Surprise return of The X-Files' Smoking Man

Actor William Davis gets a new lease of life in The X-Files miniseries as the resurrected Cigarette Smoking Man.
Actor William Davis gets a new lease of life in The X-Files miniseries as the resurrected Cigarette Smoking Man.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NEW YORK•When we last saw the Cigarette Smoking Man, in The X-Files series finale in 2002, he was living as a guru in an old Anasazi settlement in New Mexico. Or at least he was, until a couple of black helicopters blew it and him to smithereens, seemingly ending his run as the story's nefarious conspirator and prime concealer of whatever truth may, in fact, be out there.

"I died at the end of season nine, so what could they do?" William Davis, the actor who plays the character, said. "I didn't have a whole lot of hope" of returning.

But there he was in the final moments of Sunday's premiere of the new The X-Files miniseries, comfortably ensconced in an undisclosed location, smoking through his tracheotomy hole.

He looked battered, but remarkably well for a man whose face viewers thought was incinerated by a missile 14 years ago.

He will appear in two of the remaining five new episodes and any insights about what he has been up to or how he is still with us, will have to wait until then.

"There are some relationships that have developed that viewers might find surprising" is all he would say. He figured the Smoking Man was gone for good after he was left out of 2008's The X-Files: I Want To Believe, the second film in the franchise.

So he was thrilled to be invited back, though less so about the four hours of make-up it now takes to put the character together. "I'm still hoping the magic of science will get rid of the tracheotomy," he said.

He called recently to muse anew about the enduring appeal of The X-Files and his character. These are excerpts from the conversation.

You haven't been the Smoking Man since 2002. Did you have to readjust to it?

It's been many years, but it seems to fit me like a glove, to be honest. I don't have any difficulty dropping back into it.

Is that at all troubling, considering he is a supervillain?

And I'm really a nice person. I don't know why it fits me so well. (Laughs) Maybe it allows me to do things I've always wanted to do, but never could. I used to have a lot of fun doing college tours, where I would make the case that they misunderstood the show.

They think Mulder's the hero, but they've got it wrong: I'm the hero. Mulder's the guy who's going to mess everything up.

At the premiere screening at New York Comic Con, perhaps the loudest cheers came when the Smoking Man appeared. Why do you think he's resonated so much with fans?

That's nice to hear. Obviously, villains are fascinating to the public. They suggest a power and a strength and a danger, and in this case, the danger is unclear.

We don't quite know what power I have. And underneath it, there's a human being who has suffered enormously, but I don't know whether the audience pick up on that or whether they just don't care.

It's surprising how many younger people I meet at conventions. I don't know how large it is, but it's certainly committed and active.

You trained as a stage actor. How does it feel to be best known as a bad guy on a sci-fi TV show?

I never would've guessed that when I was a young theatre director and my main ambition was to run a major Shakespearean festival.

But it's done great things for me, not only for its visibility, but also just for the screen time it gave me.

There is a tendency for people to see me in that kind of role but, personally, I'm not like that at all, so it's not that difficult to see me as something else.

I just played a kindly grandfather in a Hallmark Channel show called Signed, Sealed, Delivered, for example.

Which Smoking Man-focused X-Files episodes were your favourites?

I have always liked Talitha Cumi, which gave me a whole bunch of things to do, from philosophical debates to suggestions about relationships with Mulder's mother.

Of course, Musings Of A Cigarette Smoking Man. (The episode, which finds him manipulating key world events and killing leaders such as John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr, was intended to be a tall tale within the narrative, rather than fact.) It was a very impressive episode, though it was kind of hard to marry this short story with the character who was driving this conspiracy. But fans don't seem to mind.

Why do you think The X-Files has continued to resonate?

Obviously, the relationship between Mulder and Scully, the scary stories, they were just good television.

I think there was something in the zeitgeist of the 1990s, we were moving away from what we thought was hard truth into the world of digitisation, the post-modern world of "Your truth is your truth; my truth is my truth". There's no hard reality and so a show about what's real and what's not real somehow captured the imagination.

Times have changed and how it resonates now, I don't know. In the 1990s, it became, as we know, a world event. Will it live at that level now? I doubt it. But it could certainly live as entertaining television.

Your character's biggest challenge now might be finding a place that will actually let him smoke.

(Laughs) Could be. I imagine he'll still smoke wherever he has to.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 27, 2016, with the headline 'Surprise return of The X-Files' Smoking Man'. Print Edition | Subscribe