William B. Davis Chronicles An Impressive Career In His New Book, 'On Acting ... and life.'
William B. Davis, widely known as the nefarious Cigarette Smoking Man from The X-Files, has had a distinguished career that spans over seven decades. His latest book, On Acting ... and life, chronicles his career from radio to stage and screen. Along the way, he draws on his vast knowledge to provide a more philosophical look at the art of acting. Whether you're an actor or not, this book will leave you reflecting on the craft.
To learn more about the story behind the story, read A Good Book To End The Day’s interview with the author below.
You’ve worn a variety of hats throughout your career: actor, director, teacher, even set builder. What made you want to add author to that list?
Actually, I've always been interested in writing to some degree. I've written some plays and I've written some short films. I wrote a memoir 10 years ago called Where There's Smoke …, which was fascinating for me to kind of just do a personal biography. And in the process of doing that, I talked quite a bit about acting, but not a lot. And I realized I really wanted to talk in much more depth about what I know and how I learned about acting. And as you know, from reading the book, it's been a long career, and it's taken me to a lot of different places and made a lot of different discoveries. So, I wasn't sure how to approach it. But when I came across Stephen King's book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, I thought, "ah, that's my template." I can do a first part memoir of my life as... I don't want to say as an actor, but as a person involved with acting, either as an actor, a director, or an acting teacher, and then really try to put together what I think I know about acting into one kind of piece. And after a long career, I thought this was something I could pass on.
You started writing “On acting... and life” during the COVID lockdown. How long did it take you to write?
It's always difficult to say because you're always doing different things. It's not a straightforward process. So, I think I worked on it over maybe one or two years, but it wasn't one or two years of intense work. And then there's the whole process of working with an editor and redoing and revising.
You mentioned in the book that you felt you became a better director after truly "becoming an actor." Do you ever wish that you had kept your focus solely on acting before diving into directing or teaching?
[Laughter] No, that was fine with me because directing has always been a really comfortable place for me. Probably more comfortable than acting, really.
This is one of my favorite questions to ask because I get such a wide variety of responses. What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
That's an interesting question. I suppose I had some considerable success in high school, as a public speaker. We had public speaking contests, and I turned out to be pretty good at them. I won some prizes and whatever. But the power of language, I think, probably most struck me when I was at theater school in England and we worked a lot on Shakespeare. You really understood what language could do and how complicated it could be and how potent it could be. So I think Shakespeare is probably my real key to that.
You’ve spent a good portion of your life teaching others about the art of acting, but what is one piece of advice that you would share with aspiring writers?
Read! [Laughter] Yeah, and I think I'm just quoting Stephen King there because that's what he says in his book. I think being widely read and reading good writing. There's a lot of quick journalism now, and that is often a simplified kind of vocabulary. So it depends, of course, on what you want to write. Or what kind of writing you want to do. But assuming you want to write to an educated reader, then you need to have an educated background. I guess you need to have a vocabulary and understand how to use it.
What is one question nobody has asked you about your book that you wish they would ask you about your book?
I would've liked to have been asked more about how I think the role of evolution and evolutionary science pertains to the art of acting.
There's a kind of 20th-century dualism we think of in the understanding of humans between mind and body or soul and matter. That kind of contemporary science puts all that together, that we are a physical organism. We are a product of evolution, and while we've developed different traits and the mind works in various ways, it's still a muscle. And so a lot of the idea that we should work from the outside in or from the inside out really is irrelevant.
So when you think of playing a character, don’t think of trying to jump into someone else's essence. Those essences don't exist. They're just a product of people's imaginations of how we characterize a person. If we get rid of that, then it's easier to approach the identification with the imagined character.
Do you have any other projects in the works at this time?
We're supposed to shoot the third season of Upload, in which I have a lovely comedic character. Then there’s a project called The Midnight Club, which will be released [on October 7 on Netflix]. What will be interesting for me is the second season, assuming it goes forward because that's when my character really comes to life. I’m also working on a play that we will do in Vancouver next November and December. So yeah, I don't stop.
Follow William B. Davis