Although AMC’s Halt & Catch Fire takes place about 30 years ago, the series (premiering June 1) is about a world that’s almost unrecognizable. It was a time before smartphones, social media or even graphing calculators, when personal computers—the big, desk-bound kind that used oversized floppy disks—were about to be the next big thing.
The series—which boasts seriously excellent 1980s fashion and props; think: Mad Men for the Reagan years—focuses on Lee Pace’s Joe MacMillan, a job-hopping intellectual property thief whose latest leap has landed him at a small Texas company. But when his work is questioned by the behemoth IBM, a hotshot young engineer (played by impressive newcomer Mackenzie Davis) is brought in to create a new machine without ripping off the other device and ruining the company. It’s a driving drama smartly placed at a not-too-long-ago point in time when the world was about to change completely.
DuJour caught up with Davis—who recently appeared in Breathe In and stars alongside Daniel Radcliffe in August’s What If—to talk about technology, rebellion and being unbelievably good at Donkey Kong.
When we first meet Cameron, she’s not the most charming character, but there’s clearly something magnetic about her. What about the role appealed to you?
I’m attracted to her for a number of reasons, but on the broadest level she’s a truly a grounded human being who’s fallible and flawed. She can be really despicable at times or very lovely. She contains the very complicated elements that most human beings do, and it’s surprising how infrequently you’re able to find characters like that.
You’ve done a number of movies but this is your first TV series. How do you like the different medium?
It’s such a joy, and it just came at the right time. I really wanted to be with a character for six months and not for a week. It’s lovely to have all that time. It definitely feels like you’re living a second life.
One of the most impressive parts of the show is the set and prop design; someone really dug up a ton of 30-year-old technology. What was the most impressive piece of machinery on set?
Listen, we all look at 1980s technology as if it is so outdated that we can’t believe it even exists, but the theory of it all is still mind-blowing. Like, it’s great that we’re able to have iPhones and other advanced technology, but I’m still shocked that somebody managed to invent vacuum tubes. It’s insane to think of all of these things that lead to the creation of what we have now. I mostly just have a recurring feeling of being wowed by how smart these people were. Rather than say, ‘Oh, this is outdated,’ I am continually in awe of the amazing nature of invention.
One of the most retro-feeling things to me is that this was an era when someone smart, young and headstrong like Cameron had to work with a big company. Today she’d have a start-up and be changing the world from a laptop somewhere.
That’s true, but she was hired for a very specific job. She’s not there to code just anything. She has to be in a clean room by herself, untainted by anybody’s ideas. It’s a very legally complicated concept.
What are your own earliest computer memories?
I was a DOS games addict; I loved Commander Keen. Have you ever played that? Oh, it was incredible! And there was this other weird computer game where aliens come to earth and there is time travel involved. I believe Benjamin Franklin was a character in it.
Are you still a gamer?
No, not really. It’s a rabbit hole. I played Nintendo all the time when I was growing up and was probably the best Donkey Kong player you could ever meet, but I can’t have those things in my life because I’ll just fold. I will not be productive and it will stall my career and my entire life.
Did you walk away from filming the first season a computer whiz of any sort?
Obviously! I don’t want to disappoint people with the truth, so let’s just say that yes, I am really good with computers.
Halt & Catch Fire premieres June 1 on AMC.