An Artist is an Emotional Historian
Written by Augustus Britton | Photographed by Zoey Grossman | Styled by Erin Walsh
The light is pale blue. A thin sheen hangs over everything. We are in the midst of a solar eclipse.
The lake shines down by our feet. I see fish—small ones. I see a turtle. Geese. Ducks. Dogs. People. Coffee cups. I see the paddleboats.
I see very small splatters of what looks like blue paint on the frames of Mackenzie Davis’ lime green Céline sunglasses. Telling, maybe. She looks a touch tired. Her neck is long. Her hair is pulled back. Pretty face—an elegant face. Her hands are venous. Her skin is pale. I can’t see her eyes. The tint is too heavy. I almost ask her to take off her shades, because behind those shades are big and brilliant blue eyes. I don’t ask.
Instead, “How did we get here?”
She answers. A full voice comes through, a recognizable voice, “It’s funny. I was just sitting here thinking about how I lived in L.A. five or six years ago, for two years, and Echo Park Lake wasn’t here [the way it is now], and then I moved back to New York, and as soon as I moved to New York, Echo Park Lake became this thing again. And now I’ve moved back here—I was really jealous that it got developed while I was away.”
That’s her answer. From moment to moment Mackenzie is very much interested in the spirit of what’s happening right now, a veritable hallmark of the best kind of actor.
I start the dance. “You’re a strong woman who takes her job seriously…”
“I do take my job seriously,” she says, “I think it’s sort of a stupid job if you don’t take it seriously, and I also think it’s a stupid job if you take it too seriously. But all I do is imagine and pretend, and I’m kind of academic in the way that I approach it … so there is a bit of structure around what I’m doing, and I can feel like I worked today, and I’m testing myself in some way, and it’s hard with such an amorphous profession. There’s no scaffolding to prepare, so I try and find ways to put that scaffolding up and say, ‘OK, there’s a building!’” Then there’s a thing there instead of just an idea.”
Notably, Davis is one of the stars of AMC’s Halt And Catch Fire, a quirky, all-too-human tableau of personal computer daydreams and nightmares. She plays a kind of computer savant. A vicious romantic one, one that jumps up on tables to kiss people. Knees bent. Legs splayed.
She has also played key roles in films like The Martian (2015), alongside Matt Damon and Chiwetel Ejiofor, as well as A Country Called Home (2015) with actress Imogen Poots, in which she plays a transgender busker of sorts—a kind of James Dean/Johnny Cash hellion out in the middle of Nowheresville, USA.
She will appear in the upcoming film Blade Runner 2049, an experience she says was one of her most memorable to date: shot in Budapest, directed by Denis Villeneuve of Sicario (2015) and Arrival (2016) fame, starring Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Robin Wright and the acid rain. Need I say more?
And her most recent film that has been released is Always Shine, a thriller set in Los Angeles and Big Sur directed by Sophia Takal. Davis plays a demented actress scorned by the success of her best friend, who is also an actress. It reminded me of a feminine version of the 2011 film I Melt With You, starring Jeremy Piven and Rob Lowe, minus the drugs but with all the harrows of trying to live, be an artist, be a person, expand.
I sense a trend. Davis plays the real parts. She’s the kind of actress who goes in for truth rather than fluff. She reminds me of my grandmother, Estelle Parsons, Academy Award winner and five-time Tony-nominated iconoclast. The two parallel each other in that they treat acting like it’s work, but there’s also something deeper there, a deeper mission, a deeper goal.
“I think I oscillate between thinking what I do is extremely frivolous and not important and feeling, especially now, it’s good to be a part of things that you think are important and to be seen,” Davis says looking out at the water. “Not like every role I make or even most of the roles I make are a political decision, it’s just … like I took that Black Mirror job because I loved the show, for selfish reasons. I loved the part, I loved the story, I loved the writing; I wanted to work with all of these people, but it had this lovely second effect that I kind of just fell into … of meaning something to people. And as much as you can try to find what that Venn diagram is between fulfilling your own ambitions and speaking to a [marginalized] group of people, that’s a really lucky thing.”
“But maybe that’s the key to something being successful in the first place: It was true to you,” I say, “and then the reception is up in the air?”
“I think those two things feel separate, but I think that if you look at somebody’s résumé you can kind of tell what their interests are with some degree of specificity. Like, ‘Oh, well this person isn’t choosing the same thing all the time,’ but you choose what you’re talking about with your friends and what you’re reading about in the news, and you choose the projects that are part of your consciousness at that moment. And what is part of your consciousness in December might not feel as relevant a year and a half later.”
Davis is referring to the episode of Black Mirror called “San Junipero,” from a series as memorable as anything The Twilight Zone ever had to offer. In this particular episode, Davis falls in love with her co-star, Gugu-Mbatha Raw. And you’re immediately sucked in as an audience member. Sucked into her commitment. Sucked into her different facets.
Davis oscillates in more ways than one. She has these looks: dark, pleading—I think it’s really just called talent, actually. She’s part girl next door, another part revelatory, sharp and deep-witted woman, and she could—although she’s less inclined to—pull off a princess. “I think there are so many more interesting things to do with a body than play royalty,” she says.
“What’s your process?” I ask, feeling the deep blue disk of sun reflect across my forehead, beads of sweat pirouette on my skull. “Is there a spiritual process? Or are you mainly hanging around with the script?”
“It feels like just a steady state of anxiety,” she tells me as I nod my head, “and always feeling like I’m just going to get fired on the first day, and try to do whatever I can do to not have that happen.”
Davis studied acting at The Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in New York City after attending McGill University in Montreal, where she studied English literature.
And it’s starting to make sense. The sensitivity of this gentle creature, the thespian, the badass Aries—it’s all very complex, although she’s never got on too well with the ram. “Have you ever done primal astrology?” she asks me, in between sips of espresso. “I’m a llama. I never felt really close to the Aries descriptions, but the llama descriptions are so … it was the first time I went, ‘Wow, this animal sees me.’”
I respond like a bit of a fool, unversed in the ways of primal astrology, which, upon further review, is a way to get a deeper inkling of what/who you really are, of what cosmic compulsion you’re really walking around with. “Yeah, the long neck,” I say, trying to gain balance. “Llamas are very … interesting,” I say earnestly.
We move on, although the llama bit sticks with me.
I wave a hand, “What has helped you stand out?”
She pauses; humility shines through on her face. A breath, then, “I think having a tall body is a real asset, because it can be many things depending on how you use it. I think—talking about theater school—the thing I studied there was the Meisner technique and the whole theory behind it is to be as present as possible. And if you’re doing a scene six or eight times … Be there with the person. And if they say, ‘Who are you?’ in a different way each time, then respond to the way they’re saying it that time. And I don’t do the repetition exercises and these aspects of the Meisner technique that we did a lot when I was training in it, but I definitely think that drive to find what’s happening right now and to not get too concerned about myself is not something I always achieve, but it is something I strive for.”
“What aspects of your life do you cultivate to make yourself a better actress?”
“Reading a lot. And traveling. I try and con a road trip into as many domestic jobs as I can. I drive out to where I’m going and then I drive home—so I get to have, like, not this sort of isolated experience of always working or being on a plane. I don’t know, I get a bit starved for that feeling of traveling and not feeling like I’m a part of a very specific world. I think reading is the best thing anybody can do for their empathy. And empathy is probably the most important trait to have as an actor, in my opinion.”
“What do you mean by empathy? Empathy to whom?”
“To the character first of all,” Davis says, “The whole act of reading and watching movies and being an actor—which are all kind of like being an audience to something foreign to yourself—is like being manipulated into seeing somebody’s point of view that you wouldn’t normally see. My boyfriend and I just drove from [the set of Halt And Catch Fire in Atlanta] home to L.A. … and I’ll read to him, and we were reading Go Tell It On The Mountain, the James Baldwin book—which is, first of all, so unbelievably good, it’s incredible—but there is a character in it who is obviously a villain, a horrible man. You hate him from the get-go. He’s just this abusive brute, and then it switches, and there is a whole 70 or a hundred pages where you’re learning about his life from his point of view—and the stuff he does is still awful. ... The edges aren’t softened up on his actions at all, but you’re forced to live with him for those 70 pages and try and see where even an abusive monster is coming from. It’s not legitimizing his behavior in any way, but it’s such a valuable exercise to try and see how somebody that you would judge views the world. I think reading and watching movies where you’re not just watching the same characters all the time and the same sorts of stories being told—those are real tools of social change, but they require somebody to go outside of their comfort zone. Anyway, empathy for an actor—you have to step inside somebody’s skin and think that they’re justified in what they do. Or if they’re ashamed of it, still understand why they did it and then understand their shame. It’s a good exercise, which is always so weird to me, because actors have such a reputation for being these egomaniacs, and it’s not untrue, but it’s weird to be a narcissist but also have the main tool in your profession be empathizing with other people.”
And the sun changes again. This time to a lighter shade of pale. My shirt is soaked through. Davis’ denim shirt is buttoned low.
She points, over there, by the rocks, by the lapping blue water. “We could just talk about how nice the ducks are.” MM