This story about Margaret Qualley first appeared in the Awards Preview issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
When Margaret Qualley was cast in Netflix’s “Maid,” something about the job made her nervous. The idea of starring in a 10-episode limited series in which she appears in nearly every scene didn’t intimidate her. Nor did the prospect of scrubbing toilets until they gleamed. (Besides, all the messes in the show are fake, masterfully made to look disgusting by the art department.) She wasn’t anxious about playing a survivor of domestic violence, either. What daunted her was convincingly playing a mother.
“I’m not a mom. I haven’t gone through that experience and it seemed like a hard thing to do, to be a believable mother,” the actress said. “And so my mission was to get close to the young girl who played (my daughter) Maddy and love her as much as I possibly could so that maybe a couple people might believe that I was her mom.”
Well, maybe just a couple. Based on Stephanie Land’s best-selling memoir, “Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive,” the series was one of Netflix’s biggest hits of 2021, thanks in no small part to Qualley’s understated yet commanding performance, which earned her a Critics Choice Awards nomination. The ballerina-turned-actress — who was nominated for an Emmy in 2019 for her supporting role in FX’s “Fosse/Verdon” and played a Manson Girl in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon A Time…in Hollywood” — is enjoying this buzzy moment: “It’s kind of a dream scenario to put your heart into something and have people respond to it.”
Qualley stars as Alex, a single parent who scrapes by cleaning houses in the hopes of building a better life for her three-year-old daughter (Rylea Nevaeh Whittet). She moves in and out of a women’s shelter, navigates the byzantine system of government assistance in the U.S., and battles with her abusive ex-boyfriend (Nick Robinson) for custody of Maddy. By the end of the series, a brighter future is within her grasp — which, Qualley is well aware, is rarely the case in real life, especially for people who don’t look like her. “Stephanie Land is the first person to say that had she been a person of color, the amount of obstacles in her way probably would have made it impossible for her to change her situation,” the actress said. “It was already almost impossible and she’s white and therefore privileged in the United States.”
In addition to struggling to keep a roof over her and Maddy’s head, Alex has to contend with her carefree artist mother, Paula, whose undiagnosed bipolar disorder strains their already fragile relationship. Paula is played by Qualley’s offscreen mom, Andie MacDowell — a bit of casting magic that added another layer to the show’s exploration of mother-daughter relationships. “I’ve always thought it would be spectacular to work with my mom,” Qualley said. “How much better could a mother-daughter story be? This is incredibly rich material, and my mom was perfect for it.”
For Qualley, working with the person who raised her was “crazy and fun” and it offered her a welcome familiarity as she underwent parental boot camp. To bond with Whittet, who almost always appears on screen snuggling in Qualley’s arms, the actress spent every Sunday with her. “I would eat lunch with her, I would carry her around, I was her babysitter, I would have the snacks” Qualley said of their on-set relationship. “If she fell asleep, I would make sure that she stayed asleep and that the scene didn’t get in the way of that. I wanted to protect her.”
Qualley’s scenes with Whittet are among her favorites, even though they were the hardest to shoot. “Say it’s really late at night and she has to say this line in order for us to go home and she’s not feeling like doing it,” said Qualley, who recently shot Claire Denis’ “The Stars at Noon.” “And then I’m reckoning with a 4-year-old, trying my best to get a performance out of her.” That made for some intense days, and by the end of production, the line between art and life often blurred.
“The craziest thing for me to film was [when] my mom, Paula, tells Alex that she’s proud of her, and it very much felt like my mom telling me she was proud of me at the end of this long shoot,” Qualley said. “It made me cry in real life. It was one of those moments, like, I can’t believe this is happening.”
Read more from the Awards Preview issue here.