When I met up with actress Mackenzie Davis last week to go vintage shopping in Williamsburg, I found her burrowing through some bedspreads at Stella Dallas Living looking for something for her new apartment in the nearby neighborhood of Greenpoint. She was wearing high-waisted jeans (stolen from a set), a pair of metallic laceless oxfords (Miu Miu) and a cropped t-shirt featuring Bartman (a flea market find).
“I just sewed it up for today,” she says, referring to the long dainty seam across Bartman’s neck, “because I’ve done so much press in this shirt and I need to stop just having my breasts on display.” (Though Mackenzie says she generally looks “like an absolute scrub,” her look today elicited respect from at least one passerby who didn’t even slow down his bike to shout, “Nice shirt!”)
Mackenzie’s charming wit extends to her description of her personal style. “How do you decide to get dressed?” she says. “It’s a real crapshoot but I feel like if I could always be wearing a tuxedo I’d be pretty happy.”
Indeed, the 27-year-old Canadian made her late-night talk show debut on Conan in a sleek black suit to talk about the first of two major projects she has debuting this summer. Halt and Catch Fire is a new drama series that premiered last night on AMC and takes place in the “Silicon Prairie” — Texas in the 1980’s — when personal computer companies began to threaten IBM’s industry dominance. Mackenzie plays Cameron Howe, a young programmer with a chip on her shoulder.
“I’m very interested in why this girl is fronting so much,” she says, explaining her attraction to the character. “Why does she need to be the badass with the haircut and the clothes and the f—k-you attitude?”
Mackenzie’s Cameron certainly has attitude to spare, making for an electric relationship with Lee Pace, who stars as a PC salesman who recruits her into his team, though not before some feisty romance on a balmy night at a dark bar-arcade. (“Lee’s like carved out of stone, he’s an absolute Adonis”, Mackenzie told us, should inquiring minds want to know.)
Mackenzie’s Howe, with her messy cropped hair and camouflage pants, looks like an 80’s southern normcore version of Lisbeth Salander. But she isn’t without some influence from the actress’s off-screen style.
“I bought this really authentic vintage military jumpsuit that fit me like a glove,” she says. “I think it was for a young man who hadn’t come into his body yet — and I wore it to set one day and they were like ‘Oh, can we have this for your costume now?’ and it’s what I’m wearing in the poster.”
Mackenzie is unusual in how easy it is for her to completely change her look onscreen. She is almost unrecognizable in her second project in August: the romantic comedy What If. She plays Adam Driver’s lady-love in a relationship whose intensity and affection stands in contrast to that of Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan, mutual friends who agonize over whether they can be more. Mackenzie’s chemistry with Adam Driver is so charming, and only more so because they are both so darn tall.
“He’s not like his character on Girls at all,” she says. “He’s very sort of funny but quite quiet and very kind.”
Filmed and set in Toronto, What If is a delightful summer romance most notable for how honest and modern the dialogue feels. And if you’re wondering if the film was as fun to shoot as it looks, the answer is a definite yes. “We just did summer camp-y things like having a house party and a bonfire on the beach and going skinny-dipping—real skinny dipping, in a totally disgusting body of water that we didn’t really examine beforehand.”
Plus, Radcliffe surprises as the romantic lead in a way most audiences probably wouldn’t expect. (“He’s so amazing, so charismatic and so sexy in this movie,” says Mackenzie. “I wouldn’t have guessed that.”)
It’s shaping up to be a monumental year for Mackenzie on the big and small screens, and it’s especially impressive because she’s so new to the industry. Born in Vancouver, Canada, she went to McGill in Montreal and studied literature. “Acting had always been a part [of] my life but I didn’t have friends who were actors. I think I always planned on going ‘full in’. I just knew that I was going to get my degree first.”
Going “full in” meant going to New York City and studying at the Neighborhood Playhouse, an intense program that introduced her to the NYC community. “Everything that’s happened is because I’ve made a certain number of choices in my life and I’ve been in the right place at the right time. It was the right thing for me to do, it turns out.” The Playhouse also granted her a one-year visa, so she moved to LA where small roles —“tiny blink and you’ll miss them,” she says — in Breathe In and Smashed got her noticed in a big way.
Not that the attention is going to her head. Maybe it’s a Canadian thing, but she is both solidly confident and delightfully self-deprecating, the latter of which is especially evident when we talk about her hair and beauty routines.
“I have a bit of natural curl in my hair — I just have really frizzy hair,” she says. “I just brush it while it air dries. And put on some dry shampoo and hit that door.”
You could say hair care is in her genes—Mackenzie’s parents founded AG hair products in 1989 and it is, of course, her go-to brand. She also swears by Mun oil for her face, given to her by her makeup artist Munemi Imai. Besides that, she keeps its simple off-screen—unless she makes some unexpected discoveries. “I was actually at a party the other night and went into the host’s bathroom and tried all their products and found a really nice body lotion that I just bought today,” she confesses. (It’s Alba Botanicals.)
As we rifled through racks of clothes and jewelry alongside the crowds in Williamsburg, Mackenzie’s cool and calm demeanor revealed none of the nervousness I might expect of someone with a new series and major film debuting this summer.
She admitted it wasn’t so easy: “I find starting a new project extraordinary nerve-wracking. But hopefully the more I work — I’ll be a little chiller. You just have to keep diving in.”
Here’s my prediction—the more audiences get to see Mackenzie, the more they will want to see her. And I, for one, can’t wait for what’s next.
Click through the slideshow above for more of Mackenzie’s bon-mots—as well as her picks!—from our shopping trip in Williamsburg.
And check out the trailer for "What If" below, due to theatres in August.