This interview includes spoilers for the season finale of Mrs. Davis, “The Final Intercut: So I’m Your Horse.”
What would you do if you learned that most of humanity was blindly obeying the whims of programming originally designed to promote chicken wings?That’s the conundrum Simone, the crusading anti-tech nun played by Betty Gilpin, faces in the finale of Peacock’s truly wild and wonderful series Mrs. Davis.
Before she gets to that decision, though, Simone goes through a series of adventures: discovering that the algorithm she has been trying to destroy was inadvertently sending her back toward its creator (a woman named Joy who originally, unsuccessfully pitched the app to Buffalo Wild Wings), tracking down the Holy Grail and drinking from it in order to allow her husband (Jesus Christ) to pass from his purgatorial state, and revealing to her mother (Celeste) that her father had faked his own death, then died inside the piano from which he was planning to emerge for his surprise resurrection. With all of this on her mind, Simone concludes that, for the good of humanity’s self-determination, it’s best to shut down Mrs. Davis and its promise of easy satisfaction in lieu of true fulfillment.
It’s the right decision, maybe, possibly — or is it? After speaking with creators Tara Hernandez and Damon Lindelof, Gilpin wanted Simone’s choice to be believably fraught. “It’s not that Simone’s 100 percent confident in her decision and presenting a fully formed idea that she’s completely sure of — that I should destroy this thing,” Gilpin says. “She’s going to do it, but knowing what she knows now, she doesn’t know if it’s the right decision.”
What was your reaction when you learned that Mrs. Davis was, in fact, originally created for Buffalo Wild Wings?
Early on, Damon and Tara were like, “Do you want to know, or do you not want to know?” Then they told me, and I was like, “Oh, I wish I hadn’t known.” So I tried to forget it the second they told me. Then I didn’t ask who was behind the door in the sequences with Jay, because I liked having that mystery.
I thought it was a very silly and intelligent way to end our season. It’s not some evil ominous supercomputer, and it’s not a robot Mother Teresa — it’s just a robot-puppy-goldfish thing that wants your love and isn’t smart. It’s a reflection of who we are. And that’s almost scarier.
But I went to boarding school, and we would go off campus to this little picnic area to eat mushrooms all the time. Right before we started shooting Mrs. Davis, I went to my old boarding school and realized that the place was between — it still is between — a convent and a Buffalo Wild Wings. Did I create a hole in the space-time continuum in 2004 and make this?
When Simone tells Mrs. Davis why she’s going to turn her off, she says, “You weren’t made to care. You were just made to satisfy.” What did you make of Simone’s thinking at that moment?
As the season progresses and Simone is out in the world, she realizes that she thought she was at the “roll credits, end of lessons learned” time in her life in episode one. But she has a lot of growing to do. Seeing how Mrs. Davis operates points out the flaws and holes in her faith and practice. Instead of being a real nun, which is about not having all the answers but living through real faith and caring for people — regardless of whether there’s a guarantee they’re going to care for you back — she’s doing wish fulfillment, an escape. If she started as a nun with proof of Jesus, that’s cheating. That’s not being a person of faith. It’s having a boyfriend you’re making out with in front of you. She’s realizing that having all of the answers in your pocket on a screen is just another form of escape and wish fulfillment. That’s not what life is about.
Speaking of Jesus, when did you learn that the Virgin Mary would be behind the doorway in the diner?
Because we were going to lose the convent location, we shot the big scene in episode eight when we were shooting the pilot — before any of the other scenes were written. We found out on a Friday that we were going to have to do it on a Monday. They handed me all the outlines for these unwritten scripts, and I crammed all this information in. So that scene in episode eight, where I’m telling Margo Martindale, “Can you believe this all just happened to me?” It’s also me, the actress, being like, “Can you believe this is going to happen in our show? This is insane.”
It’s all about mothers and their children, and Mary is the ultimate mother. Whether she was the mother of the son of God or the mother of a well-meaning stoned carpenter — who’s to say? But it made me, as a mother, understand wanting to keep your child safe and in a place where you can always find them — and how that’s protecting them from actual life. The thing that drove Simone to Jay and to faith was the idea that she was going to lose somebody she loved: Wiley, when he’s going to get on the bull. It’s the deal with the devil we all make when we love someone, when we realize there’s no guarantee that they’ll never hurt us or never die. It’s a relatable thing to want to find a cheat out of that feeling. Even Mary wanted to find a cheat out of that feeling. Celeste, in her own way, was like, “My work-around of this feeling is to completely push my daughter away.”
With things like faith and the internet, we have the option to use them as connective portals to explore and become more intelligent. But we often use them as the opposite — to disconnect and hide in our own echo chambers. The parallels there, especially as they come together in the finale, are really inspiring.
All of that converges in the scene where Simone talks to Mrs. Davis with Celeste as her proxy. What was it like to film that with Elizabeth Marvel?
We shot that scene before we went to Spain, then we reshot it, because they wanted to get it just right. Simone was raised by two magicians, and I discovered through my research that most magicians are atheists. These two magicians were all about explanation, proof, math, engineering, and being in on the trick. Celeste is so eye-rolly and smart, then Simone takes on this life of faith that’s all about the inexplicable and intangible — everything Celeste stands against. But that proof part of her is still in Simone. Any time I was with Beth Marvel doing these scenes, it was like she felt this push and pull of the Celeste side within her.
Did you learn any sleight-of-hand tricks yourself?
I Zoomed with Teller of Penn & Teller to study for it. He had a humidifier just below his screen, so it looked like dry ice coming up through his face. He looked like a wizard, it was incredible.
There’s a trick I do where I fake catching the card, and that’s really all I learned. Andy McQueen [who played Jay] was teasing me, because he does a trick in the pilot where he reveals the ticket that says “Mrs. Davis.” I had been practicing my card thing, so I was giving him notes and pointers, and he started calling me “Teach.” But his sleight of hand is by far the best—way better than mine in the show.
In the second-to-last episode, you have a conversation with Shohreh Aghdashloo as the Virgin Mary in the belly of a whale while wearing a diving suit. What was it like filming that?
Shohreh was such a gift for that part. It was an almost impossible task to come in for one episode and just fully commit like that. These scripts are not actor-proof. It’s real text, and there are genre terms in every other sentence. We just kept lucking out. Every actor came in and knocked it out of the park. Chris Diamantopoulos, who plays JQ, has all of that dialogue in episode two that’s so important for understanding our world. He is both clear and insane in a way that puts you exactly in our world. Shohreh was like that too. Her voice alone — it’s like she’s 1,000 miles deep with every single syllable.
The moment she walked on, I burst into tears. It used to be that she enters and I say, “Are you God?” And she says, “No, I’m Mary.” Then the first time she entered, I was like, “It’s so clear that she’s Mary. We have to change it.” She just was Mary. We were all crying that day. I mean, the Lazarus shroud is definitely the most uncomfortable costume I’ve ever worn. It weighed, like, a billion pounds. Both of my trapezius muscles were in full spasm, but anytime Shohreh opened her mouth, it was like an island of peace, I couldn’t feel anything. In that scene, they would put down the glass dome, then within two sentences, the entire thing would fog up and they’d have to squeegee it. I was like, “Shohreh is giving such an amazing performance. We can’t have you squeegeeing my windshield every three seconds. I’ll just suffocate for Shohreh’s performance.”
In the fifth episode, you and Jake McDorman spend a lot of time reacting, Mystery Science Theater 3000-style, to this wild story you’re being told. What was it like filming that?
That was the last thing we shot in the whole season, and we were crying laughing. Jake McDorman and I are possibly soul twins. From our first scene together, the hatch scene in the pilot, we realized that this was going to be the most fun we’ve ever had at work. Every day felt like we were 6 years old in the tree house in the backyard again, making up imaginary games, and now we were doing it on TV.
There was one day in episode six when we were in the Trojan couch and I had to kick it open so we’d be in Celeste’s office. On-camera, while we were filming, I made, with my mouth, a kick-open sound — as if we wouldn’t have a team of postproduction sound professionals to do that, as if I was 6 years old making my own sound effects. They yelled cut and Jake was like, “Did you just make a sound effect with your mouth thinking that would’ve helped the production?” It’s like, “Shut up. I’m having so much fun.” I got lost in it.
I love it when a co-worker has a high capacity for both silliness and passion, and there’s so much silliness and passion in all of these scripts. Jake was with me at every turn — both of us coming to set with 20 comedy bits and pratfall ideas that we could collaborate on, then we’d be emotionally talking about their backstory and shared liver. I mean, the scene where we were with Beth Marvel on the train, the three of us, that’s the hardest I’ve ever laughed in my life. It’s such a serious scene, and I couldn’t keep a straight face.
I’m fascinated by Simone’s utility-jumpsuit habit. What went into its design? Is it really hot to wear? Is it comfortable?
The costume designer is Susie Coulthard. We had my fitting in New York, and we chose wool. Then we shot in the desert — 103 degrees in the beating sun. After the pilot, I was like, “Susie, we must change the fabric.”
We were talking about, “Okay, you get on a motorcycle, you get on a horse, and you’re running around trying to save society. How are we going to do this?” I was drawing on my conversations with Teller, who talked a lot about magicians being real engineers and their clothes having secret pockets and other hidden things. I also drew on all of my conversations with nuns. While they certainly follow the rules, they are all very specific, individual, smart ladies who go about it in their own way. Simone’s still Celeste’s daughter, she’s still Monty’s daughter. She would walk into the convent and think, I’m going to do what it takes to be with Jay, but I’m going to do this my way. She engineered her habit to suit her life.
We had a secret zip pocket in the sleeve that I was going to pull a tampon out of at some point, and we never did it. So we need a season two — if only for me to pull a tampon out of my secret pocket. We wrapped, and I was like, Fuck, I never did the tampon reveal.
What else did you learn about nun life from the nuns you talked to?
My dad is both an actor and Episcopalian priest, so that was a unique window into Simone’s brain. Having both been raised backstage with the idea that we see all the strings being pulled, I’m in on the illusion, and my dad had this other side of his life that was intangible and inexplicable. My dad has nun pals, and I Zoomed with them, and while I don’t hold the same beliefs they do, I was blown away by how many preconceived ideas I had.
As a creative person and an actor, I find that as I get older—and honestly, as my phone usage increases—it gets harder to shut out the noise, to find stillness in my brain, to think what I want to think and be creative, weird, and calm. And another character. It gets harder the more I scroll. These nuns I spoke to, really, the thing I noticed the most was that they didn’t seem to have any trouble accessing their spiritual selves. They just were. They are like living screens for what they would describe as the Holy Spirit. And it’s not a device in our show that Simone is a bride of Christ. Nuns get married to Jesus. They have weddings. They wear wedding rings. It is a real relationship for them. I didn’t know any of that. Something Simone realizes is that it’s not like she has this secret VIP relationship that no one else in the convent has. It’s exactly the same for Mother Superior and all of the other nuns. They just don’t need proof. They don’t need to be fed falafel and told everything’s going to be okay all the time.
You do so much eating on-camera as Simone.
She loves to eat. The king cake was pretty bad, because it was so dry, but the donut days were the hardest. There was a day when I ate nine donuts, then the girl who plays young me was so excited to eat in her scene. I was like, You can do it when you’re 10. You can’t do it at 36.
Watching the show, I had to confront the fact that if Mrs. Davis existed, I would lose so much of my life trying to get wings.
It’s one of the reasons I’m not on public social media. If I were having a day when I felt invisible, sad, or low and had the option to have my phone make me feel a false sense of accomplishment, validation, or security, I don’t think I could resist the temptation.
I mean, I use it for that anyway, but if I could just scroll to a comments section and pick out things that put me on an undeserving pedestal while trying to avoid the guillotine comments — I’m not strong enough for that. Simone is. And it’s cool to play someone stronger than you sometimes.
Mrs. Davis is about humanity at the mercy of an algorithm, and that’s where it feels like the entertainment industry stands now.
Even when we were filming six months ago, talk of ChatGPT was not a part of our lexicon. It seemed like a niche thing that I had seen a few headlines about. Now it feels so much a part of the mainstream conversation. But something we did talk about a lot, and something I think about a lot is: What are we losing when we have all the answers in our pocket on a screen? I have a 2-year-old. It’s painful as a parent, realizing that all the moments that made me in my life were moments when I didn’t have the answer and was unsure. I had to fumble through a decision or experience on my own and come to a conclusion.
Being a mother in 2023, it scares me that there’s an electronic work-around for some of those moments. What kind of person does that create? Are we opting out of the most beautiful and integral parts of humanity? Regardless of whether you are a person of faith, there is something inexplicable that we’re gambling with. And as an actor, there is a strange duality that I never thought I would have to think about. I was raised by two actors who did theater primarily, then I did theater for the first decade out of school. In that creative experience, there wasn’t a lot of interaction with the internet or turning around to see if the comments section was clapping. It was Off Broadway. The comments section did not care about Off Broadway theater.
Now I’m in this phase of my career when interaction with the internet is available. Do you want to participate in your own parade? There’s no guarantee that it’s going to last or be kind to you, but you could roll the dice and see if it boosts your serotonin today. I’m sure it’s the same with writing. It’s not just putting something out into the ether and it disappears. You can put something out there that maybe came from a cathartic experience of existential wandering, but then the result is on a screen for other people to comment on. You can get trapped in a result and unable to create again. It fucking freaks me out.
Right now, I know that the show is out. I know that responses have been somewhat positive, but I’ve not looked at anything, because it’s never going to be as magical as it felt sitting on the beach crying laughing with Jake, eating falafel with Andy, or sitting across from my favorite actors, Margo Martindale and Beth Marvel. No compliment or insult is ever going to be as much of a ten as those feelings. I just have to remember that every time I feel a little depressed on a Tuesday afternoon and feel my hand reaching for Google to search for some validation.
I’m someone who uses social media too much, and it can be much easier to write something you don’t care about that you know will get a good response than something that’s probably more complex, truer, and tougher.
If we get trapped in results-based thinking, or The purpose of me creating something is to get compliments and avoid insults, you’re going to stop creating something true. But, of course, the purpose of me memorizing lines and sitting in a habit is to make a TV show. It’s not just a cathartic poem screamed into a cup in the center of a field with no one filming. I work for a corporation. There’s a machine happening. But it’s possible to have a beautiful experience within that machine, and that’s what we should all be striving for — those of us who have the blessing and curse of doing what we love for a living.
I was happy for Simone that her horse returns at the end of the series.
Thank God! I was so sad when I thought the horse had exploded. They did not tell me it was coming back. I really thought the horse was dead the whole time. Sadly, in real life, that horse could not have hated me more. In that final scene, when I walk up to him and I’m hugging him and staring into his eyes and crying that he’s alive, he sneezed on me. This piece of snot was the size of an otter. It went up into the air and down onto my face, and the whole crew was like, Uuuuuugh. I can’t believe everyone didn’t throw up simultaneously. It’s on-camera, so maybe that’s a blooper that will live forever. I hope not.
What did you make of the windmill starting to move again at the end of the finale?
I believe it to be that Jay still exists, that he is the wind. His elimination from falafel doesn’t mean he doesn’t still exist … or is it that Mrs. Davis is not dead and moving the windmill on her own? The crew was very divided on what the moving windmill was. I even forget where Tara and Damon stand on it. All I hope is that it means we get a season two, to find out what the windmill is.
What else would you want to see in season two?
I’m interested in how it’d be day one out of rehab for Simone. She has to learn how to be an actual person of faith. She’s out there without falafel to go to whenever she has a problem. Now that Celeste and Wiley are back in her life, it’s a crash course in learning how to love and believe with risk and live without a guarantee. Mrs. Davis offers answers to all of those problems, offers a relationship without risk. I wonder if that is a tempting thing for somebody who is newly on baby-deer legs. It’s the ultimate Turkish delight — or Everlasting Gobstopper maybe.
But that’s up to Tara and Damon. I’m just the puppet. I put on the eyeliner and say the lines. I get covered in horse snot, then I drive home.
Do you have a favorite absurd detail from the truly absurd lore of the Mrs. Davis universe?
Finding out that Mrs. Davis just wanted me to bring the Holy Grail to its mom, Joy, was so heartbreaking. I think Simone had in her head that Mrs. Davis is evil, my mom is evil, I’m fighting my mom. Then she has this realization that it’s not this evil queen I’m here to destroy. It’s actually a little kid who just wants to please their own mom. That makes Simone feel complicated about destroying it, because she’s the little kid who wants to please her mom too. Realizing, Oh, God, it’s a baby! was devastating to me.
And I love that the grail is just a brown bowl skull.
I really did lose it when we learned that.
In episode seven, when Simone comes out of the ocean holding it, I lost two grail props. George, who was one of our amazing props people, was like, “We have one grail left, and we’re losing light!” I was like, “I’m so sorry. I can’t move in this suit!”
What is it made out of?
I don’t remember what it was made of. It was very light. Beautiful.
Able to be washed away.
Yeah, yeah. It wasn’t my fault!