Catching Up With Mackenzie Davis of What If

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The role of the wild and crazy friend will never get old or played out, probably because we all have one. When they show up on screen, all we really ask is that the chosen actor comes down a few notches every once and again, and shows us something real—something that reminds us of that college buddy who always seemed like the naughty one, until you got her in a vulnerable moment, and she suddenly started waxing poetic on the true meaning of love, and the emotional importance of taking risks. That’s Nicole in What If.

What If works for many reasons—Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan, director Michael Dowse, and writer Elan Mastai are a few of them. Mackenzie Davis as the girlfriend to Adam Driver (who plays Radcliffe’s wild and crazy friend) is another one. She proves the age-old adage that there are no small parts when you’re a talented performer who can command a scene. Paste caught up with Davis to talk What If, her role on AMC’s Halt & Catch Fire, and Canadian rhythm.

Paste Magazine: Of course we’re going to talk about What If, but I have to ask about Halt & Catch Fire, since you just had the season finale. What has it been like working on the show?
Mackenzie Davis: It’s been amazing! It’s so funny doing press for the movie now, right after the season finale [for Halt]. We shot that four months ago, and we’ve already had the finale. And I shot this two years ago, and it’s just now coming out. That’s a little mind blowing. But it was wonderful! It was just the best cast and crew, and everything I could have wanted. Everyone on that show is just so, so talented. They’re the loveliest people on the planet.

Paste: Did you see any similarities between your role as Nicole in the movie, and Cameron on Halt?
Davis: No. (laughs) They were both played by me. I don’t know. Did you?

Paste: Maybe I was expecting it, but to me there’s a certain fierceness in both of them. Maybe even sexually, there’s a real sense of freeness about both women.
Davis: Yes, I agree with that. I think they both have nice, healthy appetites.

Paste: (laughs) Very true. And speaking of freeness, your co-star Adam Driver describes you as “very focused and also free,” in terms of your performance. Do you feel like you have a particular approach as an actor?
Davis: I went to theater school, and if I spent time with one school of thought in this whole acting game, it’s the Miesner approach of improvise-based acting. This does not mean that you improvise your acting, but that you focus on the other person. It’s not about you, so it’s about being as interested as you can be in the other person. It’s very freeing, and it’s also a great lesson for real life.

Paste: Yes, that makes a lot of sense. I really liked your “love is dirty” speech to Daniel Radcliffe’s character. But then we got to see this other side to you on the wedding night. Was there one scene in particular that you read early on that made you feel like you had to sign on to do this?
Davis: Not necessarily one scene, but I felt like there were these more obvious qualities to her character that I liked, like her impetuousness and her brashness. But she’s really earnest as well. I don’t think that’s hiding. She says what she thinks, and is kind of romantic—as much as she’s loath to admit it.

Paste: I talked with your director, Mike Dowse, and we got into a little conversation about the aesthetic of Canadian directors. Have you noticed any differences between working on Canadian and American productions?
Davis: Well, this is my third film, so everything still feels really new to me. As hard as it is to define to people on the outside, I think there definitely is a Canadian sense of humor, and a Canadian rhythm that you can feel. It’s just one degree off. (laughs) I did bond with Michael over that. I think that’s always a nice vibration to connect with someone on.

Paste: I had an a-ha moment on your IMDB page, when I saw that you were in the movie Breathe In.
Davis: That was my first film!

Paste: I loved that movie. I even got to interview its director, Drake Doremus when it first came out.
Davis: Oh, I’m glad you liked it! I really loved that film.

Paste: In a short amount of time, you’ve gotten to work with some great directors. What was Mike’s approach with you?
Davis: Mike was very specific in what he wanted, which is a good quality for a director to have. But he also gives you a lot of freedom to work, which is lovely. We’d do a bunch of takes that were completely faithful to the script. And then he and Elan [Mastai] the screenwriter would get together and we’d do a couple of improvised takes. And it was all very loose, while still being efficient.

Paste: What do you have coming up next?
Davis: I’m going to shoot a movie in Texas, and then I have another movie coming out in the fall, which I also shot in Texas, called We Gotta Get Out Of This Place. In January I have another movie, The Kitchen Sink, coming out, which is this strange horror comedy, coming-of-age story.

Paste: Great, I can’t wait to see more of your work! Thanks for taking some time out for us today.
Davis: Thanks so much!

Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor at Paste, and a New York-based freelance writer with probably more babies than you. You can follow her on Twitter.