Three years ago, Mackenzie Davis was an unknown actress planning to leave her New York life behind for a crack at L.A.’s audition circuit. Then, just before her departure date, the director Drake Doremus cast Davis in his stormy family drama, Breathe In, opposite Guy Pearce, Amy Ryan, and Felicity Jones. Needless to say, it was a game changer. The 27-year-old Vancouver native still moved to L.A., but now she had an agent and interest among casting directors was high. Davis soon landed roles in rapid-fire succession, opposite Zac Efron in That Awkward Moment, in the upcoming horror comedy The Kitchen Sink, and as one of the stars of the AMC tech drama Halt and Catch Fire. Davis’ latest role is a supporting turn in the refreshing romantic comedy What If, where she stars opposite Adam Driver as a gaga couple who are the more free spirited counterparts to the film’s central couple, played by Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan. We spoke to Davis last week about the movie, smoking a bunch of cigarettes in row, and that horrible stench you get from dissolving meat.
What did you initially like about the script?
I thought it was very funny. Everybody felt quite real to me. I laughed a lot when I read it—that’s a good barometer, I think, if something’s good.
Do you think you’re similar to your character?
I think I give very good advice like she does. She does give good advice, it just sounds bad when it comes out of her mouth. But it’s good. It’s very go-follow-your-dreams.
How was Toronto to shoot in?
It’s really pretty. It’s on a lake. I actually have family in Toronto, so I’ve visited there many times but I never actually got to the beach area where we shot a bunch. And on all my days off we’d go to this island in the middle of Lake Ontario. I know they’re called Great Lakes, but they’re fucking enormous. Like, it really feels like you’re on the ocean. That’s a side of Toronto that I just hadn’t been to since my family lives deep in the suburbs. So yeah, it was really a lovely place to spend a couple of weeks.
So you mostly went to the beach in your time off?
Well I’d shoot my stuff in a condensed period of time and I had a couple of friends in Toronto, so I’d just go and meet them for dinner and drinks.
Tell me about the cigarette scene. That looked difficult.
Well, the way that El wrote it in the script was that he wrote a trick that I don’t think he’s ever seen a human do. But I was intent on mastering it even though I quit smoking. I was just like, “Well, I’m going to learn.” And I just spent so much time mastering this trick and then in the end they were just like, “It’s fine. Just smoke three cigarettes at once.” And I was like, “I just spent all this time.” But I don’t think a real human can do it.
What was it originally?
It was like having the three cigarettes in your mouth and them all lit and having to inhale each one in a row. But it takes so much precision and coordination that I just couldn’t muster in the three or whatever weeks that I had to learn it.
What was working with Adam Driver like? I think people are very intrigued as to what he’s like in real life because his characters are usually very polarizing.
Yeah, and he’s really brash on Girls. I kind of thought he had some part of that when I met him, and he’s not at all. He was very tall when I met him and he just seemed like very small and shy and polite, and he’s very gentle and lovely and not at all like Adam on Girls, which is funny because he’s so good at that that you’d think there’s no chance that it’s not just him being himself, but its actually that he’s just a really good actor.
So I came across the interview of you speaking about using road kill for arts and crafts. I saw some similar stuff in Florida recently—people making jewelry and lamps out of what was left of these animals. What did you make exactly?
I don’t actually use road kill actually, that was just something I was trying to do, but then I couldn’t find a way to dissolve the meat. But I did learn a lot about dissolving meat.
Well, you can buy these beetles online that eat off the carcass and you just have them in a terrarium, or you can dissolve it in bleach, or you can do a hot water thing. In all scenarios, it becomes this horrific smell—even with the beetles that eat the meat off of the bones. The gases that they release as they’re digesting is just rancid. I mean, it’s really just rotting carcasses in your house.
When did you know you wanted to act?
Since I was born. I never wanted to do anything else. I wish I had all these different lives but, I’ve only started acting professionally fairly recently, but I’ve done plays my entire life. I almost moved to New York to go to theater school right after high school but my parents thought it would be a good idea for me to get my degree first, which I’m so happy I did.