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A bit of geek trivia: Halt and Catch Fire (HCF) was an early computer command that caused the machine to run as fast as possible. The AMC show of the same name has had similar effect on Mackenzie Davis, accelerating her career and causing the actress to catch fire (the good kind) herself. Despite the fine early indie film work that constitutes her still-young career, playing the volatile personal computing prodigy Cameron Howe on Halt and Catch Fire brought her to wide attention in 2014. It widened further when the network made the critically praised season-two decision to focus on the relationship of its female protagonists.
Another bit of trivia (or is it irony?): Davis actually became aware of the role while helping a now-former boyfriend run lines for his audition for the show. But what’s really fascinating about Halt is that it takes place in the 1980s, foreshadowing startup mania as well as the plight of smart women dealing with sexism and finding their voice in the tech world. It lets us go back in time and watch Silicon Valley evolve – and in many respects, sadly, stay the same. What’s also interesting is how Davis’ role echoes her own spirit, ambition and experience in the industry.
Acting was always Davis’ plan, and she was eager to leave Vancouver, BC and get going. Her parents insisted on an education first, a demand she says she doesn’t regret, as her degrees in English Lit and gender studies lend valuable perspective – and a distinct point of view – to her work. She started out in modeling but found she hated it, in no small part for the expectation to be pretty all the time. She started booking some stage work, and while acting at NYC’s Neighborhood Playhouse, she was discovered by Drake Doremus, who cast her in her first feature, Breathe In.
As she began getting parts in indies and shorts, she ran into the dilemma facing most young actresses in Hollywood: the roles you need to take to build your career often still play to gender stereotypes. She’s confronted her fair share of “surprise” nude scenes that somehow weren’t included in the scripts she auditioned with. But she’s managed to stretch those tropes, even in films that put her on the edge of them. The Hollywood Reporter gave her props for holding her own against “movie-girlfriend default settings” in That Awkward Moment. Other movies, like this year’s brilliantly entertaining Always Shine allow her to comment on them while ostensibly acting in a thriller. Davis and Caitlin FitzGerald play two friends, both actresses, finding differing degrees of success. One is resigned to roles that reflect the industry’s narrow definition of femininity; the other refuses any part that smells of simpering or victimhood. (Guess who’s more successful, and which role is Davis’.) IndieWire said, “Davis and FitzGerald communicate each emotion perfectly. Between the genre and the size of the film, these are the types of roles that don’t generally get recognized during awards season, but they’ll likely be among the year’s best performances.”
Still other movies have Davis playing directly against female stereotype. Los Angeles Times praised The Martian’s adroit casting of Davis in one of its many nerdy roles, an eagle-eyed satellite image viewer. In describing the roles she seeks, Davis has said, “I want to play active people who can solve problems, not people who have things thrust in their lap and need somebody to solve their problems for them.” Though the part was a small one, it wound up fulfilling her biggest acting dream since…ever. The Martian director Ridley Scott also helmed Blade Runner, Davis’ favorite movie of all time. When she heard he was planning a sequel, well… Of course she’d have to kill you if she told you anything about Blade Runner 2049, but suffice it to say she’s in it.
The ever-restless Davis doesn’t like not working, which we doubt is something she’ll have to worry about anytime soon (though she was a terrific waitress, if you’re not too picky about health codes). In addition to Blade Runner 2049, she’s wrapped the haunting, still-to-be-released Memory Box and is filming 2017’s Tully with Charlize Theron. All while not halting Halt.
We’re watching Halt and Catch Fire because it’s a story very much still being written. We’re watching Davis because hers is, too – and just as intriguing.