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The X-Files Magazine: Smoke and Mirrors

The X-Files Magazine [US, #7, Fall 1998]
Smoke and Mirrors
Annabelle Villnueva

The reedy voice on the telephone, until now cheerful and friendly, suddenly cackles with familiar menace. “Kill me off for a few weeks?” it asks petulantly, referring to the events in “Redux II.” “Then I’m going to get revenge.”

William B. Davis seems to enjoy playing off of his devious television persona. During interviews he frequently speaks in first person to describe the Cigarette Smoking Man’s machination, and his tone often drops conspiratorially when offering caustic asides about The Project. While it’s all done in good fun, it can be a little disconcerting. After all, the CSM has become the show’s answer to Darth Vader-a dark, nasty arch-villain who may or may not have fathered half the people around him. When Davis steps into character to vow retaliation against would be assassins, he sounds pretty convincing.

It’s clear he relishes the role, and with obvious reason. Despite being unceremoniously offed, reports on Cigarette Smoking Man’s death turned out to be greatly exaggerated. A few months later he returned with a flourish, thwarting yet another attempt on his life by The Syndicate, out maneuvering the Well Manicured Man and Alex Krycek, locking horns with his son, Agent Jeffrey Spender, and burning Mulder’s office to a crisp. As the smoke from Season Five clears-literally- the CSM fittingly seems to be standing tall atop the ash heap while Mulder and Scully recuperate from recent physical and mental blows, Spender struggles to maintain his ground as the bureau and The Consortium regroups following the Well Manicured Man’s apparent death.

“I understand there are some very exciting plans for the character this year,” Davis says, speaking from his hotel room after a week of filming The X-Files’ season opener. “It’s quite exciting to have [the character grow], and it’s not done yet-we’ll all get to find out more about him. It should be very interesting.”

Of course, the CSM already has come a long way from being the morose figure puffing away on a pack of Morleys inside Section Chief Blevins’ office. While he remains thoroughly enigmatic, the character’s depth and substance have been amplified each season. Mythology episodes have hinted at his past relationship with Mulder’s mother, sparking suspicion that he may be the FBI Agent’s real father. A vast amount of (possible) apocryphal background surfaced in “Musings of A Cigarette Smoking Man,” when the conspirator was accused of, among other things, shooting JFK and being a failed crime novelist. Last year he was given the chance to interact with honest-to-goodness (or so it would seem) blood relative Spender, a plot twist Davis found refreshing. “It was fun to have something out in the open and revealed,” he admits.

“I think the character is becoming increasingly complex,” David continues. “In a way he’s kind of a classic bad guy. But more and more we’re seeing hints of inner conflict [and] some personal sacrifices he’s had to make. As we get involved in these personal relationships with Jeffrey Spender and the question of his paternity, it’s interesting to see how out of his depths the character gets when he has to deal with human relationships. He’s better at dealing with conflicts with The Syndicate or Skinner or more political things. [In those cases], he knows his strengths, he knows where he is. But when he’s with his son, it’s a lot harder.”

And how is this kid measuring up?

“I don’t know…I’m not sure if he’s going to shape up. I don’t think he’s got it in him–the concentration for a ruthless type person,” Davis says playfully. “It’s one of those situations that my character wants him [to be one]; and I want to try to correct him. And then there’s the other [aspect] of it, that he doesn’t want to see me. He’s blocking contact.”

Davis often has said that he tries to view the Cigarette-Smoking Man as a good guy, in the sense that the character believes in what he does and considers anyone who tries and stop him an enemy. That type of insight and analysis punctuates most of the actor’s commentary- he discusses the role eagerly, and it soon becomes evident that he closely dissected The X-Files mythology to learn more about his alter ego’s inner workings.

But this examination isn’t fueled by ego or an innate fascination with conspiracy. The 60-year-old stage and screen veteran takes his craft very seriously, as any good teacher would-when not performing, he tends to his Vancouver acting school, The William Davis Center for Actor’s Study. (The school’s most famous alumna, Lucy Lawless, trained there before embarking on her future as a warrior princess). One habit Davis tries to instill in his students is the technique of deconstructing roles by forging a history for their characters. It’s a suggestion he takes to heart himself, although fabricating a background for the ever mysterious CSM is an audacious undertaking.

“What an actor basically tries to do is to try and find the life of the scene at the time they’re doing it,” he explains. “So I need a back story that works for what I’m doing now. In a way it might be interesting to go back and redo my [X-Files] scenes from a couple of years ago with what I know now, even though that, of course, is impossible. So we’re always using information that we’re given and we’re also always inventing things. You may later find that what you invented wasn’t correct , but in a way it doesn’t matter as long as it brings the scene alive. So I am constantly reinventing and revising my story.”

That supplemental creativity often requires Davis to reach independent conclusions about the character, even if the script itself doesn’t offer concrete revelations. For example, during a recent scene he felt he had to make a determination about a relationship that has triggered frenetic fan speculation for years.

“I had just shot a scene with Agent Spender that had a couple of strange twists and turns in it, a sort of interesting King Lear type thing, and [it] made me have to make some personal decisions about aspects of the character. Basically, I had to finally decide for myself if Mulder was my son or not,” Davis says, remaining cagey about which side of the paternal fence he chose to land upon. “It was clear that it was how the scene worked for me.”

Still, Davis is quick to admit that the truth remains elusive even for him. “[The CSM’s] relationship with Mulder is always ambiguous,” he says, “He has a genuine respect for Mulder; they’re really similar [in] how they’ve dedicated themselves, [and are] almost fanatical in sacrificing their lives on opposite sides. And in ‘Redux II’ I try to get him to come and work for me. So I think it’s a complicated relationship, and it is going to become more complicated in the future.

In typical X-Files fashion, it’s unclear what shape the future will take; for all of Davis’ personal theories and speculation, he’s usually as much in the dark about the show’s direction as any other fan. However, there was one instance where he did get advance warning about a particular storyline. Before his character was killed off early in Season Five, Davis knew he didn’t need to be concerned about finding a new job. “They were very good at reassuring me right at the time that it wasn’t going to be a lasting death,” he says. Yet while Davis knew that his eventual return was virtually guaranteed (after all , he had spent a chunk of filming scenes for The X-Files feature film, which was set to be released the following summer) many fans weren’t so sure. The actor recalls hearing wildly differing reactions from fans following the CSM’s “death.”

“[Opinions] were very mixed,” he says. “A lot of the hard core fans were sure that he would return, the intermediate fans weren’t quite sure what to make of it, and the casual fans were really sympathetic. They said, ‘What are you going to do now that The X-Files is over for you?’ They were all quite sure that I was really dead.”

As for himself, David was grateful for being resurrected by the show’s writers. “It was an interesting storyline to pursue, and I thought it was kind of cute at first to be dead, but eventually I got pretty bored with it,” he admits.

While Cigarette Smoking Man’s constant evolution continues to challenge Davis, he points out that the crucial element that keeps the character fresh is the fact that he appeared in less than a quarter of The X-Files’ episodes. That makes the character’s immense popularity even more remarkable, especially considering that the CSM’s personality is as blackly corrupt as his lungs. Davis has been profiled in enough magazine and web sites that his acting credits (Including parts in Look Who’s Talking and The Dead Zone,), smoking habits (he quit years ago-herbal substitutes are used on camera) and athletic achievements (he’s a Canadian water-skiing champion for his age division) have become X-Phile gospel. When he toured North America in the X-Files Expos last spring, standing ovations greeted him whenever he took the stage. Some moviegoers burst into cheers when he made his big screen entrance in The X-Files motion picture. Canadian pop music group Barenaked Ladies refer to CSM in their song “One Week,” the video for which received heavy rotation on MTV. He also hit the rock’n’roll mainstream appearing in a video for a song by the band Filter, which appeared on the movie’s soundtrack. Even his negative publicity sounds pretty positive- one pro-smoking group protested that the character made nicotine addicts look bad. The consensus is clear: After Mulder and Scully, the Cigarette Smoking Man has become The X-File’s best known figure.

Although Davis has had time to get accustomed to being a pop-culture icon, he’s still a little amazed by his popularity. “It’s funny – sometimes I think I’m a very famous person, and other times I think I’m no more famous than I ever was,” he says thoughtfully. “It’s kind of strange how you’ll talk to strangers and they’ll treat you like someone they just met, and you’ll see other people and they’ll point and say ‘Look it’s the Cancer Man!’ It’s fun, I always enjoy meeting fans.”

Appearing in The X-Files feature film probably won’t help him retain his last scraps of anonymity. The actor, who makes a point of watching and critiquing his own work, went to see the movie twice. “The first time I saw it was at the premiere, which was sort of a weird time to see it. However objective as one would like to be, you really get wrapped up in [thinking], ‘How do I look?” he remembers with a chuckle. “Which is why I went back to see it again and look at it as a movie. I went to the most obscure matinee I could find, with only half a dozen people in the theater. The concession people and the ushers [recognized me]; it was the last day they were showing the film at that particular theater, so they gave me one of the movie posters from the wall.”

Fortunately, Davis didn’t spend his entire summer vacation in darkened movie theaters. The Vancouver resident also took time to appear in a couple of Canadian features and a cable TV movie where he played what he calls a “very warm, friendly, caring” doctor; in more than one scene, he even got t smile. He’ll be doing more of the same in The X-Files’ new Southern California home, where he expects to make some Hollywood contacts and further expand his resume.

“It’s going to be challenging filming in Los Angeles, mostly because of the distances between the residences of the crew and the locations,” he says. “But the crew is terrific and they’re all very nice people.” As filming continues, Davis keeps himself busy by trying to probe his character’s heart of darkness and unravel the mythology’s many secrets.

“I’ve been stumped sometimes,” the actor admits, “but I always try to know what’s going on.” The Cigarette Smoking Man would be proud.

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One Response to “The X-Files Magazine: Smoke and Mirrors”

  1. […] In an interview a year later with The X-Files Magazine, William B. Davis turned his death into a punchline, suggesting it was ultimately a minor setback for the character: […]