William B. Davis:
Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man
We all know that X-Files conspirator Cigarette-Smoking Man, affectionately known as "Cancer Man" by fans, has a lot of secrets. But how many people suspect that he's a champion waterskiier?
Well, at least, his alter ego is. William B. Davis - who's not even really a smoker - is Canadian National Waterskiing Champion in Men's Five Division, consisting of competitors from ages 55 to 65. He's also the founder of a Vancouver-based acting school. But he regretfully admits that he doesn't have Cancer Man's ability to "fix" the World Series; in fact, he didn't even predict the success of The X Files when he filmed the pilot four years ago.
"[I] really didn't think a series about the paranormal would be very popular - it's a good thing I don't invest in these things!" he said recently while in Los Angeles to work on a new episode - the much-anticipated movie is already mostly finished filming. "It wasn't even science fiction, it still isn't in the traditional sense. Clearly, it's captured a nerve that none of us imagined."
Most of the individuals on The X Files may be antiheroes, but don't suggest to Davis that his character is a villain. When asked how it felt to be one of the most despised men in the world, he objected indignantly, "Well, that's your opinion!" Though he reluctantly admitted that CSM (as Cigarette Smoking Man is known on the set) tried to have Mulder, Scully, and Skinner killed, Davis balked at the belief that he counts John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr. among his numerous victims. After all, the show's Lone Gunmen might have concocted that story.
Davis is not even certain whether or not CSM is really Mulder's father. "I think there will be an answer, but in true X Files tradition, I don't know whether you'll believe the answer - it might not be true, either!" he said of the mystery. "What I have worked with a lot is the concept that nobody knows - that I was having an affair with Mrs. Mulder around that time [of Mulder's conception], but, failing a DNA test, who knows?"
Davis sees similarities between Cancer Man and Fox Mulder, and believes that both characters recognize the parallels between them: "They've just totally dedicated their lives to a purpose." In CSM's case, the actor believes that the character may have started with good motives, but gotten in over his head. "You either keep going or you fall off, as, in a way, senior Mulder did, and turned into an alcoholic wreck." Fox would seem to be more closely related to the ruthless, committed CSM than to William Mulder, who was apparently destroyed by the truths his namesake seeks.
The segment which raised the question of Mulder's paternity - in the third season finale, "Talitha Cumi," which Davis cited as his favorite episode - also featured the show's one reference to Davis' waterskiing skills. "In the scene with Mrs. Mulder...we're at her beach house outside, and I say something like, 'I remember coming out here years ago, and I remember waterskiing - your husband was a good waterskiier, not as good as I was, but that could be said about so many things,'" intoned the actor before laughing in a very un-Cancer Man-like fashion.
Though he has waterskiied for most of his life, having discovered the competitive side of the sport in England in his twenties, Davis didn't begin to compete in tournaments until the mid-'70s, "when I got old enough that I didn't have to compete against the young guys." This year he was the only one in his age division who qualified for all three events necessary to earn the title.
The champion is very busy now shuttling between Vancouver, where the series is currently filmed, and Los Angeles, where most of the movie was shot. Though they are "sort of done filming the movie," the Vancouver-based actor has one more scene to shoot - "and we don't know either when or where we're going to do it," he admitted. The producers gave him a hiatus of sorts over the summer and then, come the fall, they needed him for both the series and the movie at the same time. "So things run a bit crazy," he explained.
Davis can't talk about the movie, which is rumored to have the working title Blackwood and has been shrouded in as much secrecy as a federal conspiracy on The X Files. The actor revealed that the scripts were printed on red paper so they couldn't be photocopied, and had to be surrendered after filming was completed. One thing he did admit was that even after shooting the movie, he doesn't know what Cigarette-Smoking Man's real name is.
"I haven't attached a name - I haven't felt a need to," the actor said, noting that when he takes on the backstory of a character, "I kind of think of it as me." Though Davis doesn't think of CSM by his own name "because that would confuse me," he worries that, if a name comes along, "that would feel kind of alienating." CSM is likely to stay CSM for awhile, it would seem...unless he stops smoking.
Ironically, Davis himself quit smoking years ago. He puffs on herbal cigarettes, which are not addictive but "taste dreadful," take after take. "We were doing one scene the other day, I think it was just one scene, where we were in the fourth pack," he groaned, then laughed, "I remember reading somewhere somebody saying, 'How come CSM's cigarette is always fresh?' And it's not! We make sure of that!"
Davis admitted to reading Internet fan commentary from time to time, and joked that he thinks one of the reasons The X Files is so popular outside the U.S. is because British and Australian audiences "love to look and say, 'Hah! We always knew American politics was like that!'" He said he finds the conspiracy storyline, "what we call the mythology plot," somewhat more compelling than what he deems a "monster of the week" episode, but admitted that he's prejudiced, in that the shadowy conspiracy has more to do with his character and gets him more air time.
CSM was originally a much smaller part - a non-speaking role in the pilot, then "a shadowy figure in the background" for quite some time. Not until the episode "One Breath," when "they finally gave me a really meaty scene to play," did it become clear that the character was going "to emerge from the shadows." Davis is grateful for what he calls the "many unlikely events" which had to occur for the part to have grown to its present importance. The series had to fly, the character had to reappear, and the producers had to decide that they wanted to use Davis again in the role. Fortunately, the series was successful and the production remained in Vancouver, so Davis has had steady employment as an inadvertent advertisement for tobacco ever since.
Since the series has no 'Bible,' Davis is not sure how CSM will develop in the future: "Chris [Carter] hasn't sat down and told me where [the conspiracy]'s going, because I don't think he knows." While Davis feels that the lack of long-term outlining has been a strength, permitting the writers to have a lot of flexibility, he's been a little confused this season filming episodes which actually take place before the events of the movie.
"Now that we've done a couple of episodes, it's like, 'Oh! I see! Now let's go back and do that movie scene again,'" he joked. But he said that he's not sure he'd want to know if he were going to be responsible for the demise of another character, or even if his own time is coming: "Certainly it's fun doing it this way."
Davis grew up around actors. His cousins ran a summer stock company which rehearsed in his family's basement, so he was exposed to theater from a very young age. He performed young male roles with the company, did radio work, and took drama classes in his childhood...in addition to putting on plays with his younger relatives. "I would be 'The Director' - I was quite important at age twelve, with my sleeves rolled up," he recalled.
When he entered college, there were no theater departments in major Canadian universities. In some ways, Davis noted, that was a blessing, because many young people interested in theater went to the University of Toronto, where there was a professional director working with students on an extracurricular level. He was surrounded by an active theater community which at one time included Donald Sutherland and a number of other successful entertainers. Because they couldn't major in theater, the students could study whatever they wished academically, so Davis received a degree in philosophy "which I value a lot in terms of my life, whether it helps me as an actor or not."
After graduating, he went to theater school in England, though as an undergraduate he had been uncertain about his career prospects. "I remember there was a time when I thought, I haven't really decided what I'm going to do with my life, I had better make a decision," he chuckled. "And I went around and interviewed people in various different professions to learn about what it might be like to be a psychologist or a sociologist or whatever - well, I still haven't made up my mind! I've kind of done what came next." Though he has played a variety of professions onscreen, Davis has established a name for himself as a teacher - the William Davis Acting School in Vancouver bears his moniker (Actors' Equity insisted that he use the "B" to avoid confusion with another William Davis).
The simplest definition of acting, according to Davis, "is that you put yourself in the imaginary circumstances and move truthfully." In film acting, however, there are a lot of peripheral concerns which have to be taken into account. On The X Files, Davis must remember things like, "I have to remember to puff on this line, because I did in the master! Or, I have to hold the cigarette slightly to the right, so I don't get in my own light." Because television consists of repeated takes with breaks in between - as opposed to theater, where "you kind of have a longer arc, you can step in and you may stay in the role for half an hour at a stretch," the challenge is to make the pieces work together.
Davis has done a considerable amount of work in science fiction - Stephen King films, Sliders, Outer Limits - and says that the genre interests him "particularly as long as one keeps the sense of fiction involved." While he does not believe that the U.S. government is involved in cross-breeding alien genetic experiments or any of the other extraterrestrial infractions of The X Files, he finds that the possibility makes for compelling drama. "The way I think of science fiction, I suppose, is that you take what we know now and you project it forward, and think, well, what's possible? [But] The X Files exists in the present and presumes that some things that some people think are possible are in fact so. And then what?"
The actor said he would really like to know what makes CSM tick - "what drives him to do these things, how does he see himself." He feels certain that CSM does not see himself as a villain - perhaps he even fancies himself a patriot - and doesn't think he could play the character as inherently evil even if that was what CSM was supposed to represent. "I don't think anyone sees himself as evil incarnate - I don't think Hitler would have seen himself as evil incarnate," he pointed out. "So the actor's job is to see it the way that the person would see it...it could be a classic case of, 'Everybody's out of step with my Johnny.'"
While he had no specific political or dramatic role model for the part, Davis said that he drew ideas about CSM from Don John in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, which he had played onstage. "He was the bad guy, and I remember when I did it, trying to connect to it, I thought, well, I'll work out a case whereby I was the hero. Don John really was the hero, and everybody else was the bad guy!" While he now senses that CSM's motives are not as altrustic as he once believed they might be, Davis hesitates to say that Cancer Man is working for selfish ends: "It's hard in some ways to think of him as selfish, because he has no life to protect, it's not like the Well-Manicured Man who has his whole estate."
"Talitha Cumi" appealed to the philosopher in Davis because he "had to read Dostoyevsky several times to understand the philosophical case," challenging him to understand the belief system driving CSM's actions. "It has to do with the fact that people really can't be trusted to run their own affairs - people really want to be happy, but they need help with that, they need some group of people to take the pain of responsibility on their shoulders, which will free the people to have a comfortable life." Davis believes that CSM has been willing to make that sacrifice, though he might not have believed that there was an alternative...and he might never have had a chance to figure out a way out of the system.
Of course, Cancer Man has had to struggle with the system's vicissitudes himself. "One of the things I say about CSM is that he can't get good help!" Davis laughed. "I mean, I hire this hotshot marksman from South America, and he has Skinner at point-blank range and can't put him away. The level of marksmanship on this show is pretty poor!"
So, about who's going to be the World Series champion...? "The Expos," predicts the flustered Canadian. "That's how good I am at 'fixing' the World Series!