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Mackenzie Davis hadn’t started shooting yet when the coronavirus pandemic upended Station Eleven, her new post-apocalyptic miniseries about a world-changing flu pandemic. Based on Emily St. John Mandel’s novel and adapted for television by The Leftovers writer Patrick Somerville, HBO Max’s Station Eleven tells the story of Kirsten (Davis), a former child actor who’s now the star of a traveling theater troupe in 2040. The series’ dual narrative also explores civilization’s collapse through the eyes of young Kirsten (Matilda Lawler) in 2020 and how she ended up joining the “Traveling Symphony.”
When the series shut down production in March 2020 like the rest of the industry, Davis admittedly had her doubts that the show would ever resume filming due to its real-world overlap.
“When it started happening, [series producers] were like, ‘We’re just going to shut down for two weeks, we’re going to delay and then we’ll pick up once we can get stuff together.’ And of course, that never felt real,” Davis tells The Hollywood Reporter. “But I kind of thought we weren’t going to make this show at first because it was like, ‘Well, it’s a little on the nose, don’t we think?’ I don’t even think that is true now because the show is so much about everything afterwards and the pandemic part is minute. But it was very strange.”
To pass the time during quarantine, Davis made her own version of Station Eleven, which a few characters also do on the series itself. The difference is that Davis used her scripts while the characters on the show adapted the in-universe graphic novel, Station Eleven, which guides and connects a number of characters.
“I ended up making a version of the show with my friend who was quarantining with me at the time, and we were like, ‘Well, all we have is our iPhones, and I’m in the show. We can make some props and we have the first six scripts, so why don’t we just do my side of the show and when it’s anybody else speaking or their scene, we’ll just cut to nature,'” Davis shares. “So we made this weird document, this show, about a pandemic that was shot during a pandemic delay before we shot the actual version of the show about a pandemic, which I’m sure one day will be less embarrassing to watch again.”
In 2018, Davis received rave reviews for her performance as Tully in Jason Reitman and Charlize Theron‘s Tully. If you still haven’t seen Tully, you might not want to read ahead, but it’s eventually revealed that Tully is the imaginary younger self of Theron’s Marlo Moreau. As a result, Davis was immediately fan-casted to also play a younger iteration of Theron’s influential action heroine Furiosa in George Miller’s upcoming Mad Mad: Fury Road prequel, Furiosa. While she never ended up talking to Miller about the character, Davis admits that she was frustrated when the role went elsewhere.
“I should protect myself more here, but I would have loved to [play Furiosa]. It’s something I probably mentioned in passing to agents,” Davis reveals. “I was just like, ‘Agh, I would love to do that.’ And then it was obviously cast with Anya Taylor-Joy, who is unbelievable, but I definitely was like, ‘NOOO!!!'”
Davis adds with a laugh: “So I would have loved to do it, but there are lots of good roles.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Davis also discusses performing Shakespeare for the first time on Station Eleven and why she requested help from a Shakespeare expert. Then she looks back at her eye-opening experiences on Terminator: Dark Fate and Halt and Catch Fire.
It’s been a while since I’ve devoured a show in one sitting, but Station Eleven pulled it off.
Wow, I’m so surprised. I was part of making it, so it doesn’t feel like binge-y television to me, but I’m so delighted and surprised that you feel that way.
You and your former co-star Carrie Coon have this superhuman ability to wreck me with a simple hug.
Oh my god, what a nice comparison. Have you seen The Nest?
Of course! Her performance is iconic.
So fucking good! How fucking good is Carrie Coon generally and then specifically?
The very best. So Station Eleven is your first full season of television since the almighty Halt and Catch Fire wrapped a handful of years ago. What brought you back?
Halt spoiled me, to be honest. That wasn’t my first show, but it was one of my first. It was a huge job and it felt like going to university, honestly. I’d never really been on a set like that. I hadn’t worked under actors before and felt like I was being educated in every way about how a set behaves, how to work with different directors, how to start to articulate what I thought without just being like, “Whatever you like.” So I started trying to find my voice. But I haven’t read anything, really, that’s moved me or made me want to be a part of a thing for a long time like Halt had. And then Station Eleven did that in a way that is totally different from Halt. With Halt, I knew exactly what I was getting into. It was thrilling and I knew the arc of the story in this world. But with this, I kind of felt compelled to do it by faith. I didn’t really know what it was to be honest. I spent the year and a half before we shot it trying to figure it out, and then it was still living and breathing while we were doing it. There was just so much moving forward and not knowing if that was a hill or a ledge that you were stepping off of, you know? (Laughs.) I‘m usually pretty logical, but this was the opposite of that. There was no math. It was just an immersive feeling.
At a certain point, life began to imitate art. What was your state of mind as our own pandemic began to unfold alongside Station Eleven‘s?
Well, I wasn’t part of the first wave of people who were shooting this show in January and February . That was Himesh [Patel], Nabhaan [Rizwan], Danielle [Deadwyler], Gael [Garcia Bernal], Matilda [Lawler]. The Year Zero people. So I missed that particular mindfuck of telling a story about this thing, feeling the wave of this other thing, doing what everybody did and denied it, denied it, denied it, and then having your pandemic show shut down only to live through it for a year and then come and pick up the next episode, which I just think is imperceptible in the text itself. There was this seismic shift of how much information we absorbed in between episode one and episode three. It was so crazy and kind of magical that there was all this new information inside of it. When it started happening and as every professional space thought, they were like, “We’re just going to shut down for two weeks, we’re going to delay and then we’ll pick up once we can get stuff together.” And of course, that never felt real. But I kind of thought we weren’t going to make this show at first because it was like, “Well, it’s a little on the nose, don’t we think?” (Laughs.) I don’t even think that is true now because the show is so much about everything afterwards and the pandemic part is minute. But it was very strange.
I ended up making a version of the show with my friend who was quarantining with me at the time, and we were like, “Well, all we have is our iPhones, and I’m in the show. We can make some props and we have the first six scripts, so why don’t we just do my side of the show and when it’s anybody else speaking or their scene, we’ll just cut to nature.” So we made this weird document, this show, about a pandemic that was shot during a pandemic delay before we shot the actual version of the show about a pandemic, which I’m sure one day will be less embarrassing to watch again. (Laughs.) But I think that’s emblematic of, “Well, you’ve got to do something! What are you going to do with all this time you have all of a sudden? You have to make something!” And that’s also in the actual show we made.
Once production resumed however many months later, did the material resonate with you in a different way?
It didn’t then, but I now see my reaction differently. (Laughs.) What I mean by that is I really needed a roadmap for what was happening. I was turning to the show and to the scripts in the same way that Kirsten in the show keeps returning to Station Eleven as this guide and this text that’s become sort of religious for her. She thinks it will teach her how to be and how to move forward and how to be a grownup or be a person or be a savior or whatever. It taught her how to navigate uncertain times, and I maybe felt that same thing with the script. I really struggled with it a lot of the time and just kept trying to find some path or through-line that I couldn’t figure out. And I wonder if that frustration and that sort of grind was the same thing. It was like, “What does this mean?!” (Laughs.) So I was trying to make sense of chaos, really, in a way that felt peaceful and sound.
[The following answer contains spoilers for a later episode of Station Eleven.]
Did you communicate with Matilda Lawler about her younger version of Kirsten? Since she started before you, did you watch her dailies for reference?
I watched her dailies while they were shooting 2020 and was amazed. I don’t understand the composure and the quiet talent this girl has. She’s so lovely and smart and mature without being precocious. She’s quite wise. But I watched those dailies and then we had some Zoom hangouts early on during preproduction stuff just to start to get to know each other a little bit and develop some sort of comfort with each other. When we came back, the first episode that I shot — and that we all shot — was an episode that takes place in the apartment. So I got to come to set and watch them be in the apartment and watch what happened to me as a child. So I got to do it for three weeks and see what the space was like that I occupied and where these memories and traumas came from. And I got to relive them through watching Matilda during this pivotal event in Kirsten’s life. It’s the end of this period of peace and how she interpreted that. So it was such a gift to spend this elongated period of time around Matilda in a way that wasn’t just me with a notepad trying to decode this child. I was getting to know who she was and how she was approaching everything, so I could tap the experience for my own benefit. (Laughs.) It was like, “Wow, I got to really live through this thing. Now, I can move forward with that in my body instead of an imaginary thing that I’ll access sometimes.”
Is there a book that you’ve relied on as much as Kirsten relies on Station Eleven?
No, but I think I rely on books like that, especially in periods of uncertainty or disruption. But I don’t have one book. I’ve never really reread books, which might be a good thing. I always like thinking that whatever I haven’t done is the right way to be, so I should go and do that thing. (Laughs.) But I really rely on books as a quite safe place, even on set. I love reading in the middle of a chaotic set; it feels like you have an invisibility cloak. You can still hear everybody around you, and it’s like hearing a dinner party downstairs when you’re going to bed as a kid. It’s a lovely warmth, but you still get to be alone together.
Had you done much Shakespeare prior to this?
No, not at all. I hadn’t so I was really nervous about it. But HBO was great at answering my calls for wanting to really study it both for the performance side of it and to just spend time with Shakespeare in the way that Kirsten would’ve spent time with Shakespeare. So I got the chance to study it alongside somebody and just have it sort of be a part of my knowledge base in a way that felt important to me, which is not really reflected in the show, of course, because the performance side is quite fleeting. But I got to work with this man, Giles Block, who works at Shakespeare’s Globe in London. We just zoomed a lot and read Hamlet together and talked about it all the time. Then, we would read it again and work on specific scenes. Then, we read The Winter’s Tale and King Lear because King Lear was in the show for a little while. So I just kind of went to school with him, which was such a lovely experience. But no, I hadn’t really performed it.
“It’s not about you” is acting advice that Kirsten gives another performer. Would you agree with that take?
Yeah. (Laughs.) I think that was something that came out of a conversation with [creator] Patrick [Somerville] and I, because that was the advice I was given when I was younger. So we were trying to find what she would share with somebody, and that maybe feels more true to me than some more directorial advice. It’s the, “Put all of yourself onto the other person. That’s the most interesting thing you can watch.” Interested people are interesting people. So if you’re interested in the other person and you’re not thinking about how interesting you and your experiences are, then other people see that intensity and get to watch your performance because you’re not watching yourself.
You live a version of Kirsten’s existence since you are often journeying to the next performance. But instead of horses and makeshift carriages, you’re flying on jumbo jets to Budapest and staying in nice hotels.
That said, do you think you would thrive in a traveling roadshow-type environment that’s as bare bones as hers? Could you live that lifestyle?
No! (Laughs.) I think it is the most noble thing in the world. So a pandemic happens, the world is wiped out and you slowly start to carve out an agrarian existence again, building small farms and civilization, cobbling together solar panels and putting together some facsimile of a life you once had. That’s actually very rich and lovely. So to not even have that version of it, to have no regular access to food or water, it’s a very difficult existence. It’s a testament to how much their art and community feeds them because I just think everyone would be so hungry all the time. And that seems hard. But doing a play at a regional theater in my hometown in the settlement, that seems nice.
So how’s [Halt and Catch Fire‘s] Cameron Howe doing?
She’s good! I think she’s grown a long goatee and is macrobiotic now. I’m trying to think of Jack Dorsey things. (Laughs.) I kind of see her becoming someone that’s against all of her cool punk honest earnestness. I can see her maybe falling into some sort of health and wellness trend, a zeitgeist-y thing. But I think she’s doing great.
I thought you were Charlize-level good in Terminator: Dark Fate.
So I was surprised when I heard you say that you felt insecure while making it because your performance didn’t reflect that at all. When you eventually watched the movie, were you able to let go of all that?
I’m really proud of the film that we made, but I’ll never watch something and have any objectivity. And it’s really unfair to your collaborators to say that because you want to just be like, “Yes, we made a thing and I’m so proud!” But I can’t watch myself and be like, “Great work!” I think if I watched something a lot of times, I could do that and start to appreciate it. But to get to the point where you want to sit through more than one sitting of yourself is a strength I simply do not have. But I’m really proud of it. We all tried. I just love shit where everyone’s trying so hard every day. It’s such a nice environment to work in, especially in these really big things. I think the bigger things get, maybe people get a little bit more complacent. I don’t know what the data is for that, but sometimes it feels like the more expensive a thing is, the less people appreciate it. (Laughs.) And when you have less access to the smallest indie films, you feel the most full of meaning and intent and sort of fury. But everyone treated it like the most important thing and we all cared so much. I’m trying to think of what I was insecure about. It’s just a really different type of acting to have these short quip-y moments in between climbing the thing and doing this and then screaming in the window and then climbing the thing again. And there isn’t the time to be like, “Well, did I mean that? How did you feel about that scream? Was I really listening to you?” So it really made me admire people who are experts in this field because to get humor, emotion, urgency, charisma — all of these things that the best action stars have — out of these really fleeting momentary exchanges is so hard! It’s so hard. And while doing it, I was just like, “This is not my skill set.” But I love doing the physical stuff. It was really fun.
Tully is another great film of yours that deserved so much more. Were you able to read that script in the same way that we watched it? Did the surprise remain intact?
Yeah, definitely. And I would say Tully is maybe one of the only ones that I can watch where I’m like, “I love this.” I felt like I was just in the glow of Charlize Theron. I couldn’t believe my luck. (Laughs.) I was so excited to be there, I loved working with her and I loved the part. I also loved that the movie is about a lot of things, but my active part in a large bulk of the movie is about loving somebody, like a loving friendship, which is such a joy to be able to play. And yeah, I did have the same surprise. I definitely didn’t anticipate it.
Because you played a younger version of Charlize’s character in Tully, people automatically threw your hat into the ring for George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road prequel, Furiosa. Did you ever end up talking to George about playing Furiosa?
No! I should protect myself more here, but I would have loved to. It’s something I probably mentioned in passing to agents. I was just like, “Agh, I would love to do that.” And then it was obviously cast with Anya Taylor-Joy, who is unbelievable, but I definitely was like, “NOOO!!!” (Davis laughs after she yells in frustration.) So I would have loved to do it, but there are lots of good roles.
I love Anya and I know better than to bet against George Miller, but I still feel conflicted about the whole thing after talking with Charlize last year. She admitted that she was heartbroken.
About not making another one?
Yes, she created an icon that’s on par with any action hero, and normally, you explore that iteration of the character a bit more before heading into the past.
Yeah, on Terminator, I remember watching a lot of action movies, because it wasn’t a form or genre that I’d spent a lot of time with. So I was just mainlining Fury Road in my trailer, trying to be like, “Alright, this is how you fucking do it.” Because she’s so good. (Laughs.) She’s so good in that movie.
I would watch her play a younger Furiosa without a moment’s hesitation. I would get over that immediately.
In a minute, yeah!
It’s frustrating that we probably won’t see more of your Terminator and Blade Runner 2049 stories, but then I remind myself that we got four seasons of Halt and Catch Fire, which was a miracle. Any other network would have abandoned ship after season one.
Why did they do it?
It still mystifies me. It was goodwill. It got critical acclaim, but it wasn’t thunderous. It was a quiet loving community of people that liked it, but nobody watched it. I’m so grateful. We talked about it while we were doing it every year. We were like, “Cool, we get to go back to computer camp.” It was just so nice. They just liked it, and let us keep making our funny show that we loved and nobody watched.
[Writer’s note: On further thought, with Breaking Bad and Mad Men going off the air in 2013 and 2015, respectively, AMC likely needed programming with prestige potential, and Halt ‘s good reviews in season one (2014) led to great reviews in season two (2015) and beyond.]
Whether it’s Cameron or somebody else, do your characters ever pop up in dreams?
Never in dreams. Have you asked that question to other people?
Yes, the responses are probably split down the middle.
But I do think about them because they were part of my life. I’m not like, “How’s Cameron?” I’m like, “I’m Cameron. I’m good.” But I think about how meaningful that experience was. I got that role when I was 24, I shot the pilot when I was 25 and I turned 30 while we were shooting the final season. So I’m marked by the experience in a really fundamental way. When you take a job, you don’t know how long it’s going to be a part of your life, who is going to make it with you and how they’re going to affect you. I mean, not to be such a dutiful agent of the show, but much like Station Eleven, people enter your life and then affect you for years afterwards without you knowing. You just meet on a play and this man gives you a book that shapes the course of the rest of your life in a subtle and sometimes very profound way. So I think about the jobs I’ve had in that way more than the characters.
Decades from now, when you reminisce to your loved ones about making Station Eleven, what day will you tell them about first?
I mean this with all the love in the world, but it would be the day that we wrapped. The show was very hard to shoot. It was a winter pandemic. It was very isolating and extremely, emotionally intense. Huge cast. So it was a very intense experience, but it was meaningful and gratifying for everybody involved, I think. And the last three days of shooting, we were on Lake Ontario, and Jeremy [Podeswa] was shooting the episode. It was episode two, the end of it, but whatever. It was the last thing we were shooting. It was me, Philippine [Velge] and Danny [Zavatto], and I had grown to love those two so deeply and felt so aligned with them over the course of making this show. And we were outside with the whole crew and people could take their masks off a little bit. So we were on the lake and it got hot, so we jumped in the water, and it just felt like this great big thing that we all made together could breathe for the first time in six months. It was just a really beautiful finale to the experience of feeling like it was this big hard thing, and then we got to go to work in the sunshine and jump in a lake. So it felt really meaningful and moving to end the show that way with ease, peace and quiet.
Station Eleven‘s first three episodes are now streaming on HBO Max.
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