Madness can be very difficult to portray – especially considering how much of acting is based on grounding characters and emotions in reality. Madness, though, is the exact opposite. It’s unhinged and foreign, constantly running counter to what’s authentically occurring on the screen. This becomes especially tricky when the lead character is the one slowly losing their mind. How do you depict a character slowly going insane, while at the same time always keeping the audience in that character’s mindset? This is the tricky balancing act Mackenzie Davis navigates in The Turning – both sympathetic heroine and a potentially psychotic threat. It’s a testament to Mackenzie’s warm and sympathetic portrayal that these dualities feel of one piece. There’s never a moment in The Turning where you aren’t on Davis’s side – even when the film itself goes down the proverbial ‘rabbit hole.’
In The Turning, Davis stars as Kate – a governess hired to take care of two orphaned children at their vast estate. It soon becomes clear to Kate, though, that children are in mortal danger from the unhinged spirits haunting the house… Or are they? Is it the ghosts or Kate herself who are the actual threat?
In the following interview with Davis, she reveals why she hates watching herself on screen, her research process into mental illnesses, and how she’s a ‘reactive actor.’ In addition, Davis discusses her upcoming role in Jon Stewart’s Irresistible. For the full interview, read below.
Collider: What was it about The Turning that appealed to you?
MACKENZIE DAVIS: I was a fan of the novella. I read it at university and loved it. And I got [director] Floria [Sigismondi’s] visual language — which really answered the question, how do you make this incredibly interior story something that is able to be watched and understood, that isn’t just one woman thinking all the time but still retains the essence of the story?
Almost Shine was another movie where you descend slowly into madness – are you drawn to those types of stories?
DAVIS: [laughs] Yes, I just love my horrible mind so much and always want to bring it out.
When you’re playing someone who is potentially mentally ill, do you do any research?
DAVIS: I do a lot of everything. I spent thirty hours on the internet reading Reddit posts and doing weird accumulative learning, but I can’t tell you what because I forget everything…
Do you retain any of the info you learned?
DAVIS: Mostly, it all goes out. I always have a big notebook of everything I’m doing and thinking about, and then I slip it away and never think about it again.
How many notebooks do you have at this point?
DAVIS: I have so many – but they mean nothing to me. I’m not like, ‘Oooh, my precious mind is in here. All my precious work.’ I don’t care. I don’t even know why I keep them because they’re just filled with gibberish.
You have no desire to re-read your notebooks?
DAVIS: No, I would be embarrassed. It would be like reading a diary — I’m like I can’t believe you ever thought that.
Are you a diary person?
DAVIS: No, not at all — I don’t like that type of self-reflection.
What was your process to calibrate Kate’s slow descent into madness?
DAVIS: I had an Excel spreadsheet… Again, I don’t know where that is now. Sometimes I think these things are just tools to comfort you. Like if I ever need to look, it’s there. It’s a drama school thing where you do your homework, and then you leave it at the door. So you never walk in with all your ideas. You just trust that it’s in your cells at this point, and then you go and be in that scene. You can’t be thinking about what you wrote on your Excel spreadsheet for Scene Five, Section One, Day Two. That’s not interesting to watch. I was constantly on set, talking about what we were doing, watching playback, seeing if things were calibrated in the way that I hoped they would come together. That was cool. I’ve never been so present before. I’d been in a movie most days, but then you’re not there for two days or a couple of scenes. But [on The Turning], I was there for everything. I never had to do that catch up of ‘Where are we?’, ‘What just happened?’ I was like, ‘I know what happened. I’m still living it.’
Do you like watching yourself on playback as you’re filming?
DAVIS: Yeah, weirdly, I hate watching the finished product; but watching the playback, I find can be really helpful. I’m like, “Oh, the thing you’re thinking about isn’t working or coming across at all.” I don’t want to do it all the time, but for something like this, that felt like I really needed to know, I wanted to do it.
Why do you hate watching the finished product?
DAVIS: Because so much time has passed, and there’s nothing I can do about it. I can just be like what a beautiful piece of shit you’ve made. You can’t do anything about it. You just have to sit with it, and I’m not good with sitting on things. I never admire what I’ve done. It’s torture. But it feels… I don’t know… I feel like it’s almost rude to the filmmaker to not watch it. We all made this thing together – so to not have any of the actors watch the finished product feels really shitty and narcissistic in its own way. I don’t want to do that. So I do watch them, pretty much everything. But once is enough and never again. It is not an enjoyable experience.
Dare I ask – what was your reaction watching The Turning for the first time?
DAVIS: The thing is – It’s not about the movie. It has nothing to do with the movie. It’s just the most me was in this movie versus any other movie I’ve been in — so it was painful in that way. Floria’s direction is so beautiful, I love the kids in it, all the technical things I love… but there’s just so many, many shots of me.
When you’re playing darker, more emotional material – what do you draw from for those scenes?
DAVIS: You just tell yourself it’s real and then believe as much as you can in the moment…
Do you consider yourself a more reactive actor?
DAVIS: Yeah, I’m not somebody who plans what they’re going to do the night before for good or ill. I’m also a very bad film actor, which is too bad for me.
No, you’re not…
DAVIS: No, really. There are some people who really understand the technical aspects of filmmaking and how to wield it for the desired effect. I don’t. I’ll just be out of frame the whole time, having the most intense experience and not save any of it for my close-up.
I know you just finished working with Jon Stewart on Irresistible. What can you say about your character in that film?
DAVIS: I’m the daughter of a man who is being positioned as a mayoral candidate in a small town. And then Democratic and Republican operatives [sweep in] and try to use our town as a metaphor. They’re treating it like it’s on the world stage, a make or break contest.
Do you know when the movie’s coming out?
I think it’s coming out in April. I just heard.
What was it like working with Jon Stewart?
DAVIS: It was so great. I love him. He’s so great. He’s so much better than you think he is – which you can’t really say about anybody. Everybody’s fine or nice– but he’s better than you think. And that’s a really high bar. Because people really love him.
The Turning is now in theaters.