‘Station Eleven’ Interview: Mackenzie Davis, Matilda Lawler
This interview has been edited and condensed. It contains numerous Station Eleven spoilers, particularly about “Goodbye My Damaged Home,” the seventh episode.
When Mackenzie Davis and Matilda Lawler get on our Zoom call, they look accidentally the same. Lawler, on winter break from seventh grade, has her hair pulled up and is wearing a blue Captain Underpants T-shirt under a blue hoodie. Davis is also in blue — a denim button-down worn over a T-shirt — and also has her blonde hair pulled up, a few tendrils framing her face in a way that matches Lawler.
Side by side on the screen, they look like they could be related. Which is appropriate since, in Station Eleven, adapted by showrunner Patrick Somerville from Emily St. John Mandel’s novel, they are supposed to be the same person. Lawler plays Kirsten, the postapocalyptic drama’s protagonist, a young girl dealing with the shocking first days of a pandemic while staying with Jeevan (Himesh Patel), a friendly caretaker she has just met, and his brother, Frank (Nabhaan Rizwan). Davis plays Kirsten 20 years later, when the flu is no longer a danger but the world that exists has been altered irrevocably by it.
In the seventh episode of Station Eleven, “Goodbye My Damaged Home,” the two Kirstens finally interact with each other when the elder is shot with poisoned darts. In a not-quite-alive, not-quite-dead state of consciousness, older Kirsten is able to talk to her younger self and observe the final days she spent with Jeevan and Frank in their apartment, preparing to perform a play based on the comic Station Eleven.
It’s a very emotional episode in an already emotional series. During the call, Davis and Lawler discussed the surreality of filming it — and the rest of Station Eleven — during an actual pandemic and why Davis couldn’t stop crying while working on the HBO Max show. There was also some debate about how to pronounce the name Kirsten, a subject Davis has very strong feelings about.
You don’t have any scenes together until episode seven, but did you have any conversations early on about playing this character at different ages and how you might try to show some connectivity between the two?
Mackenzie Davis: Not at all. I mean, Matilda kind of originated the character, which also feels right to me. I don’t think you’re one person in your entire life. There are through-lines. I think the casting is incredible with Matilda and me, and there are really subtle strains between the two of us. But she really originated it because she was shooting it first, a few months before me, and then in reality, a whole year before me.
I really got to know her through the dailies and watching her work from afar. It wasn’t until we came back to resume shooting in January 2021 that we had any sort of meetings and getting-to-know-each-other time. The gift of episode seven is I’m just sort of watching in a corner and getting to experience this real-time accounting of fundamental trauma in my life.
Matilda Lawler: I think the first time we met was actually at the camera test. Within the first few minutes, we started playing the mirror game. You know that game?
M.L.: It was weird. We just started doing that. And we were actually pretty good at it, I must say.
I know you started filming these episodes in early 2020, and then things shut down because of the pandemic; then you started again in the beginning of 2021. How much were you able to shoot before you had to pause things?
M.L.: We filmed episode one and three, I think, with Hiro Murai. Then everything shut down, and we filmed the rest in Toronto.
It must have been surreal to go back to work and film a show about a pandemic while experiencing one. Matilda, did that enhance your work because you had this immediate frame of reference, or did it make it harder emotionally?
M.L.: I think it enhanced it a bit. Obviously, it was really difficult, like putting something you’ve been experiencing for a whole year into a show. I don’t know if that makes any sense, but I could relate personal things I was experiencing to Kirsten. I do think that helped maybe all of us because we all could actually relate in some way even though it was hard.
M.D.: It definitely amplified the connection to the material, to put it lightly. It’s funny, obviously, when we were on hiatus and I was speaking to Patrick all the time that summer about our experiences, like collecting data for the show and what we’re going to put into it. In the end, anything specific felt kind of meaningless, especially since our show was about the aftermath.
My most resonant experience of the pandemic still — but especially that first March, April, May, June of last year when we were really locked inside — was this relationship to memory and place that I’d never really experienced before. I kept touching things and having really intense flashbacks to walking down the street with strawberries in Budapest or going to a tapas bar in Madrid or being in Vancouver — just these sort of lives that had been lived. These things felt so distant and far away but also like they were still ongoing. I don’t know if it’s on purpose or not, but with the time jumps, it feels like the show echoes this sort of displaced relationship to time that I felt was, on reflection, the most intense part of the pandemic.
I said something similar in my review of the show — that I think one thing everybody has felt during COVID is our sense of time is completely disrupted. The show really captured that feeling.
M.D.: And they all feel like past lives or that they’re going on, like, Maybe I’m still doing that thing in that country and also simultaneously in this city.
There’s a scene in episode seven in which young Kirsten, Jeevan, Frank, and older Kirsten are watching a news report that says Chicago’s basically destroyed. Then, Matilda, you start singing “The First Noel.” Why do you think your character does that, and what were you thinking about when you were playing that?
M.L.: I feel like, as people, we always try to bring a bit of joy into any situation. It’s kind of like a mechanism. In that moment, we were all feeling so much; the world’s ending on TV. I think Kirsten felt it was important to bring a little moment of joy and make everyone recognize that even though the whole world is ending, they still have each other.
Mackenzie, in that scene, as adult Kirsten, you’re crying. I was thinking about what your character would be thinking about —
M.D.: I feel so bad. It’s so different from what Matilda was thinking, but it also makes sense, the way you feel as a child and the way you feel as an adult. Watching it, I was like, Oh my God, I’ve been taking care of other people my whole life, and I never got to process my own trauma. I’m seeing this life-changing apocalypse unfold before my 10-year-old eyes, and my first response is to take care of the grown-ups in the room. I thought that was the saddest sort of thing I could see. She really needed to be taken care of in that moment. It’s beautiful, and the impulse is gorgeous, but I do think it spoke to a longer and broader pattern of Kirsten compartmentalizing trauma for the sake of moving forward.
I think this whole episode is about the two Kirstens — or Keer-stans — taking care of each other in a lot of ways.
M.D.: Your pronunciation was correct. I fought very hard for it to be Ker-sten.
Wait, Ker-sten or Keer-sten?
M.D.: Well, I think it’s Ker-sten, but by the time I showed up, it was already Keer-sten. It’s an in-joke with us, of me constantly yelling about them for calling her Keer-sten.
M.L.: For the read-through of the very first episode, I was saying I was Ker-sten.
M.D.: Because that’s how it’s spelled.
M.L.: And then Himesh picked up on that, too. But then Patrick was like, “Keer-sten.”
M.D.: It’s not. It’s not right. And I’m going to use any PR opportunity to bring it to light.
There’s a conversation between the two Kirstens where, Mackenzie, you say you can stay longer in the apartment because the poison hasn’t gotten to your heart yet. What do you think was her motivation for wanting to stay? Is it because she wants to be able to say good-bye to Frank? At first, it seems like she thinks she could change the outcome because she’s trying to urge her younger self not to wait around to do the play.
M.D.: I think it’s like exposure therapy for her. She hasn’t thought about this in a long time. The Hamlet thing makes it seem like she’s returning to these feelings all the time, but in my mind, it was the first time these thoughts had barreled back and caught her unaware — like this shift in her life where the past was rearing its head and couldn’t be contained anymore. Everything she’s done in her life has moved forward: create, take care, defend against danger. Then suddenly there was this inescapable opportunity beckoning her to see what story she’d been telling herself about what happened for the past 20 years, which was Frank died because I put on a play.
I don’t think she knows at first she’s going to stay there the whole time. It’s a strange sister-mother thing being alongside young Kirsten: wanting to reparent myself through trauma in a time when I was just screaming in a heating closet by myself and didn’t have anyone sitting with me. I get the opportunity to sit with myself and talk myself through the trauma.
There is one scene in which you’re both standing face to face talking to each other. In the side shot, you can see it’s just such great casting because, to go back to your mirror game, you do look like mirrors of each other. Were you able to look at what had just been shot and see that? Or did you not realize it until later?
M.L.: For me, I didn’t really realize it until later, watching it back, because on set, I don’t watch myself.
Do you not watch yourself because you don’t want to mess with your performance?
M.L.: Yeah. I have trouble watching myself. Sometimes it’s helpful if you can see yourself as a different person. You’re like, Okay, try to watch yourself like you’re not yourself. But that’s hard for me.
I mean, even right now, I don’t know if you realize —
M.D.: I just thought the same thing. We look so similar.
Why do you think it was so important to Kirsten to do the performance of the scene from the Station Eleven comic?
M.L.: I think about that a lot. There are multiple reasons. One of them is that it was kind of a good-bye. They were all moving together, and I feel like they all sensed it was about to be a good-bye. Also it was to make sense of the situation, too, because Station Eleven represents Kirsten, and it represented their story at the time and throughout.
M.D.: I hadn’t thought about it before, but there’s a nice sort of kinship between putting on the play and understanding that now is the time for good-bye. And then the scene with Matilda and Himesh in the parking lot, when she decides to go along with the lie that her parents texted Frank. There’s this really subtle empath to her that understands the right route to go. It’s based on an extreme sensitivity to a situation and timing. And it feels like she follows that intuition with Jeevan to come to the house.
With the play, even though she spent the rest of her life thinking it was her fault everybody died, Frank was never coming with them. She created this space to have closure where there should not be closure because they’re fleeing for the rest of their lives. There’s a lovely symmetry there, I think.
At the end of the play, the intruder comes in and stabs Frank. Mackenzie, you’re there, and you’re observing the stabbing. Did you try to play that a few different ways? Initially, you’re passively observing it, and then you start to back away, and then we can see the emotional impact it’s having on you.
M.D.: I don’t remember. In terms of playing it, I always forget that stuff. But I know my understanding of it was that it was important for her to bear witness to this thing and to understand what had happened to her from a grown-up’s point of view. But then that obviously becomes too much to handle in the end.
I struggled with that episode because I was just crying so goddamn much, where I was like, Oh, God, you’ve got to be doing something else here, Mackenzie. It was a really intense thing to visualize and experience, the whole apartment scene. I think there were moments where I was grasping at more stoicism.
When you say you were crying a lot, did you feel like it was happening organically and it was something you couldn’t control?
M.D.: Yeah. I can’t say enough about how that’s not my party trick or skill set. That’s not ever been something I’ve been able to summon effortlessly or be like, I don’t know why I keep crying. I understand when it’s necessary, but generally, I’m like, Tears aren’t important. Feelings are important. Don’t focus on the material output; focus on how you feel in a thing. Anyway, this episode in particular, and this show in general, I was like a passenger on the watery ride and had to stop it a lot of the time because I found that nothing lost its emotional weight for me in the six months of shooting, plus the year and a half before. It hit me all the time with the same potency, which has not happened to me before.
Do you think that was at least in part because of the circumstances of real life and the way that intersected with this story?
M.D.: Yeah, but I also had it beforehand. I mean, it definitely got more acute. It’s so funny how much Shakespeare meta text there is in the play within the play. It felt like we were in the pandemic, playacting our pandemic. I would yell at Patrick because I wasn’t like, “This is so cool! I’m crying all the time.” I was like, “What sorcery have you put into this text? Why am I crying all the time?”
The pandemic portrayed is much more extreme than our own, but there are still these moments in the series that resonate so much. One of them is in this episode when Kirsten and Jeevan are talking about what they would have done differently if they had known the flu was coming. They’re talking about spending time with people they love or saying good-bye. For viewers to watch that, especially now, I think it’s extra poignant because so many people want to be with their loved ones during the holiday season, and now they’re afraid again because of Omicron. Is viewer reception something you think about?
M.D.: We didn’t know if this was a good time for the show to come out. Obviously, it became even more poignant because of the wave of Omicron running through everybody in America and the rest of the world right now. But it’s hard to know if this is a show you would want to sit and watch over the holidays with your family, if it would be a salve or if the idea would be so triggering and volatile people wouldn’t even explore it. The great shock of my life is that everybody’s digging into this pandemic show during our current era. I’m so happy that people are. At the time of making it, I wasn’t sure if it was just opening deeper wounds for me or if it was healing. And now that it’s done — and honestly, with the reception being so positive — it does feel like closure in this really nice way. What do you think, Matilda?
M.L.: I feel like it gave me a feeling of closure. It felt like I was understood — and all of the things we’ve been experiencing are kind of understood, in a way — in this piece of art. I was worried that people were going to be like, I don’t want to watch this. This is bringing up traumatic memories for me. I think it is, for sure, but at the same time, it’s also bringing some type of healing or some feeling like you’re understood.
I’m sure there are some people who will feel like you said, that they just can’t handle it right now for different reasons. My personal feeling was that it was healing because it goes off into the future and shows you a path where people are able to survive and be there for each other.
M.D.: It feels like the way Contagion was quite comforting in the early days of the pandemic. We’d never known less about something globally as we did with COVID, and it was nice to at least have a map of like, All right, it gets bad, but in the end, it’s okay. If that was the worst version, Station Eleven is how the future could still be sort of rich and beautiful.
Hopefully, it’s not a map of our experience with COVID, but I think it’s comforting to look toward something and gauge your own experience against it.
Any kind of story is helpful in a crisis. And you created one for everybody else.
M.D.: It’s amazing how comforting it is to have somebody like a narrator tell you something with the beginning, middle, and end. Because not knowing the end is the thing that’s most distressing.