Kerry Bishé, who plays Donna Clark on AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire, discusses why Gordon and Donna’s marriage is in a slump, why Donna’s lie to Cameron was “cowardly,” and the joys of playing a complex female character.
A: I think the way that Gordon and Donna’s relationship plays out in Season 3 is a really surprising and unique look at a point in a relationship that I don’t know I’ve seen on a TV show or movie before. These two people have tried just about everything they can think of to make their marriage work and it seems like they’ve come to an understanding without really fixing the problem. They continue on with the priorities in their life and the marriage has become too difficult to even work on anymore. It’s like they got into a base level of functionality, and then they just continued operating in spite of their hobbled relationship. I think with her deciding to move the company and her whole family to Silicon Valley, Donna is discovering exactly the size and scope of her ambition. You get the sense that as the stakes get higher for the company, the priority that work takes in Donna’s life is increasingly higher as well.
A: That’s one of the first inklings we get that maybe the deal they’ve come up with was a mistake and that this isn’t going to be the fruitful solution to everything that she hoped it would be. I think from Donna’s point of view, she’s been trying really hard to not let Gordon’s infidelity affect their relationship, and I think it’s a matter of a guilty conscience plaguing him more than anything. Either way, they ultimately realize they have to hold it together because they have a working relationship.
Q: Does Donna suffer from a guilty conscience of her own? Do you think carrying the secret of her abortion in Season 2 weighs on her marriage?
A: I imagine her secret – the ongoing lie about ending the pregnancy and not sharing that with her husband – is maybe one of the reasons California felt like a new start. California has always felt like a new start for anyone who’s ever moved there, and I think that’s a big part of the meaning and symbolism for what that was. She wanted to let go of his mistakes and her own mistakes. I think making mistakes can make you a more compassionate person, make you see other people’s challenges and forgive them as you would yourself like to be forgiven.
Q: In Episode 4, we begin to see the cracks in Donna and Cameron’s relationship. What’s causing that, from Donna’s point of view?
A: I think Donna’s facing a crisis with the ongoing issue of Cameron behaving in whatever manner she thinks. In this new context of Silicon Valley, Donna’s learning some lessons about how to be a bit of a hard-nosed business person and the compromises you need to make in order to make something great and successful. Donna’s interactions with Cameron suck all the energy and air out of the room and there’s almost nothing left for creative productivity. Donna’s doing her very best with the tools that she’s got to navigate a really difficult terrain, and she’s getting increasingly frustrated by it. I think that brings Donna and Cameron into a philosophical impasse at a certain point and I think it makes both of them do things that they wouldn’t otherwise want to do.
Q: Why does Donna lie to Cameron about Diane’s reaction to firing the Swap Meet guys? Does she think she knows better?
A: I think she’s asserting herself and is trying to do what’s best for the company, surely, but there’s also a sense of needing to feel powerful and in control at that moment – for better and for worse. [Laughs]… Honestly, I’ve never understood why she lies to her. [Laughs] As much as I want to believe in the righteousness of her decision, I think it was cowardly actually. I think it was a mistake and she should have gotten into it with [Cameron] and told her. The brave choice would have been to address the problem, but instead, she was exhausted and took the easy way out. I’m mad at her about that. I think both of these things are not ways you’d behave if you were thinking about what you were saying, your actions and their consequences. I think these were things that happen before you can grab them back and consider them further. I think with that scene, it comes out of a visceral need in the moment.
Q: Is lying and keeping secrets something Donna is getting more comfortable with? Is she aware how slippery that slope is?
A: She does realize that it’s crossing a line. I think it’s important to look at the world that the show operates in. It’s asking questions about the behavior of the tech industry business – and any industry that has a creative and financial element to it – and what you need to do, what you’re willing to sacrifice and compromise to achieve success. I think people find different solutions based on what they’re willing to do and based on the challenges they face. Donna is learning to navigate the gray areas in between the moral absolutes. I think she’s becoming a bigger person, but it does have consequences for her personality and her goals.
Q: What was your reaction when so many fans held up Donna and Cameron as characters celebrating female empowerment? Do you think the show is doubling down on that by exploring sexism in Silicon Valley?
A: I was obviously thrilled to have so much interesting and complex material to wrestle with in Season 2. It’s a real joy to find more dimension to my character and to start her on this path of breaking out of her bow-tie blouse cage she’s been in. [Laughs] I’m also really excited about the idea of female characters on television doing things that don’t necessarily have to do with the fact that they’re women. There is definitely a storyline in Season 3 that deals more overtly with sexism in the workplace, but in general, I think of these characters as people much more than I think of them as women. I think it’s really critical to see characters like that on TV – dealing with complex issues that don’t have to deal with romantic relationships with men or romantic relationships at all. Season 3 adds a new element to this idea of representation. Donna has been an almost saintly character and she’s pretty sympathetic all the time. I think [executive producers Chris Rogers and Chris Cantwell] have started pushing the boundaries and are trying to show a fallible, flawed human being, who also happens to be a woman. I think that’s really important, too.
Q: What has it been like working with Annabeth Gish? What do you think her character offers someone like Donna?
A: That moment when Donna interprets the meeting with Diane as another instance of sexism – she’s wrong. What I like about that is when the character starts assuming that things are happening to her because of her gender, she’s wrong. I think it teaches her a good lesson: If you look for sexism everywhere, you’re going to find it and even if it is everywhere, I don’t know how helpful that’s going to be to her. Diane is a very savvy negotiator of the business world and Diane acknowledges the difficulties of being a woman in that world. She kept her husband’s last name and continues to wear her wedding ring because it sends a certain signal for her to be taken seriously. I think Donna is learning some very valuable lessons from her. And I adore Annabeth Gish, so it was easy to think of her as someone to look up to and a role model to admire.
Halt and Catch Fire airs Tuesdays at 10/9c. Sign up for the Insiders Club to be the first to receive show exclusives.