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Stories, Weekly Interviews, things to see and footnotes.
Stories, Weekly Interviews, things to see and footnotes.
Stories, Weekly Interviews, things to see and footnotes.

November 30, 2020


Season of Happiness 23 minute read

All clothing Miu Miu
All clothing Miu Miu

‘Happiest Season’ — a Christmas film that centers a lesbian love story — was slated to be the first commercially produced and released LGBTQ film from a major Hollywood studio until the pandemic changed its course to a release on streaming. It’s an instant Christmas classic, and will be a Violet favourite for years to come.

Mackenzie Davis, one of the film’s main protagonists, and Clea DuVall, the film’s director, discuss the fantasy of life, pandemic jogging, the catharsis of comedy, and why this film is the first of its kind.

Photography Mackenzie Davis

CHello. My name is Clea Duvall.
MHi. Mackenzie Davis.

This is the Clea Duvall Show, and today my guest is Mackenzie Davis. Hi Mackenzie.

This isn't a podcast, this will be written down.
I know, but you're wearing enormous earphones, so it feels like ...

I was doing a record for the animated show before.
Oh, cool. God, just an absolute tycoon in Hollywood. It's so great to be around you.

Watch out, world.

Mackenzie, I'm so excited to talk to you today. I heard that you did self portraits for [the] photo shoot for this article. Can you talk me through that a little bit?
I think you're an interesting person to talk to about it, in fact, because it truly destroyed me to be in charge of my own image, even though I thought it would be so pleasurable. I had an absolute undoing in the process of it.

Oh no.
I think part of it was because I'd been doing a lot of photo shoots generally, so there's this obvious conclusion that, "Oh, it'll be so nice." Now I'm the one who holds the ... I want to say clicker, but I imagine it's shutter or something like that.

The remote.
I'm the remote wielder. But it's hard, I don't like being looked at, and I don't like figuring out how I want to be looked at.

I register the same things in you from doing photo shoots together. It's a weird thing that we're both actresses because I guess to a degree, I do really like being looked at, but the parameters are so specific for me.

I don't like being looked at, but I like being seen. Do you know what I mean? I feel like they are two different things.
Yeah. I think it's that.

I think when you’re giving a performance, it's like you are being seen — you, as an artist — that’s being seen and being taken in, hopefully. Best case scenario. 

It's not just surface. Being looked at is a surface. Being seen is internal.
I think that's it.. I don't feel self-conscious on set, I don't feel self-conscious acting, but I do feel really self-conscious performing. 

I feel like getting my photograph taken always feels like performance, where I'm aware of an audience. Even doing a self portrait, I couldn't get the idea of people looking at it out of my mind. I never feel like that on set. I never feel self-conscious about what people are going to think. I'm like, "No, this is what this character would do. This is what Harper would do right now." I'm not wondering if people in the theatre are going to think that she's not ... all of the things that they might think that I've read about recently. 

How do you feel playing a character like Harper, who we're meeting in arguably what is the most difficult five days of her entire life?
I liked it. I think it's always weird to judge something you're playing. It's the absolute first rule that anyone says is don't judge them, but when I first read the script I was kind of judging Harper a bit. I don't feel great about some of the choices she's making, and I didn't understand her. But I think through conversations with you and your extreme empathy for her and her position, I felt like I learned a lot about a thing I just didn't know about. 

So many things that you're not a part of, you learn about them through TV and movies. I was like, "Well, I haven't seen this version of it, so I don't understand it." And that's why you make a bunch of different versions of a thing.
I was heading towards the idea that once I understood her and stopped judging her, and really felt for her, I wanted her to be shitty. She's not thinking about Abby, and that's not nice to watch, and that's not nice to do to Kristen (Stewart) on set, and it's not nice for Kristen or Abby to experience, but ... there's a real survival mechanism within families, and within this family in particular between the girls. But then Harper has a limited supply or bandwidth for empathy, and a lot of it goes to herself in this movie, and that's maybe ... it's hard, but I get it. It's what happens in families where there's a lot of discord.

It's messy and it's human, and it's ... we all like to think that when we're sort of faced with our demons, and faced with our biggest fears, that we're all going to rise up and be superheroes, but that's just not true.
Oh my God.

Sometimes the worst parts of us have to come out so we can access the best parts. I really feel like ... and I have such empathy for that process no matter what anyone is struggling with. I think especially something what Harper is going through, I completely get her. I've been her. I've had people act like that was me. It's really ... the human experience is a mess.

But as long as you come out the other side of it, and you learn and grow, and you're willing to not die on a mountain for the thing that you know is wrong. Some people are so stubborn, but Harper is not like that. 

I think being able to go through something like that and still be loved is a really important thing for people to learn. Fear of rejection is I think what drives a lot of our biggest issues.

Not mine, obviously, because I'm very well adjusted.
Same, 100% fine.

When you were doing the photo shoot for this magazine, I couldn't help but think about when you had to take the pictures for me for the movie.
Mm-hmm. My sexy snaps.

Was it a similar experience, or was that a completely different vibe?
I guess it was. That was a different vibe. I had to send ... sorry, just going to give context to the recording — I had to send some sexy snaps to Clea while we were shooting the movie.

Dirty, dirty photos to get the part.
And she signed off on it, and I got it. I had to send sexts to Kristen's character at some point in the movie that are very tame, but —

It's a family film.
It's a family film. 

It was kind of, it was light, but there was still an audience involved that wasn't the person that you're taking them for. I wasn't taking them to turn Kristen on, I was taking them to turn you on — and that's why you're such a good director.

No, I was taking them knowing that they were ... again, I thought about the audience there in a way that I don't think about it where I'm like, "Oh, these are going to be shown in a movie, and everybody's going to see them." It's going to be like, this is what I think is sexy instead of really doing what I think is sexy, which is probably way sexier.

Mackenzie, honestly, I think you could release that photo at any time and it would be very well received.
Perfect, great. There's going to be a drop of quarantine shots coming later this year.

Do you have any desire ... I know that we've had this conversation before sort of in passing, but I don't know, I feel like this year has been so insane that I think a lot —  at least for me — a lot of things that I don't really think about anymore. My perception has changed. But do you have any desire to be behind the camera?
I do, very much.

I think the slow road towards that is slower and longer than I wish it was. Not even in terms of a project that I've written that I'm trying to push uphill, but just making a thing, actually creating the thing to start pushing uphill. I'm such a procrastinator, and that's really tough if you want to make a film.

But I do like deadlines. As long as I have somebody on board that's asking me where a thing is, then I feel great; but if I'm left to my own devices, I can really ... I don't know. I was thinking the other day, because I was reading an article with Beyonce where Edward Enninful asked her, "Do you feel like this year changed you and you grew?" And she's like, "Anyone who didn't grow in the pandemic, it would be a lie. How could you not be affected by this?" And I was like, "I don't know if I grew." 

I know I experienced a lot of things. I don't feel wildly different from the before to the after, and it feels like that's some sort of a failing or something. The circumstances of my life have changed, but yeah, I'm still very much the same. I'm not treating every second of the day like it's the very last one that I need to activate in. I love to just...

Do you think that's the only thing that marks change is if you are constantly displaying and performing your change?

Oh, Mackenzie. I think it's huge what you've done this year. Just in talking to you, and obviously I won't pull from personal conversations we've had, but I think moving to another country is a really big deal. I guess you did move from Canada to the United States, but that's not —
Nobody gives a shit.

Yeah. Who among us hasn't?
Yeah, I bring it up all the time. People are not ...

I've moved to and from Canada more times than I can count.
Yeah. It's great for a while.

What has the transition been like for you? Do you feel now like you live there, or does it still feel like you're visiting?
It feels a bit like I'm visiting. 

We went into lockdown in November, so I feel like I got here and was super ... felt like I'm home. I did it. I did a scary thing, but I feel really good about this decision. 

I think fantasy is such an important part of life, and being able to feel like you're living a fantasy that you had. It's like a landing strip or something for any major transition in your life is to live in the realm of fantasy for a while where you don't really have to touch your feet on the ground. You get to live in the movie version of your life before things become real.

Pandemic and lockdown does make it harder to do that. Still enjoying my newfound jogging habit, but other than that, it's been really hard to feel at one with the city. But I have lovely friends here, and I see ... I feel good about it. It's just there's a pandemic, Clea. 

There's one person who I work with in a professional capacity — and I'm not going to say who it is — but every single conversation always comes down to the pandemic, and explaining how hard everything is because of the pandemic. Every time it's like it's a new idea, and I just want to be like, "Yeah, I'm aware of the pandemic. We're all well aware of the pandemic."
I kind of wish ... it sounds annoying, I don't want to be reminded of it all the time, but I kind of feel like people don't use it enough for the most part. I feel like they'll use a minor economic depression more than the pandemic to explain why life is difficult in this current moment.

Yeah. I think in some ways human beings are very adaptable. I think it's two things - human beings are very adaptable where it's just like, "Okay, this is reality now and this is what we're doing." But I think the other part of it is, which I think is probably more true, is in the beginning when everything was unknown, everyone was so scared and making enormous adjustments to their lives. But now, even though the virus is raging out of control worse than ever before, people are acting like it's normal, and I think that's a problem and probably contributing to why it's raging out of control.
I think it might be a part of it, yeah.

Denial. Maybe that's what humans have more of a capacity for.
I know. It feels so tied to our relationship to climate change. I always rail on this, but reduce, reuse, recycle. 

They're not all equal, they're tiers of activity. They're tiers of problem solving. Reduce the waste you use. If you're going to create waste, reuse it. At the worst possible scenario, recycle the waste that you create. And everybody is just hooked on recycling because it creates the least disturbance to their daily life. It's funny to say this because so many people are resistant to wearing masks, but I feel like in general, mask wearing has become the ‘recycle’ of the pandemic where it's like, "No, no, you actually have to." But there's also a huge mental toll to what's going on, and I'm feeling it.

Yeah. It's difficult for everybody. I don't want to minimise anybody's experience. 

But okay, let's talk about the movie. Enough about you, let's talk about how you feel about me. When we first met, what were your impressions of the script, and more importantly, me?
Yeah. I already liked the script, so that wasn't part of my first impression because I had read it a month before and thought it was so funny. I remember at the time they were like, "Kristen's playing one of the girls. She doesn't know which one yet." And that confused me because I was like, "It feels like she'd she'd have a stronger impulse towards one of them."

That's also not ... she was always Abby.
No, I think people just tell garbage to actors.

We need to get to the bottom of where that information came from and correct it.
I'll name names on the record. But then when I actually met you ... well, I remember I ate a burrito in my car before from a great place around the corner from my house that I do miss. I don't know, it's weird meeting people that you're a fan of. I'd watched you as an actor, I loved your work, and then you were just sort of nervous and nice, and a little ... I don't know. I remember you having a nervous energy, and I was like, "Oh, cool." It's cool to meet somebody who ... I like people that have a nervous energy. Not around me, but around things matter to them, and that they're excited about approaching things that feel meaningful.

I don't know, you just made me laugh so much, which has held true since that day. I just remember having the funnest meeting with you, and the takeaway was ... I think I told you I had to just go home and think about it, and I worked a lot last year so I wanted to figure it out with my boyfriend if it made sense to to immediately go away again. You were like, "No, just do it," and I did. It was good advice.

I'm so glad you did. I was nervous because I was just like, "She's the only one. She's the only one." But it worked out. Was there anything you were apprehensive about, about signing on to the film?
Yeah, I was apprehensive about the appropriateness of playing a gay woman when you're not gay. It's something I hadn't given thought to in the past, but I think culture has moved so rapidly in the last five years that that has to be at least a conversation with every role that you take on. Are you the right person to do this? Is there somebody better? Are you encroaching on somebody else's story? We talked about that at the time, and yeah, I don't think there's any hard and fast rule that no one can or everyone can, but rather, are you having sensitive conversations about these things that feel honest, and that have space to make you feel uncomfortable while you have the conversation? And then make the decision from there.

Was there anything  —leading up to any scenes, or any elements of the experience — that really surprised you? That you either liked more than you thought you would, or thought you would like more than you did? Other than me, of course.
I was amazed, especially having been attached for a year by the time we started shooting, and knowing the script so well, and knowing different versions of the script, just how much the cast elevated every scene that I already loved. I felt like every day on set I just couldn't believe what I was seeing. Words and lines that I've heard in my head that Mary Steenburgen or Victor (Garber) or Mary Holland would say, when I actually heard them in their voices I was like, "Oh, that's how you act. Not in your brain, but that's it. That's the best thing I've ever seen." 

So yeah, I felt like every day I was learning how to make things that you already love better.

Had you ever worked on something that was comedic, or as comedic as this? Obviously, it wasn't all comedic...
I think a little bit. I did a romantic comedy when I was younger. I'm trying to think of something else. I feel like I've been in comedies, but not been required to be funny. And sort of the same in this, where it's like I'm sort of the straight woman. Not really, I don't know what I am in this movie, but it's not my job to bring the yuks, it's somebody else's. So I've always been asked this amount of funny.

Do you like being on more comedic sets?
Yeah, it's the best. I never want to make another movie that's not a comedy. It's the funnest thing in the world. How would you go back to making a drama? Are you doing that this winter?

Yeah. I don't know exactly when yet, I just got a script yesterday.
I'm going to be there forever.

I love that. It's the best.

Veep was the first straight-up comedy set I had been on since I was a teenager and it was so much fun. Then, going into more dramatic stuff, it’s jarring. It's a completely different job almost.
Depending on what your storyline is, it really wears on you and your quality of life in a weird way, which you don't think while doing it, because you get so much nice emotional feedback and nourishment from doing work that's challenging. It is cathartic and all of that, but there's nothing like doing a comedy.

I love it. What was your favourite scene to film in the movie?
I love the fight scene with Sloane just because it was great to scrap with Alison (Brie). I have a question —

For that scene, there was something so special happening when we were filming. I just could have watched you guys do it all night.
Yeah, I remember we did it a tonne, but it was so fun every time.

Yeah, and you guys never ... your energy was at the same level the entire time. I don't know how you did it. You guys must have been exhausted, but every single time it was electric. Loved it.
I love Alison (Brie) and Mary (Steenburgen) so much. I think they're so ... not to have a circle jerk here, but it's so ... the casting is so important. 

Casting personalities as well as casting people for the role, but casting personalities in a group, and compiling the right dynamic on set. Because you can have a really talented actor that you absolutely despise and they don't motivate you at all because you don't like how they work, or how they treat people, or however it is, even though you respect that they are ultimately talented and good at their job.

But being around Mary and Alison, and then everybody else in the cast, it really does do something to you that's so positive, and has such an effect on everyone on set.

I have a question for you...

I just want to talk about all the questions we've had about how excited we must be to be a part of the first queer studio-backed Christmas rom com. I find it really funny because — not funny, but strange — because I am so excited, yet the movie also feels so overdue. 

I had somebody ask me in an interview the other day if I could have imagined a movie like this existing when I was in high school, and I was like, "Yes, easily. It would have been right at home. It would have been great." 

It would have pushed conversations that we weren't having in high school, and could have had a really positive impact on the rampant homophobia that happens in every high school, and definitely was there in mine. But culturally, we were ready for this sort of a thing.

I'm so proud to be a part of this movie, and I'm so happy it exists, but I'm also kind of dismayed that it's the first one. I'm curious what you think. Do you feel like it's overdue, or if you're like, "No, I think this is the moment that it could have happened."

I do feel like it's overdue, and it does seem like it must be incorrect that this hasn't happened before, but it hasn't. I don't know. I try not to focus on how long it took for it to happen, and focus more on what ... that it now has happened, and what that means moving forward, because this story is just a sliver of the LGBTQ+ experience. It's one experience, and I think what's so incredible about our community is how diverse we are, and how many different stories there are out there.

For every person in the community, there's a new, unique story, and I think for me,  just as an audience, it’s why the success or failure of this movie was so important to me, because it was the first studio-backed movie. And I did feel the pressure of ‘we have to get this right’ because if we do, it will make studios feel more bold.

Even though this movie is so commercial and has such a wide appeal, the point is being able to make a story that tell a story from a different perspective, and still have it be accessible to audiences. 
But when you said just now, "appealing to audiences," it's so strange because we always assumed that audiences are exclusively hetero and white, or hetero, white, and male-interest leaning, because those are the demographics that they study closest, and the majority of the movie-going audience, I guess.

I don't know.
But it's more that the audiences are diverse, but we've all sort of absorbed the perspective of a hetero, male, white gaze because those are the only movies we've been watching for so long. So there is such an audience for this. The idea that we're trying to appeal to a hypothetical audience that would be scared by this— I feel like the stats don't support that. But we've all been inculcated to this very specific viewpoint where movies feel and look like this, and this is how it looks to be a woman on screen, and this is how it looks to be a man on screen, and this is what sexy is. Anyways, it's just ...

I think it's more ... it's not like we need to learn that lesson, I think it’s that Hollywood has this ... it's an old institution. I think it's more that things have been done in one way for such a long time. There's this one lens that we've been looking through that has controlled what we’re seeing for such a long time. I think in the last five, ten years ... I don't know, maybe it's streaming, maybe it's premium cable, it's sort of the merging of ... or removing the lines between film and TV and streaming and all that stuff, so that it’s all just storytelling. I think that's when it's like, "Oh yeah, there are audiences who do want to watch things from a different perspective."

So I don't think it needs to be a thing of blame or negativity. Now I just feel so excited as a filmmaker, as an audience member, that the stories we have access to are so broad, and it feels that the value that that holds is just getting bigger and bigger. I think it's a very exciting time to just be a person working in this business. You know what I mean?
I know what you mean. I'm glad you're a person working in this business, and that you're-

I just want to make more things! More things with you, specifically. Ok, so I've got an idea for you: she's working on a spaceship...
Yeah, killer, done.

She's on a spaceship, but she can't get a date.
Okay, finish.

Space state.
Space states, yep.

That's all I have right now, space states swipe left. Swipe into space. I don't know.
I actually think you're there. I don't think you need to move any more forward with it. I think that's the pitch.

We have it, we can take it. The pitch is in the article — maybe the title of the article can be like, "The Next Big Thing from Mackenzie Davis and Clea Duvall: Space State."
Swipe left. Cute. You hear that, Violet?

Now Mackenzie, you have such a diverse portfolio of work. You are a chameleon. What's your process when taking on roles? How do you choose your roles, you know what I'm saying? Like, space state...
I don't know. I like the idea of a strong, powerful woman all alone in space making herself vulnerable and being like, "Yeah, I want to be with somebody. So what?"

That was the one thing I missed about Gravity — there was no dating.
I know. There was the whisper of it in the beginning, and then George Clooney was like, "Not for me."

And then George is gone — what?
Yeah, and with such a good attitude.

I didn't really love that movie.
I did.

No, but for reals ... is it instinctive? Do you have a checklist, or what do you look for when you get sent a script? When you crack it open, what is the thing that you're —
I think it changes all the time. It kind of feels like dating, where a lot of the times you're reacting to the last relationship you were in. Honestly, with Happiest Season, I got the script when I got home from shooting Terminator. I was so tired. I had a wonderful time, but had lived out of the country for nine months at that point, and just so buff and tired, and had just been eating kind of dodgy Hungarian meat for a long time. Actually, no, Hungarian meat isn't dodgy. The stuff I was eating I wasn't crazy about.

So it's kind of a bad way of building a career, to be honest, because a lot of times I'm like, "Oh, you made that," not with this movie obviously, but I make decisions based on a weird experience, or an ex-boyfriend sort of a thing. Then you're in the new experience and you're like, "Oh, well, you're not ... on your own, you don't actually hold that much weight. It's just you weren't that thing."

For a long time it was like I wanted to do what was different ... just do the opposite thing to the last thing I did, and work with really good people. I still want to work with really good people. The idea of constantly switching it up doesn't maybe feel like the guiding light anymore. Or character, I never really focused on character, I focused on story. I regret that sometimes that I've chosen things because of the story we're putting into the world instead of my personal character's story.

I think leading with story — if you don't have that, then what's the point? If you're playing a great character in a movie that's not saying something, or not adding something that we need to the mosaic of our world, then what are we doing?
For sure. I just like thinking about how I am failing in some way, and that's the latest answer.

From the outside it doesn't ever feel that way because I don't think that you could give a performance that was not authentic, and create a character that didn't have multiple layers. You are just an extraordinary talent, and I'm really just a huge fan.

It's really weird, though, because now I feel like I had this experience with you, and now I just know you socially so well that now I've sort of disconnected you from the actor you that I knew before.

And I've spent so much time with you in this world, in this movie, that there was something ... oh, we were looking on TV for something to watch, and Halt and Catch Fire came up and I was like, "It's Mackenzie!". Even though I've watched the show, it was like a completely new discovery of this new ... you have been humanised, and you're not just this genius. This gorgeous genius.
Well, I hate to lose that, but you know...

You're so much more than that. Do you have any Christmas traditions? Do you and your family have any traditions, or have you had any personal traditions? What's your favourite Christmas movie?

Do you have a Christmas song?
Yeah, do you know what it is? It's this Mariah Carey song.

Carey. She was big in the 90s, kind of had a reality show in the 2000s. No, late 2000s.

Let me write that down.
It's called All I Want for Christmas, it's great. It modernises Christmas. I think we lived in the past for a long time, but she brings it into the 20th. And now that we've been listening to it for so long, 21st Century. And I really think you'll like it.

Have you listened to the [Happiest Season] soundtrack, or any of the songs from it?
I haven't listened to the whole soundtrack, but the songs I have heard I love so goddamn much. I texted you about it. The song from the trailer—

Oh, yeah, the T&S 
—is insane. Who does Blame It on Christmas?

Shea. I was just going to say, Shea Diamond.
Best song.

Isn't it? 
I think it's ...I genuinely could stop recording right now and I would have the same conversation with you. I love the fucking music in this movie. It's so good.

She has a song on the soundtrack, too, that I also really love, and wanted to put in the movie, but there was just no place for it. But I am just obsessed with her. I think she is so talented, and her voice just goes straight into my heart.
Can I say I was not familiar with her? At first I thought it was Shea Coulee just because of the name and because Jinkx Monsoon is in the movie.

I wasn't familiar with her either, and then Justin Tranter, who's the producer of the record, just sent me a bunch of songs, the first batch of songs, and when I heard that Blame It on Christmas I was just like, "What's happening?"
I think it's incredible.

And the spot where it is in the film, I maybe went through like 75 different songs for that spot. Nothing was right.
Where is it in the film?

It's when Kristen is eating alone.
Oh yeah, when I'm going to the wine store?

At the restaurant. No.
Oh, the night that I go out?

You're at Carolyn's party.
Like who cares? Who cares where Harper is right now? It sounds so boring. Abby is having such a great night.

Harper doesn't want to go to the dinner. It wasn't her idea.
No, I know. I'm not being hard on you and your invention of her, I'm just like, "Yeah, Abby, you sidestepped a nightmare situation."

I have an important question.

Can you talk a little bit about your work with One Girl Can
Yeah, I can. It is an incredible organisation that my mother started 12 years ago, and I help wherever I can. It's a really sort of a community-driven girls’ education fund that both supports financially and emotionally. Girls who might not have the opportunity to pursue high school or university education. We partner with schools, and they provide a list of girls who they think would be good for a scholarship ... applicants for scholarships through One Girl Can, and if the girls achieve, are diligent with their grades, and maintain a grade point average, then we provide a full scholarship for boarding school, for university, and we'll pay for them to ... if they take internships after university, give them a living wage so that they don't have to make a decision between obtaining practicable skills in the industry that they want to work in and surviving.

Yeah, it's really amazing. I think they do incredible work, and I really respect the effort and attention to it not being a Western-led initiative, even though it is born in Canada, and operates out of Canada. There's a Board of Directors in Kenya, the director of the whole programme, this woman, Irene Muinde is incredible, and she goes to all the schools. It all comes from a very Kenyan perspective, which I think is one of the most important things if you're running any sort of an NGO. Not to come in with outside ideas of how things should happen, but to listen to people and ask them how they would like them to happen.

That's awesome.
Well, Clea.

Mackenzie, is there anything else that you would like to talk about?
No. I love you. Thank you for doing this.

I love you too. Anytime, I love talking to you. Although I find interviews with people who I know very well are a little disarming in a way that I'm always just like, "Maybe I said too much.

No, not at all. Wish you said more. Can't wait to turn this microphone off so you can tell me whatever your thoughts are about the things that you don't want to mention. Okay, I'm turning it off.

You know, secretly keep recording...


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