The first thing I notice about Isabelle McNally is that she has no split ends. It may or may not be an illusion. It's humid, foggy, and raining — a lethal combination for my naturally curly hair — when we meet for lunch at The Odeon, the restaurant her father, Keith McNally, opened in 1980, so I'm obsessing over everyone else's locks.
I'm not the only one who's noticed her. The 26-year-old is also the rare woman who has managed to seduce Norman Bates and live to tell the tale (so far). As Madeleine Loomis, she's a new addition to A&E's Bates Motel, now in its final season. The show, which has acted as a sort of prequel to Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, now officially overlaps with its source material. Madeleine doesn't appear in the original film. In the show, she's the wife of Sam Loomis (Austin Nichols), who famously has a relationship with Marion Crane in Hitchcock's film, played by Rihanna in this adaptation. (This time, she's his mistress, rather than his girlfriend.) But apparently, even perfect hair doesn't guarantee you face time with Rihanna — McNally never got to meet her.
“I know," she says in response to my sigh of despair, "but she was sleeping with my husband, so..." The second thing I notice about Isabelle McNally is that she's really funny.
She's also a huge Hitchcock fan. Her dad introduced her to the classics when she was young. " North by Northwest is probably my favorite film. I like Rear Window, I like Psycho." But that last one, she adds, is a good way to suss out the posers: " I mean Psycho is so iconic that it’s kind of like... you don’t know any of the other work, or something."
Aside from a small part on House of Cards' second season , Bates is McNally's first major TV role. She's also made movies like Frances Ha, Loitering With Intent, and Indigo Children.
After ordering an egg white omelet with mushrooms, gruyère and onion (her), and a Niçoise salad (me), I steadily pick at her fries and ask how this TV role has changed things for her. For one thing, she finally joined Twitter, mostly to live tweet the show.
"It’s also so strange because I have like no followers, I never used Twitter before. I only did it like last week for the first time and it was so much fun — I would just comment on the scenes as it was happening. So many people have sent me messages being like, ‘Take off Norma’s dress now.'" (In Bates, McNally's character intentionally bears a strong resemblance to Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga) who (spoiler!) was murdered by TV son Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) at the end of last season.)
But McNally's taking it all in stride. "Sometimes I’ll respond in the character. I’ll be like, ‘First of all, I don’t think it’s very polite to bring up someone’s recently deceased mother.' It’s really funny. Or people being like, ‘too bad you’re going to die soon.'"
Shooting on the show wrapped in January, so McNally's back in New York (she's been living in L.A. for the last couple of years), ready for the audition grind, news which inevitably leads to in-depth discussion about La La Land. Is auditioning for a part as a young struggling actress really just like being Emma Stone for a day?
“That was one of the parts I really liked because [those] sorts of things happen so much. I remember, like when you start, some of [the auditions] where you really have to get emotional — even the Bates one I had to audition with a scene where [my character] starts really crying — [producers] don’t want to have to live someone’s emotions every time they come in a room. It’s that absurd sometimes. The lack of empathy or lack of emotion that you get back is really funny. Or just interrupting you being like, ‘Done.’”
Obviously, I need to know more, so she kindly shares her worst audition story, for a role in 2010's Winter's Bone, which eventually went to Jennifer Lawrence and launched the latter's career, earning the then-unknown actress her first Academy Award nomination. "I remember reading an article where Jennifer Lawrence said she had read the script and she knew that that was her role, like she really identified with it," she says. "And that was quite the opposite with me. I was like, 'Ozarks? Where’s that?'" This total disconnect sadly manifested itself during the audition, when, McNally describes, she was so fixated on the Ozarks accent as to be incomprehensible. "I was like, ‘Ow do dat do,’" she laughs. "[The director] was like, ‘Yeah let’s not do this.’"
I really hate to call anyone a "cool girl" since that infamous Gone Girl monologue, but McNally is just that. Her father is New York's resident celebrity restaurant owner — he recently opened his 14th restaurant, Augustine, in the Financial District. Her mother (McNally's first wife) Lynn Wagenknecht, is also a restaurateur, and her sister Sophie, 28, joined the family business in 2014. Her brother, Harry McNally, is a photographer and DJ. Isabelle grew up in New York. She lived in what looks to be an amazing apartment in the West Village. She modeled for Urban Outfitters, and was called a "New York Power Child" by Gawker.
But she's also so genuine that I fully believe her when she tells me that the "It Girl" label makes her cringe. "I feel like when I was younger maybe, I mean I would love that," she says. "I remember shortly before I moved to L.A., there was something that said that I was an "it girl" and it made me feel so embarrassed because I just assumed that I wouldn’t be taken seriously if I did acting stuff. It really made me cringe and I was like, ‘Oh god I’m such a fucking loser,’ but now I’m just like, it’s so flattering to have anyone think of me at all — label me as you wish. The only down side to that is sometimes I see other people who are labelled 'it girls' and I’m like, ‘I don’t want to be under the same label.'”
Speaking of labels, I ask her whether she's ever worried she'll be forever known as "Keith McNally's daughter." She's not. "If we were in the same business maybe I'd feel a little more sensitive towards it. I’m always shocked when anyone knows [who he is], unless they’re in the business. He’s just my dad. It certainly doesn’t do any favors. No one’s like, 'I’m going to hire her because I had such a great meal once at Balthazar.' That would be fantastic!"
Three Diet Cokes later, our talk turns to dating. In September 2013, she was spotted walking her dog with Jonah Hill, fueling rumors that the two were dating. In January 2014, Perez Hilton confirmed the relationship, crowing that Hill's "mystery girlfriend" had finally been ID'd. ( The Daily Mail went to town with stories about the two of them, featuring some particularly gross headlines.) The two dated for 8 months.
But today, McNally says it's been hard to focus on a relationship. She hasn't dated anyone in over a year. "The main problem with me is that I’m not attracted to people until I get to know them, which sounds like the best but it’s really not because then I have no radar for what I’m after until I have conversations. So, I don’t even know what I’m looking for. I should go on Hinge or something, maybe. My sister just got married and it’s funny, it just made me realize that I’m so not ready to get married.”
Anyway, she can't very well cheat on Nicholas, her shih tzu, who needs to be picked up from her mom's house after this interview. "He’s exceptional, he’s a little meanie," she gushes, scrolling through pictures to show me the tiniest, fluffiest dog in the world. "He has exceptionally good hair." (He does; see for yourself.)
McNally adopted him from a kill shelter in a L.A. His previous owner, apparently, hosted dog fights. "It's the sickest thing ever," she muses, "but who does dog fighting and then gets arrested and names their dog Nicholas? It’s the weirdest, I was like 'Who is that person?'"
And with that, we get up — she's got errands to run and places to be — and go back out into the gross wet, New York weather, giving me one last look at her perfect hair before I hide mine under a beanie.
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