Canadian actress Mackenzie Davis had some rather fortunate luck with her first film out of the gate: she was cast alongside Guy Pearce, Felicity Jones and Amy Ryan in Drake Doremus’ drama “Breathe In.” Not only was it a plum gig, but her small but crucial performance seized the moment and that year at Sundance she was dubbed one to watch by many (including us).
Davis has since landed roles in “That Awkward Moment” alongside Zac Efron and the festival crime hit “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.” This week she turns up in another supporting, but important role in “What If” starring Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan. Much like her conspicuous lover in the film, played by Adam Driver, Mackenzie’s rebellious, cynical, but romantic Nicole character steals most of the scenes she’s in. The 27-year-old actress also co-stars in AMC’s undervalued “Halt & Catch Fire” (a show you should be watching). Alongside Lee Pace and Scoot McNairy, she’s part of a trio of computer pioneers and mavericks trying to break big in the industry during the 1980s.
With all this cooking, we recently chatted with Davis by phone about “What If,” “Halt & Catch Fire” and more.
What drew you to “What If” in the first place?
I think that the writing probably did it. I thought it was really funny and really jumped off the page. It made me laugh out loud a number of times on several read throughs. That’s a good sign too. it was a really fun thing to spend time on.
Titled “The F Word” in Canada, it’s probably a surprise to many that F really stands for "friend" rather than "fuck." And it’s interesting, the term “friend zone” is pretty common now, but not really a popular term back in 2008 when the script was written.
I have no idea when the "friend zone" originated though. I guess it was ahead of the curve. I don’t know. You know in Canada we find out about everything about six to twelve months earlier.
I forgot you’re Canadian. What were you working on in Canada before you broke out with “Breathe In”?
Nothing. I never worked. I came down here for school and then I started working when I graduated. My first film was “Breathe In.” Then I really only worked here and the one Canadian film I’ve done is “What If.” [ed. Technically she had a very small role in “Smashed” and appeared in one episode of “I Just Want My Pants Back”]
That “Breathe In” reaction must have been nice, it being your first real role.
It was really a lovely thing to be a part of. I feel lucky for that to be my first experience.
What was the aftermath of that experience like? Hectic?
I think everything for my career was quicker than I imagined it. I got [“the Breathe In” role] when I graduated from school. I was imagining a long life of being a stone cold loser. Then I got a job which was really nice, then I got a great agent, a great manager which was really nice. I was doing a lot of set ups and you know I got to start working in LA.
I guess it was like six months before I got my next job and that was fine. I was just happy to be auditioning for good stuff all of a sudden. I wasn’t auditioning for these garbage roles or student films or things that I didn’t really love that much. I got to at least be in the running. Before I deluded myself to thinking I was in the running, but I was definitely under the impression at the time. Now that I look back I probably definitely was not in the running, but I was happy to be in the room.
Tell me a little bit about the character that you play in this movie, Nicole. She seems to me like a cynical optimist.
Yeah, I think her optimism is surrounded in cynicism, but she is really like a hard core optimist. She like believes in true romantic love and believes in taking risks and is actually kind of the most romantic person in the movie. But she just says it so bluntly that you think she’s like a war veteran. The war of love.
She’s nice and complex that way, cynical and harsh on the surface, gooey inside at heart.
I think she’s a bit of both, but the movie itself … I guess I think the essence of what she’s saying is sort of saccharine. Like it’s very sweet but it sounds like somebody who’s actually lived, and so it’s not fall in love with the first person you meet. But if you find somebody that’s worth fighting for, then do these very big, romantic things for them, because it’s worth it.
She’s a very honest character. And I love the [scene right before she gets married]. She’s like, “I’m scared shitless, this is totally out of character but I’m choosing to believe in love and I’m going to do these really corny and romantic things because of it and that’s just what you have to do.” I like that about her. About choosing the path that seems like its most traveled. But she’s doing it very bravely with her eyes wide open.
How do you look at it when you’re doing a supporting role, but one that is integral to the counter point of the narrative.
I don’t really think that much about it as being like a small part of a big thing. I just think about her having a life and the movie being a part of her life and you don’t get to see the part of her life where she’s the star of the movie, but she’s operating as though she is. Everybody is the center of their own life. She’s not like I’m just a footnote in [Radcliffe] and [Kazan’s] story. She’s just doing what she does and she happens to turn up in it.
Tell me about creating Cameron on “Halt & Catch Fire.” I love that character and the show.
I was really lucky that [the character] was very well thought out from the beginning. They really wanted her to be a major player in the story. I don’t think I could have predicted how much she would grow over the course of this one year. But she just becomes a completely comes into her own. You first see her as being a manager and like pushing herself and harnessing her energy for good instead of evil.
And so yeah, I think it was just such a fun role to play and such a nice new challenge. I’d never done TV before but to have a new script coming your way is like every like five days basically to get ready for the next episode that was shooting. I just loved nothing more than being that busy. And so, hopefully I can keep doing it.
I imagine there must be an advantage with TV living with one character like that for so long and really being able to dive in with her.
Yes! Because by the end of the series, in a lot of ways it got to be very weird, just because Lee [Pace] and I would get into fights as if we were our own characters. Just starting to defend our characters from our own point of view and then it got obvious pretty quickly that we related a little too much and didn’t see them as players in a larger world.
We just kind of were myopic about who had wronged us and the price they must pay. But that also made it really nice that by the end of the series all the like injuries that Cameron sustained by the hand of Joe I felt like I had sustained. And so you have all this history to react to. It’s not just imaginary history but its experiences you’ve actually gone through with this person, so every interaction suddenly has more weight. It was kind of amazing actually.
Do you guys know if you’re renewed for a second season yet? I hope so.
I have no idea. I really love it and I just love the people I did it with so much. I couldn’t even tell you. I would love to do it again and again and again.
You were also in that festival crime hit last year, “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place”
I play an intrepid, young Texas teen that gets wrapped up in a heist and she’s a mystery enthusiast. She uses that background to help figure some shit out. It’s way messier than that, but I just like that phrasing.
Back to “Halt & Catch Fire” — are there places you hope to explore with your character?
Hmm, I don’t know how that works for that show but I’ll take it.
This is a fantasy game.
“What If” is in select theaters starting and will expand on August 15th.