We’re meeting our subject on York Boulevard, in Northeast LA’s aggressively hip Highland Park neighborhood. The street is lined with the sort of shops that somehow manage to make their lease each month from the sale of five-dollar handmade greeting cards and slim volumes of poetry written by the person siting behind the counter.
Then, there is this tree. Its trunk is cradled by a wooden bench, creating a square around its base filled with small white pebbles to hide the weeds. It’s a tree that everyone’s childhood-hero-poet Shel Silverstein might have something interesting to say about, but the sidewalk ends here because perched on this miniature bench is Mackenzie Davis.
She is in her own self-styled camouflage. Cat-eye sunglasses in tortoiseshell frames, a vintage T-shirt commemorating the 1985 Terry Fox Run (something foreign to most Americans, but a beloved annual marathon in Canada that raises money for cancer research), running shorts, athletic shoes, and a gray baseball hat with its bill askance. Only a few spikes of blond hair peeking out from under her cap give her away, and just barely, even for someone who is expressly seeking her out at this exact time, in this exact place.
“Is this OK?” she says. Her immediate hospitality gives her up as Canadian, if you didn’t already know she was born in Vancouver and a graduate of McGill University in Montreal. This is not even a coffee shop; it’s barely a coffee stand. It’s a doorway, a counter, and caffeine inside, and the tiny bench previously described outside, built on a foundation of cement made uneven by the tree’s roots. “We can go for a walk, or somewhere else. I just don’t want to talk about shit like my ‘craft’ where other people can hear us. But I don’t mind the cars driving by.”
So, we sit in the sun, away from sedentary clientele likely to give in to the rudeness of eavesdropping. This seating request is the first hint of Davis’ self-consciousness that is particularly unique for someone in her line of work. Most in her profession would prefer to be noticed and heard, especially talking about their “craft.” Affirmation is the drug of choice for actors who don’t do drugs. (Frankly, us regular folks don’t mind a bit of it now and then as well. Drugs too.) But for Davis, it’s almost as if she thinks she’s pulled a fast one on the world and is on the verge being outed as a fraud. It’s the kind of lingering paranoia that hovers in the subconscious of all kinds of creative people.
“It’s just such a weird job,” she says. “I’m kind of uncomfortable on sets because I never know where to sit and I always feel like I’m bumping into things and in the way, but I’m really comfortable once the cameras are rolling. Not because, like, ‘I live to perform!’ but there are parameters to the work that I understand and that I really like and that’s when I feel most comfortable. But every time I finish a movie I go home and for the next eight months I’m like, ‘Everybody is mad at you. You did a terrible job. They’re not calling you because they’re furious with you, because they took a risk on you and you’ve embarrassed them.’ But people are really responding to Tully. I really like it and I’m really happy about that.”
We’re here primarily to discuss her most recent film, the aforementioned Tully, which is possibly her most high-profile billing to date. She’s the title character, after all. Tully is something called a “night nanny” who arrives late in the evening to care for a new baby so her mother, Marlo, (an overstressed and overwhelmed Charlize Theron), can get a good night’s sleep and better care for her other two children during the day.
Tully comes and goes like, well, a nanny in the night. She cooks, she cleans, and periodically wakes Marlo gently for overnight nursing. In the morning she’s gone sometimes leaving freshly baked cupcakes behind. It’s almost too good to be true and the family coalesces around the new situation, with Marlo especially reinvigorated by the near-mystical therapy sessions she has with Tully, whose worldview becomes increasingly more enticing to the new mother as the story progresses. It’s a “women’s film” that should be seen by as many men as possible.
Directed by Jason Reitman and written by Diablo Cody, Tully reunites the team behind Juno and Young Adult, the latter of which also stars Theron in one of her most underrated (and possibly underseen) performances. The men have all been cast in supporting roles, including Ron Livingston as Marlo’s husband and Mark Duplass as her wealthier younger brother, the one who initially recommends this odd arrangement of a nocturnal nurse and offers to pay for it. “She is amazing. She’s so fucking cool,” Davis says about Theron. “It was really intense, but it was great. She’s warm and lovely and immediately strips away any fear that you might have. Because famous people feel ‘other’ to us, you know? I always have that feeling. I’m like, ‘I read about her in Us Weekly when I was 13 years old and now I’m just supposed to pretend that we’re contemporaries?’ That’s insane. So, there was a little bit of that, but she’s just such a cool woman.”
“I hate the word ‘grounded,’” she continues. “But there really is a sort of electrical connection when someone is of the earth and channeling the earth through their legs and their body like she does. I had this acting teacher in Montreal who always used to say, ‘You should act from your cunt! You should have this saber that pierces the earth and that should be the place where you get all of your power and your energy!’ I feel like Charlize is like that. It’s cool to be around a woman who is there with you and being so real that you have no other choice than to look her right back in the eye and be like, ‘Game on. Let’s both do that!’”
If you’re already familiar with Mackenzie Davis, you’ve likely seen her as the computer-coding whiz kid Cameron Howe in the AMC series Halt and Catch Fire. It was a show that found a small but devoted audience and could find even more fans in this age of binge-watching and streamable content. In other words, your new favorite old TV series is still waiting for you to discover it. It wasn’t cancelled, however. The show was too smart for that. It merely chose not to overstay its welcome by telling the story exactly the way it needed to be told and it happened to take just four 10-episode seasons to achieve it.
“People have asked me if I was sad I didn’t get to play Cameron anymore,” she tells me, about the occasional super-fan who recognizes her from the series. “I’m like, ‘No. I did it for four years. What are you talking about?’ I wasn’t sick of her. She’s fictional and I’m done. I love the people I worked with. I miss them!”
Around the same time Halt and Catch Fire was wrapping up, Davis appeared in what many still consider to be the best episode by far of Black Mirror, “San Junipero.” When it was announced soon afterward that she was cast in Blade Runner 2049, as the street-walking strawberry-blonde Mariette, it was obvious to everyone but Davis herself that her ascent had cleared the mythical hurdle and was under no risk of waning or reversing. But try telling her that.
Even when talking about the forthcoming independent film Izzy Gets the F*ck Across Town, for which she serves as producer and lead, Davis describes a scene she filmed with her fictional older sister, played by Carrie Coon (The Leftovers), as if she was barely up to the task. The film takes place over the course of a single day. Izzy (Davis) is trying to find her way across Los Angeles without a dollar or a car. The plan is to crash an engagement party and tell the almost-groom, her former boyfriend who she thinks is The One, that he’s making a horrible mistake. By the time she finds her way to her sister’s house for a pitstop along the way, ghosts of the past are kicked up like dust in a dark attic. In a few brief scenes, both Davis and Coon manage to convey an entire lifetime of sisterhood and its companion resentments, mostly through suggestive glances. The emphasis here is that both of them manage to achieve this feat. Davis sees it another way.
“Carrie is the best actor. In the world,” she says. She laughs, but in a way that makes it unclear whether or not she is entirely exaggerating. “On the first day of the movie, all she had to shoot was this scene where she walks out of the bedroom and it’s her shooting me a look over her shoulder as I was talking to her husband. And that was her only thing that day.We shot it and when it was over, my confidence just drained out of me. I was like, ‘We have to cancel the movie. She’s too good. Everybody else is going to look bad. I can’t do scenes with her. She’s the best actress.’ With that one look— that withering stare—I just became a shell of a person. I was like, ‘Fuck. We cast too good of an actress.’ But, of course, that’s not true. She made everyone else better.”
We’re sitting so close to the curb, cars have been navigating the metered spot near us with varying degrees of success. When a bumper of an SUV nearly strikes my right kneecap, Davis laughs.
“Do you like this spot I chose?”
We talk about Los Angeles, the neighborhood that surrounds us, and how she doesn’t feel as if she really lives here. She readily admits to a kind of restlessness that might prevent her from ever finding the sense of belonging she aspires to anywhere, ever. She recently returned from Ireland, where she wrapped a lead role in The Turning, director Floria Sigismondi’s adaptation of Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw. When it’s jokingly suggested she just disappear and become a cobbler (like Daniel-Day Lewis), she perks up and mentions she had the chance to spend some time in the town where he currently resides.
“Fuck, he’s got a good life out there. Really, just all you’d ever want. A little village with a nice pub, walk your kids to school every day. That’s all I think I want.”
She says this with her left hand gripping the silver post of a street sign, absentmindedly fiddling with the holes bored into the steel as if she were playing some urban flute art installation. With her right hand, she clings to the branch of the tree between us and its unusually smooth bark.
She is playing tug-of-war with her own body, fighting between these tall objects that have suddenly become her only grip on the world. It might just be an outward expression of her eagerness to leave right now, but (if we want to construct some deeper meaning) she appears to be literally struggling between the urban and the rural, like some subconsciously expressed self-crucifixion. I worry a bit for her—if she’ll ever be able to fully convince herself that she’s rightfully and securely on top; if she’ll ever feel “settled.” But we know our hero will survive. Because somewhere inside herself, even she knows she is doing what she was meant to do.
“But after Terminator,” she says, returning to the notion of going off grid like her contemporary who announced his retirement last year with Phantom Thread. “The natural progression of things is Terminator, indie movie, Oscar movie, cobbler.”
At her mention of yet another forthcoming high-profile star-turn, this time in director Tim Miller’s still untitled reimagining of The Terminator, it becomes clear that the same restlessness with which she grapples in her own life also affects her choice of roles. As her gym clothes indicate, she has just finished her morning training, something called the Magnus Method, which sounds both Swedish and exhausting.
“Magnus is the Swedish godfather of my exercise routine,” she says, sounding halfway serious. “But Josephine is my trainer and we train every day for an hour. My body is really important in this movie and I noticed it doing [film] tests. I could feel my body not doing what I needed it to do. It didn’t house the person I needed to be and I could feel it. I used to sort of curl into myself and I didn’t have back muscles. Already, I can feel just a different way that I’m carrying myself. It feels really essential to the character. It’s cool to start finding her from the outside in, rather than the way I would normally do it which is by... thinking.
“That’s the challenge for me,” she continues. “That’s what interests me about acting. I’m not like, ‘Oh, it would be nice to just use my body for this.’ I’m only interested in the emotional connection between people. That’s all the same stuff that I love about Tully and Izzy and Halt and these movies that are much more character driven. That has to be a part of what I’m going to do in Terminator, or else I won’t have any fun.”
In part, Tully is a film about regret. Or, more accurately, what you think you might have missed out on had you chosen a different path. Or, maybe even better, what happens when you get exactly what you want and you still feel an inexplicable longing for some other version of yourself.
After battling multiple times to be heard above the din of sirens and car honks and witnessing her own eager dance to be free from inquiry, stuck between the tree and the signpost, the atmosphere of departure lowers along with the sun. It seems as good a time as any to find out about her own regrets.
“I don’t have that. Sometimes I have it about moving to Los Angeles,” she says, laughing, but probably because it’s true. “But I do have that constant feeling of not doing enough. And wondering and wishing and thinking that a better person would do more. I’m on the right path for me, but it feels like I should be doing more with it. I struggle with doing stuff that doesn’t have a taskmaster figure, or somebody that would be very disappointed in me if I didn’t do it well. You know what I mean?”
She pauses to gather her things from the tree’s graveled well.
“I wish I was that person, but I’m just stupid fucking me, so I’ve got to just stick with this!”
Thankfully, you can still hear her laughter as we part and walk in opposite directions down this boulevard that is not her home.
Written by Gregg LaGambina
Photographed by Camilla Armbrust
Styled by Henna Koskinen
Hair: Dimitris Giannetos
Makeup: Karo Kangas
Flaunt Film by Andie Eisen