Twenty years on from his iconic role as one of TV’s great, enigmatic villains, and William B. Davis still gets recognized on the chairlift.
“I would get on the gondola at Creekside with my helmet and my balaclava and my goggles and someone will go, ‘Oh, you’re on the The X Files!’” recalls Davis, who played Fox Mulder’s chief antagonist “Cigarette Smoking Man” on the groundbreaking sci-fi series. “I was jogging the other day and a guy went by and said, ‘Keep on smoking!’”
First skiing Whistler in 1967 and owning a place here since 1986, Davis—better known as Bill in local circles—is still, at the tender age of 84, actively pursuing his passions, whether that means ripping a run down the mountain, landing huge roles on Netflix– and Amazon-produced shows, or starring in small theatre productions that speak to him.
With more than 135 IMDb credits to his name—including playing another villain on the Amazon comedy series Upload and a role in Mike Flanagan’s upcoming Netflix show, The Midnight Club-—Davis’ acting and directing career spans decades. He began at the tender age of 10, filling in at his cousins’ Toronto theatre company, and from there began work as a child actor on CBC Radio dramas in the ’40s and ’50s before heading off to the University of Toronto and then to the vaunted London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art, where he put much of his focus on directing. He soon found himself directing at a repertory theatre in Scotland, and then assistant directing at the prestigious Royal National Theatre in London, where he worked alongside such English luminaries of stage and screen as Albert Finney, Maggie Smith and even the late, great Laurence Olivier.
Then, as fate would have it, Davis got a call asking if he’d like to take over as the assistant artistic director of the National Theatre School of Canada in Montreal, which is “where the link between my career as a theatre person and my career as a skier merged,” he says.
“The idea of being in Montreal, close to Mont Tremblant, where I had learned to ski, was very, very tempting,” Davis adds. “And that brought me back to Canada. And then I did a whole bunch of stuff in Canada; eventually came to Vancouver, always following the ski mountains. If there was a better ski mountain somewhere, it was always an inducement.”
'You can’t want to be an actor, want to be a star; you have to want to act'
Needless to say, Davis has a wealth of experience under his belt, which he parlayed into his own acting school in Vancouver, the William Davis Centre for Actors’ Study. Now, Davis builds on this edifying legacy with his new book, On Acting...and life, which is part memoir, part acting guide structured in part off of Stephen King’s landmark book, On Writing.
What’s notable about the book, besides the incredible stories of Davis’ winding life, is its practicality. Where some acting coaches tend to rely on esoteric theories of the self and soul—what Davis likens to “magical thinking”—his advice strips the craft down to its bare bones.
“I know there are acting teachers who take you on a long exploration of who you are. But what matters is, ‘Do I want to do what this character does?’ So if I’m playing Macbeth, I don’t want to be a mysterious, different person who happens to kill kings. I have to want to kill a king myself,” he explains.
Building a life in the arts, particularly in this country, can be a tough order. So I ask Davis what his secret is after more than seven decades doing what he loves. His answer is simple: you have to love the work, not the end destination.
“The basic piece of advice I say to people who want to enter into this is, you have to want to do it. If you want to act, you have to want to act. You can’t want to be an actor, want to be a star; you have to want to act,” he says. “And then there’s a good chance you can do it all your life. You may do it in community theatre, you may do it in Oscar-winning movies, or anywhere in between. Who knows? But you can do it.”
On Acting...and life is available locally at Armchair Books or online at williambdavis.com.