Like Everyone Else, Mackenzie Davis and Charlize Theron Discuss Happiest Season
Every so often, a movie comes along that grabs hold of the internet and refuses to let go until every hot take has been wrung, every minute of its runtime picked clean for memes. In the past few days, Happiest Season has been that movie. Since its premiere last Thursday on Hulu, Clea DuVall’s romantic comedy—about a lesbian couple, Harper and Abby, who have to hide their relationship from Harper’s family while home for holidays, has owned the zeitgeist. At the center of the conversation is Harper, whose knotty contradictions (and, at times, extremely suspect choices) are brought to life by Mackenzie Davis in a highwire-act performance. As Harper forces Abby (Kristen Stewart) to go along with her charade, clearly hurting her in the process, Davis nevertheless infuses her with a delicate balance of stubbornness and pathos. For Davis, who had just finished shooting Terminator: Dark Fate, the movie represented a chance to ensconce herself in a supportive, mostly female environment, and to tell a story that rarely exists inside the tailored fantasy of a mainstream romantic comedy. Earlier this month, Davis reconnected with her Tully co-star Charlize Theron to discuss the delicacy of being a straight woman telling a queer story, the intensity of working with (and knowing) Kristen Stewart, and the midweek Pasadena skating scene. —BEN BARNA
MACKENZIE DAVIS: Hi!
CHARLIZE THERON: Hello! Where are you, fancy pants?
DAVIS: I’m in London.
THERON: And how is it?
DAVIS: It’s so nice to be here. I always dreamed of moving to a new city in the middle of a pandemic, and then going into lockdown.
THERON: Are you working there or was it a personal move?
DAVIS: Just a personal move.
THERON: That’s awesome! I love when people take big jumps like that.
DAVIS: Well, baby, 2020 has been my year of big fucking jumps.
THERON: You don’t have your house in L.A. anymore?
DAVIS: I’m renting it out and then I’ll probably sell it next year.
THERON: I always loved knowing you were so close to me, but to be honest, you are the worst invite because you’re never in town.
DAVIS: I have missed so many events in my life, and every single holiday party that you’ve had, but one day it will come together.
THERON: We, the people, benefit from you missing my parties because it usually means you’re working on something great, so we’ll take that. I watched your movie on Friday. I was down with a sinus infection, in bed and not feeling great, but I put that movie on and I cannot tell you how it just lifted my sick-ass mood.
DAVIS: It’s really funny, isn’t it?
THERON: Dude, there are so many degrees of separation there. Kristen and I worked together on Snow White and the Huntsman, and I love her to bits. And then Clea DuVall played my little sister in The Astronaut’s Wife.
DAVIS: Wow. I had no idea that you had worked together.
THERON: I think when I worked with her, it was her second or third movie, and now she’s this seasoned director. It’s unbelievable.
DAVIS: She’s a ’90s icon to me, so it was amazing to be around her.
THERON: Did you guys know each other before? How did this come to you?
DAVIS: I didn’t know her. I met her to talk about the part, and then the movie got pushed a year after I decided to do it. And so Clea and Kristen and I just kept meeting up for dinners and lunches, and did some escape rooms together, and kind of spent a year becoming friends, which, if you can do that, I really recommend. It’s such a fun way to make movies. It’s so much more fun when you don’t wander awkwardly wondering where you’ll eat lunch.
THERON: Did you know Kristen before?
DAVIS: I met her shortly after I met Clea. I was intimidated to meet her. She has such a strong energy. She’s so sincere and really means what she says, and it’s quite unsettling at first.
THERON: She’s very direct.
DAVIS: She’s just so fucking direct, but it’s not combative. It’s just curious and open, and it’s weird to meet somebody who’s kind of guileless like that.
THERON: She’s very unapologetic in that behavior, too, which is so refreshing. She really is that person. She can look you straight in the eyes and say something in three words, and it can totally come off as, “I’m about to murder you,” or it can come off as, “I have your back.” And that’s how I always took her. This girl will have your back.
DAVIS: She’s a ride-or-die person, and sincerely cuddly and sweet and so excited about the world.
THERON: I love that she deeply cares about things, whether it’s her friends or her family or her work. I don’t know if she still does this, but it used to break my heart because she would do a take, and if she didn’t like it, she would just start swearing: “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.” It’s funny in the beginning, and then I was like, “Stop beating yourself up like that.” But also, we all do that.
DAVIS: I found it so liberating to just talk about how we felt like shit all the time. I love this job, but I feel like garbage doing it most of the time, except for brief windows where I’m like, “I was there.” But most of the time I’m like, “It’s so embarrassing being an actor. I hate this, I hate that everybody’s looking at me.” And she vocalizes it in a way that felt like it wasn’t shameful. It was like, “No, no, no, this is the mental state. This is the choice you’ve made. And this is how you live.”
THERON: Exactly. I heard that you and Clea and Kristen lived in the same apartment complex. Is that true?
DAVIS: We did. It was an old warehouse. There were two buildings connected by a walkway and Kristen lived in one and then Clea and I lived in another. I lived about two doors down from Clea. I always knew when she was home.
THERON: That is so cute.
DAVIS: It was sweet, the whole thing. You know how there are times when you really don’t want to hang out with anybody after work, or you just really need space? This was definitely the opposite of that, where it felt like we were all staying in dorms and there was an event every night.
THERON: And Pittsburgh is great.
DAVIS: It’s the perfect-sized city.
THERON: I’ve always had a great time there. I find the people amazing, and the food is awesome. There are some amazing restaurants in Pittsburgh.
DAVIS: Amazing restaurants, amazing bars. I really like the architecture. It hasn’t completely modernized, like where every city in the world has this bougie gentrification.
THERON: Well, listen, I have to pretend that I’m a really smart interviewer here, and ask you some real questions, because I want people to know about your movie. I love that it’s about something that’s very specific to the queer community, but there’s something about it that feels like it’s taking us on a road to normalizing a queer Christmas movie in the way that we have had to sit through heterosexual holiday movies forever. I’m just so happy that my oldest daughter came into the room while it was on, and she was saying, “Is that her girlfriend?” I said, “Yeah, that’s her girlfriend.” And then she went to school. To her, that was no big deal. It’s just a Christmas movie with two girls. I don’t want to make it sound so compartmentalized, but how did you think about it when you read it?
DAVIS: I loved the story. I’d never done anything like it before. It made me laugh out loud and also really moved me, and I really wanted to work with Kristen and Clea. I also got the script right after I finished Terminator and was like, “What’s the opposite of that? That was great, but how do I do a different thing now?” Something we talked about while we were making the movie was how the genre is such an aid in these sorts of movies, because there’s no suspense. It’s like a horror movie. You know that certain people are going to die, but you know that someone’s going to live at the end. And with romantic comedies, you know that there’s going to be a happy part and then there’s going to be a lot of difficulty and they almost won’t make it, but you always know they’re going to end up fine at the end. I think especially in the limited canon of mainstream queer stories, that certainty that they’re going to be okay at the end is never part of the story. And so, by taking formulaic genre and only changing the people in the primary roles, you get all the safety of it, and it still has a little something different. It’s a familiar way to enter a world that maybe, for whatever reason, people don’t seek out or are uncomfortable with. It’s like, “No, it’s this thing you know. You love this thing! Join us.”
THERON: The thing that really stayed with me was how different your coming out story is, and how different it is for everybody else. It doesn’t diminish one or make one better.
DAVIS: I know. Dan Levy has such a beautiful part in the movie where he talks about his coming out story, and Kristen talks about hers, and there’s this resistance against flattening the queer experience into a monolithic one.
THERON: A lot of the actors and people who came together to make this movie are from the queer community. Did you feel like that was something that people would put pressure on you about?
DAVIS: That’s the first conversation I had with Clea. There are certain parts I wouldn’t take, and that I think are important not to take—there are people who could easily take those parts who are members of that community. The reason behind this push, I think, is not that everybody should be playing their own identity, but that people who have that identity have not had other opportunities in Hollywood. So please just allow the space for them to exist in this world, because trans people aren’t getting cast as the straight, romantic lead in a movie. Give them the space to occupy a corner of the industry that straight people, cis people, don’t need to venture into. I asked Clea about it going in, if it was something that concerned her. As a member of that community, did she feel that a gay actor should play this part? I talked to Kristen about it as well. I try to be deferent to the points of view of the people around me who are more informed than I am, and they both felt that the dynamic between Kristen and I was more important to the story than whether or not I was in the queer community. It’s a complicated conversation, and it’s hard to know when it stops.
THERON: The sheer fact that we’re having the conversation makes me happy, because I feel like we haven’t talked about anything as far as representation, the way we are right now, in the last 20 years of my career. You’re right, there’s such a lack of opportunities given that at least let them have ownership in that space. But I find that that’s almost insulting. I feel like a good actor is a good actor, and I can’t wait for us to look at nonbinary queer actors in the same way that we do hetero-cis actors.
DAVIS: I think that’s the goal, but out gay actors only recently are allowed to be romantic leads in movies, even though they have a husband at home. That’s something that’s happened in the last six years. It feels so recent. I think we’re going through this across so many parts of our society; we have to go through a really uncomfortable transition phase where we overemphasize something in order to normalize it. And then, at a certain point, we no longer need to overemphasize it. And the first step is, like, “I’m not going to colonize your space.” That’s fine. There are plenty of roles for a cis white woman in the industry.
THERON: It’s interesting times that we’re living in. But, yeah, I love this movie. It really stuck with me, and it also made me dread that we’re right on top of Christmas. Are you a big fan of Christmas?
DAVIS: I like the food part of it. I love seeing my family. I don’t always go back to Vancouver or to my parents’ house. We tend to go away together a lot, so I don’t have this singular Christmas memory. We don’t buy presents for each other. It’s sort of like, “Let’s all have a nice time because we don’t see each other all year.” So I like that part of it, but the more traditional aspects don’t get my juices running the way they do for some people. Juices running. Is that a disgusting thing to say?
THERON: No, no, no, juices are exact. That’s what you’re always looking for, no matter what you’re cooking. You’re looking for juices. I’m kind of the same. Growing up in South Africa, it was summer. So if you saw Santa Claus, he was on water skis. I don’t have any real attachment to the holiday, and my parents never put up a tree or anything like that. But now that I have kids, I have to say I do love it, which is weird, because I should just break it to them now. But I can’t, it’s just too much fun.
DAVIS: There’s something about being a parent and being the architect of your child’s memories. That sounds so sinister, but being like, “I’ll give you the perfect memories,” it’s like being a dreamweaver or something. It must be so fucking exciting.
THERON: That’s exactly what it is. I think my oldest is slowly catching on. I’m trying to get maybe one or two more years for the little one. I’m like, “Don’t say anything.” I was told that you learned how to skate for this movie. Was it hard?
DAVIS: I had an amazing skating teacher called Victoria, who I met at the skating rink a couple of times a week for about two months, because I could not even stand up on ice. You would never know it watching the movie, because I still look so deeply at odds with my body. But from where we started to where we ended, it’s the thing I’m most proud of in the movie. And I really recommend it, skating’s wonderful. I love this part of our job, that you get access to all of these different cultures that you’d never be a part of. The lunchtime skating culture midweek in Pasadena? Incredible people, incredible lifestyle, great characters. And it’s not just for kids, it’s for grown adults who want to speed skate around the ring and do tricks.
THERON: There’s joy in trying to imagine your long lean body on ice skates.
DAVIS: So awful. I felt like a skyscraper being knocked over, or like a Jenga cube. Never could I just crumble delicately.
THERON: Listen, you’re one of my favorite humans on the face of the earth, and I’ve weirdly been thinking so much about you in the last couple of months because when we were shooting Tully, we had a night shoot during our last election. And on election night, you reached out to me, and I had a flush of memories of me and you out in Brooklyn, in 2016, riding bikes, shooting Tully, and everybody just going like, “What the hell is happening? It’s the end of the world.”
DAVIS: I will never forget that night. I’m really happy to have shared such a sad moment with you.
THERON: We shared many other fantastic moments, so I’ll take a little bit of bad with all the good.