Mackenzie Davis on AMC’s New Show ‘Halt and Catch Fire’ (And Celeb Doppelgangers)
Mackenzie Davis is currently seeking structure. Born in Vancouver, the 27-year-old actress decamped from LA for Brooklyn and spends her days in local boîtes reading, writing thank you notes, and searching for wood scraps out of which to build bookshelves and bed frames. She’s also busy with press obligations for the new AMC show Halt and Catch Fire, which is set in 1980s Texas right before the first computer boom, a time when she says “there was this naïve God complex about unleashing pure goodness into the world.”
I find Davis sitting carefully poised, reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest in the corner of a café that not only looks cool but also, has really fucking good food, as she would put it. Her coffee-colored loafers are worn in and her faux-fur Peacoat is pink. She orders a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich, with all of the spicy sauces on the side, as we talk about her character Cameron, a computer prodigy with a fuck-off attitude who had a sucker-punch of an entrance in last night’s premiere, the trials and tribulations of Tinder and a woman’s place in Silicon Valley. We do not talk about her hair.
I had to really pay attention to the pilot.
It gets easier to watch.
It was great; I just really had to pay attention—computer science is way over my head.
It’s so interesting to be examining this origin story now because it’s past the point of “The future is amazing!” and it’s starting to scare a lot of people. I am a little scared with my relationship to technology. I have to delete apps from my phone all the time just to have some kind of self-control. I almost hope I can lose my phone so I can just get a flip phone – I miss my Razor.
But what I think is interesting about these people and this time—and you see this parodied on Silicon Valley as well—is that there is this naïve sort of God complex about unleashing pure goodness into the world. They really believe they are adding something into the world that can be judged as having ethics and morals. They believe access to information is inherently good, and it’s not. It’s whatever our psychologies interpret it to be, as we have seen now with the overreach of the NSA and the sort of obsessive narcissism of Instagram, and other things that I engage with and seek instant gratification from. Cameron really feels that she is injecting something that can be judged on its own as being a purely good thing and that she will change the world if only she can make that information accessible to everyone. But she also thinks she is the one who holds the power and elevation to deliver this goodness into the world – so there is already this enormous narcissism in it.
Already we see that Cameron is a very meaty character.
Cameron is very young and very naïve and I see a lot of myself in college in her. What I like most about her is that they allowed her to grow so much and not just be a victim of her stereotype and just act rebellious without any motivation. She’s really flawed and really grows a lot – it’s really cool.
What kind of research did you do to prepare yourself for these characters and this world, right before the computer boom?
I read a lot of books – they gave us a big package of books to read just to familiarize ourselves with the time period. One was Soul of the New Machine by Tracy Kettering. It’s basically a documentary book of a company doing the very thing that we are doing in the show, which is a software company as they transition into PCs and assemble a team of different personalities and different levels of egotism about different skill sets. I had no idea what the temperature of this world was like or how fiery or cold of how insular it was.
What was most interesting about this time to you?
I read a lot of books and articles about women’s experiences and roles in the world of technology from 1900 to present day. Women were the first coders. At the time, it was a really low-level job, and as soon as they started to get respect for it then it became a man’s job and they got demoted back down to secretaries. There were a lot of women in the tech industry because it was this totally innovative thing and now…I really want someone to explain to me why this has happened – what are we doing and what are we telling our girls? How is this still such a viral thing that we are discouraging our girls to follow math and science and engineering and technology? There is this organization called “Girls Who Code” that we [the show] have some kind of affiliation with. And it’s basically just reinforcing at the young age of middle school that 74% of girls express a really strong interest in math, tech, engineering and computer science, and then only 7% of them choose it as a major when they are in undergrad. That’s like an enormous gulf! So “Girls Who Code” gets in at this crucial time and creates a space and classes for girls to explore their interests.
Did you spend any time in Silicon Valley?
We did some screenings there and everyone was so nice and so warm, but there were like two women there in this sea of men. It felt like the 1950s.
Do you have any interest apart from the show in computer programming?
I audited these MIT classes online, which were way above my head but it was nice to try and understand this like introduction to Python Programming. At a certain point I was like, “You need to stop trying to be a genius because you can’t learn this in four months.”
Is there supposed to be a future Steve Jobs on the show?
The obvious Steve Jobs is Joe (played by Lee Pace), because Jobs was a visionary mastermind but he was not a technical mastermind. He worked with computers but he was not super prophetic in a close-to-the-metal way, but he was able to see a very good idea and market it beautifully.
You’re about to become the object of affection for a bunch of young men. What to you is attractive about “computer nerds,” for lack of a better phrase?
I think talent is so sexy and anybody who is devoted to something and has insight into a thing that I can’t personally understand is incredibly sexy. If, of course, they can also communicate that information to me. I do not like it when people just speak at me and don’t try to help me learn. But, I find obsessive personalities very sexy.
Have you ever met anyone on a dating set?
I was on OkCupid three years ago for a couple of months and I just found I got the scariest messages. I know so many people, though, who are getting married or are in the most perfect partnerships and so many of them have met on the Internet. And I know so many people who have gone on tons of fun dates on Tinder, but I’m too anxious I think. I can’t even talk on the phone unless I am in a dark room. I can’t have two worlds co-existing.
Are you social media savvy?
I don’t have Facebook. I am on Instagram and I love it. So I share the urge. I love going on Tinder especially with my male friends and cultivating a really good profile for them. No more fucking puns about goats – that is not a bestiality thing, I was thinking of something very specific [laughs] – and going through all of their messages. So I think I live vicariously through other people’s Internet exploits. It’s so much fun and so addictive.
What’s an average day like for you – IRL?
If I don’t have press I’ll come to this café [Brooklyn Label] and write Thank you cards a lot of the time and just read scripts. And then I have my craft projects. I just moved into a new apartment so I basically have a very unstructured life. I am seeking structure. I will walk around, look for things to collect in my new house, maybe go for a bike ride and go to a cemetery.
On that note, don’t you have a zombie movie on the horizon?
The Kitchen Sink. It’s a parody, sort of, but like an earnest satire of every horror genre. It’s set in a town where zombies, humans and vampires co-exist with strained peace. The peaceful interactions are very thin and taut, and then aliens attack us and that erupts everything and it’s an all out war. So it’s three kids, a human, a vampire, which I play, and a zombie who band together and save the town. I think it’s really funny and bizarre. It turns Breakfast Club-y.
Quite a departure from Halt and Catch Fire…
There are times when I want to be so careful about what I choose, and always make the right choices, especially as an actress because I don’t know how long this is going to go for and I want to maximize any opportunity I may have. And then there are other times when you’re like “Oh, I get to be a fucking vampire and fly through the air and drink blood and fight people the entire movie!” There are adult acting dreams and then there are childhood acting dreams, and I was like “Oh, that’s an absolute fantasy and what I thought acting would be like when I was five-years-old.”