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Ahead of Station Eleven’s premiere Dec. 16, The Globe and Mail spoke with Mackenzie Davis about the delicate art of pandemic entertainment.Ian Watson/HBO Max/HBO Max

The premiere of Station Eleven is either a case of excellent or terrible timing. The 10-episode adaptation of Canadian novelist Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 bestseller focuses on the aftermath of a “superflu” that rewires life on Earth. However the HBO Max series might play in today’s variant-of-concern era, rest assured that it is all accidental: Television writer Patrick Somerville (Netflix’s Maniac) and lead director Hiro Murai (FX’s Atlanta) started shooting just before COVID-19 became a thing, pausing production for almost a year after their fictional pandemic was interrupted by a real one.

But COVID-19 wasn’t Somerville and Murai’s only challenge – first, they had to figure out a way to translate Mandel’s elliptical, time-hopping novel to the screen.

Leading the cast is Mackenzie Davis, the Canadian actor best known for her work on AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire, last year’s queer rom-com Happiest Season and, oh yes, she also fought a gosh-dang Terminator in Terminator: Dark Fate. Here, Davis is tasked with carrying the duelling timelines of Mandel’s story, playing Kirsten, a former child actor from Chicago (Toronto in the book) who, 20 years after the apocalypse, travels across the devastated land with her Shakespeare troupe, entertaining the planet’s few survivors.

Ahead of Station Eleven’s premiere Dec. 16, The Globe and Mail spoke with Davis about the delicate art of pandemic entertainment.

Station Eleven is adapted from a Canadian novel, it stars Canadians, it was partly shot in Canada and several episodes are directed by Canadians. But do you consider it a Canadian thing?

No, isn’t that weird? I don’t know why not. There’s so much infrastructure that’s Canadian and the DNA is Canadian. But there’s this otherness of depicting Canada in American film and television. It was so nice to read the book because Emily is talking about the Gulf Islands in B.C., which is where I grew up, and it felt so cool to read a piece of popular literature … it’s like reading Alice Munro. I know where that is! But I never expect American shows to keep the Canadian. It’s fine. The show was conceived to take place in Chicago. But I don’t know when something tips over into being Canadian when you have so much Canadian talent.

While watching it, I was trying to force it into the Canadian box. Like, I know in the novel that’s supposed to be the Elgin Theatre in Toronto in the beginning, not a theatre in Chicago …

I guess that’s what I mean by an otherness. It’s like I think that Canada is “other.” Canada is fine. But I don’t know. It’s funny it didn’t stay that way.

Television writer Patrick Somerville and lead director Hiro Murai started shooting Station Eleven just before the COVID-19 pandemic started.Warrick Page/HBO/HBO Max

When did you first read Emily’s book?

Once I signed, after I met with Patrick and Hiro to hear their vision for the show. It’s funny discovering a worldwide sensation that you’re not familiar with. But I loved the book and how it defies easy categorization. It’s an apocalyptic pandemic story, but it feels hopeful and like a fairy tale. The drive to create art for these characters is so strong that they choose the hardest way to live in a postpandemic life. It’s magical in a way.

What was it like making a pandemic story that was interrupted by an actual pandemic?

It was … weird! In some ways it was difficult because – you’re in Toronto, right? – I mean, yeah, we were there from January to July this year, and the lockdown wasn’t lifted till the end of June. In the winter, you couldn’t leave your house. But we were going to work and getting to be around 200 people and talk and have a community and take our masks off when the cameras were rolling. It’s echoed in the show, this testament to the fortitude of artists who want to make something. And, also like on the show, it became this cathartic space for this shapeless trauma that we’ve all gone through. The reason these characters perform Shakespeare 20 years after a pandemic is that it has to give them something as well. It’s a sort of therapy.

Was there any trepidation of bringing a pandemic story into a world fatigued by pandemic stories? There’s a superflu and people wearing masks and making runs on grocery stores.

Yeah, of course. But you know, the show isn’t about that. It’s about what happens after the pandemic, which we don’t know what that’s like because we’re still in it. So it gives a consolidated very, very bad version of the pandemic, and then life after that. It’s like scorched earth and seeing how fertile the ground is. But yeah, I’m not a dumb-dumb. I get it. People are tired. I’ll say there are no masks on the show.

Well, there’s that scene in the premiere with the kids wearing masks in the hospital …

Yeah, but that’s in a hospital!

I know, I know. But you see kids in masks and hear talk about fevers …

Well, after the first episode you don’t see that any more. Believe in the future of art and beauty!

Station Eleven is available to stream on Crave starting Dec. 16

This interview has been condensed and edited

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