The star opens up about working with Tarantino, her Emmy nod and how acting brought her back to her first love
Words by ROB HASKELL
Photography by BLAIR GETZ MEZIBOV
Creative and Fashion Direction by ALISON EDMOND
Video by Alex Loucas and Frosting. Music by Kid Bloom.
Of the myriad small dissonances that lend Quentin Tarantino’s summer blockbuster, Once Upon a Time in … Hollywood, its sense of foreboding, perhaps none is as charged as the image of a pair of dirty feet pressing against the windshield of a lemon-ice 1966 Cadillac Coupe de Ville.
“Dance feet,” explains Margaret Qualley, whose turn as Pussycat, a coquettish Manson acolyte opposite Brad Pitt’s stoic stuntman, was among the film’s revelations. “Feet that are just mangled and bad-looking and painful and will never go away. Quentin, of course, knew exactly what he wanted in terms of the setup, with my feet on the windshield, and the last thing I wanted to do was argue with his idea, but I was like, ‘Yo, though. Let’s just be real here. These are my biggest insecurity in life. I don’t wear sandals. I wear Converse on the beach. You really want to showcase these guys? Isn’t there a foot-double option?’” (For the record, Qualley follows in a long line of Tarantino’s leading ladies — from Uma Thurman to Bridget Fonda — whose feet have taken center stage.)
On a crisp morning in late October, as we sit on the bank of Echo Park Lake under a blue sky, that always-a-dancer sense about Qualley persists. She wears leggings and sneakers and an oversize, threadbare Pink Panther T-shirt, and her limbs flop freely in the grass. Although she possesses screen-siren looks that bring to mind Isabelle Adjani and Eva Green — the genetic legacy of her model-turned-actor mother, Andie MacDowell — in person, Qualley, 25, conveys a goofiness that softens her cheekbones (just as Pussycat’s blunt drollery in Once Upon a Time in … Hollywood provides a counterpoint to the self-conscious glamour of Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate). She laughs loudly and loves to poke fun at herself. “People hear my voice and say, ‘Oh! She’s really not cool at all!’ But they think I’m nice, and I’ll take that.”
From left: VERSACE coat, $9,925. GUCCI vest, $2,200. ADINA REYTER earrings, $2,498. IRENE NEUWIRTH ring, $1,760. MIRON CROSBY boots, $1,295. BOTTEGA VENETA dress, $5,190, and sandals, $1,270. MARCO BICEGO ring, $560.
After our meeting, she will make her way to Sweaty Sundays, the dance class taught by famed choreographer Ryan Heffington in his Silver Lake studio. The class is akin to church for its weekly congregants, and everyone who knows Qualley knows that when she is in Los Angeles, midday Sunday is spoken for. “I love Sweaty Sundays because it’s a low-pressure environment,” she says. “The dance world is very competitive, and I think that the pressure that I put on myself as a young dancer is part of the reason that I ultimately quit.”
Qualley was born in Montana but grew up in Asheville, N.C., where her mother has family. Her parents separated when she was 5. As a child, Qualley never thought of acting, which was her mother’s thing. Dance provided a natural outlet for her perfectionism, and at 14 she left home to board at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. Her plan was to drop out of high school at 16 and join a small local ballet company, but before her 11th-grade year she moved to New York for a summer intensive.
“I was dancing Monday through Saturday, six to eight hours a day,” she recalls. “And then on Sunday, I would go to Steps” — the iconic Upper West Side dance studio — “and take open classes. Those open classes are great because it’s very mixed: New York City Ballet principals and people who could be your grandmother. I think it was my second class of the day, and there was this woman in a wheelchair whom I was really struck by. We were in the middle of barre, and I just started watching her. She was so happy, really listening to the music and taking it all in. Obviously she’s not going to be a dancer. She can’t even stand up, and she’s not getting anything out of this class other than the joy it brings her to watch ballet, to listen to the music, to learn these combinations. I was like, ‘OK, why am I here? I’m not having fun, I’m not enjoying myself. I’m tired, my body hurts, but I don’t want to give myself a day off because I’m competitive and I just want to be perfect.’ That’s not the reason to do something. I started crying, and then I left. And I never went back to class.”
Her parents, who had tirelessly supported her dance career with car rides and money and applause, were relieved. “It’s such a difficult life,” Qualley says. “Best-case scenario, you still don’t really get paid, your job’s over by your mid-30s, you end up teaching in a small studio.” At the time, there was not much left for her in Asheville: Her older brother, Justin, and sister, Rainey, were in college; her father, Paul Qualley — a former model himself who became a home designer and builder — had moved to Panama; and her mother was on location. She took over an apartment that her sister was vacating in New York, got herself a modeling job, and found a school for working kids.
“I’m lucky and I’m privileged and I’m an asshole — but modeling was making me very unhappy. So I quit”
But modeling didn’t suit her. She recalls a month-long stint in Paris as a 16-year-old, amazed but lonely, too shy to make her way into any social scene. There was a moment when, realizing that she had not spoken in about 10 days, she lay in her bed talking to herself just to make sure she could remember how to form words. “Modeling was easy, and I was fortunate enough to be able to capitalize on the way that I looked in a society that will pay you to look that way. But after about four months I was like, ‘I’m lucky and I’m privileged and I’m an asshole, but this is making me very unhappy.’ So I quit.”
Back in New York, her actor boyfriend at the time convinced her to accompany him to an improv class, where she found her calling. Both ballet and modeling are silent cultures, but acting was an art form in which people seemed to be waiting to hear what she had to say. When she was 18, Qualley landed a role on the HBO series The Leftovers. She has worked steadily since then, and this year she received an Emmy nomination for her role as Ann Reinking in Fosse/Verdon, the miniseries that explores the tumultuous relationship between the choreographer Bob Fosse and his wife, dancer-actor Gwen Verdon. Reinking, the legendary Broadway dancer and star of All That Jazz, was also Fosse’s romantic partner through much of the ’70s.
“There are only so many dance movies, and I had seen All That Jazz a thousand times,” Qualley says. “But I had never played a real person before.” In order to do justice to Reinking’s famous smoker’s rasp, she listened to every interview she could find, practically memorizing them. Reinking couldn’t bring herself to watch Fosse/Verdon, but she was Qualley’s constant guide throughout the production. They spoke on the phone weekly and developed a true friendship. “Ann talked about everyone with such love and kindness and admiration. These were very complicated relationships, and the memories were painful for her. But I think she has real love and respect for Bob and Gwen, and that’s what I took away from those conversations.”
After a breakout year, Qualley is “chilling” for a few months — something she admits she isn’t terribly good at — before shooting a couple of indies in January. My Salinger Year, co-starring Sigourney Weaver and based on Joanna Rakoff’s memoir about her time at a literary agency, is scheduled for a spring release, while several larger projects are still under wraps. “Honestly, if people think of me as the girl who dances, I’m happy with that pigeonhole,” Qualley says. “I’ve thought about this a lot. As a dancer, I was a really hard worker, but I was never going to be the best. It was my identity for so long, and it took me a while to figure out who I was apart from it. But the amazing thing is that I wouldn’t have had the opportunities in dance that I have now if I hadn’t left it.”
“As a dancer, I was a really hard worker, but I was never going to be the best”
Qualley was the star of a Spike Jonze-directed commercial for a Kenzo perfume, choreographed by Heffington, that went viral in 2016; it was the first time she had danced in five years. “It reminded me of all the stuff I loved in the first place,” she recalls. “It was so joyous, and it was intentionally messy. The goal was not to be perfect in any way.” She has also made a short film inspired by Romeo and Juliet with the acclaimed contemporary ballet choreographer Benjamin Millepied. “And then to play Ann Reinking, someone I grew up idolizing. All these things were fulfilling my childhood dreams in a way that never would have happened had I just pursued dance. I thought I was quitting and saying goodbye to that world, and ultimately the path I took led me to such rewarding experiences in it.”
Qualley recently bought an apartment in New York’s East Village, which she is in the process of renovating. She loves to visit Los Angeles, where she stays in Eagle Rock with Rainey, who performs as a singer-songwriter under the name Rainsford. Their mother has also moved to the east side of L.A. Qualley confesses that she hasn’t yet fallen in love with the city. “There are so many great things about Los Angeles, but to me it’s a bit like Disneyland. I like visiting, but you don’t want to live at Disneyland, you know?”
There are moments when she wonders whether the destiny of any Hollywood actor mirrors that of Once Upon a Time in … Hollywood’s Rick Dalton (played by Leonardo DiCaprio): fading into oblivion on a floatie in his pool in the hills. “Are we going to be making movies in 20 years?” Qualley asks. “Is the world even going to be habitable? Who fricking knows. Maybe I’ll be at my family’s ranch in Montana doing doomsday prep. But the landscape of Hollywood is shifting right now, and I hope it continues to shift as far as opportunities for women and for older women go. Being the person that I am, with every job I get, in the first two weeks I’m sure I’ll be fired, that I’ll never work again.” She laughs her giant, generous laugh. “I only feel confident once I realize that they don’t have the budget to replace me.”
Hair by KYLEE HEATH at SWA Agency using R+Co.
Makeup by KATEY DENNO at The Wall Group
Manicure by QUEENIE NGUYEN at Nailing Hollywood using Chanel Le Vernis
Catering by Haute Chefs LA
Location Image Locations
This story originally appeared in the December 2019 issue of C Magazine.
Discover more PEOPLE.