Margaret Qualley is among the vanishingly few people in Hollywood who can credibly wield the word “gosh.” Jimmy Stewart’s favorite interjection resounds through her sentences like a slingshot, going hand in hand with her soft North Carolina twang and sweet manner. She is one of an even smaller number of actresses who could take the prompt “You’re having an argument with your hand” and make it make sense. That was just one of the things Spike Jonze asked Qualley to do when she auditioned for a Kenzo perfume campaign he was directing. The clip subverts your typical fragrance ad: A glamorous woman in a green gown walks the halls of an architectural landmark. Then there’s a glitch in the Matrix. She starts going manic, flailing like a velociraptor, shooting laser beams from her hands like a sci-fi heroine racing into intergalactic battle and, yes, fighting with her own extremities.
Even though it was less than four minutes long, that performance proved to the world that Qualley was incredibly game, without the usual starlet brand of hesitancy. (It’s an example of what she calls her “puppy energy.”) The moves were courtesy of her ballet training, while the spontaneity came from her next passion after ballet, improv. “I like to play, like a little kid,” she says. “All different kinds of play are fun to me.” As a ballerina, though, she got used to restrictions. “I think we all create our own rules for ourselves so that we can play in a certain way, but there’s a balance. You’ve got to have structure so that you can dance.” Maybe that balance is why her characters never feel trapped in the amber of a “type,” whether she’s playing a nun-in-training in Novitiate, Justin Theroux’s troubled daughter in The Leftovers, a strung-out Manson girl in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, or Broadway legend Ann Reinking in Fosse/Verdon, for which she received an Emmy nomination. Qualley has been acting since she turned 16, when she quit ballet and moved to New York City by herself, an experience she describes as “jarring, but also the greatest thing ever. I think I like ‘jarring,’ ” she says. “I like jumping in. It’s easier to dive into freezing-cold water than to wade your way in.” So she wasn’t intimidated to be sparring with Brad Pitt or Michelle Williams as her scene partner? “Oh, just because I like to jump into the water doesn’t mean I’m not scared,” she clarifies. “I’m terrified every single time. I’m terrified right now,” she adds, with her first day on a new project coming up. “But I want that. I think that’s the point. Anything that matters is scary. Falling in love is scary.”
When she arrived on set for Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, she admits, “nerves were in play in a huge way.” But she quickly adjusted. “I think of Quentin like the ultimate jazz musician. His script has a rhythm, his set has a rhythm, his person has a rhythm.” She spent the first few days “trying to calm down enough to be able to hear his rhythm and the rhythm of the set and not clash with it.” She also clicked immediately with her costars—albeit in a very New Age way. When she first met Lena Dunham, who played a fellow Manson girl, “she gave me a cranial massage, in her trailer, right upon meeting her, and we did a meditation together and I fell in love with her right away. That helped me out.”
It seems that Qualley has a gift for making herself at home anywhere. She recently became a house ambassador for Chanel, and says, “I really admire the way they operate there. It feels like a family, and that’s my favorite feeling.” She often rolls up to their events with her siblings in tow, and describes the atmosphere as a warm one: “Sofia Coppola asking my brother about his girl situation, and [Chanel artistic director] Virginie Viard coming over and giving you her coat when you’re cold. It’s a really sweet group of women. That’s my favorite thing, to work with kind people.”
Next, Qualley will play a literary agent’s assistant in My Salinger Year and an American journalist in 1980s Nicaragua in Claire Denis’s The Stars at Noon, opposite Robert Pattinson. When we speak, she’s in Vancouver, preparing for yet another part: the lead in Netflix’s adaptation of Stephanie Land’s memoir Maid, a story that has only taken on more resonance at a time when domestic workers are facing extreme hardship and, in some cases, risking their lives to do their jobs. The series is co–executive produced by Margot Robbie, her Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood costar, whom Qualley calls a “real angel.” After Robbie saw the finished Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, “I got a phone call from her that meant a lot to me, and one of her voicemails I definitely saved,” Qualley says. “She’s smart, she’s running things, and she’s lifting people up. I’m really lucky.”
Qualley describes her Maid character as “a young mother who’s struggling to survive. She definitely has a low income and some blurred lines of domestic abuse, and she’s trying to operate in a system that is working against her, not for her. The thing that resonated with me the most from her story was her love for her daughter.” Qualley spent the early days of the production bonding with the actress who plays her child. “I’m just hanging out with her and falling in love with a three-and-a-half-year-old girl, which is kind of a dream job.”
Though she grew up in Montana and North Carolina, Qualley is a daughter of Hollywood. (Her mom is Andie MacDowell, who’ll also play her mother in Maid.) And she is keenly aware of the advantages she’s had. That awareness is part of what drew her to Land’s story. “I’m doing this job and I’m super grateful, but it’s not my voice that needs to be heard right now,” she says. “I come from a really privileged background, a really privileged life. I’m fine. I’m sitting pretty right now, so hopefully I’m able to bring Stephanie Land’s voice into the forefront.” I ask her why she feels this is a particularly important story to tell right now. “Because the system’s broken and we are in a divided country,” she says, “and this is through the lens of love.” ▪
Hair by Mara Roszak at A-Frame Agency; Makeup by Kara Yoshimoto Bua for Chanel Beauty; Produced by Meghan Gallagher at Connect the Dots.
This article originally appeared in the December 2020 issue.
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