Guest of Honor

Mackenzie Davis Worries About the Next ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’

The actor talks about the gender dynamics at play in her latest film, “Always Shine,” and critiques the one-note "strong female characters" that are on the bubble of a TV trend.

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Actor Mackenzie Davis plays the punk rock coding genius Cameron in the AMC series “Halt and Catch Fire.” She has also appeared in the latest season of the celebrated U.K. anthology show “Black Mirror.” And you may have seen her on the big screen in “The Martian.”

Her latest film is called “Always Shine.” It’s both a psychological thriller and a look at the sexist pressures of Hollywood. It’s about two actors, Beth and Anna, who go to Big Sur for the weekend to mend their strained friendship. Sweet and passive Beth has a career on the rise. Mackenzie plays the more outspoken and assertive Anna, who can’t seem to catch a break.

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Brendan Francis Newnam: Which character in “Always Shine” do you identify with more?

Mackenzie Davis: Anna and I share some characteristics — sort of an assertiveness and maybe… I feel like I was always received a lot more aggressively than I was intending to be, and Anna, I think, intends to be quite aggressive.

But a scene that, really, I relate to is the scene in the bar where Anna is flirting with this new person that they’ve met in Big Sur. And her friend, Beth, is being silent and, in her point of view, completely uninteresting the whole time, and just sitting there disinterested. And Anna is really engaged with this new man that she’s met, and thinks that she’s flirting, and is arguing and challenging him, and asking him to defend these things he’s saying.

And she, and I, feel like that’s what flirting, what connecting is. Is having this really engaged, confrontational experience. And then you see later that he’s totally turned off by that and is much more interested in this meek, un-speaking, beautiful cipher in the corner. And that sort of realization that engaging head on with the world isn’t actually something that a lot of people like is an experience that I’ve definitely had in the past. And that particular feeling of being like, “Oh, I don’t think I know what flirting is.”

Brendan Francis Newnam: When that guy turned on Anna a little bit and started to be put off by her, at that point, I didn’t really get a sense why. It didn’t seem like what she was engaging in seemed crazy to me.

Mackenzie Davis: Well, I think using him as a — and relating to the other male character in the movie, Jesse — is they kind of want a vessel to project themselves onto. And, when Anna becomes that vessel, she’s very successful romantically, you know, in the broadest of terms. And when she isn’t that vessel, she gets rejected. And I think it’s just this sort of broad criticism of a type of man that, or, you know, a type of society that would require women to reflect rather than express.

Mackenzie Davis in "Always Shine." (Image courtesy of Visit Films.)
Mackenzie Davis in “Always Shine.” (Image courtesy of Visit Films.)

Brendan Francis Newnam: And that’s also, of course, heightened. These are both actors, and in that industry, you know, an actor is a vessel directly of, often, a writer’s words and that sort of thing. Do you think, in your experience, Hollywood is the same, better, or worse than society in general when it comes to these sort of gender expectations?

Mackenzie Davis: I think it’s the same. Maybe it’s a more distinct drawing of some of those lines. I mean, I think a really clever thing that Lawrence Levine, Sophia Takal’s husband, who wrote the movie — Sophia Takal directed it — did was to use the device of actresses to tell very clear gender stories.

Because actresses are required to have this sort of succinct and emblematic femininity to project. There’s not a lot of uncertainty with actresses. You’re sort of — with a few notable exceptions that dare to be — you’re sort of expected to present the sort of Cinderella complex or something. And that makes it an easy surrogate to tell stories about gender, because we’re expected to be so singularly female and singularly male.

Brendan Francis Newnam: And yet, your character, Cameron Howe, from “Halt and Catch Fire” kind of breaks that paradigm. She’s this brilliant punk rock coder, a strong leading woman. When you read for the part, were you aware that this was an exceptional thing, and were you excited about that?

Mackenzie Davis: Yeah, incredibly excited at both because of the place that my career was at where that wasn’t a world that felt really open to me at that time. And she just felt so different.

I think there’s an interesting thing right now where it’s become trendy, maybe, to talk about strong female characters. But there’s nothing inherently more human about strong female characters than weak female characters. I think the struggle is just to make human women that are strong and weak and strange and embarrassed and have all of the dimensions of a normal human woman instead of just archetyping another sort of brand of character.

And I think what’s interesting about Cameron and Donna on the show is they’re just all sorts of people in one body. And they’re ambitious, and they’re cutthroat, and they’re deeply empathetic with each other, and jealous, and loving. And they’re just all sorts of things. And that’s what really attracts me to Cameron and to her relationship with Donna, is just letting them be humans before being a type.

Kerry Bishe as Donna Clark and Mackenzie Davis as Cameron Howe in “Halt and Catch Fire.” (Photo Credit: Tina Rowden/AMC)
Kerry Bishe as Donna Clark and Mackenzie Davis as Cameron Howe in “Halt and Catch Fire.” (Photo Credit: Tina Rowden/AMC)

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah. The strong female characters also can be a trope just as much as any other sort of character can become.

Mackenzie Davis: Yeah. I feel a little sensitive to it right now, where I’m like, “Oh, don’t let this be the new, like, ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl,’ where it’s just another sort of type that asks us not to investigate the deeper levels of a woman.”

Brendan Francis Newnam: Amen. Well, we have come to the point in our interview where, to investigate the deeper levels of our guests, we ask them to tell us something we don’t know, and this can be a personal fact or an interesting piece of trivia about the world.

Mackenzie Davis: OK. I am going to try to make this sound as off-the-cuff as possible, just because I wrote it down. But it’s something I’m very interested in.

Brendan Francis Newnam: All right, but I’m going to leave you saying that in, just so you know.

Mackenzie Davis: Oh, sure. Yeah, I’m just going to just rip on this idea for a second. OK, so I wanted to talk about kamikaze termites. Have you heard about them?

Brendan Francis Newnam: I have not heard about kamikaze termites.

Mackenzie Davis: OK. Well, there is a species of termite in the rainforests of French Guyana in which the oldest workers in the colony grow these sacs on their abdomen containing a toxic blue liquid that they explode onto their enemies to guard their colonies. And, basically, what happens is: as the termites age and they become less useful to the colony, their mandibles dull, they can’t tend to the nest.

Brendan Francis Newnam: They could wear little mandible dentures.

Mackenzie Davis: No, no, no, they have a new purpose! So, the soldiers in the colony are the eldest, the most expendable members of the society, instead of being the youngest that mean the most to propagate the species. So, the older they get, the more toxic this liquid grows inside of them.

Brendan Francis Newnam: That is so gnarly. And is there a kamikaze procedure? They die when they blow up. I guess that’s where they get their name.

Mackenzie Davis: Yeah, they blow themselves up to guard the colony.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Are you into this sort of stuff, like insects, or were you just lost in the Internet?

Mackenzie Davis: Yeah. Last summer, I got really into — I don’t know — sort of the savagery of the insect world… I like the idea of the destruction of the self to protect the whole. I think it’s a cool aspect that happens on a biological level that’s maybe been socialized.