Mackenzie Davis on ‘San Junipero,’ Female Friendships, and Her New Thriller Always Shine

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While it’s technically correct to say that Mackenzie Davis is on the rise, real heads have been on board for a while now. Davis had been a standout in indies like Smashed, Bad Turn Worse, and What If, before being cast in 2014 in AMC’s cult favorite Halt and Catch Fire. A place in The Martian’s glamorous ensemble followed, and then Davis delivered a star turn with her poignant, goofy, and deeply nuanced performance in the Black Mirror episode “San Junipero.” Now, she’s got the title role in Jason Reitman’s Tully and a part in Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner sequel coming down the pike — but in the meantime, she gives the performance of her career in the incisive and unsettling Always Shine, a remarkably assured thriller from director Sophia Takal, about two actresses dealing with the end of their friendship. As the film opens in select cities and VOD, Vulture caught up with Davis to talk “San Junipero,” female friendship, and not talking about Blade Runner.

How did you end up working on Always Shine? Was that just a script that got sent to you?
Actually, yeah — I remember reading it during the first season of Halt, in a very cold apartment in February, and just being blown away at the storytelling and embarrassed at how intimate and personal it felt to my own life, in that way when you see a movie or read a book and you’re like, Oh my God, they’re telling my secrets! It was hard for me to imagine that somebody else had written so eloquently about myself, in a strange way.

Did you find yourself connecting more with your character Anna, who’s struggling to pay her bills, or with Beth, who’s navigating the challenges of fame?
What the movie does so well is it creates something archetypal out of these women. I think that you can tell very specific stories that feel very universal when something’s a little bit broader. I connected with Anna, but so many women exist on this spectrum; it’s not like success is immediate if you’re on Beth’s side of the spectrum and impossible if you’re on Anna’s. So many women feel this push and pull to find the right place to exist on that spectrum, because there is an intangible best place that we’re told all our lives that we need to exist in, and we receive constant, unsolicited feedback on ourselves, on our looks, our bodies, our opinions, how loud we are, how aggressive we are — it just seems like the whole world is asking us to find a very narrow place to exist, and it’s somewhere between those two poles. I’m probably further away from Anna, though.

How did this story dovetail with your own experience of the industry?
In my own life, I started working pretty late — it’s stupid, because I was 24, but for an actress to not have done a single thing before that, it’s kind of a scary place to occupy. So I’ve always been, in a way that’s good and also maybe I need to grow up out of this point of view a little bit, extremely grateful to work at all. I got to live off my acting pretty quickly, and while maybe I wasn’t in the public’s view, or working on illustrious projects, I was working. I liked the stuff I was doing, which I think is the rarest possible dream fulfillment that you can have.

I don’t want to give away the movie’s great twist, but I wanted to ask you about  …
Right, yeah. Well, I think the movie plays with different modes of performance. There’s the actresses performing, and we see an aspect of that, and then there’s the performance of femininity that Anna, more explicitly than Beth, really gets to play with. Just the sort of different selves you become in different situations — right now, I’m trying to be a very eloquent actress that’s doing an interview with you, but that’s not how I am when I get home. But every single world we step into, we’re giving some sort of performance for the audience we’re talking to, and the film focuses on the particular pressures on women to perform in particularly specific ways. It was really interesting to get to run up and down the spectrum of female gender performance.

Had you worked with many female directors before this film?
I’d done one movie with a female director, and then through Halt. Melissa Bernstein, our producer, is the best person and my life inspiration, but in addition, she’s so great at hiring interesting directors and a lot of female directors. So I’ve gotten to work with Karyn Kusama and Kimberly Peirce and Daisy [von Scherler] Mayer and Larysa Kondracki, and they come back every year. Doing TV is such an amazing opportunity to work with a whole gamut of directors that you wouldn’t get the chance to work with if you were only doing film.

What’s your perspective on working with female directors, and the importance of that for both your career in film in general?
Jill Soloway said this thing a couple years ago that has always stuck with me, which is that little girls grow up telling stories and directing. They arrange their dolls in a certain way, they’re constantly stage managing, directing, and handling productions, from their dolls to their friends. I was always doing it when I was growing up, creating talent-show dance sequences and lip-syncs and being totally empowered and seeing the whole thing in front of me. And then at a certain age we get convinced that we’re not suited to that task. I don’t like working with women more than I like working with men, I think it ultimately comes down to a certain personality type, but I think something about having been excluded from being a part of the club makes women have a more interesting perspective a lot of the time. This is a generalization, but men have the perspective of the status quo, and women don’t. That’s always going to give you a little edge, I think, when you’re coming at it from an outsider’s point of view.

Watching Always Shine, I thought a lot about a male director, Brian De Palma.
But the gaze feels very different. I really like De Palma, but his gaze is aggressive and undressing and voyeuristic. I’m very aware of being a spectator in De Palma’s movies, especially of the female body.

Whereas the voyeurism in Always Shine seems to come much more from a female perspective, like when Anna is watching Beth speak to the man at the bar.
Female friendships are so emotionally intense and rewarding and invasive — they’re my favorite friendships, but there is this extrasensory perceptiveness about betrayal, and also there’s just always a competition in women because we’ve been told that there’s a scarcity of opportunity. So there’s always this sense of like, Who’s being hit on? Who’s getting that job? I’m not saying that every woman feels that all the time, but I definitely felt it — a way that we’re raised culturally where it behooves us to beat the other girl, and you can see when you’re losing in a situation. I always grew up thinking that being undesirable is a mortal sin.

That feeds into the starting point of your Black Mirror episode “San Junipero,” where you’re coming from this perspective of somebody who has not experienced that kind of tension, ever, and is experiencing it now in a very novel way.
[My character] Yorkie seems like she’s just bitten off of the tree of knowledge at the very beginning of that episode and is learning about the whole world for the first time. It’s like she’s already been poisoned by a very real-world understanding of what it is to be a living, breathing woman.

Beyond the script, how did you and Gugu Mbatha-Raw work to develop your characters’ dynamic and this intense relationship that’s based on such an instant, instinctive connection?
I think we both had really clear ideas about our characters going into it. I don’t know, it just felt like falling in love. It’s harder, I think, with Always Shine, where you’re seeing the end of this thing and the question is, how do you convey that these people were friends once and not just be like, “Are they friends? They hate each other!” But I view it as this relationship that was extremely dependent on a very specific power dynamic, where Anna was the charismatic, charming, outgoing, ambitious one, and Beth was pretty but meek and mousy and shy, and at a certain point that got inverted and Anna couldn’t sustain that injury. Whereas doing Black Mirror, you get to meet the person, fall in love, break up and get back together all over the course of one thing. It’s nice to truly live a thing instead of imagine all the stuff that came before and hope that it’s conveyed in this maelstrom of bitterness.

Do you think that the ending of “San Junipero,” them getting to be together in this constructed world, is a happy ending? Or do you see it as bittersweet?
I only thought it was happy. In the alternate reality where this is possible, there’s an element of greed to having a second life, so I don’t think it’s the right decision for everybody. But for Yorkie — and maybe it was obviously a harder decision for Gugu’s character — it was her first life, because she didn’t get to do this before. So to be able to have this opportunity doesn’t seem greedy or gluttonous — it’s the first time she gets to experience unhindered love and ecstasy and joy. It’s so beautiful. The other thing about San Junipero is it’s pretty low stakes — you can just leave when you don’t want to be there anymore.

I’m sure you can barely talk about this, but how was the experience of doing Blade Runner?
It was so great. I think Denis Villeneuve is one of our greatest directors. I’m so in awe of him, and he’s a tremendous human being who’s just like, kind and humble. I don’t understand how you can be that low-key about your genius and still create the sort of movies — it feels like you need some sort of horrible neuroses to make such glorious movies as the ones he’s made, but he’s just like, a great human. It’s so funny, I’ve been thinking about how informed our lives are based on growing up in a culture with celebrities, because I keep getting asked about this, and I’m like, “I can’t talk about it,” but I feel like that’s because I grew up seeing actors say that they couldn’t talk about movies that they were in [laughs]. Like, nobody’s told me that I can’t talk about it.

Well, then tell me everything.
I obviously am not going to because I don’t want to be on the receiving end of anyone’s ire! [Laughs.] But it’s just funny to be pretending to be that actor who’s now like, “I couldn’t possibly talk about my next project.” I’m like, oh, you just saw that on Extra when you were growing up. Everyone’s just fucking pretending all the time!

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Mackenzie Davis on ‘San Junipero,’ Always Shine