Mackenzie Davis has been a favorite for a good while now, but it’s especially exciting to see her filmography continue to grow with such a wide variety of projects, working with some of the most striking voices in the industry. Now that resume grows with HBO Max’s extremely stirring adaption of Emily St. John Mandel’s novel, Station Eleven, from showrunner Patrick Somerville with episodes directed by Hiro Murai, Jeremy Podeswa, Helen Shaver and Lucy Tcherniak.
The story begins with the world on the cusp of a significant flu outbreak. The pandemic devastates civilization, completely obliterating the technology we rely on and our way of life in general. Twenty years in the future, Davis’ character, Kirsten, is part of the Traveling Symphony, a group of actors and musicians who travel the region performing Shakespeare for various communities. Even though the group seems to have found great purpose in this new world, an unexpected encounter challenges them to reconsider what to hold onto from the path and how best to create a new future.
With Station Eleven in the midst of its rollout on HBO Max, Davis joined us for an episode of Collider Ladies Night to talk about the mini-series and also to revisit the path she took to get there, beginning with the reality of life after drama school. Here’s what happened after Davis graduated from The Neighborhood Playhouse, an acting conservatory in New York City:
“I was kind of aimless, because I graduated from The Neighborhood Playhouse and didn’t have an agent. I had somebody who would sometimes send me auditions, but not really, and so I was just trying to do what you see in montages in the movies — looking at the back of magazines and going on Craigslist for student films, and just didn’t know how to navigate anything. And some of the advice I had been given was a bit dodgy, like sending postcards with your face on it to different casting agents announcing your arrival in the city. I wasn’t sure exactly how you had to do it and then I got really lucky and one of the two auditions I was sent out on by this person who was sometimes sending me out on things was for this movie called Breathe In. That was the first thing I was cast in and I had got really lucky. I kind of got to jump forward a few steps in a time where I was very, very, very lost about how one moved forward at all.”
Breathe In is Drake Doremus’s 2014 release starring Guy Pearce, Amy Ryan, Felicity Jones and, of course, Davis. Davis plays Pearce and Ryan’s daughter in the drama, which covers what happens when their family takes in an exchange student from the UK, Jones’ Sophie. Collider’s own Adam Chitwood noted Davis’ potential when he caught the film back at Sundance 2013. He wrote, “Mackenzie Davis in particular is excellent as the sincere and confused daughter Lauren, and she is most certainly an actress to look out for in the future.”
Doremus and Chitwood weren’t the only ones to spot something special in Davis out of Breathe In. That film helped Davis score representation and she actually still works with the same agency today. Here’s what she said when asked what it was about that group of people that suggested they were the right fit and a team she could go the distance with:
“It’s really special. At the time it was weirdly pragmatic because there’s a sort of energy of competition of signing a new person, and I was really sensitive to that, that nobody — because I just shot this movie — had any idea what my work looked like and the only people that did were the agents at the agency that I was signing with because they represented the director [laughs]. So they were kind of the only people I could believe where I was like, ‘Alright, well at least you’ve seen something. Everything else feels, true or not and very nice people, they don’t know what I’m like or how I act so they couldn’t possibly actually like me. I’m just this thing that was cast in this cool director’s movie.’ It was kind of pragmatic in that way and then I just settled with a really lovely team of people that understood who I was and never tried to push me into things. The sort of horror stories, or even just kind of shitty stories that you hear about especially young actors being pushed into projects that they don’t want or in meetings with people that they don’t want or not being listened to or respected. Especially when that power dynamic is so stark where you’re just like, ‘Why are you even talking to me? I’ve never made you money,’ and you feel very deferent to the agent relationship when you first start out. But they always treated me like [I’m] smart and an equal and they were really interested in what I wanted to do and how I wanted to be, and I loved that. And that’s true to this day. They really respected my whole approach.”
Clearly that kind of collaboration works wonders because since Breathe In, Davis has delivered standout work in one impressive project after the next like Always Shine, Terminator: Dark Fate and Happiest Season, just to name a few.
Despite being an enormous fan of Davis’, admittedly, there was some hesitancy about jumping into Station Eleven. As someone who hasn’t dug into the source material (yet), it was easy to make the assumption that this is a bleak show about a pandemic, and given the current situation, who wants more of that? However, in preparation for this interview, I gave it a go and very quickly discovered that Station Eleven was actually the exact type of show I needed in my life right now. Here’s how Davis herself put it:
“The show isn’t about a pandemic. The first episode and the third episode have elements that feel recognizable, but everything else is about how do we survive and what’s important to us and what do we hold on to and what are the most important things? And I think it manages to be really earnest and hopeful and beautiful without being too cloying or embarrassing that, ‘Okay, that’s too sweet.’ Which [author] Emily [St. John Mandel] did in her book as well. I think [it] hits this tone of earnest hopefulness while allowing darkness and other things to be a part of that, and our show does that as well. And there’s this real people searching for each other in a kind of existential sense that’s pretty beautiful and quite moving, I find. But it just isn’t about a pandemic. It’s shitty timing. Believe us, we started working on the show in 2019, shooting it in January and February of 2020, and then went on hiatus until the next year. We weren’t making a show about a pandemic. We were making a show about life after tragedy and trauma.”
Looking for even more from Davis on her journey from drama school to Station Eleven? You can catch her episode of Collider Ladies Night at the top of this article or listen to the uncut conversation in podcast form below. There’s loads more about her experience working on The Martian with Ridley Scott, Blade Runner 2049 with Denis Villeneuve and then some!
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