Girl On Fire
Catching up with Halt and Catch Fire’s Mackenzie Davis, just as The Martian is set to launch her star power out of this world
“I really resent these pretzels,” Mackenzie Davis says. “They’re not good, but I’ll eat an entire thing of them.” We are sitting at Oak & Iron, a bar in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where the 28-year-old lives when she’s not filming, and she’s eyeing a jar of large but decidedly stale-looking pretzel sticks placed on our table by a friendly bartender. She moves them to the windowsill for safekeeping but assures me I can eat them if I want to. “That’s not off limits for you! I just can’t have those things in my line of sight.”
She takes a similar tack when it comes to reading reviews of Halt and Catch Fire, the TV show on which she plays Cameron Howe, a brilliant, punky computer programmer in 1980s Texas. “I have too much of an obsessively negative side to my personality that will find the worst ways to interact with something,” she explains. “There have been times when I’ll be about to do a scene, and one thing someone said will run in my head, and I’m like, ‘Oh, fuck! I just remembered what this person said about me and it’s just this total fucking stranger.’” In this era of the performative “I don’t give a fuck” attitude made popular by the likes of Jennifer Lawrence and Kristen Stewart, it may seem unusual for an actress to so willingly admit that she can be derailed by the opinions of people she’s never met. But Davis also shows up to our meeting in a worn-in baseball cap and sneakers and, during our chat, asks me about my job, my childhood, and even my purse, which she asks to try on. Davis is gorgeous and nearly six feet tall, but she acts so normal that you’d never guess she’s a rising star.
This fall, Davis starred in The Martian, a Ridley Scott sci-fi epic poised to be one of the biggest movies of 2015. She plays Mindy Park, a NASA engineer helping to bring astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) home from Mars. “I fucking love event movies,” she says. “Like going to see Prometheus. I was like, ‘This is one of the only times in my life I’ve gone to a movie that feels like a real event.’” She speaks about The Martian with the enthusiasm of a fan, telling me I need to read the book (by Andy Weir) and seeming genuinely in awe that she got to work with Scott. “It was so cool!” she exclaims. “I’m obsessed with Blade Runner. It’s one of my favorite movies of all time.” It’s when she mentions one of her favorite TV shows of all time that I realize, perhaps, why we’re getting on so well. “The Simpsons shaped my sense of humor and comes up daily in conversation for me as a point of view about the world,” she says. “It’s a warning sign when somebody’s like, ‘I don’t like The Simpsons.’”
Davis began developing her point of view in Vancouver, British Columbia, where she was born and raised. She studied English literature at Montreal’s McGill University before moving to New York City to enroll at The Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre. Soon afterward, she landed a role in Drake Doremus’s 2013 film Breathe In and has been working steadily ever since, in movies like the Zoe Kazan–Daniel Radcliffe rom-com What If and the Zac Efron–led That Awkward Moment. But if you’re already familiar with Davis, it’s likely thanks to Halt and Catch Fire, which she talks about with Martian-level zeal. The series premiered on AMC in 2014, and though its season-two finale aired the day before we meet, she didn’t know whether the show would be getting a third season: Despite critical acclaim and a fervent fan base, its audience is still relatively small. “When people do recognize me [from the show], it’s so out of the blue and crazy,” she says. “I get really excited because it feels like a secret world we both know about.” Not to mention that although their jobs depend on it, oftentimes actors don’t get renewal news any earlier than viewers. “They don’t tell us at a different time than everybody else,” she says. “I found out [that there was going to be a second season] on Vulture last year.” Just before this issue went to print, it was announced that Halt and Catch Fire was renewed for a third season. Which means Davis will return to our screens, and the series’ rabid fan base, next summer.
A large part of the show’s critical success is attributable to Davis’s nuanced portrayal of Cameron, the kind of complicated, imperfect genius AMC (home to Don Draper) has championed in recent years. In fact, her decision to work in television was based solely on the strength and singularity of the role, admitting that the idea of signing a seven-year contract would have been scary had she not loved Cameron so much. “I really thought it was refreshing to have this rebellious sort of anarchist character that could be very stock [but isn’t],” Davis says. “I think the stock version of her, especially for women in the genre, would be that she’d been abused, or some horrible, traumatic incident had happened in her life that had made her like this. And there are traumatic things in Cameron’s life, but she wasn’t the object of some really insidious, awful sexual abuse that explains her behavior. She’s just a complicated, sort of fucked-up human being, and it doesn’t have to be reduced to a terrible incident in her past.”
It doesn’t hurt that the show also pays meticulous attention to period detail, brought to life by production designer Christopher L. Brown, the art director on Mad Men, whose team scoured eBay for vintage ’80s computers, then built replicas of anything they couldn’t track down. Davis seems to share this appreciation for painstaking accuracy, making sure her hands were placed on the right keys in every scene with a computer and even learning to code when she got the part. “I locked myself in my apartment and became really agoraphobic,” she says. “I was watching OpenCourseWare MIT programming classes online and taking notes and really feeling like I was Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting.”
Even if Davis’s diligent research hadn’t help secure the show a third season, she would’ve been OK with that. “If I only got to do this for two seasons, then I’m still so happy.… I really like what we got to do,” she says. “I want to make things that I love, and I don’t love things that everyone loves.”
She’s not kidding: During a Conan interview last year, she revealed her hobby of collecting animal skeletons, which she soon came to regret because people like me wouldn’t stop asking her about it. She moved on to insect collecting but gave it up after stepping on most of her bugs during a photo shoot. “I got really discouraged and only have a really beautiful moth left,” she says, adding that she’s still into old taxidermy that “looks like a serial killer found it in the desert and then stitched it together.”
At the moment, she doesn’t have much time for a hobby anyway. She has several films on deck, including Kitchen Sink, a horror-comedy also starring Vanessa Hudgens and Bob Odenkirk, and Three Seconds, a crime drama with Olivia Munn, Josh Brolin, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Luke Evans. “I’m playing a cop, which I’ve never done before, and I’m thrilled about that,” she says. “Other than that, there’s nothing, like, really secure. I just go job by job and hope that there will be another job so I can keep living in my apartment.” Just like the rest of us.