Mackenzie Davis is about to happen. She’s already caught the attention of big hitters like Ridley Scott and Denis Villeneuve, and the cool Canadian kid continues to fill the blockbuster scene with fleeting but memorable moments.
She’s not been around too long – emerging in 2012 with a bit part in James Ponsoldt’s superlative addiction drama Smashed – but Davis has appeared to be on the edge of something major for a good few years now. The most compelling argument for her talents can be found on the small screen, where a couple of transcendental performances have indicated it won’t be long until she breaks out and, well, catches fire.
For the benefit of a lamentably small audience, Davis’ first star turn came with a lead role in AMC’s period tech drama Halt and Catch Fire. As Cameron Howe, a skittish, delinquent punk computer programmer, she burst onto the screen as a manic blur of attitude and nervous energy. Within a few short scenes in the pilot, she was running rings around de facto star Lee Pace with her anti-authoritarian posturing and androgynous allure.
Cam is one of the great goldmines for an actor working in modern television – arguably up there with Jesse Pinkman or Pete Campbell as a second-fiddler whose idiosyncratic nature and hidden wells of complexity often make them more fascinating than the lead. She is bitter, paranoid and deeply wounded, but also an insurmountably intelligent tech geek in a 1980s that didn’t want women like that.
Within her is a reservoir of anxieties, ambitions and appetites that Davis got to play with over four massively rewarding seasons that only improved as they went along. Not just that, but the showrunners actually realised the MVPs they had in Davis and her other female co-star Kerry Bishé as engineer Donna, who starts the series as little more than a nagging wife archetype for Scoot McNairy’s harried programmer Gordon.
Both women are increasingly given their due as the writers continue to fixate on these characters, who reveal themselves to be far more intriguing and dynamic than their more stock male counterparts.
Davis is in her element here and, even among some truly top-notch performers, she stands head-and-shoulders above.
Her star would threaten to go supernova when Davis next appeared in what might have been 2016’s most talked about episode of television – Black Mirror’s only truly hopeful instalment to date ‘San Junipero’. A sweeping, gleeful romance on a backdrop of sci-fi dystopia and 20th century nostalgia, it may well have given Davis and her co-lead Gugu Mbatha-Raw the keys to the kingdom.
‘San Junipero’ was adored by critics and audiences as a brave departure from Charlie Brooker’s typically bleak template and there were soon demands for a sequel to return to what is still one of the show’s most fully-realised and deeply-felt worlds.
While Mbatha-Raw has, deservedly, enjoyed a blossoming career since then – cropping up prominently in Ava DuVernay’s blockbuster YA adaptation A Wrinkle in Time and leading a couple of Netflix hits in The Cloverfield Paradox and Irreplaceable You – Davis’ path to silver screen glory has been a little more subtle and gradual.
But ‘Junipero’ may still hold the key to her growing mainstream appeal. She plays Yorkie, the virtual avatar of a comatose woman whose life was cut short by a car accident shortly after a disastrous coming-out to her parents. Davis plays on the surface with the character’s trepidation and uncertainty as she tiptoes around a virtual world almost blinding in its possibility and debauchery. Struggling to find an identity in a world where you can try on different decades like hats, Yorkie hides an internal storm of repression and desire, finally liberated when she falls for Mbatha-Raw’s more adventurous Kelly.
As the electricity of their romance brings Yorkie out of hiding, into a place of greater certainty and self-assertion, Davis imbues her with the joy of a prisoner shedding her shackles after a lifetime of isolation and restriction. Every tentative smile, every elated sigh sparkles with the energy of someone breaking out into a huge, wonderful world that she couldn’t have even imagined existed.
From what we’ve seen of her potentially star-making turn in Tully, Davis’ character – a nanny swinging to the rescue of Charlize Theron’s beleaguered mother like a manic pixie Mary Poppins – feels like an evolution of what Yorkie learned in ‘San Junipero’. Finally liberated, finally fully herself, Davis looks to be letting the crackling energy, that potential she hinted at in Black Mirror, brim to the surface with an unbridled sense of joy. It could be very moving, and very exciting, to see her break out in such colourful fashion.
Of course, Davis has shown up in the tentpoles before – and she has used her not-inconsiderable abilities to fill out the edges of even the smallest role with suggested life and longing. As a replicant sex worker in Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi sequel Blade Runner 2049, she colours in the gaps between vaguely rote dialogue about desire, reality and rebellion with an implied history of abuse, neglect and torment.
With these bits parts, and a few cracking obscure indie turns headlining Always Shine and Izzy Gets the Fuck Across Town, Davis has already built a relatively robust cinematic portfolio in just a few short years. But her potential has yet to be realised on screens that may for once be big enough to capture her power. With Tully, and an as-yet-untitled Terminator sequel in the offing – the legacy of Cameron Howe and Yorkie may well be one that lights up multiplexes for years to come.