Station Eleven, based on the book of the same name by Canadian novelist Emily St. John Mandel, is unlike any post-apocalyptic series you’ve ever seen. The miniseries premiering on December 16 for HBO Max follows a traveling Shakespearean theater company 20 years after a devastating flu pandemic wipes out the majority of humanity—and if you think watching might be a triggering experience, try landing a starring role. Leading the cast is Mackenzie Davis as Kirsten, a knife-wielding guide who copes with the trauma of loss by getting absorbed into a metaphorical graphic novel called Station Eleven—an obsession that begins to manifest in the events of her life. The series began production before Covid-19 went global, and filmed into peak quarantine months, but luckily, the show is also filled with a sense of whimsy and soul, bringing to to mind character-focused series like The Leftovers (both shows share a writer, Patrick Somerville), more than the dreary apocalyptic wastelands of The Walking Dead and Snowpiercer.
When she zooms with W from a New York hotel room, Davis says she is meeting some of her cast mates for the first time due to the production’s fragmentation across shooting locations and pandemic restrictions. “We’re so connected to each other in this other way,” she says. The series takes an anthology approach to its nonlinear storytelling, with most episodes focusing on the lens of one character. As the season unravels, we begin to understand how these disparate characters impacted each other in ways directly related to their post-pandemic survival, and in other ways indirect, not made clear until two decades later. Kirsten is the happenstance link between each character, and Davis—magnetic as ever—grounds the series through her pathos.
It is delightful to see Davis back on the small screen, where she was first lauded for breathing life into complex characters—first on Halt and Catch Fire, then on the Emmy-winning Black Mirror episode, “San Junipero.” Others might recognize her from blockbuster films like Terminator: Dark Fate, and earlier, appearing in Blade Runner 2049 and The Martian. Below, the actress thoughtfully discusses how Station Eleven moved her to tears, how her own world changed during Covid-19, and what she thinks about the possibility of Happiest Season 2.
What was it that drew you to Station Eleven and this role?
I really loved the vision that Hiro [Murai] and Patrick [Somerville] laid out—this counter-narrative to every apocalyptic story that you’ve read or seen. It wasn’t the dusty, dry, ravaged land being walked aimlessly, but this fertile, fecund reclaiming of the earth. In light of all the “nature is healing” tweets of 2020, it feels dorky. But at the time, pre-pandemic, it was a beautiful concept and is really beautiful in the visual language of the show. I felt compelled to do it in a way that I haven’t really before. There was this need to move forward in faith, which marked a lot of my relationship to it.
Did you get to read the book?
Yeah, I read it a few times. I hadn’t read it before they approached me about it, but I read it after that and re-read it. It became more biblical to me as the show went on, where I was searching for answers in it.
That’s how I felt watching the show, too—constantly searching for answers and meaning in what I was watching. How did reading the book inform playing the character?
I think in the book, Kirsten is our guide in a lot of ways. She’s the person through whose eyes you see the aftermath of this event—you’re thinking her thoughts. We had to figure out how to take that avatar for the reader and make her into someone that exists. The heartbeat of the book is fully in the show. The tone, the ethos, and earnestness are woven into the DNA of the show and they share that.
One thing that captivated me while watching was the way grief and trauma are represented through Kirsten; trauma as something that lives in the body. Your character carries so much with her, how did you approach embodying that?
I’ve never had the experience of making anything before—which is not a judgment on things before, or after, it’s just a fact—where I’ve been so consistently and inexhaustibly moved by the material. I found the trauma, grief, and embodying and experiencing that a relatively unhindered place to access. It was quite immediate for me. I marveled at it with Patrick. Not even as just a compliment, but like, what is it about this that is making me cry so much? No matter how many times I read it, or do it, I can’t stop feeling the things in this. And sometimes you just have to be like, well, it’s speaking to some very deep part of you that needs to grieve and hopefully you can do it in a way that’s honorable and not indulgent.
Did making the show help you process Covid-19 in any way? Did you find it cathartic?
I found it both cathartic and like, replaying something that just happened. Not in the text of the show but in the production—we were shooting in the middle of winter in a lockdown city, couldn’t see people, there were rules about how long you could be in the grocery store. I felt very watched and surveilled during that time. It was quite a heavy and heady time. Yes, it was nice to put those feelings inside a place, but it was like having a play of your own life. You’re like, maybe it’s too soon for this kind of exposure therapy. But there was catharsis in being able to talk about what we were going through—the group experience of it was really warm and loving, and we were all feeling the weight of the pandemic and what it felt like to fictionalize it while we were still inside of it.
That’s a very unique way to spend a pandemic.
Yeah, and it’s weird because the show very much isn’t about the pandemic. My part of the show isn’t at all—it’s 20 years in the future, but it’s analyzing the aftermath. The logistics of making the show at this time felt like we were both in it and in the future discussing how much we were being damaged by this very moment. But fun?
You play a character who travels with a Shakespearean theater company. I read in an earlier interview that your dream onstage role is Hamlet—did you get a taste of that experience while filming Station Eleven, and is it still a dream role?
I was working with this really amazing scholar reading Hamlet and studying Shakespeare’s works for a while—so much longer than makes sense now that I look back at the show and [see] I only did one line. But it was a deeply pleasurable experience for me to ground Kirsten’s own knowledge and study of it and how it informed her entire life, these other myths and stories that have guided her life. Books and stories are her religion and they’re deeply woven within her nervous system at this point. But yeah I’d love to play Hamlet! It’s a great role, daunting.
What is a piece of art that you would escape into if we had a pandemic as bad as the one in Station Eleven?
I always find these desert island questions so hard. I feel like if you can bring one book, you should bring a religious text that’s full of allegories and stories—there’s lots of drama in those texts. But I don’t know if I want to be reading the Bible for the rest of my life.
I like experiencing things around people and feeling I can hear hustle and bustle around me. I want art that we can all share together, which is the same feeling many people had in our very own pandemic—we were all watching and reading at home but what we wanted was to be sitting in a field watching a concert or dancing together. You miss the audience side of the art process, which is half of it. I’ll just take everyone with me.
Station Eleven is your first episodic TV project since Halt and Catch Fire. What has been guiding your decisions for picking film and TV projects?
I really like making TV. It’s a bigger commitment, which if you’re shooting away from where you live can sometimes inform the decision. Seven years in Romania? Do I love it that much? But apart from the practicality, it’s really just…have I done it before? Should I do it again? Do I feel like this is something I want to be in conversation about not just now and for the next months when I make it, but for the year afterwards and then doing press about it? Does it turn me on enough to want to throw myself into it for a long time? It’s like dating. You’re waiting for the things that you want to chase after.
Is there a role that you haven’t played yet that you’re looking for?
I think there’s a real talent in knowing what you shouldn’t play. Not just politically. Maybe I shouldn’t play…I’m not even going to fill in the blank because maybe a role as a 17th century courtesan will come up that I want to play. I want to have fun when I go to work.
What are you watching lately?
I watched Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom in theaters on American Thanksgiving when I was in London, which was…a feast of a different sort. I’ve been watching Succession, The Bachelorette, and a lot of Selling Sunset recently. I was recently watching a short film by Julia Ducournau; I’ve been watching more shorts lately. I also saw Dune, which I thought was so gorgeous and such a treat.
Are you still in touch with the Halt and Catch Fire cast?
Yes and no, none of us live in the same city, but I love them and feel fondly of them. I probably talk to Toby [Huss] the most, we have nice check-ins and life updates.
In my circles you’re something of a gay icon, between “San Junipero” and the fan fiction that’s probably been written about Cameron and Donna from Halt and Catch Fire. Would you be interested in a Happiest Season 2?
What are your circles? [Laughs]. Listen, I had the most fun in the world making that movie. Part of me is like…do people want Harper and Abby, do they want the second part of that? Maybe you pick up with Abby, she meets Riley in like, Palm Springs…I don’t know. I would be down for whatever, I never laughed harder than [when I was] making that movie. That’s when I was like—oh my god, you can make movies like this and just laugh every day with your friends? So if something like [Happiest Season 2] happened, I would of course want to laugh that much again.