Kerry Bishé, who plays Donna Emmerson on AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire, discusses Donna’s rivalry with her former colleagues, how she feels about competing against her own daughter, and why Donna “doesn’t know her heart of hearts.”
Q: What was it like working on this final season knowing it would be the last time?
A: Knowing that it was ending was a real blessing, actually. It really makes you appreciate every day, the people you’re working with and the character you get to work on. Also, it allows the writers to really think and consider what would be a meaningful and narrative way to wrap up these people’s lives.
Q: Several years have passed between seasons. How has Donna changed in that time?
A: Where we leave Donna at the end of Season 3, it feels a little bit like a crossroads. She has to choose how she’s going to live her life after she gets kicked out of this group that she’s been so intimately tied to for so many years now. I think she feels this incredible motivation to succeed in order to prove to them that she can do it on her own.
Q: Although she’s doing well at AGGE, does she still carry the sting of being ousted from the project by Cameron at the end of last season?
A: By Episode 3, I think Donna looks like and probably feels like she’s got it all. I think that’s where we find her at the beginning of Season 4. It appears like she’s juggling all the balls. That’s a great place to start a season because it can’t stay true very well. The cracks get revealed pretty quickly. If your motivation is to prove to somebody else that you’ve got value, I don’t know how sincere a belief you have in your own success unless other people affirm that for you.
Q: How does Donna feel about her arrangement with Gordon as divorced parents? Does she think it’s working?
A: I think they have a much more constructive relationship after their marriage. It seems like they get to do the thing that they were good at, which is be a team. We see Donna enjoying that freedom and living her life in a way she couldn’t before. She really relies on Gordon as a co-parent, but there are flaws in her plan that maybe aren’t revealed to her yet. [Laughs]
Q: In the Season Premiere, it’s during one of those monthly parent chats that Donna hears about the web indexing idea she then passes along to Rover. How aware is Donna that she might have stolen that idea?
A: I think it’s probably in the camp of rationalization. Donna is truly, deeply of the belief that ideas matter and that inspiration is a gift. She’s convinced she’s a person that doesn’t have that gift. I think a big part of her deep ties to these other people is that they are the imaginative ones and they fuel Donna’s creativity in the world. Without them, she doesn’t have that. It’s a compartmentalization and rationalization of trying to convince herself that ideas are cheap and it’s the work that matters. Everybody is working on the same idea. Whoever gets there first and best is going to win, and she’s trying to be that person. I don’t know if that’s something she really believes or what she tells herself so she can sleep at night.
Q: In Episode 3, Gordon confronts Donna about it, revealing Comet was Haley‘s idea. Does that change Donna’s rationalization at all?
A: It ups the stakes, that’s for sure. If anything, it makes her double down. I think there’s a feeling of this being about Donna’s multi-billion dollar company. For her daughter who is a teenager, how can the stakes be just as high? It’s her hobby. At the same time, it’s getting Haley out of her shell and turning her into a really beautiful and interesting person and letting her be herself. Donna is also so proud of her daughter in that moment. It’s complicated.
Q: Also in Episode 3, Donna confronts Cameron during the gaming panel. Why do you think she does that in a public forum?
A: Maybe she’s drunk? [Laughs] That’s a tough one. It seems like something an insane or drunk person would do. I guess there’s a sense of trying to prove, in a public forum, that you are the person that is right, but doing it in the manner that she does only makes you seem crazy.
Q: Do you think some part of Donna wants to repair the relationship with Cameron?
A: I think Donna is really far away from knowing what her heart of hearts feels. She’s acting on impulses that have very little to do with a deep, sophisticated knowledge of herself. I think it’s clear that you wouldn’t engage with a person unless you needed something from them or hoped that there was something there for you. I think that fact is obscured from Donna herself while she’s behaving in these ways.
Q: Given Donna’s success, why do you think she is so threatened by Trip?
A: There’s an expression that when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Once you start using sexism as a reason to explain what’s happening to you, it’s really hard to not see it everywhere. I think Donna has started to see it everywhere and she’s worried this is a boy’s club. She’s got a long road to go down before she can hear anybody’s good advice or criticism. I don’t know that Donna is in a place to hear or take it in.
Q: Do you think Donna lashing out at her team and embarrassing herself at the “make-up” dinner are mistakes Donna would normally make? Is there something else at the root of them?
A: There’s a part of Donna that suffers from a lack of good examples of how and who to be. She’s trying to be a boss like Joe MacMillan and that shoe doesn’t fit. She’s following the wrong example and that’s getting her down these bad paths. There’s that struggle when it seems like you’ve got everything you want and yet, you’re still unfulfilled. I think that leads to a lot of the trouble she gets herself in. She doesn’t know her heart of hearts. She keeps lashing out and hoping that even more success at work will somehow fulfill her, but she really wants her old partners’ respect.
Q: What was it like saying goodbye on your last day of shooting?
A: I had many feelings in all different directions. It was a fascinating experience to end a job after this much time and say goodbye to our crew, this team of eccentric weirdo actors, and this character who I’ve been intimately related with for years. What was great was that in the last two weeks, you could walk up to anybody like the boom guy and be like, “How are you feeling?” And people would legitimately talk to you about how they’re feeling about wrapping up. That was lovely and satisfying. Knowing that the show is over and the Chrises [executive producers Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers] got to let our characters say goodbye was a really fun and beautiful way to finish.
Q: What has this show and character meant to you for the past five years?
A: It’s been like a master class in acting – getting to work with such unbelievably talented partners at work every day. I really learned what everybody on the crew does. That sounds crazy, but I think I understand how a set works so much better and I’m grateful for that understanding. This show has given me opportunities to engage in the world and in organizations and projects I find significant and impactful. For instance, I’ve gotten to work with the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, which focuses on helping scientists communicate their ideas to a broader audience and the Sloan foundation, which supports science and art and culture. And also, a bunch of different initiatives that are expanding computer science education to people of color and people who don’t normally have access or experience in STEM fields. That feels like a really important part of the future. The people that create technology products are creating things that solve the problems in our lives, so if you only have one type of person creating that, you’re only going to answer a small portion of the questions of the human race. If we provide that access to lots of different kinds of people, we’ll solve lots of different types of problems.
Read a Q&A with Mackenzie Davis, who plays Cameron.
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