We want actresses to be clean and understand them to be desirable, which means there aren’t a lot of loose ends there.
Anna (Mackenzie Davis) and Beth (Caitlin FitzGerald), both aspiring actresses, retreat to Big Sur for a weekend of hiking, wine, and dagger-sharp prodding in Sophia Takal’s psychological thriller Always Shine. This friendship is poisoned by jagged and combative resentment from the get-go.
The film starts with an epigram from model-agency founder John Robert Powers, referring to women as “The bowl of flowers on the table of life.” Davis is the malcontent engine in this blunt thesis about a male-dominated world, who’s sent into fits of jealousy by news of her best friend Beth’s continued landing of roles in schlocky horror flicks as the conventionally pretty naked blonde, one after another. Needless to say, Beth seems to be entering a new phase in her career and getting paid to do what she does. The more ambitious Anna, on the other hand, is stalled in her progress, taking free work in avant-garde shorts and still finding herself at the bottom rung of the success ladder. They travel to Big Sur for a weekend getaway to reconnect. This can’t end well.
Anthem caught up with Davis—the ascendent star of AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire, the recent showcase on Netflix’s Black Mirror, and Denis Villeneuve’s highly anticipated Blade Runner sequel come 2017—this week via Skype to discuss cat-hungry coyotes, Big Sur, and Always Shine.
Always Shine is now playing in select theaters and available to view On Demand.
Hi, Mackenzie! I’m still so bummed we couldn’t meet up in-person during AFI Fest. I’m a big fan of Always Shine and, of course, I’m such a huge fan of your work.
That’s so exciting and cool! Is it so annoying and loud right now?
It sounded like a street sweeper for a second, but that was brief. This is very crisp audio.
I just moved into a secret room, so hopefully I’m far away from that. I just bought a house, which I’d never done, obviously. It’s very adult and I’m getting drainage done. It’s a sentence I thought I’d never say. [Laughs] If it’s noisy, you can tell me and I’ll find other places to go.
A new house? That’s a big life chapter!
Yeah! It’s cool.
So did you know Sophia [Takal] prior to Always Shine coming into your orbit?
This got presented to me almost three years ago when I was shooting the first season of Halt and Catch Fire. My agent sent me the script and I didn’t know Sophia. I was blown away by how personal, nuanced, and intimate it felt to both my own life and in the larger feminist themes that I was very interested in at the time. So that was years ago and nothing really happened with it. Then two years ago, it came back to life and we shot it. Now it’s coming out and feels, like, so elongated. I was just very lucky that it came into my life because [Sophia] and I really didn’t know each other.
I’d imagine that actors are always aspiring no matter what they achieve because it’s not like you ever stop looking at the next thing. It’s a creative pursuit and that has no end in sight.
I never saw the movie as being about actresses. It’s a sly Trojan Horse sort of thing. It’s a way of communicating a succinct female identity because actresses are required to project a very strong female identity. We want actresses to be clean and understand them to be desirable, which means there aren’t a lot of loose ends there. So it makes it easier to archetype certain aspects of female identity and communicate it to the audience. The story was about being a woman and how much pressure there is to be a very particular sort of way and how the constant striving to be that can cause somebody to explode. The actress thing always felt like a device. It’s very clever.
Was everything very scripted or was there room to play around with the material a bit? The balcony scene was so scary to me. I mean, you legit turned into a horror villain there.
[Laughs] It’s funny that it had that feel of an improvised movie because it was all scripted, even down to certain gestures that Beth has and Anna adopts later, like, her nail biting or playing with her necklace. Half of that stuff was Caitlin’s [FitzGerald] invention and the other half of the more concrete gestures were in the script. The script and the movie was really purposeful in that way.
What was the tone like off set?
It was really loving! We all lived in Big Sur together, in one house. It was Caitlin, Sophia, me, and only a handful of crew. Sophia’s sister was our caterer. We woke up every morning and did meditation exercises to really create this community of us making something together. To use a very in vogue phrase, to create a safe space to explore. Then at the end of the day, no matter what we did, we all had dinner together and played a game of high and low where everyone said the best part of their day and the worst part of their day. That really created the bookends to the day that I don’t think you normally get when you film a movie because you’re alone when you enter this really social, crazy, and emotional sphere before being left with no clear conclusion to it. So it felt really lovely to work in a way where you could do anything in the hours of filming, but on other sides of that, you have a space to resolve what happened that day. For such an intense movie and intense space where you’re all living together, it was really fundamental to making it work.
And because you work on all of these other big projects like The Martian and Black Mirror, you must really crave these truly handcrafted ones as an actor when you’re not doing them.
I do. I’m trying to figure out how you can wrestle that into the bigger projects. It’s hard when things are really spread out with like a million cast members where they aren’t there on the same day all the time. I like the feeling of having a company of actors. I like how it is in theater where people get together and they all feel like a part of building this thing, and not like they come in and do their day and they’re not a part of it anymore. With Halt and Catch Fire, we’ve done that since the beginning. It’s very important to us that it does feel like a theater company. We’ve rehearsed on the weekends and we’ve worked during the week. It was never something we left up to fate.
How do you honestly feel about being involved on a show for that long? Granted, it’s one of the few great shows out there, but there’s also so much commitment that’s asked of you.
Listen—it’s an embarrassing part of this job that you grow and learn in a very public way where it’s documented for eternity, or until the material corrodes. It’s funny to have played a role for so long and also to be learning about her while you’re being recorded. There’s stuff that I’m more proud of and less proud of, but generally, it’s been the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I got to work with the most grounded, cool, eccentric, and lovely people. I got to play an amazing female role that the creators and the writers were always really interested to get my perspective on, which I can’t imagine is the norm on television. This whole experience has been a fairytale for me.
It’s always so different for everyone when it inevitably comes to this question, but did you have that moment of epiphany where you knew you needed to act?
There was never a “Come to Jesus” moment, but I always wanted to act. I wanted to do it intuitively since I was born, basically. I just don’t have memories where I wanted to do something else. I have memories where I wanted to do a million things in addition to being an actress, but that was always very unrealistic. I wanted to be a poet in the morning, a fashion designer in the afternoon, and maybe the next day be a doctor and a scientist, and then a week of many jobs. [Laughs] Acting was always very constant. I didn’t really pursue it professionally until I graduated from university. Before that, I was actively involved in non-professional outlets that I could find and loved it, but I didn’t make that transition into, “You should now do it as a job,” even though I thought it would happen. I just thought it would happen when I decided. So it happened later.
How do you feel about auditions?
It depends. If I’m in the cycle of auditioning a lot, I really don’t mind them at all. I like them because they’re sort of intense scenarios, but if I haven’t auditioned in a while, I get a lot more nervous. You kind of need to be in the habit of doing it.
The audition, the table read, and the actual doing of it on set must all be very different things.
There are all of these different influencers and situations. In auditions, there’s the energy of the room and the nerves of performing in front of groups of strangers—a very artificial scenario. If you can feed off of that, I think it can imbue your performance with a real energy. I always used to have an anxiety that I could do that in the audition room, but then I would get onto set and people would fire me because it’s a completely different energy and you no longer have that artificial influencer.
What do you remember about your time working on Always Shine off the top of your head?
I remember less of the acting stuff and more of the communal things. For instance, I remember we played a lot of Celebrity, which is a very fun game. I’m very competitive at it. Caitlin and I got to Big Sur a week before to rehearse and to sort of build our relationship prior to shooting. So we were playing Celebrity one night. I’m very competitive with things that don’t matter, like, games, and Caitlin’s not. I didn’t know any of the people in the room because I had just met them and I just got so aggressive and intense in the way that, in my perspective, I wasn’t fighting with anybody. I just feel really passionately when I play meaningless games, while Caitlin is just a lovely, normal human being and not dominating a room of strangers. I remember Sophia telling me later, like, “I felt so happy about the casting when we had that first night because you were so awful and Caitlin was so lovely.” [Laughs] It was a good harbinger of things to come.
I’m trying to imagine your neighbors in Big Sur and what they thought of you guys.
“Oh, so you’re gonna be here for a month?” [Laughs]
Exactly. What did you learn about Big Sur from this experience?
Some people that I’ve talked to there actually living in the redwood forests—some of them are actually in the movie—would talk about how the dust would get into your lungs and make you go crazy. There’s also a darkness in Big Sur. It’s like the true romantic theory of the sublime where the nature is so incredibly beautiful, but so incredibly scary. It’s these two things that emerge and overwhelm you with feeling. Big Sur is aesthetically like that, but also there’s this energy of the land that feels dark and a bit dangerous. If you don’t have a plan for what you’re going to do when you’re there and you’re just sort of wandering around, the darkness can come out of you. I think it’s a really good place to set this movie with that in mind and let it be this sort of hypnotic space that can allow true selves and true resentments and unfulfilled urges to erupt and wreck havoc.
Is it helpful when you’re under the guidance of Sophia who’s also an actress herself?
Yeah! I think there’s a certain understanding of what direction is helpful and what direction is confusing and destructive. She was very good about adjusting things and giving very active, usable ideas to us that she understood she would need and know how to frame it for us. Some directors can be great directors and do something visually wonderful, but have a hard time translating their ideas out of a mood or a vibe into an active thing for somebody to attack.
What was the big takeaway from Always Shine? You hopefully grow every time, right?
Well, I came to this movie just after finishing another one that I felt really dissatisfied by. It’s not always going to be a movie with seven people working out of a house in Big Sur and doing meditation exercises together because that’s not the most sustainable, maybe, but I want to seek out work that fulfills me, both in the content and the creation of it. That’s become very important to me. I just want to remain aware of the fact that, no matter how good a movie ends up being, what I spend my whole year doing is making the thing. If you don’t enjoy that process of making this thing with these people, then you’re spending most of your time doing something that doesn’t fulfill you and makes you sad. So I think it just pushed me to be very responsive to my intuition.
Can you discuss the Blade Runner sequel at all?
Is it I can’t or I won’t? I mean, no one’s told me that I can’t say anything. It’s just awareness. I’m not going to say a thing about it. I don’t think anyone’s going, “Mackenzie, talk about it.”
Do you get a sense of any rivalries that exist amongst actors in the industry?
Again, I really think the movie has less to do with actresses and a lot more to do with the culture that promotes a certain type of female identity that can cause people to feel sort of strangled and competitive with each other. I don’t have that and I kind of don’t know anybody who has that.
What kind of scripts are you reading now that’s exciting you moving forward?
I never have a particular role that I want to play or an idea of a film that I want to do. I want to constantly do something that I haven’t done before and make things that I feel is especially relevant now. I don’t know how to describe it. I’m not looking for a “good movie” that could be nominated for awards, but something that feels relevant to the world that we live in right now and with purpose to telling that story. A lot of movies could pop up that could be made right now that couldn’t have been made twenty or thirty years ago. I’d like to be engaging in a conversation about something that’s contemporary to our lives and things that are affecting people right now.
Do you generally get a quick sense as to whether a script is of quality when you start reading it or does that take some time for you to sit with it and absorb the material?
You generally get it pretty quickly. There are some things that keeps you reading because, if there’s some prestige involved, you think, “This might become something.” But generally, it’s like the first few pages of a book where it doesn’t need to grab you immediately. There needs to be some eloquence to the writing and something that feels distinct that makes you want to seek further.
Let’s bookend our conversation about the new house. What’s something interesting about it?
[Laughs] There are a lot of coyotes around and other wild animals, which is sort of annoying because we had a family of skunks living in our basement. Also, every time you drive home, there’s like a pack of coyotes and then you’ll hear them howling at night that feels sort of faraway.
I have a problem because I think they’re cute, but I don’t want to be in that crossfire.
You can’t walk forty feet in this neighborhood without seeing a missing cat poster. It pisses me off.
Do you have a cat?
No! Don’t have a cat here! They’re going to die! [Laughs] Go have a pet in West Hollywood or something. Don’t have a cat here where it’s going to be hunted by coyotes with some certainty.