In Terminator: Dark Fate, director Tim Miller and the small army of writers credited to its screenplay are wiping away 20 years of bad sequels and returning to James Cameron’s apocalyptic timeline. (Sound off in the comments, T3 defenders!) There is no Salvation. There is no Genisys. But there is a Sarah Connor — the Sarah Connor, in a returning Linda Hamilton — who is reluctantly joining forces with humanity’s new great hope, Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), and the enhanced human super-soldier sent from the future to protect her (Mackenzie Davis as Grace). It takes the endoskeleton of Judgment Day and gives it the face of a border-hopping, factory-line-working Mexican woman. In her lies our mortal salvation (which will, of course, necessitate high-speed chases both on land and airborne, and a comical Arnold Schwarzenegger cameo).
As the future warrior Grace, whose body is reinforced with a subcutaneous mesh barrier and is supercharged with machine parts, Davis is the heiress to Connor’s battle-hardened T2 incarnation. Muscles run down her arms like canyons and she delivers Deadpool-lite quips about “future shit” when she isn’t beating the hell out of the latest AI hellbeast (Gabriel Luna) sent to eradicate her charge. It’s a huge jump in production scale from the work Davis is best known for, like the prestige TV gem Halt and Catch Fire or indie films like Izzy Gets the Fuck Across Town. But the dynamic actress — who has had supporting roles in big-budget sci-fi films like The Martian and Blade Runner 2049 — has long been poised for blockbuster-level recognition. Vulture spoke with Davis before Dark Fate’s official release about sidestepping the role of ingenue, the cathartic power of hitting a man with a sledgehammer on the day of Brett Kavanaugh’s Senate testimony, and her thoughts on being the subject of queer desire online.
I wanted to start by asking how aware you are of your status as a lesbian thirst icon.
I’m not very online. It does scare me. Sometimes I go on and then I go off again, cause it just feels full of — like, the good things are as bad as the bad things, you know what I mean? And I’m speaking specifically about looking up stuff about myself. It just all feels dangerous.
Well, when I walked out of Dark Fate one of the first things I said was, “The lesbians are not ready for Mackenzie Davis in this movie,” because you are a favorite subject of queer desire online.
I’m so happy to be a part of it. I just think that’s so cool. I feel like lesbians haven’t really had their time the way gays have, but lesbians are having a time right now in such a satisfying way. I’m so honored to be in any way involved or invited to participate in small doses.
Across projects like Always Shine and “San Junipero” and Tully and even with this Terminator, you’ve explored a wide spectrum of intimate female relationships, and I wondered if those kinds of roles were finding you or if you’re the one seeking them out.
I guess both. The first thing I thought when you were speaking was of a point when I was auditioning in Montreal before I moved to New York, when I was still in college and just trying to see if I could get jobs. There was a role on Blue Mountain High. It was a show about football and there was an audition for, like, a cheerleader who one of the football players loses his ring inside when he finger-bangs her. When I received that audition I was like, you know what? I never want to play someone’s fucking joke. I never really wanna play someone’s girlfriend, and I never really want to play somebody that’s observing somebody else have a story. I don’t need to be the lead of the story, but I know that I don’t just want to be an actress. I want a particular version of a career, and I wouldn’t be happy if I made a career as the girl who gets jewelry lost inside her womb. But that’s just me!
One reason your work resonates among queer women is because audiences are historically presented in film and TV with a binary vision of how women relate to one another: They’re either romantically involved or it’s a nonsexual friendship. In genre, sometimes those lines get blurred and you have some psychosexual narrative. But you’ve played multiple roles where, in that blurred space, intimacy and affection are fluid, and that immediately becomes queered within the sort of heteronormative context in which pop art typically exists. Hence: a lesbian thirst icon.
I never thought about it that way, and I think that’s a really lovely consequence of not wanting to play these ingenue roles. Well, it’s not necessarily that I don’t wanna play an ingenue. I’d love to be an ingenue. I’d love everybody to think I was like a beautiful doll. But I just sort of knew that I would be incredibly bummed out all the time if I compromised this one part of myself, which has like a clear sort of feminist vision for how I want women to appear onscreen or what images I want to produce. I think in two movies I’ve played a girlfriend or somebody who was part of a traditional romantic structure. And in every other thing I’ve done it’s been about, like, either female partnership or friendship or rivalries, and it feels totally accidental. But I do understand how it is a consequence of something I thought about when I was a lot younger. It makes me really proud.
You said once in an interview that you related to a point Ryan Gosling made about acting and how it’s like turning the dials up and down on aspects of your own personality. Which of your internal dials are you most interested in turning right now?
You know how everyone has an essential emotion or something? That’s like, My original cell is this. I think my original cell is loneliness. That’s what drew me to a lot of things for a while, which I only kind of thought about afterwards, being forced to reflect on things. I don’t know if that does it for me as much anymore. I feel like there are a lot of really great roles for women right now, and so creating strict rules about what you will and won’t do doesn’t feel quite as relevant as it used to — for me at least. And the loneliness thing, whether consciously or unconsciously, maybe it doesn’t move me quite as much anymore, cause I just am older and my life has changed. I’m like, should I really do something not in sci-fi? I guess? But I love sci-fi! There’s just so many good roles that come out of it, and I don’t know. Should I do something where I’m playing someone’s wife and see what that’s like? I just want to know a bit more. Play less strong characters maybe?
I love that breaking convention with the roles you’ve taken so far involves playing a wife. That’s your crazy experiment.
Or just a different type of strength! Like, somebody who looks weak? I think a lot of the roles that I’ve had have been visibly strong in some way or assertive or aggressive.
Well, Grace is very conventionally strong in Dark Fate, and yet she isn’t packaged like the heroines we’re trained to see at this scale, like the very polished and pristine superheroes. You’ve said before that the cycle of women performing and having a feminine ideal forced upon them can make for thrilling and horrifying entertainment, but this movie doesn’t seem concerned with that ideal at all.
At all. Doesn’t that amaze you that I genuinely can’t find a male gaze in this movie?
A friend of mine was very hyped up about the “butch gaze” of this movie, which I thought was a very accurate term. Tim Miller doesn’t shy away from your bodies, so you’re not meant to be genderless drones, but he seemed entirely concerned with framing you and Linda and Natalia for your power and not for your sexual appeal — or really even for what a dude thinks women would want to see.
I know it was a real concern of Tim’s — and [for] me, too, and I’m sure with all of us. I was privy to conversations about me and my costuming and the way I looked. He didn’t want it to be sexy, and he didn’t want it to be a sweaty male version of a warrior. He was like, “I don’t want it to be filtered in that way. I want her to look like a soldier.” I really think we did that. And my concern was and always is, I hate the trope — especially in apocalypse movies — that the best fighters are the women that look like men. That you have to adopt really male characteristics in order to be a convincing female warrior, which I think is such a limited point of view, and also dumb. Obviously, there’s a true androgyny to the way I look naturally and to the way I look in the movie, but there’s such a tenderness to Grace and such a true femininity — if there is an essential feminine, whatever that thing is — to [the female characters’] relationships. They are distinctly female without being feminized or going through too many layers of projection.
Even the way Grace regards Dani when she’s protecting her, like on the bridge or during a sledgehammer fight —
It’s almost maternal.
That felt different from how I’m used to seeing male heroes protect women onscreen. The way Grace comes between her and danger made me think, “Oh, yeah. That’s how women are aware of and protect each other.”
We shot that sledgehammer scene the day of, uh, Brett Kavanaugh’s testimony. I always forget his name, ’cause I don’t want to know it. And I remember just being so fucking angry and being able to scream in Gabriel’s face and slam him with a sledgehammer. It was the most cathartic, lovely thing on this day where I was just like, “You ruined the world, men!” I throw him down and then yell in his face in the scene, and I remember I was just so sad that day and angry, and it was just such a nice exercise.
Like six men wrote this movie, and Miller directed it, so was that shift in its gaze a product of the actresses’ advocacy on behalf of your characters?
Tim is such a collaborative person, and he’s so deeply sensitive and attuned to what the truest version of a thing is, while also knowing that we’re making a movie that has certain tropes and things that cater to a movie of this scale. You’re not going to strip it down and have a tiny little intimate drama, but I think as far as making real the relationships and the characters and our dynamics, so much of that is just the product of rehearsal and us having the space and very willing ears to hear us say, “This doesn’t feel right. Why are they fighting in this moment? If they’re fighting, we need a bigger reason so that we understand what the dynamic is.” So, it wasn’t a huge campaign or anything. Our relationship as it was before we started shooting changed and got a lot more nuanced. We slowly whittled away some of the parts that didn’t feel quite as true to us, and found a really real dynamic of competition and rivalry, but that also had a lot of love undergirding it.
Linda said she was much more forceful about standing up for Sarah Connor than she would ever typically be on set, because she wanted to make the character proud, and I wondered if that freed you up to do the same for Grace.
I was so insecure making this fucking movie. I felt so uncomfortable. It was very new for me and I just wanted — I don’t know. I don’t know what I wanted. Honestly, I wanted to believe what I was saying, ’cause I’m not used to working in this huge arena, and it changes your acting. Before I start, I get really anxious and just think about how unbelievably disappointed everyone is going to be. I watched Mad Max: Fury Road, and I just think what Charlize did in that role was so fucking cool and cannot be beat. I was like, “Uggghhh I wish I was doing that!” Then you work for a week and you’re like, “All right. I guess I’m doing it,” and then you just sort of fall into something and hopefully you don’t feel like you’re bullshitting. That’s my only real concern, is that I believe what I’m saying.
And how is it being the one on the poster with the chain wrapped around your arms?
It feels like seeing an avatar. I was in London with my friend while we were there for press, and we were walking around and a bus went by with the movie on it. It’s like you have a ghost self that goes and does these things, and you don’t really look anything like that person or share any of their qualities, but you’re like, “Aw, she’s on a bus!” So, it’s weird, but then also feels so other that you can just be like, “Oh, look at her. Look at her doing that! She has nothing to do with me, but there she is.”