Mackenzie Davis on Throwing Knives and Growing Out Her Armpit Hair for Station Eleven
Mackenzie Davis logs onto our Zoom call in a black turtleneck, animatedly gesturing as she shows the minimalist chic New York City hotel room she's staying in.
The 34-year-old Canadian actress recently moved to London, though she's currently in Manhattan for work, which includes promoting her latest project, HBO Max's Station Eleven.
The new original miniseries is based on the acclaimed novel of the same name by Emily St. John Mandel, and is both timely and timeless in the same breath — it's set 20 years after a devastating flu pandemic has killed most of the population and resulted in civilization's collapse. Davis, who plays Kirsten, an actor in a performing troupe called the Travelling Symphony, describes the process of making a post-pandemic show during a pandemic as suitably "intense." Station Eleven began filming in January 2020, before being shut down and delayed due to the coronavirus spread.
"It was both a convenient place to feel your feelings about what you were going through and also a release from that, because we'd be isolated in our houses and quarantining and then you'd get to go and be with 150 people on set, and that was amazing," she says of filming.
Davis, who broke out in Drake Doremus's 2013 feature Breathe In, is perhaps best known for her role in Black Mirror's fan favorite episode "San Junipero," as well as her turn opposite Charlize Theron in 2018's Tully and the AMC series Halt and Catch Fire. Her filmography is stacked with vastly varying credits that reveal an actor with deep versatility, the genres on her IMDb page spanning from sci-fi (Blade Runner 2049) to rom-com (Happiest Season) and horror (The Turning).
Not having read the novel before the script landed on her desk, Davis initially felt that Station Eleven would be too similar to her role in 2019's Terminator: Dark Fate, but quickly realized the miniseries was an entirely different canvas.
"I used to really like the idea that everything is completely different from the last thing," she says of choosing roles. "I like working with really smart, curious people and I want to have fun on set and I feel like that's my zone right now."
Ahead, Davis discusses learning the art of knife throwing, falling in love with storytelling, and the dream role she'd love to manifest.
This role is quite physical, which you are no stranger to, given your Terminator role. What kind of prep did you do for Station Eleven?
Oh God, I was doing a lot of knife throwing — which ended up not being a huge part of the show — but I was training with a knife thrower in London and then quickly learned that looking cool [while] throwing a knife and throwing a knife with accuracy are mutually exclusive skills. So I was really good at this stiff body, [grunts], sort of hinging my arm on a 90-degree angle to a 0-degree angle — or I guess you'd call that a line — and then as soon as I started showing people on set, they were like, "No, that looks so stupid." [Laughs]
So I had to adjust that but I went to Vancouver for Christmas and my dad built me a knife throwing board and the two of us were throwing knives all through the holidays, which was really fun. Then I was making a lobster bisque one day after New Year's and was walking home from the store in this sort of rural area that my parents live, with a carton of cream in each hand, and I rolled my ankle and tore a bunch of muscle and ligaments in this very fluke accident.
So what I'm saying is I did no physical work because for a long time I couldn't even walk. The first episode of the show, I could not move — I could just stand in the first episode that we shot, which was convenient. I could observe or sit and sometimes stand in place. So yeah, it was marked by a different physical thing that I wasn't really prepared for except for my knife throwing skills.
Something that I deeply appreciate is that your character has actual armpit hair in this.
Thank you very much. She shaves them afterwards. I was getting a rash under my arms, so I had to shave but we had a good year together.
How much time did you and Matilda [Lawler, who played the younger version of Kirsten] have together? You have one episode where you're interacting but other than that, it seems quite separate.
I'd watched dailies of her when they started shooting in January, February 2020. [Showrunner] Patrick [Somerville] and [director] Hiro [Murai] were sending me what she was doing, and she's just so present and wise in a weird way that is not precocious — just embodied — and I just loved watching her. I think she's an incredible actress.
And then the pandemic came and shut our show down, so the next time that we reconnected is when we started doing some Zoom hangouts in January of just getting to know each other and spending time together again. But what was really, really lucky is that the first episode that I shot was that episode where I got to watch her in this apartment and just experience what would have been my [character's] experience.
Kirsten is an actor in a traveling acting troupe. If you had to travel across the country playing any of your previous roles, which would you choose and why?
Well, I think obviously Grace [from Terminator] would be great because she seems really capable but she's also very fragile, and has that internal mechanism, Terminator problem. I'm going to say Tully because it's so nice. Spoiler alert: there's a bad side to it, but generally she's quite a supportive, loving friend, and leads with love and care. And if you're going to be doing something for a long time, you really want to be in that sort of psychic space.
I was wondering if you were going to choose Cameron from Halt and Catch Fire, but maybe that's too much material to draw from, all four seasons.
It was quite angsty. It's nice to play nice things, honestly. I don't know if you want to do it all the time, be crying and frustrated and feeling betrayed and having your heart broken. It's nice to just be like, "I'm a good friend!"
You've had so many interesting and varied roles over the years. When you're choosing a project, how often are you consciously looking for something that you haven't done before?
I think it's not that I'm looking for something that I haven't done, it's that if something comes my way that I've definitely done, it just doesn't turn you on. It's like, I've already touched that part — but sometimes not. It's not like everything is a full 180 degrees from the last thing, but I don't know, this role felt, in first rendering of it, felt a little bit similar thematically to Terminator which it's not at all. That's my misread of it. but at first I was like, 'I don't know, it feels a little close to what I just finished doing,' and then it became this whole other thing. So I don't know, I think as a challenge I used to really like the idea that everything is completely different from the last thing. I like working with really smart, curious people and I want to have fun on set and I feel like that's my zone right now.
Has your outlook on choosing roles changed the longer you've worked?
Yeah, I think it all fluctuates. I guess everybody does this, but I've always applied some sort of, when I was younger, definitely like a rubric to how to be, how to move forward. It was never strategic for me but it was what I respected. Trying to tap into the most honest way of having a career is where you ... I don't know, never wanting it to be cynical or ambitious in the wrong way. I think I care less about that now. It feels like a relic from when I was younger that there's a right way of doing things that's noble and defendable and then there's a wrong way that's selling out, and I don't think that anymore.
Station Eleven is really about the role of art during a time of chaos and upheaval. Did that feel meta to you as an actor?
Yeah, but it felt meta to me as a person who lived through 2020. The thing that we were all doing was trying to consume or make art or find a way of sharing, watching a movie together on screens and not just consuming content by ourselves but creating experiences that were suddenly lost to us. I feel that that was one of the universal aches that we had. I was like, 'I want to go and dance in a room with people and I want to be scared in a movie theater with a group of people.' I can do all of it at home — wow, technology — but you can't replicate being next to somebody and feeling them jump in a movie [theater], that's so cool.
What were some pieces of art that kept you going during the pandemic?
I read a lot in the first year running off what I hadn't read for a while before. I started wanting to run through a bunch of stuff. I don't have it anymore, my document of all these books that I was reading, but I read Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man. The first book I read [during the pandemic] was Grapes of Wrath. March 17th was like, all right, let's do it, which was such a nice, heavy sort of Bible of people surviving in tragedy and difficult times. It was a really nice thing to walk through in that first month of the pandemic.
I didn't want to watch [anything]. I think because I was looking at my phone more than I ever had before for information and going to Worldometer.com all the time to count deaths. I wasn't super into like movies or shows in the beginning. That's changed now, I'm all in. But, yeah, I really was feeling like the only thing I wanted to do was lie in bed and read. Then the only thing I wanted to do was actually be with people and dance and laugh and watch something together.
Do you remember the first time you fell in love with storytelling as an art form?
Yeah, it's like your earliest memory of your parents telling you a story before bed and begging for them to do it again. Or for me, my mom had this story, which I think my parents just told these shaggy dog stories that never had an ending until we went to bed. There was always this story of walking on a path and there were these bright yellow flowers along the path, and she picked them up, and then there was a mailbox and then I never remember what happened, but it's the most compelling story. I want to call her now and find out what the story was, but I'm feeling it just didn't go anywhere. It was just to make us fall asleep and so that every night we would be like, 'Mom, mom, tell us the story again.'
But that and then reading, I was such a voracious reader when I was a kid. It was my favorite, favorite, favorite thing to do. I have a cousin now who's the same way and it's so interesting watching her where I'm like, 'Yeah, reading's so cool, huh?' It felt like eating to me, to just run through books as fast as I could. So it was definitely before TV or movies, it was parent stories and reading Stuart Little.
When did you know you wanted to become an actor?
I always did. I just never made the connection to it being a career. I think I just liked doing it. And it was connected to so many fun things, like you get to go to after school classes or weekend classes. There's this place called Arts Umbrella in Vancouver, and they'd have kids' acting classes or we'd all put on plays together and I started doing that when I was five probably.
And being in plays at school meant you got to stay at school after 5:00 PM, when it became, I don't know, the most adult — nothing ever happened, but that transformation of 3:30 to then 5:00 PM and being in school when it was dark out was like ... It could have been a sex club. [Laughs] It was just the most unbelievably potent place where anything could happen, and we shouldn't be here, but let's do it anyways, but you're just ordering Domino's and rehearsing Oliver Twist but it just feels really cool to be in these spaces after dark. I just always did it and then I am a late bloomer, so I didn't really put together that I should be professional about it until I went to university. It was just the only thing I did.
Your career and your work have spanned so many genres, is there anything that you haven't done that you want to do?
You know, I'd love to do a musical. I'm not a good dancer. I'm an OK singer but I feel like they could definitely sort some of that out in post-production and I would love to do a musical. I think it would be so fun.
Do you have a favorite that you would want to be in?
No … I was in Into the Woods in high school, I was the Baker's Wife. I've been listening to a lot of [Stephen] Sondheim lately, obviously. But no, I just love musicals. I love cabaret. I'd love to be in a Sondheim or something that hasn't been invented yet. Just seems so fun and hard.
Station Eleven is currently streaming on HBO Max.