Cigarettes, aliens and Mulder: Q&A with William B. Davis, who’s coming to Fan Expo this weekend
Though an active and respected player in the Canadian acting scene for over 50 years, William B. Davis is best known for his role as the “Cigarette Smoking Man” on The X-Files, the mysterious, chain-smoking arch-nemesis of Fox Mulder (played by David Duchovny). Die-hard local X-Philes will get a chance to get up-close-and-personal with Davis at this weekend’s Fan Expo.
We chatted with Davis about cigarettes, aliens and whether or not the truth is out there. Cue the spooky music.
How did you get involved with The X-Files?
I was working in Vancouver, I was running my own acting school at the time, and I got to audition for the pilot. I auditioned for the Senior FBI Agent who had three lines, but I didn’t get the part; instead, I got the part of Cigarette Smoking Man that had no lines. And that was the beginning.
So which is it: Smoking Man? Cigarette Smoking Man? Cancer Man?
Cigarette Smoking Man — that’s the official name in the script. Cancer Man was the nickname that Mulder gave him and the fans picked up on that and used it. Smoking Man has become sort of short-hand.
Upon reading the pilot, did you have any idea that the series would become such a cult classic?
It’s a good idea that I don’t invest money in these things. I thought: a show about aliens? About the paranormal? I didn’t think it would have been picked up for a season, let alone become the hit show it was.
In the first season of The X-Files, Cigarette Smoking Man barely has any lines. Did you think your character would play such a significant role in the series?
No, I had no idea it would. Gradually the role began to carry some weight. We soon began to see this is a mysterious role; this is a mysterious person with something to hide. There was always something there, that he could be a big clue.
(Spoiler alert:) Did you ever suspect that you would be Mulder’s father?
Not initially. The first kind of hint of it was that we started doing scenes with [Mulder’s] mother. There seemed to be an unspoken relationship or history between these two characters. The first real hint of it was the scene when I was at her house by the lake and I talk about water skiing with her late husband, and I said that he wasn’t as good at as I was and then I say, “But that could be said about many things, couldn’t it?” Then we share this look.
Were you smoking real cigarettes?
No. At the beginning, because I had been a smoker and I was fairly confident I wasn’t going to be addicted, I said, “Sure, I’ll smoke,” for the pilot, and then I did for the next episode. After that, I thought, “This is getting a little dangerous,” and I was going into more and more episodes, so I switched to herbal cigarettes. They don’t taste very good, but they were effective.
Did you see your character as being “evil” or just someone who wanted to protect the truth?
I never thought he was evil; I never approached him as evil. I always believed that I was doing what needed to be done, whether it was good or bad. That was always the driving force.
But you yourself are more of a Scully than a Mulder. Can you tell us a little bit about that.
It’s been a curious experience. I’ve never believed in paranormal experience, ghosts or aliens, but people would often come up to me and assume that I had chosen to be [on The X-Files] because I believed in aliens and was very interested in the subject. They would be surprised when I said I didn’t believe in them. I said the onus is on you to prove they exist, and people would say we have proved these things, and at that point, I didn’t know what those proofs were. I got involved with the CSI (Committee for Skeptical Inquiry) and with them, and through them, I got to study scientific tests, which clarify what the believer says and what the evidence seems to show. I got quite involved with skeptic groups. In fact, I will be doing a skeptic talk at Fan Expo.
You’ve been to a few Fan Expos. What’s your general impression of X-Philes?
I’ve met X-File fans from different countries and they’re all very nice, and they’re different. Some are shy, some are outspoken. But they’ve all been extremely pleasant and I am always happy to meet them.
Why do you think The X-Files has held such an enduring appeal to TV audiences?
It’s done a couple of things: it was unique to its time. In the ’90s, there was a sense of what’s real and not real. We were moving out of books and into computers — it was a whole new way of receiving information. It was unique to have the series that imagines what’s true and not true. It had an effect on the TV series that followed. Fringe is the most obvious copy of it. It’s a subject matter that’s common, but TV hasn’t explored that curious boundary between real and unreal quite like The X-Files did.
Do you ever get tired of being known as the Smoking Man? Do you wish people knew your other work?
It’s interesting. That’s why I wrote my memoir [Where there’s Smoke .... The Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man]. I’m quite well known as an acting teacher and director in Canada, so in some ways, it has dwarfed what I did before, and it’s also brought visibility to what I did before. I like to remind people what I did before [Cigarette Smoking Man] and what I still do.