probe-t.gif (3388 bytes)
by Stuart Banks

Confidentially Smoking

`X' rated talk as Stuart Banks opens up a pack of twenty with actor William B. Davis on being "Cancer Man".

Like a 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...

Hardly an 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?

Meet 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 considers important.

"Chris [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.

"Beyond 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 Smoking Man].

"He 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."

Those 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.

"But 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."

In the 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?

"I 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.

"Then 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 doing.

"I think the emphasis of the menace comes through the cinematography. [They] do that all the time. The cinematography certainly focuses on that."

Besides this literal level of portraying a man smoking cigarettes, Davis is aware of a far deeper level of metaphor.

"There 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."

And all this from a man who in reality doesn't smoke. He uses herbal cigarettes.

The 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.

"Power 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..

"These 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.

"I 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.

"But 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.

"If 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 makers.

With the 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.

You could 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.

"I 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.

"So, 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."

Cancer 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.

"That 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.

"I 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 thoughtful?"

Davis feels that with this control comes a very serious subtext with the character.

"I 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.

"Whereas 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."

Moving 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.

"There 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 story."

What really interests Davis as far as developing the character to its fullest is his humanity.

"I 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.

"That conflict between in a way, having sold one's soul and yet...."

One of 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?

"I 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 doing.

"It's 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.

"Though 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.

"But, 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 out."

Drawing 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, 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.

"But 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 him."

In all this searching for the `truth' Davis feels that "it is entirely possible" that all Mulder and Scully will find is more shades of grey:

"This onion may have a centre, but we many never find it," he says, laughing.

While 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."

This site is copyright  © Limited 1999, 2000
and its respective copyright owners, unless otherwise stated. All rights reserved.

Buy badges, shirts and more
Bubblegun Badges and more...
For the best florist in Bedford please visit April Flowers