TVMackenzie Davis, the Girl Genius of Halt and Catch Fire
Davis talks about AMC's best drama, the new season of Black Mirror, and the long-awaited sequel to Blade Runner.
Mackenzie Davis has probably caught your eye before—if not in last year's The Martian, where she played the pivotal role of the nighttime NASA technician Mindy Park, then perhaps in 2014's That Awkward Moment, or 2013's What If, as the scene-stealing girlfriends of Miles Teller and Adam Driver, respectively. And if you haven't seen her performance as the talented, tortured computer-programming prodigy Cameron Howe on Halt and Catch Fire, well, you should fix that. You can even get started tonight, when the third season of the critically acclaimed '80s drama about the personal computer revolution premieres on AMC.
Cameron faces new challenges this season as she relocates her budding startup from Dallas to the region of California that's just becoming known as Silicon Valley—and relocates her life along with it. Like Cameron, Davis is headed westward and onward to bigger things; the 29-year-old Canadian has been house-hunting in California herself. That is, when she's not in Budapest filming the long-awaited Blade Runner sequel, or in London or South Africa shooting scenes for the upcoming season of Black Mirror. In the next few months, Davis is sure to catch your eye on a screen somewhere once again—and she spoke to GQ about the third season of Halt, how she ended up in the sequel to her all-time favorite movie, and those rumors that she'll play Domino in the next Deadpool movie.
So you're between stints in Hungary. How’s Budapest this time of year?
Budapest is beautiful this time of year! I’d visited once in November and it was super beautiful and sort of spooky—because it was winter and it felt old, I guess. But in the summer it’s just lush and gorgeous.
Back in America, Halt and Catch Fire starts this week. You’ve been playing Cameron Howe for three seasons now—is Cameron someone you’d be friends with?
Um… you know, probably not! I think her relationship with Donna is a pretty unique one, but I’ve always had the opinion that she doesn’t play well with other women. She has so many emotions herself that having somebody else to negotiate with, other than Donna, it just seems… I don’t know. I think she might be a shitty friend. [laughs]
I get that. Cameron's a unique character, too, in that there are plenty of portrayals of geniuses who don’t quite know how to handle their emotions, but more often, they’re men.
Yeah! And she has almost a surplus of emotions. She has, like, a stunted ability to process them, so it comes out in weird ways. Growing up is a chore for her—and becoming an emotionally mature human being is difficult, but she wants to. She’s learning in this awkward, aggressive way.
The second season of the show was so, so terrific, and the stunt Cameron pulls at the end of the season—at Joe’s presentation for his investors—is just so surprising and great. What was it like reading that scene for the first time?
It’s funny; Lee [Pace] and I get into so many arguments advocating for our points of view for our characters. Wow, that’s the most annoying actor thing I could possibly say. [laughs]
But we both feel so convinced of having been wronged by the other character that nothing we do seems to compare to the injury we’ve suffered at the hands of the other person. I always see what Cameron does as justified, or as a means to a pure end, even if that’s totally off-base. So when I read that, I was like, “Okay, makes sense.” It was only afterwards, talking to him, that I was like, “That’s cold!”
What else have you guys argued about?
Oh, just… everything that happens. [laughs] The Westgroup thing was huge. The issue of him trusting us again, or us trusting him—things like that.
You both think your character is the good guy.
Yeah, absolutely. But then when you try to be dispassionate about it, you’re like, “Well, I guess…” Then ultimately we have to just do what the script says.
The new season doubles down on telling the story of what it was like to be a woman in the early years of Silicon Valley—and that’s a chapter of history that’s been erased on some levels in the years since. Were you familiar with that phenomenon before signing on for the show?
No, I wasn’t really familiar with any of it. I think what the show tackles really well is that the “woman question” comes into play more in the money side of things—the funding side of things. You have these rich white men investing, but [women in tech] are so outside of their realm of experience and point of reference for what a successful person looks like.
Whereas within the coding world, it feels like the actual skill can win out. When there’s some sort of quantifiable way you can prove yourself, gender’s less of an issue—but when you’re just a face and a worldview and you’re trying to [get someone to give you] millions upon millions of dollars and change [their] point of view about what makes the world work, then… you’re really fucked as a woman.
I mean, I don’t know if that’s true [in real life]. But that’s been my experience, you know, playing a fictional character. [laughs]
That’s perfectly illustrated in one scene from the new season—Cameron and Donna are negotiating with an investor who seems interested, and then he makes a pass at them.
Yeah, it’s so gross. These women can’t be like, “No, I’m a real savant in this area,” because all the investors are thinking is, “You don’t look like a person who could make me money.”
Do you have any experience with coding or the tech industry outside the show?
No. I made a website in a class once. A Mary-Kate and Ashley fan page. After that it sort of died out.
"When there’s some sort of quantifiable way you can prove yourself, gender’s less of an issue. But all the investors are thinking is, 'You don’t look like a person who could make me money.'"
Some fans have said that the “one true pair,” or the real love story of Halt and Catch Fire, is Cameron and Donna. Do you agree?
Oh, I totally agree. I think it’s a really true love story, too—there’s a lot of compromise and really trying to be better, for the other person. It’s hard love.
You’ve got a bunch of upcoming projects. Can you tell me some more about your character in the Blade Runner sequel?
I… cannot do that! [laughs] But it’s a whole rarefied world of talented people that I am extremely geeked to be in the presence of. I’ve only shot with Ryan [Gosling] and Ana de Armas, but Ana is lovely, Ryan is kind and cool, and Denis Villeneuve, the director, is truly a special human being.
Were you a fan of the original Blade Runner?
Yes! It’s my favorite movie. It’s the craziest thing in the world—it’s something I’ve thought about since I was in college. I remember being like, Goddammit, I want to be in this. And then I said to my agent sort of from the beginning: “Hey, just FYI, if they ever make a Blade Runner sequel… keep me in mind.” Wow, maybe that should be a secret. Fuck.
Moving on to things I hope are not secrets: What should we expect from your episode of Black Mirror?
It feels like the most optimistic episode of Black Mirror I’ve ever seen. It's the one that won’t give you nightmares. A few months ago I watched the Christmas special right before going to bed, and I had one of those terrible nights of sleep that goes down in your, like, top five I’ll-remember-how-horrible-being-unconscious-was-that-night nights. But this one’s really beautiful, and I got to work with Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who’s so wonderful. This episode has romance and loveliness to it.
So, less terrifying than the Christmas special. That's good. The Jon Hamm one, right? That one is… harrowing.
Yes. Oh, God, I know. It’s infinitely upsetting. He’s trapped forever. Oh, God.
There are also some rumors flying around that you’re in the new Deadpool movie as Domino.
No! [laughs] It’s very interesting. People keep sending me printouts being like, “This is so cool!” And I’m like, “Right? I also think it’s cool! But it’s not true!”
I mean. I’d love to keep the ruse going. It’s sort of cool that people think I’m doing Deadpool. But no! I don’t have any news to share. I wish I did!