Talent on Tap – Canadian Legend William B. Davis – On Acting and Life

Before there was television there was radio drama. People would gather around the radio in their chairs and listen to a radio play in real time. The band was in the studio behind the glass from the actors, the special effects were in real time and it was an art form like no other. Then came television with some of the actors making the transition over and others that were older and couldn’t. Those radio plays were the blueprint for the blockbusters they produce today. Somebody that knows more about that than most, is actor William B. Davis. You will recognize him from his recurring role as The Smoking Man in the X-Files.  Davis has an entire library of productions that he’s been in but X-Files is probably his most notable mainstream performance. 


Davis started his acting career in a sort of serendipitous way. When he was 12, his older cousins were actors and rehearsing a play in his basement. They needed a boy of his age to play a role and the rest is history. Davis has had an illustrious career on the stage, on the radio and in film and television. He is iconic, he is a pioneer of the arts and he is an award winning acting guru and directing great! 


In addition to William B. Davis’s body of work, he is also an accomplished writer. His first book, Where There’s Smoke… was a memoir of his life in the industry. If you enjoyed that book, Davis is back with his second book, On Acting and Life. It’s filled with rich stories of where it all began, where the interest came from and how the pursuit took over. Davis has worked with the best, including Donald Sutherland in his earlier years and many other outstanding talent. It’s all in this fascinating book as well as lessons, inspiration, personal experiences and legendary tales that we all love to drink up. If you’re an actor, get this book. If you’re a director, you need this book. If you’re a screenwriter, this book will provide you with the tools to understand and create the complicated characters you put on the page. The book launches May 3rd, so please order your copy now, if you dare to be mesmerized.  


One of Canada’s gems that keeps giving back and a legend that I can proudly check off my bucket list of actors I admire. I caught up with Davis at his condo in Whistler where he enjoys hitting the slopes. It was so much more than I had anticipated and I can’t wait to share it with you. Roll the tape!



HNMAG “Congratulations on your new book, On Acting and Life. I think it’s wonderful when someone pays it forward with lessons in the industry.”

WILLIAM “It’s exciting to do after so many years and since my first work back in the late 1940’s. I’ve been working on the business of ‘what it is that an actor does’. It’s evolved over time – my understanding of it, my appreciation for it and my observations of others; other actors, other teachers. I wouldn’t say it’s crystalized but at least I have some definition for it, as well as significant approaches to it.


HNMAG “Have you ever taught a masterclass?”

WILLIAM “I have, I’ve even taught one in French, which I don’t speak very well (laughing). I used to have my own acting school, so I taught regularly. I’ve not taught a masterclass recently but I’m open to it at any time.”


HNMAG “I am so impressed with your career William. You are still working in film, television and stage but you started in the very early days of radio drama?”

WILLIAM “When I was young, radio drama in the late ‘40’s early ‘50’s was where it was at. It was a big enterprise and people actually made a living at it. The number of shows produced by CBC Toronto and Vancouver were daunting. It was live, nothing was recorded. If there was an orchestra playing during the big dramas, they would be in the studio with you behind glass. The producer would be up looking out a window from the upper floor and coordinating it all. Everything happened at once, including sound effects. As actors, we had to be in the right place at the right moment. It was exciting and we got a lot done. Telling Canadian stories to a listening public where families and friends would sit around the radio in chairs the way people would watch television.”


HNMAG “David Duchovny gave you a great compliment on your book, as well as Chris Carter, Rosemary Dunsmore and Brian Cox. Are they still in your life?”

WILLIAM “They are, maybe not Rosemary so much since I left Toronto but I’ve always admired her as one of the best acting teachers I’ve ever been exposed to and I am delighted to have her read the book. Brian Cox I worked with when he was 15-16 yrs. old at the Dundee Repertory Theatre. He kindly took the time to read the book and supported it as well. I talk to Chris occasionally because he’s trying to get some offshoots of X-Files off the ground but it hasn’t happened yet. David and I  have connected because he’s become a writer, we’re both writing and I’ve read his book and he’s read mine.”


HNMAG “You really have had a lifetime of experience in acting, including brushing shoulders with Donald Sutherland. I read that you two were in a Shakespeare play together?”   

WILLIAM “We were both students at the University of Toronto. I had some experience because of my work as a child actor but Donald had no experience (laughing) but he had a great presence. We were both doing The Tempest and he was playing Stephano. It’s the first thing he’d done at the university that was really good. Herbert Whitaker, the critic for the Globe and Mail had given him a good review, which had really cemented for Donald that he could be an actor. A few years later, we worked together again in England on Two For a Seesaw, which he played in and I  directed. Through his early stages, I’ve seen him develop enormously.”


HNMAG “You started in theatre as an actor and I’ve always thought that theatre can make an actor’s performance in TV or film so much better and stronger. Do you believe that every actor should start in theatre?”

WILLIAM “They should certainly do theatre, but which comes first doesn’t really matter. Doing theatre is terrific grounding for an actor because one of the things that happen in theatre that doesn’t happen in television – is rehearsal. You have rehearsal times where you work with the actors, the material and you prepare and you allow it to come to life. In Vancouver, in film and television – you drop in and you have to do it now. This means, the work you would’ve done in the theatre, you have to do at home.”


HNMAG “You started writing On Acting and Life during the pandemic?”

WILLIAM “No, I started writing it 10 years ago. It’s been on and off in my mind for a long time. I wrote an earlier book, Where’s There’s Smoke… which is a personal memoir and it has a lot of professional stuff in it about acting but it doesn’t particularly focus on the craft. I wanted to do that for actors. On my desktop, I’ve had an icon called WHY. That was the idea for this acting book but it’s just been sitting there on my desktop for many years with a few notes inside. The essential principal was… why do I do what I do?? That’s what an actor needs to know. Why do I say what I say and do what I do at the exact moment I do it and the exact way that I do it? To me, that is the key to the process of acting, to rehearsing, to preparing and then acting. I think the pandemic helped me to focus but yes, a lot of it was written during the pandemic.”


HNMAG “Are all the stories completely different from Where’s There’s Smoke… ?”

WILLIAM “What’s different about the Memoir, is that it probably tells far too much about my personal life that I ever should have said (laughing). This particular book is actually inspired by reading Stephen King’s book, On Writing. That’s what really gave me the impetus to write the book. I was debating – will I do a memoir or was I going to do a how-to book. After seeing what Stephen did, I realized you could do both in one book. The first half is a memoir, but a memoir of my professional life as an actor. How did I learn, what did I do that exposed me to acting and how did I learn about acting? The second half is, what do I think I know about acting? There’s an annex to that, which is – what is the underlying philosophy of what an actor does and what does acting actually mean?”


HNMAG “Having worked with so many actors, is there one common motivation that they all share for wanting to act?”

WILLIAM “That’s a very good question and I’m not sure I have an answer. Some actors work very instinctively… they have a quick intuition of what the character is, how they should sound and they have the chops to do that, but often enough – that’s all they do. They’ll get a first look, which is good and everyone thinks it’s wonderful… and that’s it. Then there’s other actors that’ll take the time to come in  underneath and find out what supports that and work with it more constructively. You can get away with quick intuition in film more than you can in theatre. In the theatre you have to do it so many more times. If you’re going to play a role for 2 years, you have to have a foundation. Whereas, if you’re only going to do a couple of shots, maybe you can just wing it. At core – I think we’re all trying to do the same thing. If you do what the character does, you’ll be the character even though you wouldn’t do it yourself. You do it the way you would do it even though you didn’t do it. At the core, we want to make it real, we want to make it present, we want to make it communicable but the emphasis is really varied and the core methods are varied. Every actor ultimately has to have their own way of doing it. I think I have a way of doing it that’s helpful and others can learn from it… but it may not suit everyone.”


HNMAG “How many drafts did you find yourself writing before you finally sent it off to the publisher?”

WILLIAM “That’s a good question too. It evolves over time, a shape emerges. Some things come very quickly and other things are more difficult to articulate. It certainly goes through a few drafts but unlike screenplays, they’re not complete drafts of the book, I have changes and/or intricating sections. It’s more piecemeal, a longer work than a screenplay, I suppose.”

HNMAG “I know I would never have the patience to write a novel, you must have a lot of it.”

WILLIAM “It’s interesting because patience is one of my biggest strengths, which is why I loved film editing, even when I edited radio drama – which takes enormous patience in trying to piece it all together and take your time with it. I’ve always liked that and as an acting teacher it takes patience and time to see what the actor is doing. You want to get to the core of what’s going on so that you can help the person fix it and that takes patience.”


HNMAG “Your first acting coach/instructor was Josephine Barrington. She would teach children on the top floor of her home. How did that introduction happen?”

WILLIAM “I actually started acting before I went to Josephine. My cousins, who are half a generation older, were running a summer theatre company and they would rehearse in the basement of our house. They were doing a portrait called Portrait in Black and they needed a boy of 12 and I happened to live there and was talked into doing it. I was always good at reading and would do it in class. That’s where it started, they thought I was pretty good at it and should take some classes. Josephine was probably the only acting teacher for children in Toronto at that time. I started going to her classes and through that I was introduced to the CBC and radio drama, which then led to radio acting as a child actor.”


HNMAG “Was it unionized back then?”

WILLIAM “It actually was. I joined what is now ACTRA when I was 12. Back then it was called ACRA (Association for Canadian Radio Artists) because there was no television.”


HNMAG “As a writer/screenwriter, have you ever been inspired to write a story based on those radio drama/acting days?”

WILLIAM “I did. I had a draft of a short movie, called The Radio Actor. It was based on the actor John Draney, a big radio actor from my childhood. He had a bit of a leg impediment and his movement on stage was a little awkward but as a radio actor he was supreme. What’s so interesting about the story is that you could go sit on the fire escape at the back of the building and watch the new big yellow building going up, which was the first CBC television station. It mostly inspired fear amongst my colleagues that were middle-aged and making a decent living in radio acting. John Draney did not survive the move to television and I’m not sure it was a factor to his early death. He passed away when he was only 50 yrs. old. Some of the radio actors did alright moving to television but for others, it was the end of the ride.”


HNMAG “Have you ever played charades?”

WILLIAM “Oh, I haven’t done that for years (laughing), but it’s fun. It’s interesting because, when I played it as a kid, we didn’t have 1, 2 or 3 syllables, we were much more direct and would act out the entire thing. It was really more of an acting exercise the more it evolved as a game (laughing).”


HNMAG “Did the play, Portrait in Black tour across the country?”

WILLIAM “No it didn’t. It played in a summer stock company and we performed in Gravenhurst and Point Carling, two resort towns north of Toronto. It didn’t have a very long run. I remember this interesting moment, one night as I was sitting in one of the wings of the theatre reading a comic book as I waited for my entrance. One of the older actors approached me and asked if I was nervous. I said ‘no’. She said, ‘well you should be. If you’re going to be an actor you need to be. When I finally went out on stage, I wasn’t nervous (laughing).” 


HNMAG “In the book, you talk about the 3 don’ts. Can you explain those?”

WILLIAM “They’re mostly thrown out there to make people think. One of them is, don’t learn your lines. What I really mean is, don’t memorize your lines. It’s important to know your lines but memorizing them is really boring. What you want to do is find out why you want to say these words at this time. That leads me to explore who you are, what your circumstances are, what’s going on and what do you want? When you know why you want to say something as an actor, then you know the line and you don’t even have to think about it, you just have to say it. You want to get underneath and not plant a surface layer on top. Another is, don’t write a character biography. What you need to know is what you need to know and you’ll find that out by asking why do I say what I say. There are lots of things you don’t need to know. You don’t need to know what your mothers’ toothpaste is. Actors get bogged down thinking that they have to flesh out the character, you can simplify it. The third don’t is, don’t play a character. When you think of a character, you tend to think of a type of person. You’re playing a nervous character, so as an actor, you need to act nervous. In real life, that’s backwards because in real life, that person you’re looking at is afraid of certain things. If you try to play an interpretation, then you put a shell over the character, a description, an attitude. You should also think of the person you’re playing in the first person; it’s always I and not me, it’s not somebody else, it’s me. Why do I want to do this, why do I want to do that, why does this happen to me? Once you think it’s a he, then it’s somebody else you have to pretend to be and transfer that essence to that person and transfer my essence to that person’s essence when nobody has an essence anyway. For the most part, it’s more difficult than it has to be. Do what the character does and you’ll be the character.”     


HNMAG “Who would you suggest reading this book because it does seem to be targeted toward actors but writers can also learn so much more about character development too.”

WILLIAM “I think it’s really helpful for writers. I actually went into acting as a director, so I can learn more about what the actor does, so I can be a better director. I also hope it’s interesting for people who are in the audience. The people that watch theatre, watch television, watch films and watch people and how they behave. Why do people do what they do and what underlies human behaviour? It’s what’s kept me in this game all this time.”


HNMAG “You must have learned so much by writing this book and reflecting back on those memories?”

WILLIAM “One does. The first book that I wrote, the memoir – I literally had to go back in time and talk to people that I hadn’t talked to for 50 years and reexperience what life was like back then and how life is now and the relation. Trying to give coherence to what it is you’re doing, why you’re doing it and why you think it’s the most useful way to do it and what underlies it. It’s always a learning experience.”


HNMAG “Can we expect another book in the future?”

WILLIAM “I have a faint idea but nothing has popped out yet, so we’ll see. I really enjoy the process.”


HNMAG “Will you be continuing with the directing?”

WILLIAM “Yes I will, although recently something happened with a group that I do plays with called The Smoking Gun Collective. Two of the guys got together and they wanted to do Pinter’s play, No Man’s Land. They weren’t sure if one of them should direct or one of them should act. They got me involved and logically, I was going to direct it because that’s what I usually do. We talked about it more and more… and in the end I’m acting in it. I’m playing Spooner, which is one of the most challenging roles I’ve ever encountered. If I can learn all that text at least I know my mind is still working. We’re doing exploratory rehearsal work on it now and will be presenting it in the fall.”

William B. Davis, one of Canada’s best! A performer that has experienced the evolution of cinema, starting from the radio. Davis had mentioned a screenplay that he’d started called, The Radio Actor and I sincerely hope that he finishes it. The story would be a beautiful post card for those radio actors that paved the way for television and film actors. William B. Davis, thank you for your time!           

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *