The Sundance Kid
After one “rehearsal” at Sundance, actress Mackenzie Davis, BA’10, takes center stage
by Jennifer Nault
Mackenzie Davis’s second trip to the Sundance Film Festival proved to be far more eventful than her first foray. The young actress attended the influential Utah-based festival last year for a small role in the movie Smashed. Davis says she only played, “the stock character of ‘girl in bar,’” in that film, but her work in Breathe In, a new movie that made its debut at Sundance, has put Davis firmly on the radar of the film industry’s movers and shakers. Both Variety and the Wall Street Journal took special notice of her performance.
In Breathe In, Davis’s character finds herself competing for her boyfriend and father’s attention. “I’m unseated in my own house when this charming pixie of a foreign exchange student from England moves in.”
Davis plays the daughter of a couple (played by Guy Pearce and Amy Ryan), whose marriage is threatened by the arrival of the exchange student (played by Felicity Jones), who begins to exert subtle power over the family – especially the men in her path. “At first glance, we’re this perfect little golden, wealthy family. Then this girl comes in and uproots everything. She’s this wild ingredient that gets thrown in and exposes all the cracks in the family,” Davis told Variety.
Speaking to McGill News from Los Angeles, the recent McGill alumna is almost prematurely wistful about her time in Montreal: “I love coming back to Montreal – it would be a dream to shoot a film there.”
And although Montreal was home to Davis during her initial three years at McGill, she completed her last credits through correspondence while attending acting school and pursuing her dream in New York City. She made the move upon the advice of her Montreal acting coach, a graduate of Manhattan-based Neighborhood Playhouse. Davis trained in the Meisner Technique, a method that focuses on improvisation and getting beyond the words of the script to access emotions.
“Getting beyond the words” would not describe Davis’s student days at McGill. Indeed, she was fully engrossed in words while studying English literature. She fondly recalls Professor Brian Trehearne, a three-time winner of the Department of English’s Louis Dudek Award for Excellence in Teaching. “Most of the books we covered in his class remain my favourites to this day.” She recounts, “I would spend all day and night in the library studying with friends. Looking back at it now, I realize it was a luxurious amount of time to spend learning. I miss it.”
Davis wishes some aspects of her student days would carry over into her profession. “I miss having a ‘taskmaster’ – someone, usually a professor, who sets the schedule and gives feedback and who you want to impress and answer to. You don’t always get that in acting, so now it’s left up to me. I find I’m constantly seeking a through line that is completely self-generative.”
She honed her reading skills at McGill. “I am an analytical reader, and yet I take a different approach when it comes to acting. In playing a character, as opposed to reading a character, there is no imposing of authorship – in fact, I find that I pull from a very emotional side of myself.”
“Later, when I’m talking to the press, it seems that they expect me to speak analytically about my role and the film itself. I can’t do that yet. It may be a reflex I develop after the film has been produced, but I don’t want to go there until I am completely finished the film and have left the character behind. It takes me a while, because I’m still viewing my character from a very emotional standpoint.”
Davis has a growing roster of characters tagging along the emotional ride to stardom. She recently finished shooting an ensemble comedy Are We Officially Dating? with costars Zac Efron and Michael B. Jordan. Jordan, is scheduled to work again with Davis in a film being shot this summer, Kitchen Sink, a zombie-vampire-alien hybrid.
Breathe In was largely improvised – for an actress like Davis, the role was an ideal opportunity to put her improvisational training to practice. She also found herself working with actors – Pearce (an Emmy winner) and Ryan (an Oscar nominee in 2008) – she’d always looked up to. “They were these amazing, grounded actors with no ego – they just love their work. On the set, they immediately made me feel part of the film. There was no sense of hierarchy.”
The recognition is still sinking in for Davis. “I developed an attitude that I just never thought I would get the part, which was actually helpful, because I wouldn’t go in nervous. Now, I feel like I’ve been anointed by the director [Drake Doremus]. All of a sudden you get to read really great scripts and are actually invited to auditions.”
Retaining a healthy dose of educated skepticism and a keen retention of McLuhanesque theory, she observes, “It feels like all of a sudden people are allowed to pay attention to you – buzz is created, and that buzz creates you.”