- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
"Hearst Magazines and Yahoo may earn commission or revenue on some items through these links."
We’re not painting ceramic mugs. We’re not scaling a climbing wall as a metaphor for her ascent in Hollywood or taking dance lessons to explore the way she has found her footing as a performer, either—though she loves to dance and does it anywhere and anytime she can. Instead, Margaret Qualley and I are sitting in a corner booth in a restaurant off the lobby of a Greenwich Village hotel, talking about what it means to build a life—as an actor but also as a person—at a time when so much about both of those projects seems to come swathed in an almost extravagant amount of uncertainty, surrounded by questions that are almost too big to contemplate. I will, though, find myself needing to mention Taylor Swift at least three times, all for material reasons.
It’s midafternoon on a summer Friday, and the venue for our conversation, with its imported French decor, is quiet apart from the clanking of glasses and silverware as tables are set for the dinner rush. Qualley, who is 28, isn’t wearing an enormous T-shirt or a vintage novelty hat, as has occasionally been her wont, but a white sundress, her wavy brown hair cropped into a chin-length bob. The location was chosen because her soon-to-be husband, Grammy-winning singer, songwriter, and superproducer Jack Antonoff, is working nearby at Electric Lady, the hallowed downtown recording facility made famous by Jimi Hendrix and more recently Antonoff, who has collaborated there with Taylor Swift and Lana Del Rey. Qualley and Antonoff have been living in a studio apartment not far away while their own place is being renovated. They’re planning to spend the summer shuttling between there and the New Jersey Shore before their wedding in August. “I am so happy that I found my person,” Qualley tells me. “And it’s real. It’s amazing. It’s the best feeling in the world. I’m so excited and so at ease all at once.”
Qualley has always wanted to get married and have kids. In the very early days of their relationship, she flew to Paris to walk in Virginie Viard’s Fall 2021 couture show for Chanel, which she closed in a white high-necked, long-sleeved wedding dress, tossing a bouquet into the audience for the finale. Qualley took the opportunity to flood Antonoff with pictures of herself as a bride. “I had this huge crush on him,” she says, “and it was just like, ‘What do you think?’ ” Not long after, they visited a mutual friend who had just had a child. “I’m holding the baby,” she says, as she mimes cradling the newborn, “and I’m just like, ‘What do you think?’ ”
Now Qualley is contemplating what it all means in real terms. “Until about a month before I met Jack, I never had any furniture,” she says. “I would always have these shitty little apartments and move around from one place to another with a mattress on the floor and an Ikea lamp. I never made a home at all. I didn’t care; I cared about movies. I would use my sister’s basement in L.A. as a spot to keep my things. But I didn’t invest in that part of my life,” she explains. “It’s really exciting now to be making a home and to have something to care for.” She’s trying, though, not to plan too far ahead. “I just want to do everything with Jack,” she says. “One day I want kids, and I’m not there yet, and I want to keep doing movies. And that’s about all I know.”
Qualley’s talent has been evident from the moment she appeared onscreen as struggling, disillusioned teen Jill Garvey in The Leftovers, the eerily prescient HBO series, which premiered in 2014, about a society steeped in grief, conflict, and conspiratorial rage in the wake of an unexplainable tragic event. But things took a turn for the starrier with her performance as a wayward hippie girl who tries to seduce Brad Pitt in Quentin Tarantino’s 2019 Manson-era epic, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood—all dark, corrupted innocence and dirty, barefooted menace.
Since then, she hasn’t looked back. There has been a succession of leading roles in quirky, left-of-center films—My Salinger Year, based on Joanna Rakoff’s memoir of her time assisting J.D. Salinger’s literary agent; the moody pandemic thriller Stars at Noon; the talky, twisted rom-com Sanctuary, in which she plays a dominatrix who favors pussy-bow blouses over latex—punctuated by standout work in a pair of limited series: Fosse/Verdon, in which she portrays Broadway legend Ann Reinking, and Maid, where she appears in nearly every scene as a single mother and domestic-abuse survivor and got to act opposite her own mom, Andie MacDowell.
Qualley’s latest film, Drive-Away Dolls, which was set to be released this fall before the actors’ strike intervened, is a squirrelly road-trip movie. It marks the solo feature directorial debut of Ethan Coen, of the Coen brothers filmmaking duo, who wrote the script with his wife, Tricia Cooke, and contains a plot twist that will likely prevent it from ever airing on broadcast TV. But at its core, it’s a barbed, warmhearted comedy about a free-spirited 20-something (Qualley) who, after a breakup with her long-suffering girlfriend (Beanie Feldstein), ropes her more reserved best friend (Geraldine Viswanathan) into driving with her from Pennsylvania to Tallahassee on an odyssey in search of kitschy tourist sites, gay bars, and accommodations that are LGBTQ+ friendly. Along the way, the pair get drawn into a plot involving a mysterious briefcase, a severed head, and a band of hapless criminals.
In speaking with people about Qualley, one quality that often comes up is her presence—the way she can inject life into a scene or a room, but also how her thoughts and emotions always appear to be swimming just beneath the surface. “She’s willing to try things without questioning anything, and she loves to explore,” says Yorgos Lanthimos, the Academy Award–nominated director of 2018’s The Favourite, who worked with Qualley on both his latest film, Poor Things, a Frankenstein-esque Victorian tale of freedom and patriarchy costarring Emma Stone, Mark Ruffalo, and Willem Dafoe and due out in December, and a forthcoming one, And, in which Stone and Dafoe also appear. “I also like the fact that she doesn’t take herself too seriously. It’s the only way to achieve more profound work, I think.”
“I like to know. I also like to prepare myself for the worst. I like to make sure that what I’m feeling adds up.”
When Qualley talks about acting, it’s with tinges of humility. She’s had the opportunities she’s had, she says, because of the women who have come before her—including some she’s worked with, like Stone and Michelle Williams, who refuse to be pigeonholed. “The roles are more diverse,” Qualley says. “I’m getting less scripts about girlfriends and wives than actresses of my mom’s generation did.” She will watch her own movies. “I like to know. I also like to prepare myself for the worst. I like to make sure that what I’m feeling adds up.” But Qualley wants to do more before she entertains developing her own projects. “I think a lot of times, if you’re creating something, then a lot of the weight is on you for it to be great.” She is not, though, a reluctant participant in any of it. “This is stuff I wrote in my notebook when I was 16,” she says, “that I would make happen if I had a magic wand.”
She’s crying. Well, she’s both smiling and crying over FaceTime with her friend, the artist and filmmaker Miranda July.
“Have you been thinking about me?” Qualley asks, her eyes glassy and welled up, overflowing gently like waterfalls.
“Of course,” replies July.
“But not every second of every day,” Qualley says, crestfallen.
“No,” July says. “Not every second of every day. … I’ve been good.”
“I was in a movie,” Qualley says brightly. “With Brad Pitt.”
The clip is from an Instagram project that Qualley and July undertook in the late fall of 2019. For four weeks, they posted a series of calls, videos, comments, and screenshots that purported to chronicle their rocky reconnection after a tumultuous affair that had left both emotionally bruised. July had just finished shooting her film Kajillionaire and was playing around with the idea of making a “decentralized movie” that would live across multiple grids. This was pre-pandemic, before people started inventing ways to make work on social platforms. July and Qualley played exaggerated versions of themselves and shot segments wherever they were in the world. Jaden Smith commented on a post, so July DMed him and he got involved. (Smith suggests they perform a healing ritual called a “Hazion Circle” involving a silk ribbon and pennies.)
July and Qualley had met earlier that year at a party for Lanthimos at the home of talent manager Ilene Feldman in L.A. They immediately clicked and began talking animatedly. At one point, July put her arm around Qualley and led her across the room, accidentally causing her to bump into another woman. That woman was Taylor Swift. As Swift and Qualley became immersed in their own discussion, July sensed that her time with her new rising star of a friend was over and tried to quietly slink away. But later in the evening, Qualley gave July her phone number and said, “If you ever want to do anything, call me.” So July did.
July says that getting to know Qualley as an actor first offered an interesting window into who she is as a person. “She is just so raw and open to the moment,” July explains. “I say this with the utmost respect, but an actress can make you feel like you’ve just fallen in love, the two of you, better than anyone. It’s an incredible skill, and you walk away dazed. And then you’re like, ‘Oh, wait. That’s literally their job.’ And with Margaret, it actually was like, ‘No, we are in love.’ And it never stopped. It just went deeper and deeper. I just associate that with her, this endless falling. It’s like there’s no bottom, as far as you want to go, as risky as you want to be, as honest as you want to be.”
Qualley’s favorite thing to do is dance. For the longest time, dancing was her life. As a kid, she participated in Dance Moms–style competitions, where she wore rhinestone-covered outfits. She studied classical ballet, had private teachers, attended intensive programs. When she was 14, she left home to study dance at a boarding school, the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, not far from where she spent her childhood in Asheville. She even fantasized about dropping out to join a local company.
Qualley has spoken before about her decision to quit dancing at the age of 16, after coming to New York to do a summer workshop at American Ballet Theatre. There was the mental toll of it all. She was also in physical pain, always injured and aching. But the reason she stepped away, she says, had to do with how it all made her feel, which was tired, competitive, and angry, like she would never be good enough—or at least good enough to make herself happy.
“I am so happy that I found my person. And it’s real. It’s amazing. It’s the best feeling in the world.”
Qualley wrote her mother a letter about wanting to stop, about how she really needed to find herself and see what else was out there. She tried modeling and got signed by a big agency. She met Karl Lagerfeld and learned how to walk and hunch her shoulders and stand with her hands in her pockets like she just didn’t care. Except she did. She’s always been that way: self-motivated, an achiever, prepared to dance through a brick wall and sacrifice her own body if that’s what’s required. She still is.
“She put this enormous pressure on herself,” says MacDowell, who, when she calls, introduces herself as “Margaret’s mother.” “I think she’s working on relaxing and having more fun. I think she’s conscious of the fact that she is very driven, and she’s smart enough to recognize that there are other things in life. I think that’s something that she has to be conscious of because she always wants to do a great job. She will give everything to whatever she’s doing because that’s just who she is.”
MacDowell has had an incredible career. She’s worked with directors like Steven Soderbergh, Robert Altman, Wim Wenders, Harold Ramis, and Joel Schumacher. But her first film was 1984’s Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, and her voice is famously not in the movie. She learned only during post-production that Glenn Close had been hired to overdub her lines. It was devastating. She was 26 at the time. But when her daughter said she wanted to be an actor, MacDowell didn’t try to warn her about how difficult the road ahead might be. She told her to study and listen and find out what she loves and then go after it the way she goes after everything.
“This is stuff I wrote in my notebook when I was 16 that I would make happen if I had a magic wand.”
“She’s done work that I wouldn’t have done at her age because I didn’t have the balls to do it, or the guts, or also, I think, the freedom,” MacDowell says. “If there’s anything I wanted to give my kids, it’s freedom, because I think I grew up being fearful of shame—the shame of embarrassing myself or of my body. And I don’t think she carries that with her. She doesn’t worry about what other people are going to think about her or her work.”
Margaret is the youngest of MacDowell’s three children with her ex-husband Paul Qualley. Margaret’s sister, Rainey, who is five years older, is an actor and a musician and lives in L.A. Her brother, Justin, is nine years her senior and works in real estate in Montana. Andie and Paul, who were both models, met in the mid-1980s on the set of a Gap shoot. They eventually settled in Montana but divorced when Margaret was four and relocated the entire family to Asheville, where one of Andie’s sisters lived.
Margaret’s relationship with movies was always complicated. When Andie went off to do a film, Paul would often be with her and her siblings. “My dad would say that she was going to work on the oil rigs in Texas,” she jokes. She was aware of what her mom did but wasn’t overly enamored with it. “I think I understood enough to be proud of her. At the same time, I didn’t love the whole movie thing when I was a kid. My mom going off to do a movie just meant she’s going to leave town and go kiss some other dude and have a pretend life that I’m not involved in.”
Qualley remembers being obsessed with the 1998 remake of The Parent Trap with Lindsay Lohan, Dennis Quaid, and Natasha Richardson, about identical twins who conspire to get their divorced parents to reconcile. “I would tell my mom how much I loved The Parent Trap and be like, ‘We should watch it. It’s a really smart movie. They make a lot of good decisions in that movie.’ ” Not long after, MacDowell went off to shoot Dinner With Friends with Quaid. “She comes home and she’s like, ‘Margaret, I know how much you love The Parent Trap …’ And I was like, ‘Yeah?’ and waiting with bated breath, hoping my parents were getting back together. And then in walks Dennis Quaid—her new boyfriend,” she recalls. “I wasn’t living in Hollywood; I was living in a normal suburban town. But then I would have these ‘What in the world?’ moments.”
Shooting Maid on Vancouver Island gave Qualley an opportunity to spend time with her mother early on in the pandemic.
“I was living in a normal suburban town. But then I would have these ‘What in the world?’ moments.”
Making Stars at Noon offered her a chance to do the same with her father. The film is based on a 1986 novel by Denis Johnson about an American woman who becomes stranded in Nicaragua during the revolution of 1984. But the director, Claire Denis, decided to shift the narrative to the present day and production to Panama, where Paul had been living since Margaret left for boarding school.
Because of her work schedule and then the pandemic, Qualley hadn’t seen her father in person at that point in almost three years. He moved into the room next to hers in the hotel where she was staying and went to set with her every day. They even went back to a casino they’d gone to the first time she visited when she was 14, where she won $100 and the women at the cashier’s window mistook her for a sex worker. But she had another agenda: to convince Paul to move back to the U.S. “I brought him back at the end of the movie,” she says. “I’m so happy he’s home. Everyone wanted it, but I was the soldier who went out on the mission.”
Like most of the rest of the film and TV world, Qualley’s near-term professional plans have been put on hold by the SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes, which have essentially brought Hollywood to a standstill. The release date for Drive-Away Dolls has been pushed back to next year. The dispute between the actors and writers and the studios, which is ongoing at press time, is emblematic of a dynamic that’s playing out across numerous industries right now as old business models are upended by technology. But it’s about much more than the teetering economics of the entertainment industry or even “content creation” for those who grow up dreaming of doing such things. In some ways, it’s about what we truly value in people—and in this case, art.
When Qualley and I speak, she mentions three moments that to her represent what it means to be an actor.
One was on an early movie, The Nice Guys. She was doing a scene where she had to deliver a monologue. Midway through, she hit her head on a backboard, but she kept going and finished. Later, her costar Russell Crowe told her, “You know, the best part was when you hit your head”—meaning the mistakes, the flaws, the things you don’t anticipate are what make a performance.
Another was on her first day shooting Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. She was doing a scene with Pitt, and Tarantino sensed she was hesitating or holding back somehow. Afterward, he asked her if there was something she’d wanted to do but didn’t. Yes, she admitted, there was. Next time, he said, do the thing. Always do the thing.
But perhaps the most crucial one involved Julianne Nicholson, Qualley’s costar in the 2017 film Novitiate. One day, Qualley asked Nicholson how she always managed to be so attentive and alive when the camera rolled. “Before every take,” Nicholson told her, “I just tell myself, ‘This is really happening.’ ”
This is the place Qualley wants to live: where you’re constantly on your toes, where whatever happens—the good and the bad, the successes and the failures—all amounts to something. “It has to be a human experience,” Qualley says, “to have the human experience.” As her friend Lana Del Rey sings, when you know, you know.
Qualley and Antonoff got married on August 19 in an intimate ceremony at a restaurant in Beach Haven, New Jersey, where Antonoff spent time as a kid. They exchanged vows in front of their parents, siblings, families, and friends. Del Rey was there. So was Taylor Swift; the night before, at the rehearsal dinner, a throng of her fans forced the closure of a major road on Long Beach Island as they gathered outside of a local bar in anticipation of her arrival. The groom wore a black tuxedo with a long tie and white socks. The bride wore Chanel.
This article appears in the October 2023 issue of Harper’s Bazaar, available on newsstands October 3.
Hair: Akki Shirakawa for Oribe; makeup: Yadim; manicure: Honey; set design: Peter Klein. For more shopping information, go to Bazaar.com/credits.
You Might Also Like