Interview: Halt and Catch Fire‘s Mackenzie Davis
The actress on finding Cameron's ambition.
[Spoilers to follow for Seasons 1 and 2 of Halt and Catch Fire.]
Tonight the 10-episode season of Halt and Catch Fire wraps up on AMC (catch up with our recaps here). This season the show shifted focus to document the fictional historic gaming company Mutiny, which has gone through more than their fair share of ups and downs. Last year’s genius hacker Cameron has become the head of Mutiny because of her games. And as Mackenzie Davis explains, this season has been all about watching Cameron come to terms with just how ambitious she really is.
Lesley Coffin (TMS): How do you think the character of Cameron has evolved this season?
Mackenzie Davis: The biggest thing has been for her to identify her ambition. How large it is, and the lengths she’s willing to go to fulfill it. At the beginning of the season, she really wanted to believe that her goals were to be egalitarian and treat Mutiny as a company where everyone could come up together. And even though she isn’t maternal, to be a den mother of sorts who wanted to bring everyone up together. But she realized, as everyone has to as they get out of their idealistic 20s, that she has to make certain compromises. And as she’s grown up this season, her ambition shifted a lot. I think you see that with Cameron and Tom in the last episode, that he was still holding on to that somewhat naïve image of what Mutiny was, but Cameron has become a shrewd businesswoman who is willing to put this child, her business, above everyone else’s feelings and even making unethical decisions she wouldn’t have made last season. I don’t think she would have thrown Joe under the bus last season the way she did in the last episode. It no longer mattered if Joe (Lee Pace) was the problem, going through him could be the solution.
TMS: The relationship between Cameron and Joe compared Cameron and Tom (Mark O’Brien) is so dramatically different and lets us see different sides to Cameron. What were your first impressions when Tom was introduced as a romantic interest for Cameron?
Davis: I was excited, but found it challenging to figure out how Cameron was going to progress along the line of becoming more isolated and shrewd as a businesswoman this season while also opening herself up to a man in this much less complicated way than she had with Joe. They have genuine love and affection for each other, but at first, seemed to really be at odds with each other. So I was excited but nervous, but that is the way people are. It’s just human nature to be really evolved in one aspect of our lives and really vicious in another aspect.
TMS: It was really interesting to observe the way Cameron and Donna (Kerry Bishé’) interacted this season, especially the way Cameron spoke with the other guys at Mutiny. And there were a few times when Cameron seems to attack Donna for being a wife and mother. Do you think Cameron sees that part of her life as a weakness?
Davis: As an umbrella, I don’t think Cameron sees those kind of women as weak. But specifically in Donna’s case, as strong and as capable as Donna is to Cameron, she seems trapped in this life with a dope of a husband [Scoot McNairy] who keeps ruining things. It’s almost a comic troupe the way he just keeps coming back and fucking things up with Cameron’s work. He’s full of mishaps. And she has these two little girls, who are lovely, but seem to be preventing Donna from being as ambitious as Cameron wants her to be. Cameron wants Donna for herself and wishes bigger things for Donna, even though that isn’t fair. Donna’s marriage and family isn’t the conspiracy Cameron thinks it is to limit ambition.
TMS: Did you have a favorite episode this season or one that you are really proud of?
Davis: I don’t know if I can think of one episode, but there were moments throughout. A lot of the stuff with Tom was fun to play because Cameron is usually withholding and defensive all the time, kind of emotionally unevolved. But with Tom, she lets her guard down. There is the episode where we play the dart game and end up in the closet together. Or in the recent episode when we are on the balcony at the picnic, when he tells her he loves her and seeing Cameron really struggle to be an open human being. I wouldn’t like those scenes as much if she weren’t so closed off usually, but I like seeing her be vulnerable with people or trying to be an open person. Because that isn’t intuitive for her. So those moments have been precious for me.
TMS: Were you aware of how much the show would change between season 1 and season 2?
Davis: So much was the result of the main location change. Before we were in this beige, worse version of the 80s office building, and this year we’re in this innovative, filthy frat house, so it only made sense to change the look and temperature and activity on the show to fit the new location. It was never a discussion with the actors that there would be this big change, but it was definitely noticeable right away. We couldn’t have shot the show in the same way. It made more sense at Cardiff Electric to keep the camera locked, but at the house the cameras had to always be moving. It’s been great for me though, because I lived and worked in this basement dungeon last year, and this year I have a house with disgusting food and people everywhere and balls flying around.
TMS: Cameron is supposed to be one of the best hackers around and a wiz with computers and videogames from the 80s. Did you have to do any kind of crash course to get comfortable just to talk and act in character?
Davis: We did a lot of that the first season. I did some independently, but also as a cast the first season, because as a group we were concerned about just understanding the technology and historical significance of what our characters were doing. So we all helped each other last season. This year, we kind of loosened up a little and everything felt a little more fluid, so we didn’t have to obsess as much with the technicalities and focus on the emotions of our characters. We were a bit less scared of looking like we didn’t know what we were supposed to be talking about.
TMS: What’s your personal connection to the kind of online computer games Cameron is developing?
Davis: Well, I was born in 1987, so I was a little past the era we’re depicting, but looking at the game Cameron and Tom created, Extract and Defend, it looks a lot like Wolfenstein 3D, which I played a lot with my dad growing up. My dad and sister and I used to play a lot of computer games, so I definitely have memories of going to the computer room, which is another thing completely obsolete now, and playing computer games with my dad or sister before dinner. It was kind of a family bonding activity.
TMS: No spoilers, but how are you feeling about the way season 2 wraps up for Cameron?
Davis: I liked the way the things ended. I think Cameron’s arc of this season has been about negotiating ambition and deciding how much she could have without losing everything. And by the end of the show, she’s having to contend with the decision she’s made; were they worth it? She’s definitely feeling the weight of being a boss, which took a long time for her to embrace. And she finally did and has to sit with the isolation that comes from being on top.
TMS: Last episode, Tom told Cameron that she is more like Joe than she wants to admit. Is that part of her ambition? To have the same kind of drive we saw in Joe last season?
Cameron: It’s hard, because Joe’s almost like a unicorn on the show. Everyone talks about him with his full name, and everyone’s version of him is different. Cameron’s version is very different, because it is intimate and emotional, and might have led her to explode some things he’s done to be bigger than they really are. So as far as becoming more like Joe, I’m not even sure which version of Joe McMillian we’re talking about. But as far as taking Cameron from being a 22-year-old with the total hacker ethos to where she is at the end of season 2, she’s become a take no prisoners businesswoman and has definitely taken a few pages out of Joe McMillian’s book.
Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.
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