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Mackenzie Davis on creating the fictional pandemic drama 'Station Eleven' during COVID

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

In the new miniseries "Station Eleven," it's two decades after a deadly flu pandemic, and global civilization has nearly collapsed. Twenty-eight-year-old Kirsten is a member of the traveling symphony. It's a group of survivors who move around the Great Lakes region performing Shakespeare.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STATION ELEVEN")

DAVID WILMOT: (As Clark) But now my cousin Hamlet and my son.

MACKENZIE DAVIS: (As Kirsten) A little more than kin and less than kind.

PFEIFFER: "Station Eleven" is based on the novel by Emily St. John Mandel. It goes back and forth in time following an ensemble cast of characters that includes Kirsten, a stranger she meets named Jeevan, the residents of the Severn City Airport, a man known as The Prophet and the author of a mysterious comic book, which also is called "Station Eleven." It's out now on HBO Max. Mackenzie Davis, who plays the adult Kirsten in the show, joins me now to talk about it. Hi.

DAVIS: Hi. Thank you so much for having me.

PFEIFFER: So because we are actually in a pandemic that's been going on for about two years, some people might be very curious to watch the series. And other people might be thinking, no way. Make your best sales pitch for why we should watch a TV show about a pandemic while we're trapped in one.

DAVIS: Well, I have a lot of pitches for this. The first and broadest one is that it's nice to have a map for things and to have a story that tells us about a time that we're in, even though our show tells a much, much worse pandemic. It also tells 20 years into the future and all the sort of beauty and joy and human connection that comes out of mass chaos and trauma. It's not a story about sort of hardscrabble survivors eking out a meager existence and killing each other along the way. It's about creating culture and community after a lot of trauma. And so it's a really, really hopeful show, even though I understand the subject matter might feel daunting.

PFEIFFER: It is surprisingly hopeful. And I really like that you described the show as a map because it does suggest that it shows us now in real life a way forward, a way out of what we're stuck in.

DAVIS: Yeah, I find it so comforting to have something to reflect against, as well. I mean, I think that's why everybody was watching "Contagion" in the beginning of the pandemic...

PFEIFFER: (Laughter).

DAVIS: ...Not as a, you know, documentary of the future days but of a way of sort of contextualizing really big feelings that nobody could explain away for us and being like, all right, well, here's the worst version. And even in that worst version, it ends. And I think having something that has a wholeness with a beginning, a middle and an end is such a salve when you're in the middle of something and you're like, I don't know how close to the end I am. I'm just within.

PFEIFFER: Yeah. For people unfamiliar with "Station Eleven", the book or the show, tell us a little bit about Kirsten.

DAVIS: Well, we meet her in episode one as a child. She's playing child Goneril for a production of "King Lear" in Chicago. And that's the night that this pandemic hits. And she gets thrust into the company of this very kind stranger, played by Himesh Patel, who takes her under his wing. And they kind of form this little family through the first 80 days of this pandemic that wipes out 99.9% of the world's population. And the show toggles between that timeline and then 20 years in the future, where we meet up with her again. And she's an actor still against all odds. And she's both artist and sort of warrior survivor character.

PFEIFFER: Also, I understand there's some debate about how to pronounce Kirsten?

DAVIS: I actually should start bringing this up because I think the issue has been settled at this point internally, and I should not bring it up all the time. But I think her name is Kirsten - and just because of the spelling, and, you know, instinct would lead you that way. And she's constantly referred to as Keer-stin (ph) in the show. So I've been on my own sort of private PR drive to get the knowledge out there that I think she's been mispronounced.

PFEIFFER: And readers of the book "Station Eleven" will notice that the series deviates from the book in quite a few significant ways. One is young Kirsten's relationship with Jeevan. They spend the first year of the pandemic together. It's this 8-year-old girl and an adult man. He almost pseudo-adopts her because her parents are gone. I've read some funny viewer comments saying that there are mild overtones of kidnapping. I didn't see it that way, but it is kind of, like, this buddy-cop comedy a little bit. It's an odd pair, but did you like how it worked out?

DAVIS: I love it. It's a huge departure from the book, and even when I was just describing Kirsten and her journey right now, I was like, ooh, how do you not make this sound like this man abducted her?

PFEIFFER: (Laughter).

DAVIS: But the way that it's told in the show, you get the sense that this is a very wise little girl who understands the full scope of things and is doing what is instinctually right. And she willfully goes with him to a second location, as we always encourage children to do...

PFEIFFER: (Laughter) That's right. Ignore stranger danger.

DAVIS: ...And is very safe. So I think the lesson is follow men that you meet who are kind to apartments.

PFEIFFER: (Laughter).

DAVIS: But, I mean, I think it turns the series into this beautiful character study, and it's about the idea that people affect each other in profound ways and that these small acts of kindness reverberate through people's lives. It's a really beautiful, compelling argument for small acts of human kindness.

PFEIFFER: You talked at the beginning about how there's hopefulness to this series - surprising hopefulness. And the central question of the book and the series, is how much do you dwell on the past and how much do you move forward toward the future? How would you describe where Kirsten, the character, falls on that and where you fall?

DAVIS: I just took a flight overnight, and when my sister was dropping me off at the airport, I saw everybody in masks and was like, oh, we're always going to wear masks at the airport. This isn't just now. This is forever now. Like, when do they stop doing it? And so in that sense, I don't know. I guess there is no before. Like, we keep thinking that this is a phase instead of the sort of new order of things. And Keer-stin, I think - Kirsten - I think when we meet her at the beginning of the show, she's really trapped between compartmentalizing the past and keeping it locked in a really sort of private, safe place that is starting to push to the edges and burst through the seams a little bit. And by the end of the show, she's found some way of fusing the child and the adult rather than keeping them separate in this state of, like, kind of arrested development split-ness.

PFEIFFER: Mackenzie Davis plays Kirsten in "Station Eleven." Thanks a lot for talking about the show.

DAVIS: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.