Chilling Adventures of Sabrina hosts a somewhat less than venerated group of wise wizards in season 2, albeit a reluctant one. Hilda Spellman summons the Dishonorable Council of Witches to deal with a High Priest who has gone off his rocker, honestly. Father Blackwood is changing the tenets of the Church of Night, which he re-anti-christened the Church of Judas, and declared intentions to break away from the Churches of Darkness. The council, which previously bound Sabrina’s warlock cousin Ambrose to the Spellman house for hundreds of years, is headed by Father Methuselah.
Methuselah is played by William B. Davis, who besides being a sitting member of the Witches Council, played Carl Gerhard Bush Spender, better known as Cigarette Smoking Man, who was part of the State Department’s secretive “Syndicate” which oversaw alien colonization on The X-Files. The great great grandfatherly figure of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina was a father figure on the classic cult conspiracy series. Rumored to be the father of Fox “Spooky” Mulder, it was revealed in the season 11 premiere, “My Struggle III”, that Cigarette Smoking Man fathered Baby William, when he drugged Agent Dana Scully in the episode “En Ami.” Davis, who wrote the episode, continues to inveigle and obfuscate the issue, not wanting to indulge in late-season revisionist history.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina mixes historical mythology with biblical alchemy to create a dark anti-Archie universe. The Anti-Pope of the Churches of Darkness, Enoch of Antioch, is the son of Cain, who committee fratricide on his brother Abel in the Book of Genesis. The principal at Greendale High School is Lilith, the first witch and bride of Adam. Salome, the daughter of Herodias who danced for King Herod until he offered up the head of John the Baptist, undulated for the star pupils of The Academy of Unseen Arts. The gathering was presided over by Dorian Gray, a character created by Oscar Wilde, who also wrote the play Salome.
The actor who plays Methuselah is a seasoned stage actor who founded the William Davis Centre for Actors Study. Davis, who wrote the 2011 memoir Where There’s Smoke …. The Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man, speaks with Den of Geek about the secrets of the darker arts.
DEN OF GEEK: I know you speak at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. So I wanted to ask, do you believe in magic?
WILLIAM DAVIS: No.
So how do you prepare to play a character outside your experience or even belief? Does it compare with playacting naturally as a child over any method?
Well I mean an actor does all sorts of things that don’t happen to that person in real life, or even in a world that they don’t inhabit. What one does as an actor is one absorbs the imagined circumstances, assumes the imagined circumstances are true, and then act truthfully within those circumstances. So I find in Game of Thrones, and I have two dragons that breathe fire but William B. Davis does not believe in dragons that breathe fire. But if I’m playing in Game of Thrones I do have two dragons that breathe fire and I accept that.
How do you keep the actual reality of what we’re seeing in your head when you’re doing things so many times from different angles and things like that?
I mean it’s true, you have a requirement as an actor of repeating what needs to be spontaneous, so it is a kind of mixed challenge there. But it simply means that each time you do that, you have to bring yourself fully to it, fully with the backstory that you have and fully with the awareness of being in the moment. If you’re a hockey player and you take 12 face-offs in a game, you have to do all the face-offs identically or as well as you can. You can’t just say, “Oh well I’ve done two so I don’t need to do anymore. You can’t let face-offing wear off, as it were. It has to be fresh and fully activated.
And that’s the same with every take you do as an actor from each angle that comes at you or is being arranged for you.
So is acting as much fun as water skiing?
Yeah I think so. I think so. Circumstances vary. It depends on the role. It depends on what you’re doing when you’re water skiing. But yeah, I would say so.
What drew you to this character and this show?
Well people often ask you that question. But the truth is, as an actor you do what you get more than you do what you choose, unless you’re an A-list actor and you’re fielding all sorts of different offers. With that said, they offered me this role and it was challenging, it was fascinating, it was intriguing. The whole framework as this show, as an audience, is not particularly my style. But it’s so well done and so thoroughly achieved that it’s a pleasure to immerse oneself in it, and it was a lovely company to work with. So that was all very rewarding.
Do you have a detailed history of Methuselah?
Heck no I don’t. As an actor I do what I need to do to bring me to what has to be done in the scene. There’s really no use, I don’t think, for what was required in those two episodes that I did for me to imagine Methuselah education-wise or whether his parents got along well together or that kind of detailed background.
I did need to have an imaginative idea of what I was being presented with and what it was I was going to have to deal with.
Do you know how old Methuselah is?
Well I know mythically somewhere around eight or 900. I can’t remember. But something like that.
Is he the same Methuselah as the one in Genesis?
Yeah. But since I was cast in it, I assumed. They didn’t age me, interestingly. I thought they might. I thought they might have tried. So they assume that Methuselah survived to that age looking remarkably like what a curt human at the age of 80 might look like.
I don’t know if you know this or not, but would Methuselah be part of the witch council that bound Ambrose Spellman to the Mortuary? Were you part of the council that condemned Sabrina’s cousin?
That’s a good question and I don’t have a good answer. That’s entirely possible, yes. But I don’t have a clear answer. I would have to read and kind of go back and look at the details of the story.
You got a little handsy with Sabrina’s aunt.
So what does Methuselah think of Blackwood’s new tenets of witchery? Is the witch world ready for a #MeToo movement?
Well, somehow he didn’t seem to worry about it too, too much. I don’t think Methuselah has much time for Blackwood in general, so pretty much what Blackwood does is probably not so great. But on the particular issue of male/female relationship, it does seem as if Methuselah is a little old school and still thinks women are there for men’s benefit. I would think that’s how he leans, I think.
According to Witches Council law, the murderer of another witch or warlock shall be executed. So what about if they web you up? Will there be consequences?
I hope so. I can’t say.
Will you be back?
Things happen in television, or things happen in that world, they’re not necessarily what are supposed to happen. But yes, I think there should be some retribution for tying me up and leaving me to die. I think so. For Methuselah to come to an end after all those years, that’s pretty significant. I have no idea. But some of the other actors tell me that no one ever really dies on the show, so maybe. Maybe I’ll recover, which would be great, because I love playing the part. But it didn’t look very good to me.
Would Methuselah admire Hilda for being able to out-magic him?
I think maybe. Yeah I think there might be a certain respect for the opponent. Yeah I think so. Yeah.
Is Chilling Adventures of Sabrina really part of a conspiracy to make its viewers open to Luciferian illumination?
No. I don’t think so. I think it’s just a story.
You sit on the Withes Council in Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, you’re part of the syndicate that controls the world from behind the scenes in The X-Files. Is this type casting because you have inner knowledge?
That would be nice to think. I do tend to play roles of characters that have a lot of power, which is pretty interesting because I don’t know that I have that much myself. I don’t think it shows that I have any inner connection to the zeitgeist or what have you. But I do get cast that way.
A lot of people make the comparison between Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But do you see Sabrina also as an heir to the strong female character, Xena the Warrior Princess?
Not really. No. But it’s an interesting question, because Xena, it felt like she really has the power. She is a powerful person. Whereas Sabrina, she has to go with the flow. Because of her heritage and so on, powers work through her but she doesn’t really know what they are or how they got there, whereas Xena was a much more powerful person. Interesting. The two actors couldn’t be more different, so that’s interesting too, because Lucy is a pretty strong person.
You worked with Sarah Michelle Geller on the 2009 film Possession. You coached Lucy Lawless, and she appeared on The X-Files, and now you’re working with Sabrina. So I’m wondering if all these connections add up to a conspiracy theory?
It would be fun to think that. Yes. It would be fun to think I have a connection to all these hounded actors, and somehow their success has something to do with how I am manipulating the puppet strings behind the scenes. But no, I think it’s purely coincidental that I have encountered these three particular female performers. Or female characters rather. Yeah.
I’m just curious, when you watch Lucy Lawless act in something, do you say hey she learned that in my studio?
You know, I haven’t seen her work recently. But she gave a lot of credit to her work with us. And we were very enamored of her talent when she was with us. So there’s certainly something that runs through her work. But you know, as we continue, I don’t know whether my teachers now from many years ago in my theater school and training when I was in my early 20s would recognize what I do now.
All these building blocks fit in, but if you’re asking do I see anything particular I’d have to see a particular kind of work. I’d have to see something more naturalistic than Xena for instance.
It seemed Cigarette Smoking Man turned out to be quite the daddy figure on The X-Files. Is it going to come out that you’re a little too familiar with the half-breed Spellman? It always comes out later on that you’re the daddy to everybody on these shows.
Well Methuselah must have a very long gene line if he’s been around that long. So it may be only that I’m the parent of her great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great-grandfather. But who knows, yes there might be a bloodline there.
It’s very much from what we saw of Methuselah. He certainly tries his luck where he can. So yeah. Maybe. It’s entirely possible.
You wrote the season seven X-Files episode “An Ami,” which Chris Carter says is the creepiest episode of the series, and your character got handsy with Dana Scully. Does power have to abuse? Because you also got handsy with Hilda?
Now just a moment here. I accept that Methuselah got handsy with Hilda in Sabrina, with that context. But I’m not sure that the Smoking Man got handsy with Scully. I think he was devoted to her, and admired her and found the common connection. I found a dinner scene where he confesses his loneliness to her quite human. But if you’re referring to what might have happened in the bedroom, I’m of the opinion that I did nothing wrong in that bedroom.
I mean what are you going to do? Somebody is unconscious, and you want to put them to bed, so you get your housekeeper to come and help put them to bed. That’s all. That’s all I thought ever happened. Smoking Man has many evil habits, but I don’t think that’s one of them.
Do you prefer Cigarette Smoking Man or Cancer Man?
I prefer Cigarette Smoking Man. Or even CSM if you want to be quicker.
Did the herbal cigarettes trigger any cravings after you had quit for so long?
Well, it went the other way actually. What happened was, in the first episode I did, believing that it was going to be the only episode that I would ever do, I smoked real cigarettes, even though I had quit 17 years earlier. And I didn’t think any more of it because I didn’t think it would ever come up again. Then another episode came up and I smoked real cigarettes again, and that’s when I had a craving problem because then I started sitting at home thinking, “Gee I wish they would call me for that X-Files show again.” So at that point I knew I couldn’t risk going on smoking real cigarettes.
So I switched to the herbal cigarettes which they had offered me. It’s a choice in the beginning. So I did switch to those, and they did not prompt any craving to smoke, let me tell you. They are very unpleasant to smoke. They smell terrible. They’re in no way addictive. The habit of smoking I enjoyed. I enjoyed it in the show. I still would enjoy it. But the actual inhaling of that substance was not compelling, was not leading me to any further desire.
Do you think in the future if they ever remake The X-Files it will be the Vaping Man?
It could be. That’s something I don’t understand, vaping. I’m totally mystified about it. And I actually did some promotions for vaping in its early days because my understanding was vaping was a way to not smoke. It was a way to have the habit without the nicotine. But now it seems everybody vapes with a dose of nicotine, so it’s not much different for the person doing it. But it still doesn’t give fumes to the people around you so I don’t know why there’s so much hostility to vaping. It doesn’t quite make sense to me.
Well they made fun of it on True Detective season two.
Yeah they can have fun with it. That’s true.
Are you as skeptical of conspiracies as you are of alien contact and the paranormal?
Not quite. Not quite. I used to be, because when one thought about “was there a conspiracy to kill JFK,” that’s one of the most famous and I’m pretty skeptical of that as a conspiracy. But what we do know, and this has been traced, and it’s horrendous I think, is there has been a conspiracy to suppress information on climate change, and it’s been conducted by the Koch Brothers and others. It’s even done knowingly by the companies involved, as well as was done with tobacco.
And that kind of conspiracy, it’s not a secret as to ones indicated in X-Files or even in the JFK conspiracy theories. That people do get together in some form or other to promote an agenda in secret or attempting to do it in secret to push their end, does in fact of course happen. So one can’t be skeptical of that.
Getting back to JFK for one second, I thought you did it?
Yeah. But I was still working alone.
So you did frame Lee Harvey Oswald, rig the Oscars, and arranged it so Buffalo Bills would never get into the Super Bowl?
Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. We did all that. Yeah.
Steve Guttenberg is your fault?
You and Mr. Burns from The Simpsons are both on the list of greatest TV villains of all time. Do you keep in touch?
Yeah, we keep in touch with each other, another conspiracy.
You’re an acting teacher and a theatrical director. In this particular episode, you’re playing a very old character. Does that make you see it as a period piece?
Not really. No. I mean the whole thing is so fantastical, I mean in the sense of fantasy, that it’s kind of hard to compare. Because the world that the character is in is not like either the present day world or a period world. It’s like it’s its own world. So in that sense, no. But in the sense that you were kind of long gone, then you behave in ways that are more reflective of older periods of human history, yeah in that sense that some sense of period to it.
Do you like the costumes?
I did. It’s funny when they did the kind of look, and they did my hair, I wasn’t really sure, but then I actually saw it on screen and thought it’s great. They did a really good job.
What does that do for your character? When you’re in costume, what does that bring to it?
In this case, it brings a certain power, a certain authority, a certain regality, a certain alpha male quality to it.
Theater is fully propelled by acting, as opposed to the action in film. Do your teaching methods come to play while you’re directing?
Oh absolutely. I mean unless you’re working with a beginner, you’re not teaching acting. And you have to be kind of careful not to teach acting in a way, because every actor has their own method of work and you don’t want to challenge an experienced professional with a new way of working. What you’re doing is directing a play, to have it come to you, to experiment with how they work as an actor. So you have to be sensitive to that.
With that said, the qualities that you’re trying to get to, the kind of reality and spontaneity that you’re trying to have come about it what you’re working for. Whereas in a classroom situation you might say that directly and give an idea of how directly they might get to that, when you’re directing, it might be something much more subtle it might have something to do with where you place that actor in relation to other characters on the stage at that particular moment, will get you that effect.
But the goals you’re working for are always reflective of where I believe actors should best do, or should do to make the work the most rewarding for them and for the audience. And that’s … You know, I have strong beliefs about that and that’s why I like to direct and that’s why I like to teach.
In theater you have the entire arc playing out from beginning to end and you give a full performance, and you get the breathing of the audience adding to it, what is different besides that when you’re acting in film?
Well obviously when you’re acting in film, it’s size. Not emotional size, but basically focal size I suppose, or physical size. You can be more intimate focally on film. So you can just talk a lot more quietly. And that can allow you a certain vulnerability, a certain intimacy, a certain emotional connection that’s a little harder to realize when you have to fill a theater, even when it’s a small theater, and certainly when it’s a large theater.
But to me, the biggest difference is it’s really more along the lines of what you just described, is when you’re doing film the way we normally do it, with a little bit of this and a little bit of that, shooting it this way then shooting at this angle, then repeating it and being off camera. So you shoot it in such little pieces that it doesn’t have the same flow. But it’s also freeing in another sense, in that I don’t have to be obligated to what I did two minutes ago. Whereas if I’m playing continuously, then what I did two minutes ago affects what I’m going to do now.
But if I did a shot earlier and now I’m going to do another shot that’s a little later in the scene, I don’t have to connect it to an earlier shot. I can find my own backstory for the new shot and make it work, even though it’s not the same backstory, exactly, as I did in a previously shot. You can’t do that when you’re on stage. You have to, as you say, connect it all to one clean arc, which is challenging and is also part of the reward too.
Is either one of them more fun?
Good question. I think the stage one is more fun. Yeah.
Is it just because you’re in front of people and it’s a performance-performance? Or because the other one is, as you said, you can get a deeper performance. You can do much more close up.
Yeah. It’s interesting like you say, because I remember when I was kind of first doing X Files, I was doing a little theater at the same time. So when I’m doing a scene, or I’m doing a small theater, there’s maybe 200 people in the audience and I’m really nervous. I mean not paralyzingly so, but I’m really apprehensive before going on stage. And when I’m doing X Files, I’m playing for 10 million people and I’m not nervous at all. So there’s quite a difference in what that context presents you with. Because I mean if I mess up on a show set, we just do it again. But if I mess up in front of an audience, oh that’s so embarrassing, even if there’s only a few hundred people there.
Back to Sabrina, do you think it is possible that there could be another community coexisting with the human community and being able to hide themselves on this planet?
No. Not now. A couple hundred years ago maybe, but with GPSs and satellites and electronic communications, I don’t see how that could happen. No pretty much I have to admit, which is perhaps not very imaginative, but I’m a pretty much “what you see is what’s there” kind of person. So it’s hard for me to think that.
That’s what magicians capitalize on. Because while you’re looking at one thing, they’re doing prestidigitation with the other hand.
Of course. Yeah. No of course, that’s true. I mean if you asked me do I believe in magic in that sense, yes absolutely. Magicians are remarkably clever at diverting one’s attention to something else so something else can actually occur. Goodness knows we do that a lot. We look in the wrong place and don’t see what’s more important to be seen. But that doesn’t mean it’s a secret world. It just means we didn’t notice it.
Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.