‘Station Eleven’ Stars Mackenzie Davis and Himesh Patel on the Audience Response to the Limited Series: “It’s Affirming That People Will Dive Into the Murky Unknown”

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As unlikely as it may have seemed in a moment when the real-world pandemic was yet again shuttering communities, the meditative, elegiac HBO Max limited series Station Eleven — which depicts the emotional and interpersonal repercussions of an even more cataclysmic, and thankfully fictional, outbreak — was embraced by audiences and critics alike.

Adapted for television by Patrick Somerville from the best-selling novel by Emily St. John Mandel, the show offers a bittersweet portrait of survivors making their way into an uncertain future 20 years later. It was received as a balm for a pandemic-addled viewing public, offering pathways of collective hope and connection as characters ventured out of a grim period.

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Central to the show’s ensemble were Jeevan (Himesh Patel), an adrift young man, and Kirsten (played as a girl by Matilda Lawler and as an adult by Mackenzie Davis), the child actress he encounters while attending a stage play the night the plague strikes. Jeevan finds purpose in the early days of the pandemic by watching over Kirsten; events conspire to separate them, yet through the passage of two decades, the way they touched each other’s lives endures.

Patel and Davis joined THR to discuss navigating the ambitious, complicated narrative, especially at a time when the nonfictional pandemic shut production down for several months after just two episodes had been shot.

The show works with such interesting, deep, challenging material, and it came to you before the world was facing a similar scenario. How did it reach you, emotionally, when you first delved into it?

MACKENZIE DAVIS I never fully understood what was going on, even while we were shooting it, but there was one thing that in the first meeting I had with Patrick and [director Hiro Murai] that felt really beautiful at the time, in September 2019. They described to me the story of Kirsten and then spent a lot of time on her reuniting with this man who had helped her survive during the pandemic event. And I cried in our meeting and then just never stopped crying for the whole show.

HIMESH PATEL I didn’t know that you cried.

DAVIS It was just such a beautiful idea. I mean, us reuniting, and also this little girl who you met onstage, and then you met her 20 years later onstage. It really moved me.

PATEL I loved the character. I related to Jeevan straight away. I had an immediate idea of what I thought he was about. I hadn’t read the book at that point, so I didn’t know the original source material, but I loved the pilot. I read the pilot before I auditioned, and then I read the book and I loved that too. It was all just a perfect ducks-in-a-row situation.

Mackenzie shares her role with Matilda Lawler as the younger Kirsten. How did you all collaborate to make that work, through the long passage of time she’s apart from Jeevan? Was it an unusual acting situation?

PATEL It was unusual in the sense [that] I was working with two different actors playing the same role, and in a way I established my relationship with Mackenzie’s character before I’d even met her, because we shot the pilot of the show in January of 2020 and I didn’t cross paths with her until November of that year, where we met up in London. At that point, I’d established a really solid connection with Matilda, and Matilda’s take on Kirsten.

DAVIS You know somebody as a child, and then you meet them again as an adult — they’re different people. There’s this interim 20 years that Jeevan wasn’t in Kirsten’s life. She became a different person and there are threads of similarity. So it made sense to me; it doesn’t feel unusual. I got to bear witness to your relationship with my child self in episode seven — which was the first episode that I filmed after our pandemic hiatus. I got to see my own memories take place and had them sort of formed organically by watching you, Matilda and Nabhaan [Rizwan, as Frank Chaudhary] interact and build a family together.

[Matilda and I] spent some time together hanging out on Zoom to have a familiarity with each other. I would watch Matilda work on set in the three weeks of filming episode seven, where I was just lurking in the shadows. I wanted to echo certain [mannerisms] — she frowns when she thinks — trying to incorporate little things like that, but it was done mostly just through osmosis, rather than a plan.

Mackenzie Davis in Station Eleven. - Credit: Courtesy of HBO MAX
Mackenzie Davis in Station Eleven. - Credit: Courtesy of HBO MAX

Courtesy of HBO MAX

Was the feeling of not entirely having a handle on the material, as Mackenzie mentioned, perhaps a boon to your performances — a bit of being at sea in a complex story that has room for interpretation?

PATEL There’s always a certain chaos in making anything. This was such a rich tapestry, a complex web of characters and their interactions and time and the subtleties of it all. And the man with the Bible was Patrick, our showrunner. I’m worried that this may be an offensive thing to say about Patrick, but I say this as a compliment: He’s got an ability to see story in an omnipotent way. He’s all over everything in a way that we just can’t really conceive of.

DAVIS And very three-dimensionally. In that multiverse way, where you’re like, “OK, what happened?”

PATEL Four-dimensionally, really. You’d go, “Patrick, I’ve lost my place here. I’m not sure how this is all [fits]. Am I doing OK? This piece of the jigsaw that I’m offering you — is it OK?” And you’d often get this very philosophical answer, and I realized it’s because he’s a very emotional person. He’s not just going to give you some cold answer like “Yeah, this piece A fits with B and that’s great.” He’s thinking about it in a really emotional and dynamic way … and that’s why it turned out to be such a special thing. But for me, sometimes it was like, “OK, I’m going to have to take this away for a couple of days and just mull over what he said.”

I imagine you experienced a bit of a white-knuckled anticipation as to how the show would be received, given that the world had just gone through a real-life version of the early episodes’ pandemic.

PATEL The pilot was my only concern. The rest of the show takes such a shift into hope, community and rebuilding, all the main themes. Episode one is the closest we get to what we’ve all been living through. I did worry [it would be] too much for people. It’s the first hurdle, so then what does that mean for the rest of the show? It was a great relief when I realized that it had been really well received on the whole and that people had found it to be more than that.

DAVIS The timing was tough, the concept is tough. And then it’s not a show full of movie stars with a built-in audience. It felt like we had none of our bases covered. It’s been such a really, really beautiful experience, because I think it’s challenging television. It’s not super traumatic in every episode, but it’s really thoughtful, beautiful, meditative television. It’s been weirdly affirming that people will dive into a murky unknown with a bunch of niche actors. It’s so cool.

Himesh Patel in Station Eleven. - Credit: Courtesy of HBO MAX
Himesh Patel in Station Eleven. - Credit: Courtesy of HBO MAX

Courtesy of HBO MAX

Did you feel that, by the time the journey was over, you’d been changed in some significant way?

PATEL It still feels a bit of a mystery to me, but it’s certainly left its mark on my life in so many ways. It was very hard at times, and it’s been a part of my life through some monumental changes, personally. It’s going to be a chapter that will always mean more to me than just being a job.

DAVIS The first four months of your daughter’s life, of you being a parent, were spent in a house in Toronto. It’s really an incredible intersection of personal and then, like, temporal experience.

PATEL Shooting episode nine, that whole birth sequence, I’d literally done that in real life — thankfully only with one person, but I’d done it less than three months before we shot that scene. It was research I hadn’t planned, but it certainly came about that way. But then obviously I was learning to be a father during it, really, and trying to make a TV show.

DAVIS The two most important things in the world. (Laughs.) Actor and daddy.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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