`X' rated talk
as Stuart Banks opens up a pack of twenty with actor
William B. Davis on being "Cancer Man".
master of puppets, he manipulates from the darkness.
Coupled with the image of a small red glow and wisps of
blue smoke that curls and dances upwards as his menacing
countenance is slowly revealed in the half-light...
endearing image in the strictest sense. Nevertheless, it
is one that has made The X-Filesí literally named
Cigarette Smoking Man one of the most popular villains on
the small screen. Whenever that image appears you know
things are going to happen. And usually bad things, as he
continues to keep Mulder and Scully in the dark about what
is really going on. But what is it really like to be this
most mysterious of men, this shadow who seems to exert so
much power over people's lives?
William B. Davis, the actor who plays him so very well.
Sitting in a west London hotel bar in the middle of the
day surrounded by a cornucopia of silver, glass, sumptuous
leather furniture and lush green plants. It lends itself
to a man who is, in reality, more benevolent than benign
as he swigs a gin and tonic. The only tell-tale sign of
the 'Smoking Man is an occasional flash of cold eyes which
seem to bore into you every time he says something he
[Carter] was quoted as saying he wanted someone who could
radiate power without speaking," says Davis as he
tries to answer why he was chosen for this role.
that, it is very hard to say because the role, and, what
it has become weren't clear at the time. I think it was
thought to be a very shadowy character who would always be
in the background, who would never really come out of the
shadows. It has become a much more developed and
interesting character. They [the writers] have taken him
and developed a little each time he has appeared until he
finally had his own episode [The Musings Of A Cigarette
exercises his power through planning; through other
people; through structure. Not through his own weight. In
that sense he is carrying around an ability to do an
enormous amount of something."
cold eyes emphasise the word "something". For a
split second a silence hangs in the air before he
continues in the same soft, deliberate Canadian monotone.
is not apparent that he is doing that. It would probably
be the same with the president of a bank. I mean, I can
visualise being the man and I can visualise being in
charge-whether it is acting schools or theatre companies.
I am used to being in charge."
craft of acting, making the character become alive and
real is paramount. Actors have often been known to use
props as tools to help them achieve that believability: to
use things that are "real". So, would he say
that he has achieved that believability of menace through
the use of the cigarettes?
suppose the simple answer is no, but it is always helpful
to have something realistic that one is doing - we do that
in acting classes all the time. We give people real things
to do, because it grounds you in some kind of reality.
Which lends credibility to you and to the audience to the
other things that [as an actor] you are doing which are
more imaginative. So the fact that I smoke all the time
means that I am doing something real.
in the context of what I am doing means I am exercising
power and I am excerising danger because those are the
things I am thinking about and am focused on. The smoking
is only connected to that because that is what I am doing.
I could just as easily be smoking and telling jokes and
having a gay old time, if that is what the character is
think the emphasis of the menace comes through the
cinematography. [They] do that all the time. The
cinematography certainly focuses on that."
this literal level of portraying a man smoking cigarettes,
Davis is aware of a far deeper level of metaphor.
is a metaphor of smoke and fire; Lucifer-the devil, and
the fires of Hell, and cancer, all rolled into one big
metaphor. You don't really play that as an actor, that
emerges in the production."
this from a man who in reality doesn't smoke. He uses
Cigarette Smoking Man (or Cancer Man as he was aptly
dubbed by Mulder) does indeed, convey a sense of power as
well as menace - that ability to do an "enormous
amount of something". So how would someone convey
such a power, to have the ability to give off that
palpable atmosphere that translates itself so well onto
the screen? The answer to such a question must surely be
down to more than just good camera work. The answer to
that is something that Davis finds tricky. But his
response is nevertheless an interesting one.
is largely in the eyes of the victim. One of the things we
say again in acting classes is that you can't play a king,
you can only play a subject. A king emerges because
everybody responds to the king. You can't go around being
kingly. I am used to walking into situations where I am in
control. Here, the fact is I am in control of much bigger
and much more dangerous things!" he cackles..
things tend to come out of the script, not necessarily
what I have to do. The other side of that is, and in a way
this goes back to the smoking, there is a certain
arrogance to the character and definitely a bitterness, as
well as a certain ruthlessness.
don't know why that comes so readily to me because it
doesn't feel like it is part of my normal life!" he
laughs again. So much for the menace. And just for a
moment those cold eyes soften.
I do actively tap that when I start to play the role of
the character. It seems to come up quite easily. But, I
have to put myself into that mind-set and the smoking
helps me do that. Once I do that, I am then within the
circumstances of that character.
I do a scene that doesn't have me smoking, usually before
we do a take, I'll mime smoking. Just to define myself
into that rhythm and that feel."
As it is
well documented throughout the history of storytelling,
everybody is attracted to the seductive power of a good
villain - something never lost to film and television
Cancer Man, the same is true. Davis has had fans give him
packets of cigarettes. But such is the attraction and
seductive power of villainy that in this instance, Davis
found that the power of being Cancer Man has found some
positive use. In the world of advertising.
well be forgiven for thinking that tobacco companies would
be beating a path to his door to promote their product. In
fact, the opposite is true.
had the Canadian Cancer Society approach me and ask if I
could be a spokesperson for them. For anti-smoking. Nobody
has asked me to promote their product. In fact, I had one
angry letter from a pro-smoking group because I was
portraying smoking in such a bad light.
I think the effect of the character and smoking, is to
deter people from smoking! I don't think anyone would want
to align themselves to this character."
Man is a character who is very controlled and has an aura
of being very reigned in. Something that Davis admits his
very much a part of himself.
is me. I am very much like that-in someways. Some of that
is very much natural to me. It does also come from the
circumstances of the character.
joke about it with fans at conventions: the contrast
between his character and Mulder, who tends to fly off the
handle at a momentís notice. So I say to [the fans] who
would you rather have lead you? Somebody who flies off the
handle all the time or, someone who is very
feels that with this control comes a very serious subtext
with the character.
think that there is a lot about the character that is
shutdown. That he has had to shutdown in his life: once
you have taken a certain track - in his case in particular
- and you have decided that you won't get off it. That was
the difference between this character and Mulder's father
who became an alcoholic and became the remnants of a human
being because he couldn't deal with what he had started to
do and then quit.
CSM has stayed on the track but has simply eliminated
anything that would make it hard for him to stay on
track-relationships or fun or pleasure. Ultimately he
comes across as a very sad man."
onto Cigarette Smoking Man's own episode, Musings of A
Cigarette Smoking Man, this was the culmination of all the
character building that had taken place. The emphasis of
which Davis felt was somewhat lost on fans who felt that
this was the actual representation of the character's past
and not what it was actually meant to be: The Lone Gun
Men's representation of what they thought was his past.
Not that he blames them though.
was difficulty. I wish it had been clearer that that was
actually going on. It was how I saw it, how Chris Carter
saw it. But it was not how the writers saw it. It was not
how the director saw it. They thought it was the true
really interests Davis as far as developing the character
to its fullest is his humanity.
am certainly interested in this notion that [he] hasn't
been able to completely shutdown his humanity. But, I
thought in Musings it was a simplistic way to try and show
that. I think what are much more interesting are the
remnants of the relationship with Mrs Mulder. And that
there is some flicker of a memory of what it is like to be
a human being once," he says with a wry smile.
conflict between in a way, having sold one's soul and
The X-Filesí unique abilities is to tap into the
undercurrent of paranoia that exists in North America, in
particular, the United States. So, does Davis feel that
Cigarette Smoking Man is someone who, perhaps, controls
that paranoia, or even creates it?
don't know if [he] creates the paranoia," says Davis
thoughtfully. "I would have to think about that. I
mean, there certainly is paranoia that he exploits. But
whether he generates it. I don't know that he is concerned
with - in fact the less people know about him the better.
It's not that he wants people to be afraid of what he's
doing, he doesn't want people to even know what he is
Mulder who generates the paranoia. It's Mulder who goes
round saying, `you'd better watch out! There's all this
going on!', and that kinda creates a flack that may get in
the way, or even, maybe something useful because it
creates flack which muddies the atmosphere.
I am in no doubt that the show does reflect on our own
paranoia of those who we trust to look after us. I think
the more interesting question is why do people now have
that lack of trust and all this paranoia. That is a
relatively recent phenomenon. People might have disagreed
with say, Roosevelt, or Churchill, or Attlee, but they
didn't think that they were shady.
to really play CSM I have to believe that he is doing the
right thing, as you would any role. And what is
interesting is that you don't know what he is doing and
you never see what he's doing, or the end result of what
he is doing. It may well now be that it has gone beyond
questioning it. Because, he has had to make so many
compromises and so many sacrifices that he is in too deep
and all you can do is keep going. You can't back
on his own experiences of a man who likes to be in
control, or is used to being in control, there is also the
aspect that even Cigarette Smoking Man has his masters
too. A subject that makes Davis laugh knowingly. A sort of
uncomfortable, squirmy knowing laugh.
yes. The Well Manicured Man (who got blown six ways from
Sunday in the film). Yes. Well. Here I was, thinking that
I was in control and then all of a sudden this syndicate
appears that I have never heard about before. And Well
Manicured Man appears to be bossing me around. I was very
upset!" said Davis laughing.
as the show, unlike other shows, doesn't have a bible, and
it is invented as it goes along, some of it gets
explained. And as the show went on, it seemed as if my
character was starting to get the upperhand with
this searching for the `truth' Davis feels that "it
is entirely possible" that all Mulder and Scully will
find is more shades of grey:
onion may have a centre, but we many never find it,"
he says, laughing.
Davis is delighted with being a part of a hit television
show, he is concerned about the number of parts that he
has gone in and read for bad guys.
"I do get more
readings for bad guys - more than I probably should. Not
that I have a problem with doing bad guys. There are only
certain bad guys that I am good at. The kind of bad guys
who throw their weight around-the Ďheaviesí - I'm
actually not very good at those. [This] character because
of his intelligence and sophistication I'm good at, it
suits me perfectly."