Exclusive Interview: Mackenzie Davis on leading 'The Turning'
First published in the final years of the 19th century, Henry James’s horror novella The Turn of the Screw represents a work of gothic fiction that has paved the way for nearly every ghost story since. As the original text prepares to celebrate its 122nd birthday next week, Universal Pictures is bringing to the big screen The Turning, a new feature film adaptation from director Floria Sigismondi, which sets Mackenzie Davis in the lead as Kate, a young woman who takes a nanny position to look after a recently orphaned pair of children living at a majestic manor house.
Davis is no stranger to genre filmmaking, her credits a snowballing list of fan favorite roles that include films like The Martian, Blade Runner 2049 and Terminator: Dark Fate, in addition to small screen appearances on projects like the acclaimed San Junipero episode of the dark science fiction anthology Black Mirror. With The Turning, Davis embraces her first true horror role (a lead role as a vampire in the tongue in cheek comedy Freaks of Nature notwithstanding).
Part of the trouble inherent in adapting James’s novella is in capturing the original story’s unreliable narrator. As audiences watch The Turning, they will continually ask themselves whether the supernatural events unfolding onscreen are real or whether or not they’re conjured up in Kate’s mind. Keeping a foothold in both extremes meant constant back and forth with Sigismondi.
“We were just constantly trying to analyze what was happening,” Davis continues, “and what felt true so we could be on the same page without being didactic about what it had to be. It was an evolution… I always have these like notebooks full of ideas that are not cohesive or coherent. Then I completely forget them when I finish anything. I just put them in a cupboard. There’s this overdeveloped short term memory thing that I think is actually a medical condition with actors. You spend so much time memorizing stuff that’s only useful for such a very short period of time that you don’t have a long term memory. So your short term memory just starts taking up more and more space in your brain and your long term memory is like, ‘Alright, nobody needs me!’ So I just remember things for about a month.”
“It was immediate,” says Davis. “We all really liked each other. Finn is so lovely. Teenage boys can be really cagey and weird sometimes too cool. He’s just excited and really mature and super smart. I could have conversations with him about anything. He’s really sweet and he has such lovely parents. I mean, he has become this incredibly famous kid at such a young age and is so untouched by it all. He’s really a lovely kid and not really a kid at all. He feels like an adult. Brooklyn, then, is the most lovable koala-like creature that will just glom onto you as soon as you meet her. I just fell in love with her right away… It’s weird because she’s not creepy at all in real life, but then in the film you’re like, ‘Yes, kids are scary, aren’t they?'”
As is the case for the character of Kate, the motivations for both Flora and Miles need to service dual versions of the haunting narrative. That’s why it was important to see the story’s ghosts as a more down to Earth form of mental anguish.
“It’s a ghost story,” says Davis, “but I was always thinking about the haunting that you have from trauma in your life. What sticks with you and what makes you jump in a room. It’s not a noise sometimes, but it’s this sense that you’re being hunted or something like that. Just this feeling of being vulnerable to harm that can come from experiencing a lot of trauma and how those things just stick with you unless you process them effectively. I think Kate experiences a lot in the house, but she’s also unleashing a lot of baggage upon the house. It becomes a stage for her in a way, because she hasn’t processed a lot of trauma to have this weird exorcism of these poisons that she hasn’t dealt with. I like that they were both haunted by ghosts and haunting others by not processing our own shit.”
Naturally, the film’s setting places a particularly important role in this version of the story, which moves the action to 1994, unfolding in the wake of Kurt Cobain’s suicide. While not specifically essential to the story, the placement serves the double purpose of jumping almost exactly a century from the events of the novella as well as existing during a kind of intangible shared grief. Ireland’s 17th century Killruddery House stands in for the story’s Maine location.
“It was gorgeous,” Davis recalls. “The same way as in the film, when Kate drives up, you’re just shocked by the gorgeousness and beauty and the grandeur of this old place. The more time you spend in it just changed shifts. It never became a bad place to be, but it’s cold and drafty and it felt confusing where things were. It just has a lot of history in it. Those houses have lived through a lot, whether or not anything horrible happened there… There’s a sense of many lives that have passed through there, which I think is so helpful when you’re making a movie like this. It translates to the screen in this way that’s like totally imperceptible. You’d never know. You can’t point to what the thing is other than just this feeling of creepiness, for lack of a better word. It’s something where, if they rebuilt that entire house on a set inside of a studio, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference, other than internally. It would’t feel the same.”
Also starring Joely Richardson, Mark Huberman, Barbara Marten, Karen Egan, Denna Thomsen and Niall Greig Fulton, The Turning opens in theaters everywhere this Friday, January 24. If you missed the film’s trailer click here to check it out and come back tomorrow for an in-depth Q&A with director Floria Sigismondi.