Station Eleven's Mackenzie Davis on the importance of creative discord on set
Mackenzie Davis is used to demanding roles. Whether she's acting in Blade Runner 2049, Terminator: Dark Fate or Halt and Catch Fire, being a badass is one of her constant job requirements. But her latest starring gig is even more ambitious and multi-faceted: she's fronting the HBO Max adaptation of Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel's bestselling pandemic novel.
Davis plays Kirsten, who was a young child when the show's fictional (but eerily realistic) deadly flu swept the globe, eradicated most of the population and ended civilization as it once was. Her story is told in both flashbacks and through a present-day storyline; Kirsten is a founding member of the Traveling Symphony, a troupe of actors and musicians who bring theater to the disparate communities of survivors around the midwest. They're forced to navigate not only the lingering public health threats and traumas, but the dangers of a lawless society left without all the technologies we've come to rely on. The show filmed through the midst of the real-life pandemic, adding an eerie layer of urgency to the project.
To mark the show's premiere — the first three episodes of Station Eleven are streaming now — Davis came to the EW studio to speak about the lessons she's learned during her time in Hollywood and the advice she's looking to impart on the younger generation of actors.
On what she's learned about strength:
"I think when I was younger, I had a much more flat understanding of strength and courage. It's quite easy to punch something, but it's hard to love somebody or to have your heart broken. So I like those things that aren't immediately accessible."
On the moments she feels the most empowered:
"Something that, looking back on, I'm quite proud of is one of my first movies I had a sex scene that wasn't written in the script sprung on me on set by the director. It was so mean, in retrospect, that they would put me in that position with no power at all. And I managed to not partake in the thing that they were suggesting, and stand up for myself. At the time it felt really risky and terrible and deeply uncool — that it would have been way easier to just go along with it — but looking back, I was the cool one, actually."
On her childhood role models:
"I looked up to my mom. She's a very formidable woman, she's the most efficient person in the world. She's successful, never sleeps, is activating at all times and extremely ambitious. I have just 10 percent of that, which is still a lot because she's really amazing. But watching her and how she navigated spaces, especially as a woman in business, is where I learned what being a feminist looks like. It was without her ever saying it, but it's just taking up the amount of space that you deserve and not compromising on that no matter how many times people remind you that they would rather you take up a little bit less space."
On finding her voice:
"I used to really want to be a good girl. Part of it is being Canadian: I didn't want to be responsible for any discord on set. And the people that I respect the most that I've worked with understand that [discord] is part of the creative process. I've had to learn that, and am still learning that. You're kind of being hired for your intuition and your taste, so to not present that forcefully feels like you're not doing the thing that you were hired for. It took me a long time to understand that and it's watching other people that did it for me."
On her Happiest Season costar Kristen Stewart:
"In life I hate subtext, I just want people to be extremely direct and trust that I can take whatever you tell me — and Kristen is the exact same way and extremely direct. She's also funny and can speak in layers, but is literal and curious and open to the world. I felt like she made all these things about me, that sometimes feel like walking around with your skin off, really powerful and cool. I really love her."
On the worst advice she's ever gotten:
"I was sort of reprimanded, forcefully, by people that I loved and trusted, when I was an underling. I could only trust their opinion that I was incorrect in the way that I had handled something. In the years that have gone by, with me re-examining that event — it was about pay — I've realized how sad I am that I apologized so forcefully."
On the advice she gives the most:
"When I started I was so permeable. I looked up to everybody, without anybody intending it this way, I was treating every single person around me as a lesson. I was constantly absorbing information on how to be and how to survive and how to do it in the best way. Now, if I have a conversation with a director, I'll try to then frame that to a younger actor in a way that things were never framed for me. I was so absorbent when I was younger and I wish I had context for some of things I was absorbing — so now, I try to give context all the time."
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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