Mackenzie Davis Didn’t Mean to Become Sci-Fi’s Shining Star

Science fiction has been good to the Station Eleven actress. But personally, she prefers the oddball humor of the Brits.

Photographs by Tung Walsh

Mackenzie Davis as Stath from ‘Stath Lets Flats.’ Davis wears Margaret Howell suit, shirt, and tie.
Mackenzie Davis as Stath from ‘Stath Lets Flats.’ Davis wears Margaret Howell suit, shirt, and tie.

For W’s third annual TV Portfolio, we asked 21 sought-after names in television to pay homage to their favorite small screen characters by stepping into their shoes.

When Mackenzie Davis first broke into acting in her mid-20s, she found that the most dynamic female roles existed primarily in stories set in alternative realities. So, she jumped headfirst into the world of science fiction and advanced technology, first as Yorkie in Black Mirror’s Emmy-winning season 3 episode “San Junipero,” and then as the replicant Mariette in Blade Runner 2049. Her role as Cameron in the cult favorite AMC series Halt and Catch Fire—while not technically science fiction—made her a household name among the show’s enthusiastic fan base and brought her critical acclaim.

From there, the now 35-year-old would go on to co-star with some of the film world’s biggest names—Charlize Theron in Tully, Kristen Stewart in Happiest Season, and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator: Dark Fate—before taking center stage in Station Eleven, HBO Max’s post-pandemic drama. In the uncannily timed series, Davis portrays Kirsten, a Shakespearean actor attempting to preserve art and community in a world almost completely devoid of both. Here, Davis opens up about what it’s like when science fiction becomes reality and her deep admiration for British comedians.

Mackenzie Davis as Stath from ‘Stath Lets Flats.’ Davis wears Margaret Howell suit, shirt, and tie.

For this project, you chose to dress like Stath from the Channel 4 series Stath Lets Flats. Are you a big fan of British sitcoms?

My dad is from Liverpool, so he raised me on Fawlty Towers and Monty Python. Then, in college, I got into The Mighty Boosh, which I absolutely love. It’s such a bonkers world. The same with the U.K. [version of] The Office. I remember watching it for the first time, and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I couldn't believe that Mackenzie Crook was a real person. No actor is that good.

Stath Lets Flats is similar in the sense that I cannot believe Jamie Demetriou is an actor and he is not Stath—and his sister, Natasia [Demetriou], who plays Sophie. They’re all so incredible. It just makes me laugh out loud by myself. I’m constantly astounded by how insane it is. And I just want to pay homage as a true fan.

If you had the opportunity, would you guest-star on the show?

Yeah, but I’d be terrible. I think it’s kind of a “don’t meet your heroes” situation. I’m not good enough to be on that show. They’re doing something that is really fucking transcendent.

Jamie Demetriou in ‘Stath Lets Flats.’ Photo courtesy of Channel 4

Is it true that you initially weren’t interested in Station Eleven?

It's not that I didn't want to take it—the log line of the show just felt similar to [Terminator: Dark Fate]. When I spoke to [director and executive producer Hiro Murai and creator Patrick Somerville], it became clear that this was not a post-apocalyptic show about a badass who kills everybody in her path; it was a show about humanity and connection, and how art can make life worthwhile, which really appealed to me. Patrick and Hiro had this aesthetic of rebirth that felt so gorgeous. The end isn't the end; it’s an opportunity to begin again. We have thousands of lives we can lead, even when the most obvious one has disappeared in pretty traumatic fashion.

Davis as Kirsten in ‘Station Eleven.’ Photograph by Ian Watson/HBO Max

You started filming in January 2020, right before the Covid pandemic became a reality and production stopped. What was that experience like?

Definitely surreal. I wasn't actually working on the show [in January 2020] because they started with the pandemic scenes from Kirsten’s childhood. I was shooting another movie, but I was talking to the [Station Eleven] crew all the time. I was also just tracking this approaching calamity the way we all were, thinking, Well, it can't ever hit us, right? Then it did and the world stopped. It was a very unusual experience that I hope not to have again, but it was kind of amazing to have it at the time. I mean, in what world do you film essentially a speculative science fiction piece and then have the speculation catapult into your own life?

You’ve described Station Eleven as anti-apocalyptic. What do you mean by that?

Some of the hallmarks of the apocalyptic genre are strife and destruction and eking out a hard-to-justify existence. My question, when it comes to many apocalyptic texts, is why? Why would you keep living if life is so horrible? I loved that the show answered that question immediately: You keep living for community, and to make things and to transform your personal experiences into something life-affirming. It is still very much an apocalyptic show—it just doesn't bear the marks of the genre, which is quite an achievement.

You often play these—for lack of a better term—badass women who are incredibly strong, both physically and mentally. Are those the roles you tend to seek out?

When I was younger, I had a more narrow definition of strength that was related to being young and female in an industry that prized youth, beauty, sexual appeal, and desirability. I was really attracted to roles where that didn't figure in at all, and where there was a bold articulation of strength. But the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve found myself seeking parts that articulate a more nuanced understanding of strength, individuality, and power. As you get older, your lens becomes a little finer and you start to notice different dynamics. If there’s any continuity in the roles I look for, it’s just women I think are interesting and cool, and are having experiences they might not always triumph over, but that show some of their individual strength and active purpose in the world.

You were in “San Junipero,” an episode of Black Mirror that many argue is the show’s best. What was it like to be part of that production?

I was living in New York at the time, and it felt like overnight, I could feel that people had seen me. The episode just really struck a chord. It means something to people in a way I didn't realize it would. But it also meant a lot to me as a strong piece of storytelling. That’s what you hope for—that you make, or are included in, works that create a lasting memory and aren't just content, but seem to provide an interesting space for people to live in as viewers.

Davis with Gugu Mbatha-Raw in ‘Black Mirror.’ Photo courtesy of Netflix

Did you have a sense during filming that it would have such an impact?

No. I was such a big fan of Black Mirror, and this was still before it really exploded. So when we were making it, it felt like wish fulfillment for me. Being in a space with like-minded people who are smarter than you are, who are making art that challenges you—that feels really exciting and special. But in terms of the social response and cultural repercussions, I had no idea.

It feels like you gravitate toward science fiction stories. Why do think that is?

I think it’s a coincidence, but I see the pattern. In my 20s—when many actresses end up playing a lot of romantic roles and ingenues, which I wasn’t very attracted to—the stories that felt alternative were in a literal alternative reality or time. Science fiction kept providing roles, directors, and collaborators who gave me opportunities. I’m not a die-hard sci-fi fan—that’s just where the coolest roles were. There were also plenty of non–sci-fi projects that I would've loved to be in, but I didn’t get cast.

Why did you feel like you had to escape reality to get these strong female roles?

Over the past 15 years, it feels like culture progressed at a rate it had never progressed at before. We’ve been in warp speed. Now I think there are tons of compelling roles for young women in present-day stories based in reality, but when I was younger, a lot of romantic comedies didn’t really interest me. I see a lot of intriguing stuff for younger women right now, but I also don't know how much shit is out there. I assume an absolute mountain, based on my experience.

Hair by Carlos Ferraz, makeup by Bari Khalique.