process, he worked with other people and developed a discipline and method that was very, very effective. I had the pleasure of working him with him later, after we both finished theatre school, and it was a lovely experience for the both of us. We fed off of each other very well.
Matt: If the opportunity had ever presented itself, would you have liked Donald Sutherland to have appeared on The X-Files? Do you recall if there was ever any near opportunities?
William: (laughs) What a lovely idea, I don’t remember it ever being discussed, and now that you mentioned it, I wish I’d leaned on the producers because his very presence is just so unique, I’m sure he could have done something quite extraordinary on the show.
Matt: You mentioned in the book about a school debate you were involved with in 1957 that you later used as a learning experience for C.G.B. Spender. Would you share that experience?
William: This was at the time that Europe had just passed its racial integration laws, the civil rights bill that required schools to admit students of any race. At the time many of the schools in the south were segregated. Orval Faubus, who was the governor of Arkansas, literally stood up on the steps of a high school in Little Rock to prevent any black students from entering the school. For some perverse reason, the headmasters at the University of Toronto wanted to have a debate called ‘Resolved that Faubus was Right’. Our debates set up in a kind of government opposition system, and so they asked all sorts of people if they would debate this issue, and nobody agreed. Nobody would agree that Faubus was right, we all thought he was a crack-pot. Finally they got to me and said, ‘would I do it?’ and I thought ‘all right, why not.’ (laughs). The other side is so obvious, why not take the side that is so totally opposite? So we entered the debate room, and the room was just filled with people supporting the opposition side, and of course, no one supporting our side, and I had to find an argument to defend this very strange behavior, and basically what I did was, since the debate was resolved if he was right, I took his point of view. He was right from his viewpoint, so define his view point. Of course we don’t accept his view point, but given that that’s his view point, then what he did was right. Back to The X-Files, what the Smoking Man does is that he has an understanding of the world that he’s facing, and he does what he thinks is right in that world, but of course that’s not what Mulder thinks, and that’s the essence of the show.
Matt: When you applied in ’64 for the Assistant Director position at the National Theatre of Great Britain, your third interview was with Sir Lawrence Olivier. Was the experience intimidating? Do you recall if you ever crossed paths with him again?
William: Oh yes, we definitely crossed paths later, but it was extremely [intimidating]. I already had two interviews for the job, so that was the big interview with Sir Lawrence. I remember sitting in the waiting room, arriving a little bit earlier than usual, and waiting, and waiting, and waiting, and finally – I don’t know how much time had gone by – it looked as if someone had come out of the interview and kind of staggered out of his interview early, and I thought ‘Oh my God, this is going to be a Mad Men, intense, extreme test.’ So when I was let in, there was Sir Lawrence, and there were three other people that I don’t remember who they were. I guess he said ‘Hello, how are you,’ some kind of greeting, and then we sat down and then he didn’t say anything. He just looked at me with these penetrating eyes. If you remember some of his film performances, those eyes just eat inside you, and I thought ‘Oh my, I guess I should talk about something,’ and so I just started to chatter away about I don’t know what, and after literally just a few minutes, he said ‘Thank you very much,’ and I left with my tail between my legs, sure that I had completely failed with this strange experience, but in the end they offered me the job. I guess the meeting was more of formality and he was making sure I was kind of okay, because everybody else had said, ‘Yes you should hire him.’ But yes, we met later and he was a charming man, very civilized, very cultured, and not nearly so intimidating.
Matt: You have spoken about your experiences working with Michael Elliott and John Dexter; what did you learn from them?
William: (laughs) Different things from each; they were completely different directors. John was very abrasive, energetic, kind of a bull-dog sort of a guy, and just kind of came in and said, ‘Okay do this, do that.’ There was a play called Black Comedy, which of course has done the rounds. Many of your fans may have come across it somewhere. He had proposed a whole kind of farcical pattern on it, and it didn’t fit with the second half of the play, which was kind of interesting, because they tried to make the second half of the play like the first half. We young pups said, ‘Well actually you’ve done the first half wrong,’ but John didn’t ask us. Michael on the other hand was an inspiration. We were doing Miss Julie with Maggie Smith and Albert Finney. Anyone knows, of course, Maggie Smith and how clever she is, and how imaginative she is, and all of her little tricks and mannerisms, and he took them all away. He took them piece by piece until she had to face the very truth of the character, which was very frightening for her. It was an extraordinary experience to be a part of that process.
Matt: You have been involved with some incredible talent in Britain: Albert Finney, Maggie Smith, Derek Jacobi, Joan Plowright. Did you have any further individual experiences with them? What did you learn from them?
William: Joan Plowright, I worked with actually quite recently, well not recently as I’ve done a lot of stuff. Long after, even after X-Files, we did a film that’s never been released called Goose, and it was quite remarkable working with her. She was a pleasure. I remember seeing her as a young actress, and she was just dynamic and dynamite, but I didn’t know her then. Derek Jacobi was the lead in Black Comedy, shining then, as he continues to be. While living in England, I had not very much time with that particular group of actors.
Matt: Regarding your method, you don’t seem to be tied to a particular approach to acting, but have developed your own school of thought about the process; do you think a lot of actors make the mistake of getting too locked into one approach?
William: I think so, yes. First off, I’m suspicious of any method that has a person’s name attached to it, whether it’s the Alexander technique, or the Meisner technique or whatever, because to codify that, people are very different. I think my method is the best method that could be. Of course others don’t work the way I work, and really can’t work the way I work, because the whole way that they approach life, on a personal tract, is very different to mine. One needs a degree of sensibility and openness as a teacher, and as a director to allow actors to develop a method that works best for them. That said, there are certain basic things that an actor needs to do, and some of them do it quite automatically, and when thinking about it, some have to actually apply a methodological approach. I probably do have an ideal system to apply, but I’ve never really tried to codify it. My next book will attempt to do that to some degree, at least to some aspects of what I think are most important about acting.
Matt: What’s interesting about your book is that you illustrate this intersection between your personal life, and your career, and how they seem to influence one another. Do you think – more than in the case with a writer or director – that an actor’s personal life or experience is the needed fuel for their professional work?
William: I wouldn’t say in terms of a writer, I wouldn’t like to say more or less, but I would say this about other artists is that you bring yourself to the work, and you have to allow yourself to be accessible to the work. Now this doesn’t mean that you need to allow your personal–your idiosyncricities, or your personal mannerisms, or even your personal fetishes [to come through]--but something very central of who you are has to be available to the work. What was disturbing to me really about The X-Files, what surprised me as much as anyone else, because I certainly didn’t think I was that kind of person (chuckles), [was] where was this coming from? This ruthlessness coming from? Where was this arrogance, this willingness to do what ever, at what ever cost, to serve the purposes that I tried to serve, where did that come from? But somehow that came from me or it wouldn’t have been believable.
Matt: Are there limits to how much an actor should tap into their personal experiences when performing? Should an actor have some barriers?
William: Well, this is an interesting thing we’re discussing here, because if you look at the Meisner technique, he pushes personal all the time, so that you need to prepare by examining equivalent situations in your personal life, and you need to draw on those kind of emotions to do that. An actor like Lawrence Olivier would say ‘Balderdash, why don’t you act, why don’t you pretend,’ you don’t need to do that. So, yes, an actor can sometimes become self-indulgent, in that they bring their own personal issues, and impose them on the character, on the situation, not as in allowing that character and the situation to take the actor forward. It’s the character that draws the person out, not the other way around. So, if the person is making the character like them then they’re not doing the work they should be doing. What they need to do is allow the character to let them emerge into the character, if that makes sense.
Matt: I understand that you were a background extra on The Dead Zone; did you manage to have any impression of director David Cronenberg during that period?
William: I was more than a background extra, I had a part, I had a line, it’s just that the line never appeared in the film (laughs). But, that was my first; I was drifting back into acting from my teaching and directing career. I had a lovely impression of Cronenberg. Of course we met at the audition. He was charming. We met briefly on the set. Yes, I found him very approachable. It was hard for me to believe that he indulged in such horror, and have such blood and guts, because he’s such a nice person.
Matt: When you first played Cigarette-Smoking Man, and once you realized that you were coming back, did you develop your own internal back-story for the character? Did the back story that the writers brought to you, match what you imagined? Is there a lesson there for other actors about adapting their internal back-story to fit the needs of the writers?
William: I think what I learned eventually is that what you need as an actor [is] you need a back-story that gets you to do what you have to do, in the work that you have in front of you. The back-story doesn’t have to actually match the back story of the writers, or the back-story of the other actors, it just has to match what you need. So fortunately I didn’t feel I had to know all of the answers about the character, or where the character was going, because they kept changing, at least to me it seemed. As the character evolved, as the stories evolved, so did what seemed like the show. For example, I always thought I was the top dog in the early days, then all of the sudden we had this Syndicate, and we had the Well-Manicured man that I had to report to, who was scolding me for being late, and I thought, ‘Where does this come from?’ (laughs) ‘So, now for this episode I have a different back story than I had for the episode last season,’ but it all works, and somehow the viewer puts it all together, and it’s fine.
Matt: In retrospect, looking at the character of CSM / C.G.B. Spender, do you think he ever held any private doubts about his cause? Do you think he held regrets he would never publically admit to?
William: I think yes. I’m not sure [the producers] were very often interested in exploring it a bit more, but [I think] it seeped into his consciousness, I used to think the smoking had something to do with almost hollowing out his insides, that he couldn’t let himself feel these other emotions that a person would normally have. I sometimes compare him to Marshal Petain and the Vichy government in France. He made a deal with the aliens, and it seemed like it was the best deal he could get at the time, but then the aliens, just like the Nazis, kept turning the screws, and demanding more, until he had to just close off, and just do what had to be done, and suppress any feeling that counters any ability to do that.
Matt: Aside from writing the episode, were you happy with Rob Bowman’s work on “En Ami.” If you could have directed it, would there have been anything you would have liked to change in retrospect?
William: No, not in terms of directing. There are some things in the writing that we both wanted changed a bit, but Chris had kind of put his hand on it, and we didn’t manage to convince him. But I thought Rob did a great job, I’ve always liked his work. I was thrilled when they got him to do that episode.
Matt: You have an extensive background as a theatre director; would you like to try your hand at directing for television or film?
William: Well, I actually have done it, and I enjoy it a lot. The world turns in its own ways, and lately I seem to be doing more theatre, but for a period I was doing some film. I’ve done three short films, and then we did a television series for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. It was a pilot, but there were seven episodes of the pilot, of which I directed four, so yes, I have done some and would love to do more, but I can’t do everything all at once.
Matt: Are there any current projects underway in that direction?
William: Not in terms of directing film, that’s kind of slipped to the side. [There are] some things I’ve been acting in that are coming out, and I’ve been directing some theatre. I want to start reexamining what I might do in terms of film, because I’d like to do more.
Matt: As an actor, are there any common mistakes that less experienced or younger directors, or writers, make in relationship to the job of the actor?
William: Yes, I’m sure there are. The common mistake, or lack of skill, that we find with writers I think, especially in series television, is that they need to forward the story, and so they very often will give you words to say that a character would not really say in that situation, but it forwards the plot. So, actors are constantly having to deal with dialogue that doesn’t really come alive. [With] really brilliant playwrights, the words just pop out of your mouth because they are what has to be said by this character. But if you’re constructing a plot for the sake of the viewer, sometimes it gets deadened, and that’s a problem for both the actor and the writer. If the plot is strong enough the viewer doesn’t care too much because they’re taken up by the story. [With a director] sometimes what you get is they’re just seeing the result. To give you an example, having just bragged about Rob Bowman, a little bit of a criticism of Rob Bowman, because I remember that when we did the feature which he directed, because of their experience in television, they’re so conscious of what they are seeing in the shot, right at [the] moment, that they’re not necessarily looking at the whole ensemble, the whole interaction of all the players, as a theatre director would naturally be doing. At one point we had this scene where it was a big scene with the Syndicate, and John Neville is standing on one side of the room and the rest of us are on the other [side], and they spent two days shooting over John’s shoulder, getting all of our reactions, and all the things we did on our side, and they didn’t pay any attention to what John was doing. Then they turned around to shoot John. They didn’t like what John was doing. It was fair enough that they didn’t like what he was doing, but he had been doing it for two days and nobody had said anything. So, by this time, he’s pretty locked in with what he’s doing and it’s very difficult to change. A theatre director might have, because you have the time, might have rehearsed the scene as a whole, not worrying about the cameras at all until we had an ensemble happening, everybody knows what they’re doing, and then start shooting.
Matt: Of all of the actors that you worked with during the run of The X-Files, was there a particular actor that greatly impressed you?
William: Well, I loved working with John Neville, I loved working with Peter Donat, of the kind of old guard. They were both heroes of mine, because I admired them when I was young, and just the opportunity to work with them was really rewarding. Younger actors–I loved working with Chris Owens, I loved working with the Lone Gunman people, oh yes, and Jerry Hardin, Deep Throat. I remember he impressed me early on, and of course, Gillian’s arc. She just became better and better. She became a marvelous actress by the end of the series.
Matt: That’s interesting because I know you made some comments about Gillian Anderson. Have you had a chance to subsequently follow any of her work in Theatre?
William: I have not and I would like to, because I’ve heard excellent reports about the results, I’ve also heard some concerns about the process from my friends, who are friends of people who are involved with her, she’s still (considered) something of a prima donna I gathered, she does some very good work.*
Matt: What would you say would be Gillian’s greatest strength?
William: I would say she has an iron in the fire, a real focus, ‘okay, I’m here–boom, you can’t really explain it, you can’t really describe it. It’s just a connection.
Matt: Are there any contemporary actors right now that really excite you?
William: That’s a good question, I don’t think I have a quick answer for that.
Matt: Shifting gears a little bit and playing devil’s advocate, I understand that you’re a member of CSICOP and Richard Dawkins has had an influence on you. If you experienced anything in your personal life that you couldn’t rationally explain, would it alter your belief system?
William: Well, there’[re] a lot of things that I find that I can’t rationally explain, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not rationally explicable, it just means I can’t explain them at the moment. If you say to me, if I saw a ghost, let’s say, or something that I thought might be a ghost, or heard ghosts, or whatever, one would have to believe that that were possible. It’s not just that one has to open up and be a little less skeptical, I [would] have to deny everything that I believe about science, and everything I believe about life, because you’re then saying that there is life after death, so then you’re saying there’s a difference between spirit and matter, and there’s nothing in science to indicate these things. So, it’s not just a little shift (laughs), it’s a huge...monumental, earth-shattering shift in one’s belief system that would be required. So I would need a lot more than just, ‘I think I saw a ghost the other night,’ a lot more support to that possibility, but it’s not impossible, but it would be a huge shift.
Matt: Chris Carter seems closer to getting some new original projects in development that are independent of The X-Files. Would you want to work with him again?
William: Oh, I would be delighted. He was great to work with, and especially the early years. He was so committed, and a lot of the success stems from his enthusiasm. So, without hesitation.
Matt: Do have a single answer as to why The X-Files, and other shows produced by Chris Carter, seem to resonate with people to this day?
William: Well, I think The X-Files was unique. What Chris brought to it, rather consciously, was the storytelling, which was excellent. He loved to tell a scary story and he was good at it. What I think happened, not consciously, was that it was a show at a particular time, it was a show about what’s real, and what’s not real, at a time when people were beginning to wonder what is real, and what’s not real. People were beginning to wonder that largely because of the move from print to digital, from print to pixels, but we were beginning to conceive the world through a very different lens, and a lot of it was not reliable either. We would put up our computer screens and say, ‘Oh this is more real,’ then it would disappear, the pixels would come and go. People were doing a lot of drugs, which also has the same effect as ‘what’s real, and what’s not real,’ so it hit a particular nerve at that time. You combine his storytelling skills, with a particular, almost accidental connection of theme and surrealism, and you have this monster hit.
Matt: Thank you again for taking the time to speak with us.
William: Thank you very much.
Mr. Davis continues to transition into new directions. It was indeed a pleasure to meet with him, and we wish him the very best with his efforts. Once again, we must thank the tireless efforts of Rachel Sentes to make this interview happen. Since February, there had been several delays and missteps, including scheduling confusion over an interview date. Through it all, Mr. Davis and Rachel Sentes were gracious and patient, when others might have been less gracious on the matter. Please check out Mr. Davis’ Independent Book Publisher Award winning autobiography, Where There’s Smoke: Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man, published by ECW Press.
We’d like to remind people to check out our book review on the Lexicon Blog.
*There was an internal debate within the Lexicon staff about including the full comments, due to the consternation of fans about Mr. Davis’ recent comments about Gillian Anderson, but to maintain the integrity of the Lexicon, we felt it was best to feature the commented unedited.
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