Primed for stardom by Quentin Tarantino, this summer Margaret Qualley stars alongside Margot Robbie, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Before appearing in a blockbuster changes her life forever, the actor talks overcoming shyness and her dance dreams with Rosie Byers.
Of all the people she’s worked with, Margaret Qualley cites Michelle Williams, Liv Tyler and Lena Dunham as the three she’d most like to sit down for dinner with. They’d make an undeniably formidable trio, but beyond Qualley’s shortlist, the range of household names she could also have chosen is extensive. Spanning film, TV, fashion and dance, her peers include Sam Rockwell, Ryan Gosling, Spike Jonze, Gia Coppola, Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders and, most recently, Quentin Tarantino, Margot Robbie, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. “There’s a lot of people… You know what? I’m going to go with that: Michelle, Liv and Lena,” she insists. “Because I get kind of overwhelmed if I’m talking to more than that. Two or three people is my safe zone – if you get to four or five I probably won’t talk at all, I’d rather just listen. But if there’s two or three I feel like I can actually engage with them. So I think I’d do that, get some red wine, and we can actually talk.”
Throughout our phone conversation, the Montana-born actor consistently refers back to feeling overwhelmed by the extravagance unfolding around her – from working with childhood heroes and Hollywood heavyweights, to being “pretty terrified” attending last month’s Met Gala. But not in a saccharine or overly earnest way. Instead, the 24-year-old diverts any opportunities for stuffy self-indulgence with humour and sarcasm, often speaking through uncontrollable laughter about whatever “wild” experience she’s retelling and only leaving a minute of silence when she accidentally flicks her phone on mute.
Though Qualley’s mother — fellow actress Andie MacDowell — starred in blockbuster films throughout her childhood, she wasn’t drawn to the industry until the age of 17, when an old boyfriend persuaded her to attend an improvisation class. “I really fell in love
with it. I didn’t think I would at all,” she recounts, explaining: “I was really shy and introverted. Or I still am, probably, but I’m working on it! Not that it’s something you have to work on, but I’m slightly better at talking to other humans now…”
She’d just started modelling in New York at the time, having recently quit the classical ballet training that had occupied her early teens. While the precise, practice-driven nature of dance played into her perfectionist tendencies, Qualley says acting forced her to get out of her head and operate outside of them. “There’s no direct path: do X, Y and Z and you’ll be a great actor,” she says. “It’s much more like you have to reckon with the fact that you don’t really want to lose control, so you’re pushing yourself to. You’re trying to relax in order to have all those messy, interesting things occur. I think that’s really exciting.”
After enrolling at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art that summer, she soon made her screen debut in Gia Coppola-directed drama Palo Alto in 2014, followed by a recurring role in HBO’s supernatural mystery series The Leftovers (alongside dream dinner party guest number one: Liv Tyler). Since, she’s played a diverse range of roles including a missing teenage girl (The Nice Guys), a young and conflicted nun (Novitiate), a possessed dancer in Spike Jonze’s 2016 Kenzo World Perfume ad, one of the few survivors on earth in a post-apocalyptic future (Netflix’s IO), and a privileged, tediously naïve young woman in this year’s adaption of Richard Wright’s 1940 novel Native Son. “Just getting hired. I’ll do anything!” she mocks, when I ask what’s drawn her to such a wide variety of scripts and genres. “Just kidding – I think it’s either a story that you find really compelling, or a character that you feel strangely attached to, or just having an awesome director or actor you really want to work with.”
All three factors collided with her recent casting in sparkly biographical miniseries Fosse/Verdon, which explores the tumultuous creative and romantic partnership between Broadway star Gwen Verdon (played by Michelle Williams) and legendary director and choreographer Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell) – two actors who had topped Qualley’s fantasy co-star list for years. Alongside the duo, she plays dancer and actress Ann Reinking (of Annie and All That Jazz), who had a longstanding relationship with Fosse after he split from Verdon, and also happens to be one of her childhood heroes. While filming, Qualley got to talk on the phone with the Tony-winning the star, now 69, every week – first to ask her research-based questions and to emulate her distinctive voice, but later for pep talks and to catch up on their respective lives. She’s put in far too many hours of gruelling ballet training over the years to label the whole thing “fate”, but Qualley, obviously elated, calls it “a very strange way to have all of my dance dreams come true.”
Her latest project sees her explore another “real person” role – though navigating a radically different terrain: this summer, she’ll appear as Kitty Kat, assumed to be a fictionalised depiction of “Manson Girl” Kathryn Lutesinger, in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the highly-anticipated ninth feature from Quentin Tarantino. Set in heady 1969 Hollywood, the film charts the relationship between a fading cowboy actor (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his long- time stunt double (Brad Pitt), whose lives intersect with that of a neighbour, the late actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), and her murder by members of the Manson Family that year.
Qualley was visiting her dad when she got the call: “Will you come and do a chemistry read with Brad?” For all of us who can’t quite imagine the heart-stopping impact of such a question, her reaction, even now, is delivered with a nervous energy that’s palpable through the phone: “I mean, are you kidding me? I was petrified… I was like Jesus. Fricking. Christ! That’s insane.”
More nerve-wracking was the prospect of working with Tarantino – an inevitably surreal experience for any of the millions of viewers who grew up watching and re-watching his films, pinning Pulp Fiction posters on their walls and dressing up as various Uma Thurman characters at Halloween. It turns out he’s “super warm and lovely and encouraging”, and while on set, Qualley kept a journal of all the wild stories he told. Out filming in the desert, she also bonded with co-star Lena Dunham, who’s now one of her closest friends, as well as that dream dinner party guest number three.
Though she has a few more films due for release in 2019 (political drama Against All Enemies, noir-thriller Strange But True and queer coming- of-age comedy Adam), Qualley’s main aim for the next few years is to settle down in one place, so she can start her “dream” of teaching a dance class for teens in juvenile detention centres.
Right now though, she’s away from home in Canada rehearsing for My Salinger Year, the forthcoming screen adaption of Joanna Rakoff’s bestselling memoir of the same name. Tipped as the literary world’s answer to The Devil Wears Prada, the film will see Qualley star as the young, recently graduated Joanna, assisting J.D Salinger’s agent in a glitzy, mid-90s New York literary office. Having just ordered all of the books her character mentions in the script, she’s about to settle into “a very mellow six weeks of reading out Montreal” – which, given the imminent release of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, sounds like a welcome calm before the storm. “Doesn’t it?” she agrees dreamily, seeming only half-aware of the pandemonium that’s about to unfold. “I’m excited about it.”