Mackenzie Davis has a lot in common with Cameron Howe, the dawn-of-the-PC-age programmer she plays in AMC’s Halt And Catch Fire. Both are whip-smart, bold and blunt in their beliefs, and hyper-aware of their status as women in an industry dominated by men. That idea is also in the forefront of the Davis-starring Always Shine, a twisty and thoughtful film that is as much cultural criticism as it is unnerving thriller. In April, the film played at the Tribeca Film Festival, where Davis sat down with The A.V. Club to discuss the film’s potent themes, the “subjective experience of being a woman,” and what she could reveal of Halt’s upcoming third season.
The A.V. Club: Given the places that Always Shine goes, do you want to start with a spoiler-free intro to the film?
Mackenzie Davis: The premise of the movie is that there are these two girls, Anna and Beth. I play Anna. They’re both struggling actresses, though Beth has had a modicum more success. They’re best friends, and the film follows them as they spend a weekend in Big Sur, where Anna is plagued by jealousy and insecurity over herself and her desirability, as both a woman and an actress. She sees Beth as encapsulating everything she’s deficient in: Beth is more feminine, gentle, she’s more successful. And Anna sort of uses Beth as a surrogate for everything she’s not.
The way I think about the movie is that it is about the subjective experience of being a woman. The film makes the subjective experience incarnate in the two characters. The film deals with the idea that the women are told to be a certain way—that there is a right way or a wrong way to be a woman.
AVC: Different rules to play by.
MD: Yeah, yeah. I really related to the movie because I’ve had a similar experience. I saw myself in the same way [director] Sophia Takal saw herself: I was always too big—both physically and in terms of personality. I was too loud, and when I got to an age when I wanted to be desired, I was always trying to find ways to be smaller and to be the “right” kind of woman. I would see how my friends behaved and whether they got good feedback for their versions of femininity, and if they did, then I’d try that version myself. I would try on different masks, but none ever really fit me. This movie is about deconstructing those modes of being, those demons, and how you overcome them and kill them.
AVC: Is Anna angry because Beth does things that she doesn’t want to do—Beth doesn’t stick up for herself with her boyfriend, she does nudity in terrible movies—but then Beth enjoys a greater degree of success, in part because she’s doing them?
MD: I don’t think it’s that. For example, there’s a scene when Anna asks Beth if she ever feels like a whore for doing nudity. In that moment, I don’t think Anna is necessarily angry about the choices Beth has made. I think she’s just trying to make her feel shitty. The issue isn’t that Anna looks down on Beth for not standing up for herself, the issue is that Anna feels her way of behaving is the wrong way to be a woman. Beth feels that she gets more done because she’s kind, because she doesn’t make scenes, and so forth. There’s a certain amount of envy because Beth has tapped into a way of being a woman that Anna is unable to. Beth wouldn’t have gotten herself into the situations that Anna does in the first place. She knows the way to perform—Anna doesn’t.
AVC: Are these issues that you had to deal with before you became successful?
MD: I was very lucky in that my first movie was a full-fledged role, which helped me to escape some of the more degrading aspects of beginning a career. But certainly I experienced it some in the short time I’ve been working. Almost every early movie I did would have some kind of surprise sex scene that would come up in the middle of the movie. I would find pasties and a modesty patch in my dressing room, and the producers would say, “Oh, yes, there’s a sex scene, did we not say?” Now, I wasn’t 17 when I started, I was 24, and because of that I thought that I’d be more grounded and able to stand up for myself, but it was a struggle even then. It’s hard to know how to negotiate that—how to toe the line between being grateful for the opportunity, not wanting to make anyone mad—but also not wanting to film a scene that’s shot in a way that’s really degrading. You don’t feel like you have a voice. The industry is set up in a way that deprives actors, and actresses especially. They tell you you’re so lucky to have a job in the first place that it discourages you from standing up for yourself. So I definitely had little experiences, but I didn’t have to go the beer commercial route, which I’m really happy about.
AVC: Do you feel the film comes down on any particular side with these issues?
MD: No, I don’t think the film is trying to argue that Anna’s way is bad or Beth’s is good. The film is more about how oppressive it is for a woman to feel that there’s a right way or a wrong way to be in the first place. I feel like my perspective on this is influenced because I’m tall, and I’ve always felt that the way to be tall as a woman is to be incredibly skinny, because then you’d be waif-like and delicate, and if you were anything except skinny you’d be taking up too much space. That’s a thing that gets reiterated to us throughout our entire lives: “Don’t take up too much space. We don’t want your body to be fluid or to exceed the boundaries we’ve laid for you.” I’ve experienced that idea with my body and with my personality, Anna experiences it with hers, and the film is deconstructing how oppressive those experiences are to have. I think masculinity is the same. I was just reading about this video of a little boy getting his first shot. He’s crying, and while his dad is being a great dad, he’s also saying stuff like, “Are you going to be my big boy? Don’t cry, be a man!” And the little boy swallows his tears and is like, “I’m a man!” I mean, imagine how fucked up and oppressive that is for a 2-year-old boy to hear—that he shouldn’t show emotion or pain—and that’s how he’s expected to behave. Basically Always Shine takes those feelings that have been tamped down and puts them into a thriller.
AVC: Without getting into what happens in the film, toward the end you begin to take on some of Beth’s characteristics and see some success. You meet someone. You seem a little more at ease.
MD: I found that to be the most uncomfortable part of the movie to play, because she suddenly doesn’t have a voice. She may experience the benefits of being voiceless, but she’s Ariel [from The Little Mermaid]. She can walk on land and be a part of that world, but she’s not allowed to speak. There’s a scene set during a dinner that was very strange for me to watch after the fact, because I almost don’t even remember shooting it. There are moments when Anna is trying to answer questions but she can’t, or she’s trying to get a word in edgewise, but it’s as though she has a cloak of silence over her. That was deeply uncomfortable and upsetting, the idea that she acts as a mirror for other people who suddenly want to be around her now that she’s no longer projecting these undesirable parts. She’s not interesting, but she’s fine to be around, and crazily that’s enough for the other characters. They can live with that.
AVC: Do you feel like these issues are changing at all? It feels like there’s a lot more discussion about representation and the number and types of roles that are out there, the Bechdel test.
MD: I think having a dialogue is the first step toward action, but something that happens with Twitter or all these mini-political movements is that we only have a dialogue. We talk ourselves out of doing anything. It feels like the action part is missed, because we like talking about it so much. It becomes kind of trendy: “Feminism is real hot right now! Declare your feminism!” But then it’s like, can we also get paid the same? There are practical issues that require actual planning and action, a development that needs to happen after the dialogue. I think that development is starting to happen right now, but dialogue isn’t enough.
AVC: Is there a difference on this issue between the film world and TV? It feels like there’s a general view that TV has better roles or opportunities for women than film.
MD: Right now, yeah, I think that’s true. I certainly feel like I’m benefitting from television and playing a very cool role on television. There are more female directors and writers in television, which I feel is very important. I don’t know every show, but on ours we’ve have more than 50 percent female directors from the beginning. I’m so, so incredibly proud of that. And of course, because there are more opportunities to direct—numerous episodes per season—I feel like diversity can inch its way in quicker. Whereas in film, the stakes are so high that people keep wanting to play by the same rules, even if the rules have failed. If you’re investing millions and millions into one single shot, then you want to feel safe, and that leads to things like, “Oh, this guy looks like me so I’m going to give him a chance the way someone who looks like me gave me a chance when I was just a young guy in a baseball cap. That formula is safe, so I’m going to do that instead of trying something new.”
AVC: The tech world has some of the same gender disparity that entertainment does. Is that something you’re mindful of with respect to Halt And Catch Fire?
MD: Super mindful of! It’s such a bummer reading about Silicon Valley and what’s going on there, though I don’t think there’s an industry that’s exempt from a gender imbalance and a pay gap. Basically, there’s a difference acceptance everywhere for anyone who isn’t in the norm of a straight, white male. But Silicon Valley is a really interesting place in that regard because… It’s hard to know what to say publicly versus privately.
AVC: Is a conversation like this welcome, or is there a part of you that’s like Beth and doesn’t want to rattle the cage, especially now that you’ve been successful?
MD: It’s incredibly welcome! No, no, it would be irresponsible to not rattle the cage. I had a conversation with a woman once who didn’t call herself a feminist and didn’t claim to be a part of that group, because she—in her subjective experience—didn’t feel that she had experienced any kind of discrimination. But the point of feminism and having these conversations isn’t so that I—a successful, thin white woman—can have more opportunities, it’s so everyone can be put into a position where we can have a conversation that will affect other people. And this isn’t just an actress thing or a celebrity thing. If you have a modicum of power then you should be using it to give a voice to people who don’t have a platform. It’s irresponsible to remove yourself from a group because of your subjective experience when the collective experience could influence so many lives.
AVC: Switching gears, one of the things I admire about the film is how exactly it is shot. There’s a lot of sophisticated stuff going on with the framing and focus and editing.
MD: So cool.
AVC: How much of that are you aware of when filming? Are you just focused on hitting your mark, or are you playing toward what the camera is doing, stylistically? Do you base your performance knowing whether you’re in focus or out of the frame?
MD: I’m generally the worst actor when it comes to anything like that. I have a lot of trouble even remembering where my mark is sometime. But I knew that a lot of it was being shot on a lens that was actually used in the film 3 Women. Sophia bought it on eBay, and we used it for these very slow zoom shots. Just knowing that the camera was coming in very close, very slowly gave the sense of a kind of menacing creep that I modulated my performance for. But generally I’m very unprofessional when it comes to adjusting my performance for close-ups for wide shots. Eventually I’m like, “Sorry, I don’t have any feelings left. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the close-up.”
AVC: Your relationship with a director and what he or she is doing with the camera, does that change depending on whether you’re in a smaller film like this or a big-budget one like The Martian or something more expansive like television?
MD: This was my first experience being so immersed in the making of something, from rehearsals to being all in the same space when we were filming. I felt more in touch with everything that was going on from Sophia’s end, from the start to after we finished shooting. Unlike The Martian, I was very aware of what even the sound design was going to be here. Sophia made it clear what the tone was going to be like from the beginning. That was so cool, and it’s cool to see it actualized. My experience is usually that you make a movie and then a year and a half later you see it, and it’s never what you expect to be. Sometimes it may be great, but it always feels a little off or different from what you were expecting. But here, Sophia knew everything. She knew the title sequence of the movie before we shot it, that weird pink James Spader thing. It was so nice to see it in exactly the form we were expecting it to be in. The tone and scope and everything was all the same, even if some things had changed a bit in editing.
AVC: I think of Ridley Scott as a director who is very mindful of where he puts his camera. For The Martian, were you privy to that decision-making process, or were you mostly given a mark and played the scene?
MD: I wasn’t part of that dialogue. I was mostly overwhelmed. Ridley shoots two or three takes, and then he’s done—it’s in the movie. It’s really intense. He basically just had three 3-D cameras around my face doing a medium, a wide, and a close-up. I was blocked in a room, did the scene a couple times, and then I was done. He really focused on the acting, which was nice. I’m interested in the technical aspects of filmmaking, but I don’t feel empowered in my performance by knowing what the director is doing. I just want to be given a space and then be free to play within those parameters. I don’t have rhythm. I’m not a good dancer. I don’t how to articulate my body for those kinds of things. If you watch Robin Wright on House Of Cards, she just knows how to conduct herself so that the light hits her just so. It feels so intuitive for her, and I’m learning those skills, but as it stands right now I don’t have that ability. I feel a bit burdened by the pressure if I know too much. Knowing the lighting and any specific camera stuff informs the tone and the way you perform, even if it’s just subsconscious. Just walking onto Ridley’s set, which was gargantuan, impacted my performance. You feel the weight of everything around you. Whereas performing in Big Sur, when you’re in these long takes, informs you in a different way.
AVC: Does Halt And Catch Fire feel more like a big-budget film or an indie film?
MD: It’s a big production, but we all know each other so well now that it feels intimate. We have a new DP [director of photography] this year—we’ve had a new one every year, but this one is so lovely—but other than that we have a consistent crew and cast. I think I was finding my legs the first two years, but it feels really nice this year. Having creative conversations feels a lot easier. It feels like a well-oiled machine. We don’t have to be debriefed on the tone or anything like that.
AVC: Can you tell us what to expect from the third season?
MD: I never know what I’m allowed to say. I’ll say that the sets are amazing this year, and we have a new one that’s an office building. Just stepping inside it changes the feeling of everything. I’m really excited. I think it’s the best season. I’m not just saying that. I really think it’s true. The writing is so good.
As far as story goes, all I’ll say is that we’ve all moved to San Francisco, and the season starts about six months after the end of season two. We’ve brought Mutiny out there, and it’s just following our path from that side of things.