Take one look at Kat McNamara’s Instagram and the aesthetic is pretty apparent. Natural photos filled with crisp whites, rainbows of sequins, and smiling pictures with friends and coworkers. It’s inviting, calming, the opposite of edgy. Now, go to YouTube and Google any TV or movie scene with Kat McNamara. Is she gritting her teeth? Snarling? Coated completely in her opponent’s blood? Sounds about right. Kat tells me she does her own stunts any opportunity she gets. She likes to get in the mind of the character, for her reactions and expressions in these fight scenes to be genuine. That snarling face, those fevered eyes? That is all Kat.
You may recognize Kat McNamara as one of the leading faces in the female action hero movement that has been taking hold of both the television and film industry as of late. Strong female characters are more than just a token side character these days, they are the leads, the stars of the show. But a strong female character isn’t just a cape-wearing, martial arts welding, muscle-woman. This character has depth, a history, a vulnerability that matches their badassery. In other words, they are a fully rounded character of their own, not so easily put away in a box.
That describes Kat too. “I’m a dichotomy,” she attempts to explain of her quick ability to smile, and then throw herself into her character’s cage match, sweat dripping down her face. It’s not something she needs to explain. Of course, she’s a dichotomy; most people aren’t just one thing. The difference is, we are now at a point where audiences and fans alike are ready to accept that women aren’t just a smiling picture on Instagram. We are fully capable of kicking ass and then jumping into a sequined mini dress. Kat tells me she just got done filming a comic role with Charlie Day, and has aspirations to do a period piece or a serial killer film someday.
Right now, you may know Kat McNamara as the CW’s Mia Smoak or Freeform’s Clary Fray. But Kat is ready for so much more. If Hollywood is opening its doors to strong, well-rounded female roles, it’s good to know we have Kat leading the charge. And not just because she can throw a mean right hook.
Your characters are so kickass. Did you always want to be an action hero? It’s funny you say that because I sort of fell into playing all of these extremely kickass females, and it’s never something I did intentionally although I am really grateful for it. It’s such a movement right now in the entertainment industry and it’s really highlighting the ways that a woman can be strong and I really appreciate that. As a little girl, my favorite Disney princesses were Pocahontas and Mulan. They were the ones who fought their own battles and stood up for themselves, and I guess everything comes full circle in the end but I find that interesting now looking back.
It seems like we’re seeing more female action heroes as well and you are definitely a part of that. What did you want to bring to these badass characters? Well, physically, you look at me and I am not necessarily someone who looks imposing, so you have to make it physically make sense. So, I guess the most important thing for me is to find the logic of it. The women I play who are so revered for their fighting, they have to be completely vicious, they have to be merciless, and they have to be extremely fierce in the way that they need to be very tactical and use their size to their advantage, but from a character standpoint, that would stop being interesting very quickly if they did not have a vulnerable side. You have to make sure that these women are humanized, and that they can be made a whole, real person. I think that is the most interesting part of creating a character, and differentiating these characters, it’s finding why they are fighting so hard and what is driving them and what their weaknesses are and how they sort of guard against these weaknesses being used against them later on.
You’ve done an amazing job portraying characters who may already have a pretty large fanbase. What were some of the things that were important to you when it came to taking on such well-loved characters?
It’s something that I was aware of when I was cast as Clary, and it’s something that I have only come to appreciate even more, as I have gone on to do that in Arrow, and in Maze Runner as well. The responsibility is not lost on me. I was a huge fan of YA, and that whole genre, and everything that encompasses, so I understand how connected the audience is towhees characters, and how important they are. I wanted to make sure that they come to life in a way that honors the source material. That from day one was my biggest goal with all of this, just to approach it from a place of “How do I elevate the source material?”, what is most important, what essence of this character can I bring and take further into putting my own creative stamp on it, and make it fresh and interesting by allowing my own experiences as a human being to shape my way of interpreting them, and that has come to life in a wonderful way. Also, with Arrow, something that was important to me because Mia is the daughter of Felicity and Oliver, two characters who have been so well developed, and a relationship that is so beloved, and so thought out and well played for seven years. I watched the show and tried to do as much research as I could. I did the same thing with Maze Runner and Shadowhunters, I made sure to read all the Mortal Instruments series, and read as much as I could, and give as much research online as to people’s opinions, and stay connected with these characters, just to make sure these elements are at least acknowledged at some point.
When it came to Clary/Mia did you end up reading the series beforehand? Why/why not?
It’s sort of a double-edged sword. I’ll use Clary as an example, I read the Mortal Instruments series, but I didn’t read the Infernal Devices, I didn’t read The Bane Chronicles, on purpose, because I only wanted to know Clary’s experience, I only wanted to know the stories we were telling, and the world as it existed when Clary was thrown into it, just in the sense of being able to really immerse myself in the world and really understand the implications of everything that was happening in the story. Our writers, when they were taking the story to from the books, they moved the timeline around to make it linearly make sense for television and in doing sort of changed the experiences of the characters which is helpful because then the audience can read the books cover to cover and they have a chance to have a fresh perspective on the story, and sort of a fresh “what if” if you will. But, it allowed me to understand, ok they’re doing this now, so, later on, this could mean this, or this could affect Clary in this way because of these implications and I am a fan of this genre, and I had fun reading them but it also helped me become a part of the world and the story we were telling be completely immersed in it and know as much about it as I could.
Who would win in a cage match Clary or Mia?
It depends on the rules! Are we using supernatural powers, or are we not? Because let’s be fair, as ferocious as Mia is, Clary can shoot sunlight out of her hand so… If supernatural powers aren’t allowed, Clary would probably lose. If we’re just going by pure fighting tactics and experience, Mia was trained by Nyssa Al Ghul, Mia has been fighting since she was a little nugget. So she knows every tactic, she is a born and bred fighter, so supernatural things aside, I think Mia would win. It’s interesting to play those to characters because they’re sort of two sides of a similar coin, and it’s been very fun for me as an actor to sort of go the opposite way.
What about you? Are you more of a superhero/ action fighter? Or would you prefer to be more behind the scenes where you don’t have to get bruised and beat up?
I want to be as immersed in every aspect of the characters I play as possible. That’s my favorite part about being an actor, being that chameleon. Getting to live a million lives, have a million different experiences, and sort of find out what drives, and what makes all these different people tick. For me, the fighting is part and parcel of that, and the training and everything else is something that I will beg and plead to do every aspect of it, and I work very hard to be able to do a lot of it. I credit so many of the stunt coordinators from Shadowhunters and the folks that have worked so hard to train me, and to take me under their wing, and take that time to hone this skills to the point where I can take on that where production allows. If insurance allows really, since there are certain things which let’s face it aren’t really safe for them to let me do. I do the majority of my own fighting and stunt work, and I love it. It allows me to inform the character’s physicality as well, and to have the experiences doing that, and the thoughts that go through my head and the things that emotionally come out during fight scene that will, later on, affect the character in situations they are emotional rather than physical.
I love your relationship with Luke Baines. Obviously, he is extremely different from Johnathan (thank god because otherwise, he would be in prison), but he is so creepy and amazing in the role, were there any moments where he genuinely scared you when you were acting out a scene together?
Oh, very much so. I’ve known Luke for years, and I absolutely adore him. Obviously spending time with him we have way too much fun. But, the character of Jonathan/ Sebastian has been my favorite character since I read the books. Then, having Will Tudor come in and play the Sebastian side of it, and to have Luke come and do Jonathan’s side of it, I was a kid in a candy store. Because, Will and Luke are two of my best friends, and two of my favorite actors that I’ve ever worked with in my life. Getting to bring to life my favorite relationship with two of my favorite actors playing my favorite character, it was a dream. Getting to spend time and work with your dear dear friends is a real treat, and a rarity in this industry, but it’s something I’ve really enjoyed. When there is an inherent level of trust there, and there is an inherent understanding where the ice is already broken, it allows you to really go places, and really let yourself be free to find the surprises and those little bits of magic that happen. And that definitely happens with those gentlemen, and I think it’s what made that relationship so visceral onscreen.
I saw that you’re going to be in a new movie called Assimilate and it looks like a very sci-fi/ horror type deal. What draws you to these darker projects and roles? Its always fun to see you in these things because whenever I watch a video of you, you’re just such a bright and sunny looking person.
I’m a little bit of a dichotomy, and I have always enjoyed that. I am a very bright sunny person, everyone goes through things in their life and it affects them in different ways. For me, the things I’ve been through have made me realize that life is too short to focus on the negatives. If you can have a positive outlook, if you can find that silver lining, it helps to handle anything that comes your way. This tends to be how I look at life, but I’m also someone who listens to far too many true crime podcasts and listens to too many things about ghost stories, and all these other darker aspects of the world. I wear too much black, some would say. But what that leads too is this dichotomy, and this ability to go both ways. I don’t know why I keep ending up in these sorts of projects. I think that’s just what’s in the zeitgeist right now, and I’m happy to bring those to life, but I was also able to do Charlie Day’s first directorial debut, so I go to do comedy for a minute and it was a breath of fresh air. I try and diversify as much as possible.
What is one type of role that you have never played before that you would absolutely die to play?
When I first started in this industry, I made a promise to myself to not get put in a box, so I want to be a part of every genre, and play every type of character. I’m dying for a good period piece, someone put me in a corset, and let me run around in a hoop skirt! I’m dying to play a serial killer, I want to do something really dark and weird, I love the idea of the variety that exists in the human experience, and I just love exploring every aspect I possibly can.