Why ‘Station Eleven’ Stars Mackenzie Davis and Matilda Lawler Didn’t Need to Share Notes to Play the Same Character

·4-min read

This story about “Station Eleven” co-stars Mackenzie Davis and Matilda Lawler first appeared in the Limited Series / Movies issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

Mackenzie Davis likes to say that her now teenage co-star Matilda Lawler “originated” the role of their “Station Eleven” character, Kirsten, whom they each play at different ages in Patrick Somerville’s HBO Max drama adapted from Emily St. John Mandel’s novel.

Lawler plays Kirsten as a girl separated from her family and stuck with a stranger on Day 1 of a global pandemic, and Davis picks up the character 20 years later after she’s survived a whole lot.

But Davis hates it when actors in a series share little notebooks of plans and character tics that cue an audience that we’re watching the same person. She’d much rather that process happen through “osmosis”—and fortunately for Davis, Lawler didn’t need any advice or guidance from her older counterpart on how to make that connection.

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“It was this unexpected pleasure of working with this incredibly mature but not precocious, intelligent, embodied actor like Matilda,” Davis said, adding that Lawler had a “sensitivity and wiseness” beyond her years. “I felt deeply connected to her and quite close to our understanding of who this person was. She was such an amazing tether for me to a period of both trauma and joy.”

Mackenzie Davis (left) and Matilda Lawler in “Station Eleven”/HBO Max
Mackenzie Davis (left) and Matilda Lawler in “Station Eleven”/HBO Max

The first time the two met on set was for “Station Eleven’s” seventh episode, a surreal head trip in which Davis’ older Kirsten steps back in time, communicates with her younger self and gets to witness the pivotal moments that will ultimately force the younger Kirsten out of her hiding place to become “feral Kirsten” in the wild, open world.

“She just provided me with such a cheat code emotionally, to have this full landscape of memories actually witnessed by me,” Davis said. “And then I had them in my mind and my body for the rest of the show. If she wasn’t such an amazing actress, that wouldn’t have been a helpful tool. But because she’s so special, it felt like me living it.”

It’s one of the more emotionally gut-wrenching moments for both stars, but by that point, Lawler was already a pro.

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Lawler, who was just 11 at the time, had to audition with a scene in which she learns her parents have died via an anonymous text message. So “right off the bat,” she knew that “this is some heavy stuff, but I was ready for it,” she said.

“Usually, I get characters who are more innocent or less deep, I guess,” said Lawler, who starred in the 2021 Disney movie “Flora & Ulysses.” “But Kirsten was just such a fighter and so strong, yet also so vulnerable at the same time, which I thought was beautiful. I loved the character arc and the journey that she went through. I think I’d never been thrown out of my comfort zone so much with anything. And I loved that, as nerve-wracking as it was.”

Because Davis and Lawler each brought something of themselves to the character, Kirsten on the show has a depth and complexity that’s rare for the apocalyptic sci-fi genre. Lawler felt she was able to bring a “warmth” to Kirsten even as she’s forced to develop a hardened edge at the horrific world she’s been thrust into. And Davis is able to do the dramatic heavy lifting of performing “Hamlet” while still chucking knives like a superhero.

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“Obviously I haven’t been through everything that she’s been through,” Lawler said. “I’ve been through, like, very small versions of all that she’s gone through because, obviously I haven’t lost everyone I love. But as an actor, I just took those small things, those hard things that I’ve been through and multiplied them and made them more extreme.”

Davis added, “I think Patrick found a way to articulate how high the stakes are by having the Shakespeare next to the stabbing, They’re all as important as the next thing. I like whole people. I’m, like, really stupid and goofy and also like really arcane things and am really emo. I’m everything in a day.”

But Kirsten has had an influence on Lawler in the other direction as well. Lawler described growing enormously as an actress and learning not just from Davis but from her fellow cast and crew members. And the series’ title, “Station Eleven,” refers to a rare and mysterious comic book that over time becomes a guiding light and philosophy for Kirsten, something that likewise has made a mark on Lawler.

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“People can say that stories didn’t have much impact on them, but that’s just not true,” she said. “We’re surrounded by stories, even if it doesn’t look like that. And they obviously make an impact on who we are. It’s undeniable.”

Read more from the Limited / Series movies issue here.

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