Thursday, April 26, 2012

Interview: William B. Davis: Through the Smoke

I need to get this out of the way. To me first and foremost, William B. Davis will always be the Cigarette-Smoking Man from The X-Files. So, you can bet your sweet bippy I was thrilled to get the chance to interview him for my column. He's promoting his new autobiography, Where There's Smoke ... the Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man, and I am so glad I got the chance to read this book and to read about the man behind the smoke. And, of course, college-age Cindy is ecstatic to have had to chance to talk to the man who shaped a generation of TV viewers, who created a persona so powerful and ingrained that even people who haven't even seen The X-Files (who ARE these people??) know who Cancer Man, aka The Cigarette Smoking Man, is. We spoke recently about his new book, his part in the golden age of radio in Canada, his help in being the forefront of modern Canadian theater, and anything else that happened to be on our minds.

Celebrity Extra: As a longtime fan, I am thrilled that you wrote this book, but what was the impetus that caused you to write it in the first place?

William B. Davis: It was, I guess, a series of things. It was first put in my mind by a university professor here in Canada. Because I had this kind of unique idiosyncratic background in the Canadian theater and around in the dying days of radio drama. I had lived in an interesting time. Obviously we knew The X Files experience was original, unlikely and of interest. I began to give it more and more thought, and as one began to look at the whole notion of examining one's past life to one's modern lens, it just became more and more interesting to do. Once I started I couldn’t stop. It was just so interesting to do. 

CE: Did you ever worry about some of the things that you write about, since you do kind of kiss and tell on a lot of things...

WD: I was and still am nervous about some of the things that I wrote. You think, “Oh my, should I have really done that?” or “How can I phrase that a little more delicately?” or whatever. But when I was writing, I was determined I wasn’t going to write a whitewash memoir that says, “I’m a lovely person and I met lots of lovely people and I did lots of lovely things.” Who wants to read that? It’s not the true story and it’s not very interesting. So, I was determined that I was going to be candid within some kind of reason or some kind of limitations, I guess. There were people I didn’t want to embarrass, like my children. But you wonder once it’s out there whether you’ve gone a little too far. 

CE: Have you had any feedback from your X-Files castmates?

WD: I’ve noticed that there was some talk about me doing a convention in Toronto in August, and I know Gillian (Anderson, who played Dana Scully) is going to be there and I thought, “Uh oh.” The chances that she’s read this book are not very high. I don’t know that it’s a problem.

CE: As I recall, you do mention that you suspect Gillian had some "work" done, although, as a woman, I like to think that she thinned out and grew into her looks, and the lighting and angles helped her ...

WD: And there’s truth to that — I give her credit, and sometimes when I think back about what I could have said or should have said, I mean, I know she was going to the gym at 6 o’clock in the morning before going to the set. That’s a dedication I can hardly imagine ... those long days on set that you would go to the gym before you go [to set]. I remember meeting her in the gym once or twice. But I personally suspect she had some work done, but why not? I’ve had some work done.

CE: When you started on The X-Files, you had actually quit smoking...

WD: I quit smoking before my brother died, before he was diagnosed with cancer. My other two brothers rapidly quit smoking once my older brother was diagnosed with cancer, but I had quit a few years before that. It was one of those things you always say you are going to do, and it’s a much harder thing to do than most people realize. In truth, my motivation was I was starting to get more concerned about maintaining my level of fitness, and I had started to run and I was sprinting all the way around the track, so it was more to solve my kind of immediate concerns than that distance sense in the future that it might cause cancer or that it might cause me to die younger than I would otherwise or whatever. It was almost more for what the immediate benefit would be that motivated me to really do it. I guess that says something about humans. We live in the present more than we should. 

CE: On The X-Files, you smoked herbal cigarettes ...

WD: I’m not sure herbal is that much better — who knows? We have no idea if there is a relationship between smoking herbal cigarettes and cancer, because nobody smokes that many herbal cigarettes. It’s never been tested.

CE: To back up a little — in your 20s, you left Canada and left for a job in England. That's a pretty big deal ... were you nervous, excited?

WD: I don’t recall being particularly nervous about it. I had visited a couple of years earlier so I had a little familiarity, but basically I left home when I went to University. I lived in residence, and while I had contact with home, I was really living on my own from the time I was 17. So when it came to the idea of going to England, I don’t recall being nervous about that. I recall being terrified about starting University. I guess that was leaving home. I recall being driven, because we lived in the country and I was driven to the city and was just really nervous about not knowing anybody. But I don’t recall any of that about going to England ... so whether I had just matured or got more focused, it’s hard to know now.

CE: You worked with such luminaries as Donald Sutherland and Maggie Smith and Albert Finney. Have you spoken with any of them about your book?

WD: No, no I haven’t. I have not with Maggie or with Albie — but Sutherland, yes, we connected relatively recently because we were both involved in donating money to Heart of Theatre at University of Toronto, where we had begun. So, we had some communication about that and we recently, within the last year or so, had a meeting here in Vancouver. We hadn’t talked in a really long time, so I really appreciated that. He marches to his drummer, but it was a delight to see him again.

CE: I absolutely LOVE that you still hold some world water-ski records. Do you still get out on the water and do some stunts?

WD: I still do water-ski tricks. I regret I can’t do all the tricks I used to be able to do. The body doesn’t quite turn the way it once did, but I still get out there on the skis. I haven’t skied yet this year. My new wife — who didn’t know anything about water skiing until she started hanging out with me — has now become a better than me.

CE: I think it's funny how people can't disassociate you with your X-Files character and are crushed to learn that you really don't believe in all this extra-terrestrial stuff.

WD: Yeah, they’re surprised at that, because certainly people don’t understand the acting profession very well, and they assume that one chooses to be in a particular project because one has a belief or a commitment about it. And the truth is, one is just delighted to have the work. It’s a great role and I’m happy to have done it. But I certainly didn’t choose it because it was science fiction, or because it was about the paranormal or about aliens. When you’re an actor, you try to live truthfully in imagined circumstances. So, it’s not difficult for an actor to imagine that there are aliens who are abducting people. But that’s a far cry from a person thinking that there are aliens among us abducting people.

There are people coming up to me and asking, “Why didn’t you get the new evidence about Area 51?” There was someone in Scotland who wanted to take me on a sky walk where they were going to see UFOs, and I finally had to say, “No, I don’t actually believe it.” The look of surprise is just astonishing.

What's funny is, with Gillian and David (Duchovny, who played Mulder), it was reverse. David was the skeptic and Gillian was a believer.

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