Margaret was photographed and interviewed for the October issue of Harper’s Bazaar. Check out the photoshoot and interview below!
Margaret Qualley Is Learning to Let Go
Margaret Qualley’s career is taking off, and the 26-year-old actor and former ballerina is embracing the ride.
HARPER’S BAZAAR – It is late July in New York City’s East Village, and the streets teem with sensory abundance. To observe people strutting down the sidewalks near Tompkins Square Park is to wonder if bucket hats and crop tops are the only available attire in the entire metropolitan area. Trey Songz’s late-aughts anthem “Say Aah” booms over neon drinks and revelers spilling out of Miss Lily’s 7A café. Dogs and skin and bikes are out. An afternoon breeze sets in. It is finally summer, finally not the thick of a pandemic (a glorious pre-Delta period that just weeks later will engender nostalgia). It is an ideal place to be if you are 26 years old, as Margaret Qualley is, and in love with New York, as she has been since she moved to the city to study at the American Ballet Theatre when she was 16. “There’s so much kissing on the street right now, you know?” she says, in a giant vintage Nike tee and a pink Las Vegas hat she got at a gas station. “We’ve been reminded of what it’s like to experience things collectively, and I think you can feel that. The city feels alive and silly and spontaneous.”
Qualley is back in Manhattan after nine months on Vancouver Island shooting Maid, the new Netflix series based on Stephanie Land’s memoir, Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive. In it, she portrays Alex, a 25-year-old mother trying to untangle herself and her young daughter from an emotionally abusive relationship, ricocheting between family members and government safety nets that fail her as she free-falls into poverty. She takes a job as a housekeeper, and she’s good at it, though not as skilled as she is at writing about the lives of the people whose credenzas and dildo drawers she dusts. The producers were still trying to cast the role of Alex’s mother, a free-spirited artist with undiagnosed bipolar disorder, when Qualley arrived in Canada to quarantine before filming. “It just hit me that my mom should do it,” she says. She made the case in passionate emails to executive producers Molly Smith Metzler and John Wells, as well as her Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood costar Margot Robbie, whose company, LuckyChap, coproduced the series. It helped, of course, that her mother is Golden Globe–nominated actor Andie MacDowell. The execs were persuaded.
The experience of playing a daughter opposite her actual mother was profound. “When you walk into a room and your mom is there, that does something to you,” she says. “Not only do you have permission to touch her like family, but rolling your eyes is a built-in response in the same way that tearing up from a well-timed hug is.” With her real mother watching, Qualley stepped into the role of one—along with the small triumphs and slogs that come with spending intense time with a child. She is effusive when she talks about Rylea Nevaeh Whittet, who plays her daughter, and their closeness made her patient and strategic, like an actual parent. Sometimes a four-year-old doesn’t want to get into a car seat for 20 takes, so Qualley got creative, throwing Whittet up on her shoulders or playing elaborate games of pretend. “Besides acting with my mom, the relationship with Rylea really hit me the hardest,” she explains. “When she’s asleep in my arms, that was happening for real. Having a little four-year-old cling on to you and need you is such a wild and special experience.”
Qualley very much wants kids of her own someday. “Despite the fact that I dress like this,” she says, gesturing to the cavernous tee that someone earnestly wore in the 1990s, “I’ve always dreamt of getting married. There’s a girly-girl part of me that’s thought about what my wedding would be like.” (Big, drunken, with a dress that’s not too long, so she can dance, she adds.) “And I’ve dreamt of having kids. I’m a real romantic in that way.”
There is a tenderness to Qualley, a softness and silliness that she can bury for roles—certainly for her commanding performance in Maid, which is steered by grit and vigilance. “Unfortunately, it’s so common,” she says, choosing her words carefully when I ask how she prepared for the emotional abuse her character endures. “And it’s true that more than half of people experience some level of psychological threat within a relationship in their lifetime. I just did my best to read the script and experience Alex’s reality as much as possible within the scenes.”
Anyone with a calendar and internet access might also put together that Qualley was filming this role at the same time that she was dating Shia LaBeouf. News of their relationship broke in December, just one week after singer-songwriter FKA Twigs filed a lawsuit against the actor alleging sexual battery, assault, and intentional infliction of emotional distress during their prior relationship. By early January, Qualley and LaBeouf had split. In February, when Twigs detailed her story to Elle magazine, Qualley posted the cover on her Instagram account with the caption “Thank you.” “I think a lot of people were moved by your support,” I say of the post. “And I can’t imagine it was a decision you made lightly. Why did you do it?”
“It was important to me for her to know that I believe her—and it’s as simple as that,” Qualley says, her face open but unreadable, before politely saying that she doesn’t want to talk about her personal life. She’s not surprised, though, that this latest role may prompt questions about that time period. “Yeah,” she says, acknowledging the inquiries that are bound to come her way. “I’m like”—and then, with her elegant ballerina arms, she does an exaggerated pantomime of buckling a seatbelt over herself and settling into Drive—“all right.”
But she does want to talk about her personal life. Qualley tells me about how after years of contorting herself into an idea of a person (aloof, shy, “cool”), she’s recently gotten closer to the person she was when she was a kid (goofy, open). She shows me pictures of the cardboard box in her apartment that until recently served as her breakfast table. She tells me a story about going to Paris and London with her siblings, Rainey, 31, and Justin, 35. It was the end of 2019, and they had all recently been broken up with. None of them could sleep, so they got breakfast early, walked for miles, gave museums a shot, ate ice cream, walked more. Her brother was eating jalapeños and lemons, which he’d heard release endorphins to help with depression. “And we were all hating on ourselves so much,” Qualley recalls. Reflected by the people cut from her same cloth, she saw her own proclivity for self-deprecation. “I was like, Can we all just band together and stop hating ourselves?”
So she started going easier on herself, and it’s made her happier. She’s let go of some of the control she’d been bringing to work since she was a teenager pursuing professional dance. She’s carried that approach into fashion, an industry that’s been delighted to have her. (Earlier in the summer, she walked as the iconic bride in the last look at the Chanel couture show.) “I used to go into these environments feeling really scared of the way I’d be seen, really self-critical,” she explains. “And then I realized if I relinquish control, if I don’t micromanage the things I’m not even qualified to micromanage and give over faith to whoever, I have a lot of fun.” Of course, part of what makes this letting go easier, she knows, is that in her short career, she’s worked with an unusually high number of enviable creators: Quentin Tarantino, Spike Jonze, Sofia Coppola, Olivia Wilde, Chanel’s Virginie Viard. “Margaret is uniquely spontaneous and raw as an actor,” says Lila Neugebauer, who directed her in the haunting fifth episode of Maid. “She’s deftly attuned to her instincts, completely available to her scene partner, and a riveting live wire.”
Qualley next brings those instincts to the independent film Sanctuary, a “bizarre love story” about 24 hours in a hotel room with a dominatrix (her). Later in the year, she’ll go to Panama, where her dad lives, to shoot The Stars at Noon, a Claire Denis adaptation of Denis Johnson’s 1986 novel, in which she plays an American posing as a journalist in Nicaragua during Sandinista rule. For now, however, she’s heading back to being 26 during an unprecedented summer in New York. She might go to dinner, or to a rooftop, or to a party in East River Park. But she’s just as likely to go home and prepare for the next character. “Work fun,” she calls it. “I’m just working really hard at trying to be good.”