Anarchy in the Mainframe: Mackenzie Davis on Halt & Catch Fire Season Two

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The idea of a series centered on the computer world of the 1980s was always going to be a hard sell. Yet, over the course of its two seasons, AMC’s Halt & Catch Fire slowly but surely distinguished itself as a force to be reckoned with. A big part of the appeal lies in the show’s focus on the strong female figures at its center. Certainly, when it comes to memorable characters, it’s hard to ignore the likes of Cameron Howe, the shaggy-haired, punk rock coder played by Canadian actress Mackenzie Davis.

Halt & Catch Fire marks Davis’ first stint as a TV series regular after several years of supporting roles in independent fare such as Smashed, Breathe In and The F Word. This season in particular has given the talented young actress a lot to chew on, as Cameron finds herself fighting tooth-and-nail to keep Mutiny, her burgeoning gaming computer, afloat in the face of a massively fickle industry. This task brought no shortage of ups and downs for the hacker-turned-company-head, leading to some difficult decisions along the way. This all came to a head in the season’s penultimate episode when, in a last ditch attempt to save Mutiny from being pushed out of business by a large corporation, Cameron tricked her former lover Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) into accidentally infecting the corporation’s system with a vicious piece of malware. This underhanded technique rescued Mutiny, but effectively put the kibosh on her ex’s road to redemption.

Paste caught up with Davis to discuss Cameron’s Machiavellian turn, her candid thoughts about the character’s punk rock tastes and how the show made her self-conscious about her typing abilities.

Paste Magazine: Let’s talk about episode nine [“Kali”], which I thought was one of the best episodes of the series. It’s a story that heavily features you, so congrats on that!
Mackenzie Davis: Thank you so much! I like that episode a lot. It’s really heartbreaking.

Paste: What was your reaction when you got those scenes and realized what you would be doing in that episode?
Davis: Happy, because I’d been waiting to see Cameron own, for better or for worse, the direction she’s been going towards all season, which has been this sort of autocratic, full-fledged boss figure, who is shrewd and savage and will stop at nothing to save her baby. I think she has done so much negotiating over the course of the season with her naïve ideals and mission, and I like seeing the cynical side of that. I like that scene between her and Donna, where Donna tells her Joe didn’t have anything to do with this and Cameron says, ‘Does it matter? We’re out for blood, I don’t care. We’re going to survive and not going to fail and I don’t care who has to go.’ I was thrilled. I thought it was cool to embrace that darkness.

Paste: For Cameron, this is a justified move. But, as an audience member, you’re just like, ‘It sucks, because Joe really did have nothing to do with it.’ Was there a disconnect there for you? Was it like, ‘I feel sorry for the guy but, as the character, I have to hate him?’
Davis: Yeah, it was weird shooting that scene with Lee where Cameron comes in and sort of manipulates the hell out of him. Going into that scene, I was so laser-focused on going in there as Cameron, manipulating the shit out of him and completely selling this loving performance. [For Cameron], it’s all about Mutiny and all about the end goal. But over the course of shooting that scene, Lee’s performance became so heartbreaking. I didn’t realize how many feelings were still between the characters that weren’t just shrouded in backstabbing. These weren’t just reactive feelings; these were real legitimate things that existed. So, yeah, shooting that scene made me feel differently. But, I don’t know, I think Cameron compartmentalized it a lot, and really had to decide what was worth it, and what wasn’t and put those [feelings] aside and be a ruthless leader.

Paste: It’s interesting watching that scene with you and Lee when you start to seduce him. At first, it seems out of character, then when you realize what’s happening you’re like, ‘Oh oh, there we go!’
Davis: Yeah!

Paste: Did you have a similar reaction reading that scene?
Davis: Totally. I was like, ‘Oh no, she is a really good actress right now.’ She is giving [Joe] exactly what he wants. Bosworth said to me a few episodes ago, ‘What Joe wants from you is forgiveness and you can hold that over him.’ This is the culmination of that—the execution of the ultimate con. She’s absolving him of guilt, because that’s all he wants, so his defenses are down and she can really hurt him.

Paste: This year has been an interesting shake-up. In the first season, you spent a bunch of your scenes working with Joe/Lee, a few with Gordon, some with Donna. This year, you’re almost working exclusively with Kerry Bishé and Mark O’Brien. How has that been? Is it almost like a different show for you?
Davis: Totally. Even last season, most of my scenes were me by myself in a basement storage locker [laughs]. It was a really different experience. It was also a lot more fraught. Obviously, there are a lot of calamities around me this season, but it’s been a lot more fun and there are all these reprieves from the anxiety and the failure and the fighting. And also, it’s been interesting to chart the evolution of this not-perfect but kind-of-healthiest relationship Cameron has in her life, which is with Donna. They are certainly complicated, but they truly want to work together on a professional level. That’s an interesting dilemma, rather than a relationship as reactive or underscored by deceit as it was between Joe and Cameron last season.

Paste: Did you miss playing scenes with Lee and Scoot McNairy?
Davis: Yeah. It’s so great with Kerry and Mark. I love working with all of them. Working with Lee was the focus of all my time last season, and it was so bizarre that it wasn’t until like episode six [this season] that we even crossed paths. So yeah, just on a lifestyle level I was like, ‘Wow, this person was my partner, and now I don’t even see him anymore.’

Paste: The Donna/Cameron relationship is a fascinating one. Donna is someone who is very good at keeping her emotions close to the chest, whereas Cameron can be a bit of a raw nerve. She more frequently yells or throws things. As an actress, how is that to play? Is it fun or just kind of exhausting?
Davis: I think it depends how much catharsis there is in it. There’s a lot of Cameron being frustrated and bottling up her emotions as well, and that can be a little exhausting in a way I didn’t even realize. I would go home some days and just be like, ‘I’m sad’ [laughs]. I think the more expressive, cathartic sides of Cameron are fun to play. I don’t really throw many tantrums in my real life, so it’s very therapeutic.

Paste: I spoke with Kerry Bishé, and she was talking about the costume as a great way to get into character. When you were getting ready to play Cameron, did you do a lot of research into the tech and the ‘80s punk subculture, or was it another instance of the costume and haircut really helping?
Davis: I definitely did a lot of research—mostly on the technical stuff—more for the first season than this season. I think we were all very aware of what idiots we would look like if we didn’t know what we were talking about [laughs]. So I did a lot of reading into the tech and information for last season. This season the world was less new. Everything wasn’t underscored by this anxiety of like, ‘Someone’s going to find out I’m not actually a hacker or computer genius!’

So doing the research helped me to form Cameron a lot, but I can’t give enough credit to Kimberly Adams-Galligan. She’s our costume designer. She’s responsible for so much in terms of figuring out the arc of the episodes and the emotional state that Cameron was in. This season I had a bit less of a uniform and a lot was found through working with Kimberly and trying on different stuff. She’d say, ‘Well, this scene she’d be shrouded in six layers like a cocoon because she’s trying to protect herself,’ or ‘In this scene, she’d be in a crop-top and her arms are showing because she’s a warrior.’ I wish I could have that experience with every costume designer I work with. I think Cameron would have been such a different person if there wasn’t someone as collaborative and as excited as Kimberly to find [the character] in all the minutiae.

Paste: You’re a young actor and it seems as though Cameron is a character you’ve spent the most time with. It’s been two years and twenty episodes. Prior to this, you’ve done a few features, so what was this new experience like for you?
Davis: It’s been amazing, even during the first season. I’d worked on indie movies before, where the longest shooting time was 28 days. Coming to work and having a person to develop and live with for four-and-a-half months was such an educational experience. I’d never done TV or worked on such a schedule, so it was a crash course in, I don’t know, being more of a workhorse actor? With movies, it’s a lot of space between scenes. You think and relax, but with this you have to be such a boss and so in charge of stuff. I really liked the experience of being exhausted at the end of the day. I mean, coming back this season was so cool, because I didn’t think about [Cameron] for six months, and then around Thanksgiving we started talking about the characters and where we were going to go this season. It was good to have a jumping off point and to get to be an authority on the character before I even started the season. I didn’t have to fucking guess. Just for my own security. Otherwise, I would worry, ‘I don’t know the person,’ and I’d be scared that I’ll get fired all the time [laughs].

Paste: Cameron listens to a lot of ‘80s punk bands. Is that a music genre you were familiar with going in or was it just a huge learning curve?
Davis: It was a pretty big learning curve. It’s not something I ever really engaged with until Cameron. And I can’t say I’m a total expert or convert [laughs], but I found that music is a really important part of figuring her out. Not necessarily the music she listens to on the show. For me, I’d say early Philip Glass, which is really chaotic and overwhelming—that sort of stuff makes sense to me, but might not necessarily be exactly what she’s listening to.

Paste: So, it’s not music you’d go jogging to?
Davis: No. I mean, I would just never care to jog in the first place [laughs]. I like the Spotify playlists they make for our characters. It’s the dorky thing I listen to. I’m like, ‘Hey, this is a great intro!’

Paste: As someone who knows a bit about computers, you do a good job of at least looking like you’re actually coding. Is that something you’re actively paying attention to, in terms of where your hands are going or is it just complete chaos?
Davis: No, I do like to have my hands in the right place for the most part. I was probably more obsessed or concerned last season, especially being like, ‘I’m doing a show about a niche subject, that’s going to attract a niche audience, that’s going to want to find a way for it to fail. And I don’t want to fail at these simple things that are easy to figure out’ [laughs]. The one I couldn’t make up for is that I don’t know how to type. I would just type away with two fingers, which I think really gives me away as a child of this generation and not of the secretary generation. I don’t know, I feel like typing was an important part of early computers and not as much for our generation. So I’m really relieved to hear that you believe I’m coding because I’m always self-conscious that people will be like, ‘Bitch doesn’t know how to type!’

Paste: Well, you fooled them and me!
Davis: [laughs] Great!

Paste: Now, because I’m a huge fan of the book, I see you’re cast in the upcoming adaptation of The Martian movie. How was that experience, working with Ridley Scott?
Davis: Oh, it was an absolute dream! I’m such a huge fan of his and I’ve never done anything that big before. The whole experience was so thrilling. I was like, ‘Oh cool, I’m actually an actor and get to do this stuff!’ I was at Jurassic World and the preview for it came on, and I just screamed in the theater. So, yeah, I’m really excited. I love big-event sci-fi movies, and it’s so exciting to be in one.

Paste: It does have every actor in the world in it too, which is kind of ridiculous.
Davis: Yeah, it has all the people.

Paste: Did you get to implement any of your Halt knowledge there, or different skill sets?
Davis: No, they didn’t ask me to consult on very much stuff, I just do little bit of two-finger typing!

Paste: If this was set in the ‘80s, you could have helped them.
Davis: Exactly, I know a lot about early online gaming!

Paste: Do your friends ever try to get you to fix their computers and you just have to be like, ‘Nope, not the same…’
Davis: No, my friends have no illusions about me. No one is convinced I know anything about computers, except you!

Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.