Things are moving pretty quickly for Margaret Qualley. Shortly after getting rave reviews out of Cannes for her performance as hitchhiking Manson Family girl Pussycat in Quentin Tarantino’s box office hit Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood, the actress was nominated for her first Emmy, playing the part of choreographer Ann Reinking in the FX series Fosse/Verdon, which charts the tangled lives of ‘60s/’70s dance legends Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell) and Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams). Working with Tarantino was a dream come true, but playing Fosse’s collaborator and sometime lover was something else entirely.
The daughter of Four Weddings and a Funeral star Andie MacDowell, Qualley made her screen debut in Gia Coppola’s Palo Alto and has been working regularly in film and television ever since. She often refers to herself as lucky, but there could be more to it than that—while everyone else in Tarantino’s epic drama saw their scenes trimmed, halved or taken out entirely, Qualley’s performance made it to the screen untouched. Recalls Tarantino, “If they had two scenes, they now had one scene, and if they had one huge, big scene, well, that huge, big scene was cut in half. That’s kind of the way it fell for everybody—except Margaret. Her scenes were just so good that they could never get cut.”
How did you get involved with Fosse/Verdon?
I flew out to New York to audition in person with [co-creator] Thomas Kail, who’s remarkable, so wildly talented, and just a great frickin’ person too.
How much did you know about Bob Fosse going in?
Well, I grew up dancing. There’s not that many dance movies that exist out there—well, good ones—and despite the fact that I probably shouldn’t have been watching it, I did watch [his 1979 film] All that Jazz many a time, in the minivan on the way to various dance things. I really grew up idolizing him, and I really can’t express to you how surreal and frickin’ awesome it was to have the opportunity to play Ann Reinking. Terrifying, but amazing.
Was it a very physical audition?
No. We danced a little bit, but, honestly, I didn’t dance very much. I kind of wanted to dance more, because I felt more confident about my dancing skills as an actor than my acting skills. [laughs] But it was pretty brief.
How much did you know about this period?
I knew a lot. I mean, dancing used to be my whole life, so I definitely knew. People would ask, “Oh, so what are you working on?” and I’d say, “Well, I’m doing this thing about Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon…” They wouldn’t know who they were, and I’d be so shocked, because they were my heroes.
Why was that?
There’s something really special about Fosse’s style in general. My understanding is that he initially wanted to be a dancer himself, before he became the legendary choreographer that he became. But there were a lot of various physical problems, and instead of shying away from those things that are seen as imperfections within the dance world, he used them to his advantage. All of these things that, physically, are big no-nos in the dance world, he just capitalized on. He would accentuate the things that make people different rather than trying to hide them. So that’s why I love him.
How did you prepare to play Ann Reinking?
I was really fortunate because I got to talk to her. Sam [Wasson, Fosse’s biographer] gave me her number a couple weeks before shooting. So I reached out to her, and she was so generous, and we talked on the phone for two hours the first time that we ever spoke. She was like, “Honey if you ever need anything, give me a ring!” So I totally abused that and I called her probably once or twice a week, every week, for the entire duration of the shoot. She’s just remarkable.
What did you want to know from her?
I asked a lot of personal questions—really personal questions—and she was really generous with me. Even if it wasn’t something that was discussed in the show, I wanted to know how she felt when certain things happened. Like, “Did this scene really happen? Did it actually go down like it does in the show? What did it mean to you?” Just things that would help bring me a lot closer to her.
How much did she share with you?
She will only really say completely positive things about Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon. She loves them both dearly and they had a really remarkable relationship, the three of them. She has complete admiration for Gwen and Bob and, even when discussing more challenging topics, she has an enormous amount of empathy. Honestly, I’d call her just for a pep talk sometimes and she’d be like, “All you have to do is be honest and listen to yourself. You got this.” It’s just wild for me, because I’d really idolized this person for so long. A text message from Ann Reinking just popping up on my phone was just so cool!
Why was she such a big deal for you?
She’s so charismatic. She can take something that seems little, or meaningless, and just make you hang on every single second of her movement. She’s really a performer, a true performer in the way that Gwen Verdon was. In fact, Gwen was responsible for so much of Fosse’s work, and she never really got the recognition that she deserves.
What do you think the show has to say about Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon?
I think it’s a very complex way of talking about artists, what they formerly have been allowed to do and what they hopefully won’t be allowed to do in the future. It talks about the grayness in the interpersonal relationships within those dynamics, and how great it can be and how painful it can be on both sides. It doesn’t condemn any of the players or glorify them. I think it’s a really explorative way, without being judgmental, to process this story. I mean, the show’s coming out at an interesting time, when the world’s been revising their opinions about artists, and what’s allowed, and what’s not allowed. I don’t think this show provides you with any answers but I think it does provide an interesting lens into what, potentially, that kind of life could look like.
You’ve been spending a lot of time in the ‘60s and ‘70s lately onscreen. Are you enjoying exploring those different time periods?
It’s not really intentional but it’s definitely interesting. I think one of the most gratifying, rewarding parts of this job is having the opportunity to learn about things that I generally wouldn’t in my everyday life, y’know?
Did you do Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood before Fosse/Verdon?
I did. I’d just finished it.
How did it feel, being accelerated into the ‘70’s?
There was such a contrast. I think it’s different with each project, or with each lens. The way I viewed the period in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was so different from the way I viewed it in Fosse/Verdon. I don’t think you can be necessarily that general, I think it has to be more specific for me. You know, as a Manson girl, [the] world is very different than that of a New York Broadway dancer.
How did you get the part in Once Upon A Time…?
I auditioned, like you do. My dad was in Panama at the time, and he has a running joke that if you make plans to do something—like, take a vacation or make a trip somewhere—then something’s going to get in the way of that, and oftentimes it’s going to be work. Now, my dad is not tuned into the film industry—he doesn’t know what I’m auditioning for, or anything like that—but it was funny because he called me, and he was trying to convince me to come out to Panama, which shouldn’t have required much convincing. He was like, “Book a ticket, baby, and you’ll get a Quentin Tarantino movie,” and I was like, “Hardy ha ha.” So I booked a ticket to go see my dad in Panama and then, funnily enough, I got a call two days into my trip saying, “Hey, you have a chemistry read with Brad Pitt and Quentin Tarantino.” I was like, “Holy sh*t.” My dad flipped out, obviously, and felt like a psychic. But, yeah, that’s how I got involved.
So did you read for Pussycat?
I did, yeah. It was a normal audition. Just one scene—the one with Pussycat and Cliff Booth in the car. We we were on set, just pretending to be in a car while we were sitting on a couch. We talked for a minute afterward, and that was it.
Were you nervous?
The whole thing was just absolutely terrifying. I mean, it was exhilarating and so exciting, but I couldn’t be a bigger fan of Quentin Tarantino—same with Brad Pitt, he’s remarkable—and so I was absolutely petrified. But I got there and I talked to Quentin first and he was really kind, and funny, and charismatic. They were already shooting by then—I was really late to be cast. And then he said, “Why don’t you take a seat over there?” I sat down on an actor’s chair, and then I sat there and I read for a minute, and when I stood up and turned around I realized it was Leonardo DiCaprio’s chair. I was like, “For the love of God, there’s no getting away. I’m terrified!” Obviously I was pretty nervous, but Quentin and Brad were really nice to me, so I guess it went all right.
Did you discuss the character of Pussycat? What can you say about her?
Well, the character’s name was changed from Kittycat to Pussycat, because it turns out there actually was a Manson girl called Kitty. Quentin had thought it was just something he’d come up with, and when he realised that there was a real person, he was like, “Well, sh*t, the whole point of this was to [create a] new identity.” So that’s why she became Pussycat. We’d already been working quite a bit by then, and he was like, “Hey, I just want to ask you, are you all right with [her name] being Pussycat?” And I was like, “Yeah, sure.”
Did you have to do much research into the Manson family? Was that something that you already knew about?
Well, I did know about them. It’s really a part of American culture—people love these kinds of cult stories, and it’s something I was familiar with. But then, when I was first cast, Quentin gave me three DVDs to watch, and they were various documentaries about the Manson family. So I watched those and then listened to podcasts and did some research of my own.
How long were you shooting on the film?
Y’know, my part’s so tiny in it, but we were there a lot, just because of the nature of the way that Quentin shoots, especially with those scenes that take place on Spahn ranch. I think he didn’t exactly know what was going to happen on each day, and so we were all just kind of hanging out, which on any other set might be kind of annoying but on his set was the coolest thing ever. I mean, it was amazing to have the opportunity to hang out and observe Quentin Tarantino, and Brad Pitt, and Bob Richardson, the DoP—all these legends—and basically follow them around with a notebook writing down everything they said, just trying to soak everything up. So I definitely was around on set more than any other movie.
How did you feel about the wardrobe choices on that movie?
Oh, I feel like wardrobe has such a huge influence on the character in general—what you’re putting out into the world, I think, says a lot about you. I’m somebody who, in life, likes to pretty much be completely clothed everywhere—like, long sleeves and pants—and if I wear a dress it’s going to be past my knees. That’s kind of my comfort zone. So it was definitely a very vulnerable feeling wearing those tiny little shorts and the little tiny top, but it’s so accurate for the character and it helps shift the way that you feel. It pushed me. Part of you wants to hide, but of course, that wasn’t really the world that [Pussycat] was living in, so you just have to embrace that and feel more free. The costume designer, Arianne [Phillips], is amazing. In the fitting, I probably tried on, I don’t know, 200 outfits, so it was a really specific thing that she and Quentin had in my mind.
What’s your strongest memory of being directed by Tarantino?
There was one day when we were on the ranch and we were doing this scene where I say something like, “Charlie’s going to love you,” to Brad. There was kind of a weird moment where I wanted to make a noise, or do something strange with my body, but I didn’t do it because I was scared—I was on Quentin’s set and I just was too nervous to start taking any creative liberties in a place where I felt like I didn’t deserve to be there. And Quentin came up to me after the take and whispered in my ear. He was like, “Hey, I feel like you wanted to do something weird and you didn’t do it. Do the weird thing.” And he was right. He knew, absolutely, so the next take I did the weird thing that I’d wanted to do. He’s just really intuitive—he can sense things like that.
Why did you want to become an actor?
I didn’t want to be an actor growing up, I just didn’t. I wanted to be a dancer, and I was really serious about it, and I kind of had set up my life to do that and worked really hard to make it so that [dancing] was a potential career. And then I dropped out of school when I was 16 and started an apprenticeship at a small company, and I realized that I was doing it for the wrong reasons. I had just fallen out of love with it, because I was really just trying to be the best possible dancer ever, but not actually enjoying the process in doing that. And I also knew I wasn’t going to be the best possible dancer ever—I had physical limitations—so I quit.
What did you do instead?
I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I moved to New York, alone, when I was 16, and then I didn’t really know what I was going to do. I felt weird, because I felt that dancing was kind of a job at that point, so it was so strange to just be a student. But then I started dating this guy and he took me to an acting class. I was a little reluctant about it, and then I was like, “Holy smokes, I love this so much—this is what I have to do.” And then I tried to be an actor.
And it seemed to work out pretty quickly…
Yeah, I got really lucky. I got really, really lucky, for sure, yeah.
Why do you think that was? Did you get a good break, or did you have a good agent? What would you put that down to?
I got really lucky with The Leftovers, the HBO show. I auditioned for [executive producer] Peter Berg, and he took a big chance on me, because I didn’t know what I was doing, I’d never worked before, and I’d just started acting classes six months earlier. But he took a big chance, and I’m super grateful for that. The Leftovers was kind of amazing, because, for me, it was like a really high-pressure acting school, y’know? I was learning from all these really talented people and having to constantly read new scripts every week. Everyone on the show was super kind, and he was a great mentor to me. [laughs] I still don’t know what I’m doing, but I feel like I’m learning on everything I do.
You’ve got some interesting directors on your CV. What do you look for in a project?
Just to be hired. [laughs] No, I guess a lot of different things. With Quentin, I’d work craft service just to be on his movie. So it could be a great director, or a great actor to be working alongside, or a great story that seems really compelling. It’s not necessarily one thing. Different things can be attractive about different projects. But then sometimes you have all those things: a story you love, a director you love, and a great cast. That’s the dream, dream, dream scenario, which definitely is the case for Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood.
Your mother is a very well-known actress—how do you deal with that? Is it a help or hindrance?
I imagine that it can only be helpful. I realize that I’m super-privileged, but I try to work as hard as I can, and I want to deserve the parts that I get.
Do you think that’s part of the reason you weren’t initially drawn to acting, because it was in the family?
Probably, yeah. I think a lot of kids don’t want to do what their parents do. I love my parents so much—they’re both great role models—but, at the same time, I think that it’s natural for a kid to want to be independent. [laughs] But I ended up doing the same thing anyway!
What’s next for you?
[I just finished] doing a little indie called My Salinger Year. The film takes place in a literary agency, and I bought all the books that [my character] reads in the film, so I’ve just been spending all my time reading, hanging out in Montreal and working. So I’ll be spending [time with] my family, because I’ve been out of town for a while now. I’m looking forward to chilling for a second.
Are you the kind of person who has a bucket list of things they want to do, or do you just take things as they come?
Career-wise I kind of take things as they come. I feel like I’ve been way luckier than I ever thought I would be. Life-wise, I feel like I’ve got things that I want to do. But career-wise? Not so much.