Mackenzie Davis on Finding Herself in Every Role

Once upon a time, Mackenzie Davis was in the business of stealing movies. You’d watch a dire Zac Efron rom-com like That Awkward Moment and walk away wondering just who the hell was that supporting actress who lit up the screen with her take-no-prisoners charisma. These days, she gets bigger parts, in better films: as the edgy, ruthless co-lead of Sophia Takal’s tense friendship thriller Always Shine, or the surreally capable night nanny helping out overwhelmed mom Charlize Theron in Jason Reitman’s Tully. She’s also done unforgettable work on TV: She was one of the leads of AMC’s acclaimed Halt and Catch Fire, and appeared on one of the most talked-about episodes of Black Mirror, “San Junipero,” a time-hopping (and devastating) sci-fi love story co-starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw.

In her latest film, Izzy Gets the Fuck Across Town, which she also produced, Davis plays a wreck of a woman desperately racing across Los Angeles using whatever means available, all in an effort to stop her ex from getting married. Izzy’s not an immediately likable character, and her goal seems questionable as well. As the film proceeds, we learn a bit more about her and the circumstances that landed her in this situation. But the movie, interestingly, keeps a lot of information hidden from us — which puts the onus on this staggeringly talented actress to fill the screen with her whirlwind-like magnetism. (Spoiler alert: She does.)

We recently talked to Davis about what it was like to shoot both Izzy and Tully, how she likes to approach acting, and some of the surprising recurring threads that run throughout her work.

So, Izzy Gets the Fuck Across Town. Was the movie called that when you signed on to do it?

Yeah, it was. That’s probably what made me read it in the first place — like, “Well, what the fuck is this fuckin’ movie about?” But then I thought it was better than the title suggested — even though the title is very, you know, suggestive.

The film has a real wild energy, with so many purposeful tonal shifts. I was trying to describe it the other day, and actually found it hard to do. It has some of the qualities of a stoner movie — there’s a Dude, Where’s My Car? vibe to it. But it’s more manic than that. Maybe if Run Lola Run were a stoner comedy. What was shooting it like?

The film does have that obsessive, forward direction that you can have when you’re stoned sometimes. It was pretty wild — we shot it in like eighteen or nineteen days. Part of the tonal shift is dictated by the script, and part of the tonal shift is dictated by…well, the magic of filmmaking [laughs]. And you can feel it. I mean, there’d be the scene with Alia [Shawkat], and then the scene with Dolly Wells, and you’d think, “Wow, each of these is like a wildly different movie.” Which was a cool thing to discover. I give Chris Papierniak, the director, a lot of credit for letting the reality of the process dictate how the film ended up, instead of trying to pretend it was something else. It kind of feels like a video game with different levels.

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I was struck by how physical your part is — with a lot of visual humor and pratfalls. We already acknowledged that you didn’t have a lot of time to make this movie, but don’t you have to prepare for stuff like that?

This was the first film I’ve ever produced, so I think part of my own preparation for the character was just having conversations about what the movie was about, what it was going to look like, and who should play this part and why. Even just like a props discussion during preproduction gives you so much insight into a character. So [much so] that, when I came on set, I didn’t really have to think about it at all. Physically, though, I was treating my body like a garbage dump. I smoked so many cigarettes making this movie. [Laughs] I would say that’s what had me out of breath most of the time.

There’s a lot that’s unexplained in the film — so much about Izzy’s character that’s just hinted at. I imagine it’s tough to figure out the balance between the things that we need to know about this woman and the things we don’t. For example, we never really find out what happened to her jacket, the stains. We have to use our imagination.

That sort of thing is never revealed, not because it’s a great secret, but because I think [leaving it unexplained] paints a more specific picture of a woman that could have a night like that, who’s not going to wake up the next morning and yell, “Oh my god!” when she looks at her clothes and sees that there’s blood or wine or something on this tuxedo. It’s not this thing that has uprooted her life. It’s all part of another shitty day instead of this really spectacular thing that needs to be discussed at length. So, I like the fact that it was never really explained. You’re watching this bizarre character pursue a very specific goal, and any other information feels like it would be unnecessary. It’s such a simple objective — this idea of a quest that will satisfy you in a way that you think might solve all of your problems.

It’s almost a pastiche of the classic narrative structure: Character A has to get to Goal B, and Character C is preventing that. It’s basically that, over and over again. And then she actually achieves her goal, and suddenly it’s like, “Oh, right, this is not what I wanted.”

Yeah, it is a very classic film-writing structure, but within that form we played around a bit. Like you said, it’s that motif played out over and over again. Until you reach the final boss, and then you beat the boss and you’re like, “Oh, all I get is a basket of coins, after spending hours of my life?”

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This is something that runs through your notable work of late — not just in Izzy, but also with TullyAlways Shine, and the “San Junipero” episode of Black Mirror. This notion of what it means to live the life that we want, and how our idea about what that means is this ever-shifting thing. That’s basically what Tully is about too, right?

Definitely. I’m glad you said that. It’s so funny to look back on these films you make with all these different directors and think, “Oh, I guess there is a trend there.” But I think Tully is about certain feelings that everybody has. It’s obviously a movie about motherhood, and this really honest portrait of an experience that’s been presented to women as this totally spiritual thing, when actually it’s quite down in the mud.

But Tully really resonates with me as a look at how it feels to be out of rhythm with life and with the people around you — this sense of wondering if you’re doing things at the right time. I went through a period during my twenties where I kept feeling like I [was] moving cities at the wrong time. I left Montreal and moved to New York, lived there for a while. None of my friends were there, so I moved to L.A., and then suddenly all my friends lived in New York. And then I lived in L.A. for two years, then moved back to New York, and then again to L.A. It was just this recurring thing of trying to gauge the same tempo as the people around me — but everybody’s on their own path. I feel like that really happens when you enter your thirties and you’re like, “Oh, OK, am I in the right place? Do I have a partner? Do I have a house? Is this the right time?” We’re all checking in with ourselves to make sure that our personal narrative matches up with the one we’ve been fed, or the one we need. So, for me personally, the movie actually worked on that level rather than the parenthood level.

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I feel like in some ways actors are more attuned to this concept than other people, because every couple of months you’re asked to make these really important decisions that could change your life. Each new role could potentially be this huge thing that sends your life in a completely different direction.

And that can be good or bad. Because sometimes the part comes back and haunts you a year and-a-half to two years later, whether you like it or not. By the way, I love Izzy, so I’m not talking about that movie right now! But there are some movies where I’m like, “Oy, I wish I hadn’t made that decision.”

You want to tell me about any of those?

No, generally I think that’s a bad idea. [Laughs]

Some actors talk about the need to keep working and take every part they can, because of this anxiety that the parts could dry up, or that their momentum might flag. Is that something that you’ve felt?

It comes about in a different way for everybody. I sometimes hear actors talk about this, and it can be harrowing to hear. I think it can also be so seductive to fall into this competition for roles, and that thrill of being like, “I’ve got it!” I try to always make sure this is what I want to be doing — to be aware with myself and constantly ask if my engine is the love of business or of the work. Do I love acting as much as I did when I was a little girl, or last year, or five years ago? Or am I just in a mode of competition? So, I feel it — but I try to keep it in check. I don’t know. You know how you can both be lazy and also live with deep self-loathing if you’re not doing enough every day? That’s where I live. [Laughs]

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Tully is a fascinating part because you have to play a certain kind of role without letting the audience in on who she really is. Does that kind of twist present any extra challenges — where there’s a secret to the character that you can’t let the audience in on yet?

I credit Jason Reitman with keeping us all aligned with the story that we were telling, and never giving in to the need to show more than we needed to. Because it was so important for us to portray the unexplored nature of these female platonic relationships. Which can be really energizing in real life. I mean, really taking care of your friend, and loving them, and hearing how they’re feeling, and being there for them. I got to do a lot of that in Tully, and it was great to live for a month in a part that required so little other than just being available for another person. That idea of just being natural with her, and taking care of her, was in some ways more important than the story itself. But the goal was to have that be effective to the story.

One thing I admire is that you have built a real persona through your work. Whether that actually jibes with who you are in real life, I wouldn’t know. But even as you’ve done a wide variety of parts, a sense of you does emerge. Some actors completely disappear into a part and the viewer has almost no idea that it’s that person. And some come through as individuals throughout their work. You seem very much the latter type.

I feel like the school of acting I come from isn’t so much driven by character work but rather finding a way to be yourself and open in front of the camera. I feel like it would be impossible for me to create a character while ignoring all my impulses, [as opposed to] doing something that is more intuitive. I can’t really come on set and deliver something that I’ve worked on at home. Instead I try to be there with everybody.

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Anything I say here will sound reductive, but your characters are often direct, casual, informal — people who might not take any shit. But then you’ll do something like the “San Junipero” episode of Black Mirror, where the character is so vulnerable and closed-off; Yorkie seems on some level to be a very different character than the kind you’ve played in your other work. But even there something really special, something “you,” emerges.

You know how some people can articulate your beliefs better than you? I read an interview with Ryan Gosling maybe five years ago, and I liked the way he put it. He said something like, “You always turn the knobs up or down on other parts of yourself.” So it feels like a different person, but you’re just amplifying different aspects of your character. Whenever someone’s like, “How do you find your character?” I’m like, “She is me!” That’s the only way I understand the people that I play. You sort of figure out what insecurities that you have come out in this character, and what confidence you have comes out in this other character, you know? And Yorkie from Black Mirror is in some ways more me than, say, Cameron in Halt and Catch Fire. But they’re both me, in the end.

OK, this is a dumb question, but I have to ask it. So, you’re in a movie called Izzy Gets the Fuck Across Town, in which you’re playing Izzy. You were just in a movie called Tully, in which you’re playing Tully. Does it ever feel like you’ve reached a particular point in your career where you can say, “I’m in this movie, it’s called this, and I play the title character”?

I mean, I think we’re all susceptible to the same shining ego that comes with being able to say, “And that’s me!” It’s like a childhood movie-star thing. But none of that really matters at any moment past the first reading of the script. Even when you’re reading for the title character, your reaction afterwards is going to be about the story. Still, I would be lying if there isn’t a moment where it’s sort of a thrill when someone presents you with a script and says, “Read for the title role.” But with Tully, of course, the movie isn’t about Tully at all — it’s about Marlo.


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Escape the Feel-Bad Present With the Feel-Worse Future of “Black Mirror”

There’s nothing on TV that makes me feel quite as ill as Black Mirror. No other series manages the kind of stomach-dropping, throat-lumping, head-pounding dread of this dystopian nightmare-scape, which dumps six new, brilliantly nauseating episodes on Netflix this Friday. What better way to cap off a sickening year?

Created by Charlie Brooker, who writes most of its episodes, Black Mirror premiered on the U.K.’s Channel 4 in 2011 before Netflix swooped in and commissioned twelve new episodes, over two seasons, in 2015. The new season, Black Mirror’s fourth in total (and an overall improvement on the first batch of Netflix episodes), continues the show’s anthology-style interrogation of the way we live now — and the way we might in the not-so-distant future.

As always, the new episodes are connected only thematically and, with a different director behind each, they vary widely in tone and aesthetic. This helps lessen the potential monotony of the fact that they all have at heart the same basic message: Technology will ruin our lives faster than it can enrich them. This season’s emphasis is on products purportedly meant to keep us safe and secure but actually compromise our freedoms.

In “Crocodile,” directed by John Hillcoat, an architect (Andrea Riseborough) struggles to come to terms with an ugly incident from her early twenties thanks to the legally mandated use of “corroborators” — retrieving devices that allow investigators to comb through witnesses’ memories to get a “crowdsourced picture of reality.” As often happens on Black Mirror, “Crocodile” interrogates the notion that our field of vision is just one big screen we can manipulate with the swipe of a finger. “Arkangel,” directed by Jodie Foster, stars Rosemarie DeWitt as a single mother who, shaken after briefly losing her daughter at a park, buys into a new parental security system that is the logical extension of today: one that allows her to see everything her daughter sees. She can even apply parental controls to “paint out” distressing images in her daughter’s “optic feed,” so a viciously barking dog becomes a fuzzy, garbling blob.

As in previous episodes, like last season’s “Playtest,” the devices embedded in the minds of Black Mirror’s early adopters are deceptively small, and look as if they were modeled on Apple products — seamless and smooth, like newborn babies. They’re often little white buttons implanted in the user’s head, in the temple, above the ear, or in the back of the neck — tiny, but still undeniably, and even a bit violently, invasive. The process never appears to be painful or to leave a mark, but when the devices are inserted, the show’s sound designers make sure we hear the skin break — an aural point of no return.

Black Mirror is certainly a sci-fi series, but that’s a slightly misleading label. The show exists in a vaguely defined future time and place — its world’s particulars seem to vary from episode to episode, although fan theories suggest they do all take place in the same universe. But the production design always looks just similar enough to our real world today that, watching, we feel an undeniable twinge of recognition. Things look less familiar as each episode goes on, and relatable, human feelings — the guilty panic of a hit-and-run; the anxiety of new motherhood — give way to a far more alien reality in which there is, inevitably, a shiny new product to assuage those feelings. Cue the sense of impending doom.

There’s usually a twist in which we find out that the new tech is more coercive than it first appears; a common theme is that our devices can’t be escaped. Black Mirror is most effective when it exaggerates something that people already feel or have the capacity for — like our growing desire to abandon the complications of the real world for the simple pleasures of an imaginary universe — augmenting the possibilities with technology that anticipates our worst impulses, then nudges them forward. The episode that’s stuck with me the most this season is “USS Callister,” directed by Toby Haynes. Jesse Plemons plays a nerdy, put-upon CTO, a brilliant coder and designer of an immersive video game who’s obsessed with a “visionary” old TV show, a Star Trek analogue called Space Fleet (“Netflix has it these days”).

Jesse Plemons in “USS Callister”

I don’t want to give too much away; the impact of these stories relies on the gradual release of information, a narrative striptease in which we and the characters often together discover how these futuristic doohickeys work. (I also don’t want to upset the very passionate Charlie Brooker, who once slid into my DMs to humbly request that I remove a spoiler from a Toronto Film Fest review of a new Black Mirror episode, which had just made its world premiere. That’s enough to make a girl feel human.) Sometimes it’s hard to understand why the characters would submit themselves to all this invasive tech; in some scenarios, they have no choice, but often — particularly in the current season, which seems to focus more on consumer products rather than on state-sponsored schemes or punishments — it’s unclear why these people don’t just say no.

The problem is, we often don’t know the characters well enough to answer that question. The episodes are powerful fables, but they usually don’t give us a chance to get to know the characters very well or to understand what drives these people specifically, rather than a more general, collective “us.” Sometimes it feels like the show cares more about the digital copies of humans than actual humans.

Season four includes a few episodes in which things don’t turn to shit — a wise calculation based on the popularity of last season’s standout “San Junipero,” an uplifting story in which two elderly women find love in the afterlife. Apparently, there is such a thing as too much existential dread; occasionally, Black Mirror suggests, technological advances can have a positive impact.

Brooker would know. The development of his show has dovetailed nicely with Netflix’s growing dominance in original programming; Black Mirror became an international hit once it landed on Netflix in 2014, and it’s since attracted big-name performers, writers, and directors, including Foster, Joe Wright, Bryce Dallas Howard, Cherry Jones, Rashida Jones, and Mike Schur. Isn’t the ever-expanding streaming service, which swallows up more and more of our screen time every year, just the kind of technological invasion Black Mirror might take aim at?

In part because of Black Mirror’s deep reservoir of imaginative speculation, it’s not hard to picture a truly terrifying season finale: Some power-mad Peter Thiel iteration hires Charlie Brooker as a consultant and pumps vast resources into making his hideous scenarios a reality. Then again, maybe we don’t need a TV show to witness a nightmare come to life. Have a safe and happy new year, folks.

Black Mirror’s new episodes hit Netflix on December 29.