How Mackenzie Davis Found Her Inner Terminator

In Terminator: Dark Fate, the sixth film in the sci-fi action franchise but the first in years to bill itself as a direct follow-up to 1991’s classic Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Mackenzie Davis plays Grace, a soldier from the future who is both human and not. Enhanced and essentially held together by cybernetic technology, she has the same relentless sense of purpose that has driven the often more malevolent title cyborgs in this long-running mythology.

But Grace does have a considerable amount of humanity and vulnerability left in her as well. It’s that empathy that connects her irrevocably to Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), the young woman she has been sent back to protect for reasons that are both familiar and new to longtime Terminator fans. And it inevitably leads her into at first conflict and then collaboration with Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), the original heroine of the Terminator saga who has now become a sort of killing machine herself.

For Davis, Terminator: Dark Fate represents a first-time leap into a kind of big, blockbuster-style action-driven filmmaking in which she has not participated in the past (her previous foray into sci-fi was a small role in the more cerebral Blade Runner 2049). Best known for striking turns in indie fare like Tully or her starring role in the acclaimed series Halt and Catch Fire, she gets the rare opportunity to create a wholly new character in director Tim Miller’s new Terminator epic—and succeeds effortlessly.

Natalia Reyes, Mackenzie Davis, Linda Hamilton in Terminator: Dark FateParamount Pictures

Davis has a few other films coming up (like the horror entry The Turning and Jon Stewart’s political satire Irresistible), but she’ll also return to both TV and a post-apocalyptic landscape next year in HBO’s Station Eleven, about a theater troupe performing in the aftermath of a pandemic. For now, however, she spoke to Nerdist about the future that is prophesied in Terminator: Dark Fate, which takes a few left turns itself from what has come before.

You have done a lot of different projects but this is your first full-on big action movie. Was this something you were interested in exploring?

Mackenzie Davis: I didn’t have any designs on it before the opportunity kind of arose. I wasn’t like, “And next it’s action.” But when I met with Tim, and I was going through the audition process, and I went to Tim’s studio—he has his visual design company Blur—and he ran me through all of the sort of stunts and pre-visualizations for my character. And it was so foreign and odd to me that this man thought I would be a suitable person to and inhabit this role that I… it just felt like, what a strange turn of events. I got really competitive and really wanted to do it because I just couldn’t believe that he would, would think that I was suited.

And then once you got into it, how much did you push yourself physically in terms of training?

I think once you decide, you kind of have to do with the absolute most you can possibly do. I mean, I know when I started training I was shooting another movie, and we started doing four days a week. It was three months before we started shooting. And they were like, “Alicia Vikander started six months before Tomb Raider. We’re already so late.” And I was like, “I’ll show you what’s too late.” And so yeah, I had this real feeling of urgency, and I was already sort of behind the clock. So we went really hard once we started. I finished that movie and then it was six days a week until the end of production.

Do you feel different, even a year after finishing shooting? 

I’ve kept it up a bit. It was coupled with such a lack of sleep. I mean, my makeup took two or three hours every day, and then I worked out in the morning. So I just started about four, four and a half hours earlier than anybody else, which part of that time was sitting in a chair and watching a movie while my makeup got done. But I was just so tired by the end of it that I didn’t feel healthy in the way that I think you’re supposed to feel. Because it was just sort of running something to the end. It’s like exam period or something, and then you get sick right afterwards because you just allotted this amount of energy for this thing.

But I still use weights. I feel really comfortable in a gym, and I feel like I don’t need a trainer or anything anymore. I can just go to the gym by myself and train myself. And yeah, I am essentially lazy. So I think unlike some of those people, it didn’t turn a switch in me that I’ll never go back from, but it’s definitely changed my behavior.

Mackenzie Davis and Natalia ReyesParamount Pictures

Did you lean into that combination of strength and exhaustion in the character herself? 

Yeah. I mean, Tim would always be like, “Stop making it look like it’s hard. Grace is a super soldier, this isn’t hard for her.” And I was like, “But isn’t it cooler that it’s hard and she can still do it?” I mean, throwing a rebar with this accuracy on the back of a moving truck is so impressive. It doesn’t also need to be nothing for her. So I don’t know, maybe that was just a reflection of my own exhaustion, but I think, like anything, it’s nice seeing people do amazing things, but they have to get through something in order to do it. People are brave when they’re scared, not when they’re not scared of anything.

What was the way into her for you when you read the script? 

I don’t know. You do so many interviews and I still don’t have a good answer. I don’t know. It felt really physical to me at first. A lot of the adjustments were just making her different from me. I’m not a really erect person. I just wanted her to feel military and like her body was an essential part of her survival and other’s survival. So it kind of started from the outside in, in a way that I don’t normally have that experience.

But a lot of things happened organically from that point. You build a really strong back and big muscles, or big shoulders. You take up a different amount of space and you hold your arms differently out from your body, and all of these things become consequential to this initial change. And then I don’t know how people make characters. I know some actors have such good answers for this stuff but I don’t really know.

Is it always just intuitive for you, the way you create characters in general?

I think so. It’s just parts of yourself. I don’t create something that’s totally other than me. I try and make it make sense for me, and then in the parts that are different, try and understand them in the context of my knowledge and the things that I’ve read and the world that I’ve experienced. 

It’s really such a linear process of just walking around and reading and thinking and then getting really anxious, and then walking around and thinking again. For this, especially, I had months to think about it before we started where I was exercising all the time and really thinking about who this person was.

Mackenzie Davis and Linda Hamilton in Terminator: Dark FateParamount Pictures

You and Natalia and Linda have a great dynamic onscreen. I read an interview with Tim in which the bond between the three of you even had an effect on Linda’s portrayal of Sarah Connor.

Yeah, I mean, I think we really just fell in love with each other quite quickly, and really were in it together. It was a hard movie to make and we were really, not supportive in the sense of being cheerleaders for the other person, but just going through the muck and the shit together. And then if one person falls behind you’re like, “Okay, I got it today, I’ll be strong today.” And just having that sort of rotating triangle of support between us.

But as far as it changing the dynamic, I mean, I think the only thing I can think of that that was different, that changed, was a lot more animosity between Sarah and Grace prior to filming than what ended up being, and I think that just happens with every movie, really, is you have an idea and then you cast people and then you start being like, “Okay, well, so why does this make sense? Why do they feel this way about each other?”

You’d try and find an answer to every question and if you can’t, then you’re like, “Okay, well that’s not as relevant as it used to be. When it was an idea it was relevant, but now that it’s flesh and blood, maybe it doesn’t fit as well into this thing.” And so just trying to make it make sense to us and feel true and authentic, you cut out the things that don’t fit that world.

The words “strong female character” get thrown around a lot, and I think at one point in Hollywood that meant, “Oh, she picks up a gun and she acts tough. That’s your strong female character.” What does that mean today as we’ve hopefully come a lot further?

I guess I always considered it just somebody who had agency and activity in the storyline, and that a strong female character is essential to their own destiny and is not merely having things happen to them and upon them but is making choices and experiencing the consequences of those choices.

I think it does get rendered into this sort of hyper masculine, “she’s a man but she has a vagina, that’s a strong female character.” Just these things that are rendered in the image of a traditionally masculine ideal of an action movie hero, but it’s a woman. I think that doesn’t feel super cool or progressive to me. That feels like an old idea. I think the idea of somebody being able to retain themselves and not have to transform it into an older version of strength is much more progressive. And I think we have that in our movie. I think the women are still themselves, and they have a feminine strength and they also have a masculine strength and they have a feminine way of relating, but they contain both things without having to become this one thing.

For Grace—she and I are very androgynous looking and she’s got a short haircut, and she looks very much like maybe an old model of a strong female character. But she’s a human woman who’s allowed to relate to Sarah and Natalia with a female point of view, whatever that may be. It doesn’t feel like it’s been cast in the image of a man, and I think that is cool. She is not unique, but she has her own self. She’s not a mold that’s been produced, I think. 

For Sarah, she’s the original but it still doesn’t feel dated. What’s so amazing about watching Terminator 2, still, is that Terminator 1 you can feel that it’s from another era. Still a great movie, feels like another era. Terminator 2, for the most part, still feels pressing and urgent, and also where this woman came from and her evolution… she feels completely, authentically the first of a kind or something, and maybe iterations after her became a replicating trope, but she feels authentically herself.

Terminator: Dark Fate CastParamount Pictures

What did Tim bring to the table in terms of the kind of direction he gave you? What do you look for, in general, from your director?

Well, first question. Tim is so essentially sensitive. It’s such a big part of himself, his sensitivity to the world. I mean, he cries very easily but he’s also just sensitive to the moods and behaviors and sort of experiences of people around him. It’s such a lovely quality, and it makes him such a collaborative person to work with. It also let him make this really masculine movie that never feels gazey on the women characters. It feels like they exist in a place without being filtered through somebody else’s lens, which I think is an enormous achievement. And I know some of it was intentional, and I’m sure some of it is just a product of this person who viewed them as really interesting characters and not as strong female characters and not as not men.

And then what I look for directors, I think I just love people that have a strong point of view. I think people who know exactly what they’re doing and why, and are still open to collaboration and discovery. But I don’t know, it’s hard to find people with a unique and strong point of view, and I value that in everybody in my life. But in directors it’s, I think, quite rare.

You’re doing Station Eleven, which is a very different kind of post-apocalyptic story. In terms of the difference between that and Terminator, what strikes you the most?

I mean, their whole M.O. for that series is—I hope this isn’t spoiling anything, but anything that is part of the genre or the trope of what a post-apocalypse looks like, they want to go the other way. And they just have such a beautiful vision. I mean, Patrick and Hiro are dream collaborators. I cannot believe I get to be on the show with them. I think they’re so smart and there’s such a strong point of view, and also they’ve just thought about everything, and the world they want to create and why.

And it’s a really beautiful argument. I mean, the Terminator version of the future and the post apocalypse is—I struggle to understand why people still want to be alive because it’s so horrible. Maybe I’m just a nihilist, but I’m like, maybe we’ve passed our due date and humans no longer really have a reason, if it’s this. And in Station Eleven, I think there’s such a beautiful argument for art and connection, and for art and performance connecting people, even if the audience is so small. I don’t know. It’s just such a moving story and what they’ve done with it is… I’m so excited to do it.

Header Image: Paramount Pictures

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