Kat McNamara did not spend 2020 learning to crochet or baking banana bread over and over and over again. Instead, the 25-year-old actress filmed a horror movie from home, started development on a YA adaptation, appeared at virtual fan conventions, and plotted where her career goes next as she looks to explore what she calls “new avenues of her psyche.”
But the pandemic escapes no one, so we’re meeting over Zoom. “I have tried to make the best of it, being the stubborn optimist I am,” she laughs as we both admit 2020 was not the year either of us planned for.
But 2021 is looking bright, as the 25-year-old stars in the CBS All Access adaptation of Stephen King’s The Stand, a prescient work by the master of horror that follows a group of survivors after a deadly man-made virus ravages the world.
McNamara stars as Julie Lawry, a small-town girl with a wild side who finds herself susceptible to the call of Randall Flagg (Alexander Skarsgård), the mysterious and supernatural ’dark man’ who serves as the show’s chief antagonist. It is, perhaps, the role most unlike herself McNamara has played thus far.
“It was an exciting prospect because I get to be a chameleon and transform,” McNamara says, “but the ways in which Julie is different to me make me uncomfortable—the language she uses, the stigmas she holds, are just not okay. But because it’s Stephen King there’s not much you can really change about it, so it was a process of turning it into something good.”
Julie, says McNamara, is “probably the worst example of who to be.” Self-absorbed and ignorant, the character pressures men for sex and mocks those she believes are less fortunate than herself.
“This past year we’ve had the time to look back at society and the stigmas and habits we’ve fallen into and confront [them] and hold ourselves and others accountable for the ways we treat other people,” McNamara says. She hopes to use the show as “an opportunity to guide people towards the right resources” as further episodes air.
CBS risked the wrath of King fans when they confirmed the ending of the show would be different from the book, and with two fandoms under McNamara’s belt—and more than five million followers on social media—she knows better than anyone how perilous that can be.
In 2015, the Kansas City-born actress’s world changed forever when she was cast as Clary Fray in the Freeform series Shadowhunters, based on a series of young adult books with a passionate built-in fanbase. Hours before her casting was announced, “Who is Clary?” was trending on Twitter.
The show ran for three years before its cancellation, and a viral worldwide fan campaign launched in the hopes of saving the show. But by that point, McNamara had joined another project with another loud fanbase, Arrow. The show is the main installment in an “Arrowverse” that includes Supergirl, The Flash, and Batwoman. It promoted McNamara to series regular in season 7, and a backdoor pilot for a spin-off show focusing on her character Mia Smoak aired in Arrow’s eighth season.
News that Arrow would not get a season 9 was confirmed last week, but McNamara teases that “no one is ever really gone, and I know I am not done with Mia Smoak—if they ask me, I would be back in a heartbeat.” But what she does know is that navigating a fandom (or three) must come with boundaries.
“Being part of shows like Shadowhunters and Arrow taught me that you have to realize there’s a clear separation between what happens in the digital world and the real world,” she says. “It’s wonderful that the world can be connected, but we have to remember to appreciate the reality of the people sitting here with us.”
Yet social media kept much of the world sane this year, and for McNamara, it also gave her work. She began reaching out to and making friends with her peers and other creatives—“people I probably never would have had the chance to talk to otherwise”—and old friends approached her about joining new projects.
One of them is Untitled Horror Project, the first movie made completely in quarantine—as in, they never met in person while making it. McNamara’s Shadowhunters co-star Luke Baines wrote the script with director Nick Simon, and the cast includes Never Have I Ever’s Darren Barnet and The Umbrella Academy’s Emmy Raver-Lampman—all of whom had to do their own filming, lighting, costume design, special effects make-up, and stunts. “I am a monster now at self-tapes and lighting!” McNamara jokes.
“I was surprised by the chemistry of the cast,” she adds. “Half the cast I had never met in person, and a lot of the script is this quick-paced ensemble comedy. It clicked instantly. It was a great outlet for us to play and distract ourselves from reality.”
It’s always fun to work with friends—“the ice is broken and there is a level of comfort,” McNamara says—and right before lockdown, she also worked with another Shadowhunters co-star, Matthew Daddario, on the upcoming film Push. But the two had to “have a conversation” before signing on, as the project sees them play lovers. They not only had to navigate that dynamic as actors and friends, but also determine whether their fanbase—that loyal, vocal Shadowhunters fandom—would be open to seeing them that way.
“It was a thought process,” McNamara admits. “We were looking at the script going, ‘How will other people feel about it?’ It was a fun exercise because there were moments where we wondered if we could get through scenes without cracking up. Romantic scenes on set are so clinical, and it can actually be enjoyable if it’s with someone you trust.”
During the brief periods of downtime she found herself in throughout the year, McNamara also began developing an adaptation of the YA novel The Devouring Gray with YouTube stars and actors Gregg Sulkin and Cameron Fuller. The announcement, made on YouTube, revealed the trio’s desire to keep fans in the loop throughout production.
“I’ve had a lot of questions at conventions over the years about process,” says McNamara. “I can talk about it and describe it, but if we have a unique opportunity, and know folks have a desire to learn about how the magic is made, it’s nice to be able to include people who are passionate.”
As for what’s next in McNamara’s career, she says she’s always had a mind to direct, but doesn’t know if that will happen this early in her career. She shadowed her directors on Arrow, and worked closely with the Shadowhunters crew, learning as much about their process as possible. Now, she wants “a seat at the creative table.”
Last year was a “test of patience” for the TV star, she admits—she planned to have wrapped at least four new projects by December, all of which were placed on hold. “My biggest fear is not utilizing every opportunity that has come my way,” she says. “My whole career has been this series of jumping in with both feet and taking chances that just happen to come up, taking leaps of faith and seeing what happens, and it has served me well, so I don’t want that momentum to stop.”
In the meantime, well, there’s one indulgence McNamara’s allowing herself: binge-watching Love Island (the U.K. version, of course). “I went back to the original season 1,” she says, “they were stuck in a house and I was stuck in a house and it made me feel so alone, but I am also wondering…sign me up? Can I go on U.K. Love Island?”
With everything she has lined up over the next few years, she won’t have the time.