Mackenzie Davis Answers the Tough Questions

Along with a duct-taped copy of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Mackenzie Davis toted a glass bottle of green water around with her on set of Halt and Catch Fire. “Recently I was like, ‘I smell bad,’” Davis said as she took a swig. She used to put droplets of chlorophyll into her water, but when she stopped, she noticed her body odor, so she started up again. “If you drink it for like a week and a half, you smell like sweet cut grass,” she said. “It also increases cellular respiration and allows you to have more oxygen in your bloodstream, but I can only vouch for the sweet cut grass.”

We’re lounging on a couch in Donna’s (played by her co-star, Kerry Bishé) living room, which has been retrofitted in a palette of salmon pink to reflect the interior-decorating tastes of the early 1990s. Davis is taking a break between scenes while shooting the series finale of a show she started on five years ago playing Cameron Howe, the coding savant who can best relate to people through technology. Since then, Davis’s career has moved forward at a fast clip with roles in That Awkward Moment, The Martian, a beloved episode of Black Mirror, and an upcoming part in Blade Runner 2049. Four seasons later, perhaps the most concrete acknowledgment of her ascent (as well as a changing industry) is this: AMC offered her and Bishé a salary commensurate to their male co-stars Lee Pace and Scoot McNairy for the final season.

Davis, 30, who studied English at McGill University in Montreal and didn’t pursue acting professionally until she graduated, maintains the demeanor of someone who thinks of herself as a lifelong student. She loves books, ideas, and the cultural conversation. So when I bring up The Martian, where she played engineer Mindy Park, she knows immediately what I’m talking about. “Are you talking about the whitewashing thing?” she says. “I’ve actually wanted somebody to ask me about this.” What follows is an engrossing, thoughtful conversation about the things most people don’t like to talk about: money, race, and feminism.

My understanding is that the Halt and Catch Fire cast had wine readings at Lee Pace’s house. How did that come about?
Lee started it, and I’m so grateful that he did. We didn’t have table reads for the show because of our schedule, which is hard, especially because we don’t work with the whole cast every scene, so you don’t get the whole shape of the episode or pick up on dramatic subtleties if you’re working in isolation like that. So we’d go to Lee’s house and make dinner and drink wine and just have a table read and bitch about what we needed to. If somebody had to complain, it was really nice, because you got to hear other people’s point of views about your character. You’d go, “I’m super frustrated over this!” and they’d go, “That’s not how we experience you at all,” which can be helpful and not helpful because you’re like, “All that matters is whatever this person thinks of themselves.” But sometimes it’s nice to have a read from somebody without your particular sensitivities for your character voice. It just bonded us so well. We’re not from L.A., we don’t know anybody, it was super lonely, and then we had this thing every Sunday where we got together, read the script, worked it out, and had a laugh and got drunk. It really felt like we came here in this concentrated theater camp for four months every year and devoted ourselves to this thing and went our separate ways. I think the show would have been so unbelievably different if we hadn’t done that.

I really like how Cameron and Donna’s relationship has become the engine of the show.
Me too. It’s so beautiful. I feel like it happened really organically, and I love working with Kerry. She’s just such a fucking good actress. I love what they write for us together, and I like working with her. Everybody on this show is so amazing, but there are some people who just perform at you, and they’re not really speaking to you. There’s no sense of both of you figuring out what this is in the moment, and each line feeling new in some way. She always does that, so it’s been, for me, extremely nourishing and satisfying.

The show also feels like a commentary on itself in some ways, through your partnerships. Like, when the characters talk about making something new, it also feels like the show is talking about remaking itself.
I think it’s super fucking meta, specifically with our show where it’s no secret that the first season was just us all getting our sea legs. Then we did; we reset in season two, and that was so unbelievably satisfying and fun and felt like never-never land. And then, even though that felt so great, we reset for season three in a new space, with a new thing. It feels unusual that the show’s been going on four years, and the core cast members haven’t changed at all, and it hasn’t expanded. We just shift partnerships all the time, and sometimes I’m like, “Oh god, do we not know anybody else? Why do we not have other friends and learn our lessons?” But I kind of believe it. Karyn [Kusama, who has directed one episode each season] said something really lovely, that the reason these people stay in each other’s lives is because they’re the only people who they can be their ugly, true, awful, embarrassing, lovely selves with. And they can, too. We’ve seen so many features of each other, and so many awful things, and so many beautiful things, and shared in such huge, monumental memories together. It does make sense that we all stick together.

Kerry Bishé and Mackenzie Davis in the final season of Halt and Catch Fire. Photo: Tina Rowden/AMC Film Holdings LLC.

When season two started again, what was different for me wasn’t that the story was more focused on Mutiny and Donna’s and my partnership than before — even though it was — but it felt like the energy of the show was really different. Shooting in the Cardiff Electric offices, [they] were so … brown! [Laughs.] And like, I was living in this sex dungeon! The tone of the show felt different, but because we’re always isolated in separate partnerships, I didn’t know until the show came out and people began commenting on it. So it felt more organic to me than this idea that there was some overhaul to the whole structure of the show.

I guess the lynchpin in a lot of ways, to me, was bringing Donna to the fore. I think at the beginning she did feel like …
Like a wife.

Yeah, she felt like a Skyler White copy.
Exactly. It changed the whole thing. Maybe it was episode three or four, where Cameron fucks something up and Donna comes in and fixes it, and it was such a nice, electrifying thing. All of us worked at Cardiff Electric, but I never saw Donna. I knew she had her own story line, and we would have dinner once in a while as a cast, but I didn’t really know what was going on. We were kept completely separate — it was like we worked on different shows! And then she came in and we had a brief moment, and then this brief interaction in the parking lot, and it just felt so good. I don’t have anything really eloquent to say other than, “Oh, this new person around all the men, and all the men I love!” I live with all the men! I think they’re great! But there’s a really interesting story about feminism told through Donna and Cameron, and about second- and third-wave feminism, and the heirs to second-wave feminism, and the second-wavers who are the grandmothers of all of the liberties and rebellions Cameron expresses and inhabits. That’s such an interesting story to tell, because it’s not just two powerful women, but two powerful women who are separated by enough of a generation gap to have grown up in pretty different ways, even though they’re only maybe ten years apart.

What do you think they represent in terms of feminism?
I guess Donna represents a very realistic, pragmatic, unentitled kind of feminism — especially at the beginning of the first season — where she’s worked so hard for the respect she’s garnered and has accumulated in small steps forward: this middling career, which is pretty good for a woman, but her true ambitions and her true talents aren’t being recognized at all. Cameron, for whatever reason, hasn’t been forced to recognize her own femaleness, because I don’t think she presents super-female, which is a big deal — how much femininity you lead with or how much of it they read on you. Because she doesn’t broadcast as, like, a super-female person, I think she doesn’t get treated in a super-female way. So she’s been able to not recognize the experiences and the work that somebody like Donna and her generation have had to claw their way towards, and just takes a huge bite out of life and thinks she deserves it. Through their experiences as partners in Mutiny, I remember the first meeting they have with a sexist VC who asked Donna and Cameron, what if one of them got pregnant? I think that was one of her first true moments when she realized that people looked at her differently for being a girl. It wasn’t just that people looked at her differently for being a genius. She identified as a mind before a body, and then recognized in that moment that some people recognized her as a body before a mind.

Donna did a lot of emotional labor in that partnership, and that feels like in part it was because she was of an older generation, just as she had done in her marriage with Gordon.
Yes, and she’d just stomach it. I think Cameron asked her to do that implicitly, and never allowed, because of her behavior, anybody to ask that of her. She wasn’t in a position to even recognize the labor Donna was performing for her and how much weight she was really carrying, because Cameron didn’t make herself available to have the same experience.

Halt and Catch Fire has always been a show about reinvention, and I wondered if moving to New York City from Canada, you felt like you had to be a different person?
No, I always liked to think about it like, “You can change your style,” and I did do that. When I first moved to New York, my sister worked at Alexander Wang and she gave me a bunch of clothes and I was wearing, like, combat boots and leggings, and I got my nose pierced within the first week. I took out the nose piercing after the first week because I was like, if I have to clean this all the time and just have a scar later, then I’m not interested. It looked really cute, though! I had friends come down from Montreal, and they were like, “You’ve been gone a week! Why do you look like that?” That’s one of the only times I think I really tried to pull a fast one on people. I don’t know if I’ve reinvented myself, or feel that pressure to at all.

Did you feel that way when you were modeling?
No. It’s so funny, I’ve mentioned that, because it’s so embarrassing if you knew like, what that actually means in the context of my life. It’s the most embarrassing photographs. It’s not like, hot fashion modeling. I could barely get catalogues. I walked in like, Paris Fashion Week adjacent. I was the worst!

Off-off Paris Fashion Week.
Yeah, it was off-off week. I was always like, “God, I’m too much myself to do this, and everyone can see it.”

This is a bit of a swerve, but can I ask you about The Martian? I was curious how your role came about.
Are you talking about the whitewashing thing? I totally feel that complaint. I had no idea. So I auditioned for the movie. I worked with an actress called Megan Park, and maybe it was because I knew her name that I thought it was a white name. [Editor’s note: The character Davis plays in the movie is named Mindy Park.]

It can be an ambiguous last name.
I was just having this conversation with people this morning about how people see their own races as neutral, and how that’s a problem because with all the scripts I read, I only delineate race when it says a character isn’t white, and how loud that signal is that everybody writing scripts is white, or the scripts that come across me and the person I was talking to’s desk. I got the part and I had no idea, but when the movie was coming out I started hearing things about how she was supposed to be Korean, which was confusing to me because I had read the book — Chiwetel [Ejiofor]’s character was Indian, but I don’t remember reading the other part at all. [Editor’s note: Even though author Andy Weir has stated that he meant for Mindy Park to be Korean-American, her ethnicity is not explicitly specified in the book.] I remember asking Andy at Toronto, “Was Mindy supposed to be Korean?” and he said, “Yes.” That was the first I ever heard of it.

Did you have a conversation with him then? What did he say?
It was long ago now, so I’d have a hard time giving a satisfying answer — and I don’t mean to absolve myself of any complicity because I didn’t know. But I thought a lot about it because it took me by surprise. I feel very affected by it. I want to be as non-complicit as I have control over, and there have been other parts I have not auditioned for because they were written as a Latino woman or a black woman and they’d go, “Oh, we’ll just see you,” but I feel that there’s no way to change that dynamic unless people take it upon themselves to not participate in that. But then there’s also a woman question, and a dearth of opportunity. I have thought about this before and never talked to anyone about it, and my answer is, none of the excuses that came before other than I didn’t know, but when I found out, I felt really bad. It sucks, and if I knew …

If you knew, would your actions have been different?
I don’t know. It’s hard to say. I’m thinking about how this will look in print right now and thinking, “Oh, you should definitely say yes.” But I was 26, and I remember putting it on tape for one of my favorite directors, and it wasn’t a part of the conversation at the time. All I knew was that I was so unbelievably excited, and it was an opportunity so far beyond anything that had happened in my life so far, and felt so daunting to me. I know that I’ve made other decisions since that point in line with my personal beliefs, but at that point, it’s hard to go back and give a hypothetical, because I was also not as far along in my career. Empathy and awareness and social activism, as far as your own actions, reflect your beliefs and your commitment to what you believe in. It’s hard. I feel embarrassed I’m not just saying “yes” with no caveat at all.

I think that’s honest.
Yes. With more experience and with more minute powers I have accumulated, just in having worked longer, I’ve been able to make decisions that are in line with my personal politics, and I’d like to think that no matter what amount of power I occupied in the world, I would make the same decisions that were purely in line with my personal politics. But I don’t know. I’m three years older now. It’s hard to say what I would have done.

And there’s a sense of scarcity, I’d assume.
Yes, and the feeling of, “Oh, Ridley Scott’s making a movie!” It was just so much bigger than anything. It felt like a fairy tale. I don’t know. There are some things I can go back and know what I would have done, but I feel like I’m in a very different place now.

How have you changed since you started Halt and Catch Fire?
So much! It was one of my very first jobs. I was so nervous and just such a good girl and so enthusiastic the whole first season — didn’t want to get fired, and way overdid how much work I was doing. I was so type-A about it all, and I really just wanted to earn this huge thing that had happened. I learned how I liked to work with directors and other actors. When I started this job, I remembered looking up “how actors prepare for parts” because I just didn’t know! The only way you hear about it is from people mythologizing themselves on Inside the Actors Studio or some shit like that, so I didn’t really know what my way of working was. My whole first year, I was figuring that out and copying things I heard other actors did. It was really daunting for me, and I felt young. I feel really childish in this world, and I learned how to work and be a professional. I am still not “the best” at standing on my mark, but my own personal taste and point of view has been so shaped and cultivated by this experience that yeah, I feel really indebted to it.

Well it’s interesting watching you, because Cameron has this almost intense …

[Laughs.] When you were building the character, did you start from that physical place?
Yeah. Her physicality was the only thing that didn’t scare me. I knew that she had a hunch. I think it’s really cool to have a tall body because it can be so many things. I remember in theater school, my voice-speech teacher was like, “You will always play princesses! You will always play royalty! Because you are very tall and elegant,” which is so not true. I was like, “I feel like I’m an ape with these limbs,” and I’m very clumsy and I don’t have a great sense of spatial awareness. A tall body with long limbs can be really elegant, but it can also just look like somebody who’s still a kid and doesn’t know their way around her body. I felt that Cameron would think that she’s imposing, but also have this weird turtle shell around her.

Can we talk about the “San Junipero” episode of Black Mirror? Have you taken a beat to think back on the impact of the episode?
Well, linking it to our Martian conversation, it’s another thing where I like, did a job. To me, the job was very simple and not symbolic. I didn’t know any context about the “bury your gays” trope that had been going on in TV, and there’s been a lot of discussion about it. I did a very straightforward job and I loved the story and didn’t think about how it would resonate in the outside world. Then after it came out, it became this whole other beast for me, and I learned so much about a whole community and culture I didn’t know about. I think it’s the coolest part about this thing: I don’t really do it thinking about how it will be received, but that’s the other half of the conversation. This is just the speaker; the interlocutor is how people receive it and talk about it. The whole thing becomes those two sides: It’s not just the text itself, it’s how people read it. It’s been so lovely and educating.

I think a lot of actors and creators can feel overwhelmed, or unfairly put upon by the dialogue afterwards. But it sounds like you think that conversation is important.
I do. I mean, how else does it exist? Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. You can’t be like, “Oh, I made this beautiful thing and everybody hates it and it really hurts, but it doesn’t matter because it’s still beautiful.” No, you’re making it to show people, and if people see it and tell you something about it, that information can be valuable. With The Martian, I had no idea about it until I started hearing how people were reading this thing, and all I can be like is, “Fuck yeah, I’ll hear you. I’ll read things closer next time.” But without that talk back, and without that other half of the art thing itself, then it’s just a circle jerk. What’s the point? If you don’t like telling stories and you don’t like having empathy for people, then why are you doing this? The whole thing is like, “Tell me about your life and let me try and represent it in some way.” If I don’t do a good job at it, tell me why.

Just about The Martian thing, too …
Yeah, what’s your perspective?

I think these problems are systemic. In general, people want to pin blame on one person, but there are many gaps, from agents to producers to directors …
Yeah. Things can look more nefarious in retrospect than the steps to getting to a place that disenfranchises somebody or took an opportunity away from somebody. Sometimes the way things pan out isn’t quite as preconceived as it seems in the watching of a thing.

That’s the banality of it.
It ties to whiteness being neutral. It’s a problem, and I do think it’s actors’ responsibilities, the same way I think it’s actors’ responsibilities to make a concerted effort to work with women directors. If you have power, you should be championing the things you feel are without power, but need more recognition. I think that’s a really important part of anybody who’s clawed their way to some position of power in the world. You can talk about this with the election as well — with privilege and with power comes more comfort in your ability to act politically against your own selfish interests, and I feel that in my own career. You can see that in macro and micro levels all over the place, and would that we all acted in the most honorable, difficult way that we could, no matter what our station was in our life.

Do you feel like you are in a position where you can advocate in that way?
I think I can in interviews, and I think I can in smaller indie movies. I don’t offer any real value in the stock market of actors sense. The way that I can change the tides is micro, the decisions that I personally make, but I wouldn’t be able to get a director hired or fired. I would just be able to not do that movie and not work with this person I think is a bad person, and not be a complicit party to absolving somebody of a guilt that I think they should be saddled with.

Have you made those decisions?

Can you tell me about that?
Oh no. There’s all sorts of things in any field that people ignore for the sake of ease or for conventional wisdom, like, Oh, he’s a great actor.

Do you think we take too much stock in celebrity over the creative value of something?
Yeah. It’s crazy. There’s a movie I’m a part of that we’re trying to cast right now, and the conversations that go on. It is a stock market. It is just playing with potential value, current value, value lost. It’s humans being traded as stocks that people are investing in and betting upon. I think it’s fucked up, I don’t really know what the solve is for it. There’s such a lovely career you can have without being a huge movie star. When I saw Under the Skin, it really opened my eyes in a huge way, where I was like, “That’s why you’re a movie star.” Because that movie wouldn’t have gotten seen and it wouldn’t have gotten made, and I think it’s one of the best movies of the last ten years. It moved me so deeply, and if Scarlett Johansson wasn’t the Black Widow, then who would’ve seen this movie, or who would’ve made this movie? That’s a value I understand.

I was curious about the conversation around equal pay on Halt and Catch Fire.
It all works on a quote basis, and when I started, I didn’t have a quote, so I earned the minimal quote, and I earned a lot less than everybody else on the show, and it made total sense. Season two, I still earned the same amount, and then sometime around season three, I was like, man, I work a lot more than some of the guys — and they were so supportive of me as well, there was no contention between us — but they were like, yeah, we should all be getting paid the same. It was also hard to have a lot of leverage because who knows if we were ever coming back, but before this season, it was really important to me, just on a personal level of being like, “I don’t need to get paid more than anybody, I don’t want to, I just want to be paid the same. Carrie and I deserve to get paid the same as the boys.” [AMC] almost interrupted our request and gave us a much nicer bonus than I was expecting and stepped up to the plate and totally, without any negotiation or anything, knew what the right thing to do was. It is valuable to know that people recognize your work and your labor without you having to fight or convince them, that they will come to you with that knowledge, that they see you. I really think AMC is so great about that.

Did you talk to Kerry and negotiate together?
Not really. I know our agents were in conversation, but it was really one of those things that was brought up and it was almost a nonstarter. It just had already been taken care of. It was so weird. They were like, “Oh, no, we’re gonna do that.” I just got uncomfortable talking about money, I was like, “Stop talking about this.” I think we went in with a certain expectation, and before we could even get the request out of our mouth, they went above and beyond that, and they were like, “We already wanted to do that for the final season.” I really think so highly of everybody there for that.

Sorry if I’m making you uncomfortable!
No, I’m not uncomfortable! It’s just, whenever you have a conversation about race, they can be taken out of context so easily, by maybe not you, but by other people. And then the conversation ceases to be a conversation and becomes some other thing entirely. That’s my only discomfort. I’ve actually wanted somebody to ask me about this because I’ve had this conversation privately about turning down other parts. When you actually have the conversation and are like, oh, it’s going to be on record, and I can’t get in there and explain what I mean exactly, I hope that I’m communicating how I feel about the thing and not trying to absolve myself of any complicity, even though I genuinely didn’t know until after. And that’s a hard thing to have those two things coexist, like — I want to take responsibility, I didn’t know, but by saying I didn’t know, it’s like, oh, so I guess you’re not evolved.

No one likes talking about race or money. Do you feel like actors are cagey about talking to each other about money?
I’m so rude about it. I’m always like, what’d you make? How much did you make? How much are you making for that? I think it’s interesting. We’re all making more money than we should, probably.

Peers often don’t know how much each other are making. I think it’s a way for management to control …
And make it taboo. And convince people that they’re getting off rich when they’re being paid far less than the people around them.

Do you read criticism of your work?
Yeah, to a degree. There’s always a thing that happens when you’re so excited when a thing first comes out and so you want to see how it’s received. Whether the first few reviews are good, or they’re middling, or bad, there’s a point where it can feel almost compulsive, and it’s then that I try to exercise a bit of self-control. It’s a bit of an exercise in narcissism. I feel there’s a value in criticism insofar as being the other half of a conversation, and I’m curious about how things are received because I don’t think art has to live in a time capsule that we’re not allowed to look at or touch. But I also think there’s a danger because it starts to feel very personal, and you don’t want to be in the middle of a scene and be thinking about a person who said something about you that you now think of as your Achilles’ heel.

Is there something that sticks out to you?
Oh my god! It was in season one, and someone was writing a middling review, saying, “This person’s great, this person’s great.” They wrote, “Mackenzie Davis, bless her heart, isn’t very good.” I feel it’s so much more insulting than if they’re just mean. It was like, the sadness that they expressed that, try as I might, I couldn’t cut it, that hurt my feelings so much! It’s so funny. I’d be in scenes the next day and they’d go, “Bless her heart, she isn’t very good!” So I try to keep a lid on exploratory internet searches because of that.

Mackenzie Davis on Whitewashing, Equal Pay, and Feminism