Girl Power: Halt & Catch Fire’s Kerry Bishé on Playing a Modern Woman in the 1980s

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It’s an unfortunate fact that, even at the height of our modern-day TV Renaissance, the vast majority of the medium’s meatiest and most memorable roles fall to men to play. Enter Halt & Catch Fire’s Donna Clark, the mild-mannered computer engineer-turned-housewife who, over the course of the show’s first season, proved that one didn’t need be a scowling, angst-ridden sourpuss to be one of television’s most dynamic, complex character. As expertly played by actress Kerry Bishé, Donna is a woman of many layers—a brilliant mind whose potential and dreams have been squashed not only by the cutthroat, male-centric tech industry, but by the overwhelming societal pressure placed on women to forgo careers and become the family caretaker. With the second season, Donna is seemingly granted a second chance in the form of co-managing a new gaming start-up, only to find her already harried life descending into further chaos. Not only must she deal with the fledgling company and her collapsing marriage, but, in perhaps the series’ most devastating episodes to date, she finds herself forced to make a heartbreaking decision regarding an unexpected pregnancy.

With the end of the show’s second season, Bishé talked with Paste about the experience of developing Donna, how she and the writers navigated the character’s dramatic mid-season decision and the actress’ impressive Ron Swanson-esque undertaking of building her own boat.

Paste Magazine: So Atlanta was actually an old stomping ground of mine. It’s where I went to school at Emory in Decatur. How’s it been filming in the area?
Kerry Bishé: There are things I like about it and things that are a challenge. Mostly, it’s hard to pick up and move anywhere else. I have a whole life in New York and a life in L.A. and to live one-third of the year in a place that isn’t one of those is kind of a bummer. But aside from that, the food is really good. I don’t know what it was like when you were there, but the city has gotten really interesting. There are great restaurants and vibrant neighborhoods that used to be really shitty. It’s a cool time to be there!

Paste: I was actually talking to Jonathon Lisco about a week before the season premiere. According to him, a good chunk of the episodes were done already. For you, is that a weird disconnect that fans of the show are just now responding to things that you did months and months ago?
Bishé: There are a couple ways to look at it. Coming from movies, sometimes by the time people see it, you’re so far disconnected from the scene you did because it happened two years ago. This actually feels relatively quick for an on-camera job. I was also a theater actor, where there was no waiting and literally people are watching the performance while you’re there. We’re about in the middle in terms of that experience (laughs).

Paste: Playing Donna must be interesting. You’ve done TV, but Halt has been the longest running show for you. Obviously, you were in the final season of Scrubs and in a few TV pilots, but Donna is a character you’ve been able to develop over the course of two years. What has that experience been like?
Bishé: That’s a really good question. It’s been really fascinating. There are things that I love about it. I think Donna in particular has grown over the course of the 20 episodes, and it really feels like we have a chance to fulfill the promise that this character had in the beginning. That has meant a lot to me—to be able to delve that deep into the character and give her the respect she deserves.

At the same time, one of the things I’ve learned as an actor is I’m ready to try on different characters and that promise of doing something wildly different all the time feels expansive and it makes me feel bigger than I am, because I’m acknowledging different kinds of parts of myself that I can also understand and empathize with. Playing the same role over and over makes me feel claustrophobic sometimes and smaller than I am. Interestingly, I think those feelings are something the character experiences in her life as an ambitious woman working in tech in the 1980s, who’s also trying to raise her kids and have a successful marriage.

Paste: Watching Donna’s progress has been fascinating. To be perfectly honest, in the first episode I was a bit afraid that she would come across as the nagging wet blanket wife that, unfortunately, we sometimes see in TV. By the fourth episode, when she’s taking charge, it was a real surprise for me and basically the character has been subverting expectations since then. Was their any initial reluctance on your part where you thought, ‘this is an interesting character, but I want to make sure it’s going in a good direction?’
Bishé: Yeah, that was pretty much my exact feeling. You just felt the potential for her to be very interesting. Even in the pilot episode, which is such a brilliant piece of writing, they set her up to be this scolding wife and mom. Then, at a certain point, when she’s in the middle of getting her kids home from school and making dinner, she pops off the back of a Speak & Spell and gets into the guts of the machine. I found that to be a very encouraging sign. In my conversations with [co-creators] Chris Rogers and Chris Cantwell at the very beginning, they made it clear that it’s something they wanted for the character. They wanted it in the show and they absolutely delivered. I am so grateful and happy to be able to play the role, especially how it develops in Season Two.

Paste: Obviously one of the big events this season, is when it’s revealed that Donna is going to be having an abortion. It’s interesting to me that even in a TV landscape where there’s all this room for mature content, having a major character go through with an abortion is relatively rare. Only Maude and Friday Night Lights come to mind for me. What were your thoughts when you learned that would be one of the storylines for your character?
Bishé: I thought it was delicate story to tell about a woman being ambitious and trying to pursue her own career, and I didn’t want it to feel like if you let a woman have a career she will kill your baby (laughs). Then she becomes a horrible mother and turns into a monster and there were times that I felt like… [the writers] felt strongly that Donna shouldn’t be wishy-washy, and that she’s a very practical person and they liked the idea that she would approach this situation practically. She doesn’t even have the time and resources to deal with the family she’s got, and I think they liked giving her a hardedge. To me, for the character, I didn’t think it was a thing that a person like this could take in a cavalier way. I hope we found a middle ground there and what people take away from that in terms of a larger meaning is up to them.

Paste: From where I stand, that was an incredibly moving and powerful part of the show. And very tragic in its own way.
Bishé: Oh, good!

Paste: It’s been very well received by everyone I know who watched the show, so I think you guys did it.
Bishé: Good, so glad to here it!

Paste: In that same episode, there’s a moment where you briefly let yourself get angry and explode at Joe. After spending a season and a half playing someone who is very good at being levelheaded and diplomatic with her emotions, what was it like to play that scene?
Bishé: That’s really hard for me! (laughs) That kind of stuff is really tough. I know for some people it feels really cathartic to be able to get it out that way. But I think what that scene is about is that Donna has two babies this season. She’s pregnant and that has its own set of compromises and decisions she has to make about it and that’s its own tragedy. The other tragedy is the baby that’s her idea—this company. In that moment, the layers are manifold of what she’s responding to and why she slides off the handle. Joe is threatening her work baby that she’s trying to put out in the world and she thinks could really mean something. She’s poured her heart and soul into it. At the same time, he’s sort of challenging her commitment to this thing that’s keeping her from being the mother she wanted. He’s attacking both of her babies so she’s got this really emotional response. That’s uncomfortable and that’s not fun to me to be uncomfortable.

Paste: What is the general atmosphere of the set like? The show can veer between being a very fun show with the Mutiny headquarters being so rambunctious, but it can also be very dramatic. What’s the general tone on set?
Bishé: I think the atmosphere of the show reflects the work we’re doing on whatever day it is. When we’re in the Mutiny house, it’s a blast. That whole house is full of toys and games, and we just play with them all day. And all those coder boys are so fun and so enthusiastic, and they bring so much life to the show—they’re just a blast to work with! Then, in some of the other stuff—I’ve never worked with people who were more serious about the work. Each week we’d have these meetings—Lee [Pace], Scoot [McNairy], Mackenzie [Davis], me and Toby [Huss] and, this season, Mark [O’Brien] would come, and Aleksa [Palladino] would come. On the weekend, we’d get together and do our work session of every new episode as we got [the scripts]. We had all the actors together hashing it out, coming up with ideas, making suggestions to each other on how to play certain scenes or how to interpret certain scenes. I can’t imagine another group of people who would commit their weekend to really trying to make the show the best thing it could be. I’m so proud to be among that group of people with that seriousness of purpose about what they’re doing. In all of our scenes with each other, there’s a lot of that kind of intensity, which I really think is fun. Everyone really brings it.

Paste: Being a woman in the modern century, how do you work to get into the headspace of someone from that era? It’s weird because, even though the ‘80s were not horribly long ago, with all the advances in technology and social progress, it seems like a lifetime ago.
Bishé: To me when it comes to acting there’s certain things I’ve learned you need to know about the period to act it well but, with a show like this, I think the clothes do almost all the work for me. I think about [Donna] as a very modern woman. [Donna and Gordon] have a pretty modern marriage. They’re both working. I think the frustrations that women have then are similar to frustrations that people have in their marriages today, in terms of negotiating chores and work and childcare. These are all questions that are really alive now and worth considering. And really counter-intuitively, there’s this statistic that I learned. In the 1980s, 37 percent of computer science degrees were earned by women. In 2012, it was 18 percent. So while we like to think that we’ve made all these strides in feminism and that women have all these great opportunities, there’s still this really bizarre decline in women going into very stable careers. I don’t know what happened, but it’s worth looking at.

Paste: In regards to the tech element of the show, have you developed any kind of working knowledge of the type of engineering or technological know-how on display? Or is it still just like speaking a foreign language phonetically?
Bishé: (laughs) So when we first started to film the pilot, my brother—who has a PhD. in molecular biology—he set me up with a friend of his who is a computer engineer. I went to his garage in Pasadena and we would really solder things and takes things apart and look at it. And that was really fun and informative. And here’s the thing, in doing the pilot and doing the show, I learned what I do need to know and what I don’t need to know. My job isn’t to understand computers, my job is to understand the people that understand computers and how they work and what they’re like. That’s really fascinating to me—more so than the actual computers. So yeah, it is like speaking a foreign language phonetically. You have someone explain what emphasis to put on what syllable and I’m cool!

Paste: Are there other projects or features you have coming up?
Bishé: Well, I just built a boat!

Paste: Oh, really?
Bishé: Yeah, I built a wooden canoe. I went camping over the weekend.

Paste: Oh wow, had you had that experience before or was it just all of a sudden, ‘I’m going to build a boat!’
Bishé: Yeah, I just wanted to build a boat, so I built a boat (laughs).

Paste: Have you taken it out?
Bishé: I have taken it out once or twice, and it floats beautifully! It’s a gorgeous wooden canoe. But, yeah, I also just did a movie with Steven Stainberg called Rupture. We just wrapped on it in Toronto a few weeks ago. Steve did Secretary with Maggie Gyllenhaal. He’s like an excellent eccentric. It’s sort of a horror movie. Noomi Rapace gets kidnapped by this very mysterious group of people. I’m one of them. I don’t really know what to say about it. It’s a very strange movie.

Paste: That’s good—you go from being trapped as a kind of hostage in Argo to being the hostage taker!
Bishé: I love that interpretation.

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