Best known for playing a chain-smoking villain on the ‘90s TV phenomenon The X-Files, actor and director William B. Davis (BA 1959 UC) recounts his life story—and in so doing, the history of Canadian theatre—in his memoir Where There’s Smoke: Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man (ECW Press, 2011). From performing in CBC radio dramas as a child, to stage directing in England and across Canada, Davis’s take on his remarkable career is candid and measured—all mirrors, no smoke (sorry, conspiracy theorists). He discussed the book with UC Magazine editor Yvonne Palkowski from his home in Vancouver.
When you were a child, a theatre company used to rehearse in your parent’s basement. Is it fair to say you fell into show business?
Pretty much. The actors rehearsed in our basement, they hung around our living room, they used our telephone, in our city home and at the cottage. I just grew up with it.
And stuck with it, clearly.
Yes. There was a time in university when I thought I should make a serious, intelligent decision about my future. I interviewed people in various professions so I could make a rational decision about what I was going to do with my life, and as I often say, I haven’t yet made that decision.
As an undergraduate your subjects were philosophy and psychology, not drama. Why did you decide to come to the University of Toronto?
I went to the University of Toronto because of the extracurricular program in theatre at Hart House Theatre through professional director Robert Gill. There were no theatre programs anywhere in Canada at the time, nothing that would qualify as a theatre school. Many of us who wanted to be actors or work professionally in the theatre, we went to U of T because that’s where it was happening.
People know you as the actor who played the mysterious Cigarette Smoking Man on The X-Files. Lesser known are your directorial credentials. Do you prefer to be behind the scenes or in the limelight?
In some ways, I think of myself as a theatre director because that’s where my roots are, that’s what I did in my most formative years. And I still love to do it when I have an opportunity. I started acting as a child so that’s pretty innate as well. I spent a lot of time teaching acting, studying acting, trying to understand what acting is. The only real answer I have to the question is it depends on the opportunity. To direct a wonderful play with wonderful actors is an amazing experience. To act in a lousy movie with terrible lines and not very good directors is not such a great experience. But you can reverse that as well.
They’re both extraordinary experiences but quite different. When you’re directing a play, you’re ‘on’ the whole time. When you act in a movie or in TV, even if you’re playing a major role, you spent a lot of time waiting. There’s a saying among actors that they pay us for the waiting. The acting is the fun part. It’s a very different rhythm of work. I like them both so I’m glad I don’t have to choose.
What is your advice to young actors and directors?
To both I would say the most important thing is to do it, take every opportunity you can to actually do it. See a lot of theatre and film, get good training. It’s serious work so learn how to do it. What so often happens now is people think that if they do an audition class, then they can audition for a movie, then they can become a star, and it’s as simple as that. Very few people become stars and celebrities, and if that’s your goal, I think maybe you should just buy a lottery ticket. But if you want to work as an artist, that’s what you should be doing. If that leads you to stardom, so much the better, but hopefully you will find a productive life doing the work you want to do.
The X-Files is all about paranormal activity and conspiracy. But you are an outspoken skeptic. How did you reconcile your work on the show and your beliefs?
The show is fiction and, hopefully, it’s understood to be so. It’s a complicated issue, because Richard Dawkins, who was my hero in science, started quite actively speaking against The X-Files, accusing it of promoting pseudoscience and paranormal thinking, denying critical thought and so on. This was a little bit of a matter of conscience for me because my career was just beginning to take off on this series that my hero was condemning. So what should I do as a matter of conscience? Perhaps I should withdraw from the series. Some people said if you do that, someone else is going to do it anyway. But that’s not really a good excuse for betraying your beliefs, so I couldn’t get out if it that way.
Then I realized that Dawkins had no evidence for what he was saying. He said the show promotes pseudoscience since, on each episode, a rational solution is proposed and a pseudoscientific solution is proposed, and the latter always wins. But you can turn that one on its head with The X-Files because every time a solution was proposed, a man said it was this, and a woman said it was that. And every time the man, Mulder, is right, and the woman, Scully, is wrong. So you could accuse the show of being sexist just as easily as you can accuse it of being pseudoscientific. And nobody ever complained about the show being sexist. In fact, Scully became a heroine to many women.
It’s interesting, I’ve become involved with various organizations for sceptics, and they’re full of X-Files fans.
So what do you make of the story that UC is haunted by the ghost of Ivan Reznikoff, a stone mason who was allegedly murdered during the construction of the building?
Ghost stories may make nice fiction, but there’s absolutely no possibility in my worldview that such a ghost could exist. Among my undergraduate companions at the time, I don’t remember any of us ever discussing ghosts or believing in ghosts, or thinking there could be ghosts in the College. That’s weird; this is a University. Do people seriously believe there’s a ghost in the University?
You would be surprised.
Then perhaps they should go to University and learn something! There is no scientific possibility for the existence of spirits independent of the body.
What is your next project?
A science fiction movie about parallel universes. After that, I’m doing a role in a television pilot that has to do with time-shifting.
Do these themes fall into the realm of physics or science fiction as far as you’re concerned?
The topics are interesting for me because I played Niels Bohr in Copenhagen, so I’m somewhat familiar with quantum theory. It’s always fascinating to stretch one’s mind to try and imagine it, so I’m looking forward to getting back into those questions of theoretical physics. What they’re doing in the film is extrapolating the microscopic into the macroscopic. I don’t know if real science will allow that, but it’s a good fiction story.