Margaret Qualley is hardly your typical celebrity offspring. Andie MacDowell’s daughter tells Johanna Thomas-Corr about facing down her demons, starring with Ryan Gosling — and being the film world’s new indie darling…
It’s a sweltering hot day in Los Angeles and, in a bohemian café in the understated neighbourhood of Echo Park, Margaret Qualley is telling me how she spends her free time. ‘We call it coyote hunting but actually it’s more like coyote nurturing,’ says the 22-year-old actress and model of her habit of cruising around Hollywood with her sister, Rainey, and feeding the city’s prairie wolves. ‘My sister and I are pretty dorky, so we drive around at night in her car listening to old Disney songs and feed the coyotes cans of wet cat food, which I’m sure is a terrible idea. Meanwhile, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty showtunes are playing in the background. It’s a big night for us,’ she laughs.
Despite the heat, the star of HBO’s dystopian drama The Leftovers is wearing a high-collared white blouse underneath a grey jersey sweater and a jacket. ‘I’m such a grandma,’ she laughs. Still, her normcore attire does nothing to disguise her rather regal beauty. She has inherited the luminescent complexion of her mother, actress Andie McDowell, and soulful eyes of her father, a former Gap model turned rancher and property developer named Paul Qualley. Her pale skin, full lips and tiny gap between her front teeth combine with her wry self-mockery and slightly awkward manner to give her the geeky charm of a character from a Wes Anderson movie.
Where are you from?
I was born in Montana and grew up in North Carolina. They’re really outdoors-y places so I love being around trees and animals.
Are you a Sundance virgin?
Yes, this will be my first year. And I’m really excited about it.
Because of your viral Kenzo ad, everyone will be asking you to dance at Sundance. How will you respond?
I guess I’ll just break out into dance, you know? I’ve gotten a lot of awesome, positive feedback from that video. I had so much fun doing it. And Spike [Jonze] is the best.
How does it feel to be a Sundance sensation?
I don’t think I can call myself a Sundance sensation. You’re putting me on the spot.
What is the buzz about your movie, Novitiate?
It’s an unconventional love story — between my character and Jesus. In some ways it’s a coming-of-age story set in a convent. My character is enraptured; she falls in love with Jesus and kind of breaks up with Him and in the process, she becomes a woman. Also, it was such a powerful, woman-heavy set: We had a female director, a female DP and an entirely female cast. I don’t think it would have been right to do it any other way: The story is about all these women and to not have a woman in charge of it would have been a terrible injustice.
How would you describe your character?
She’s an innocent, loving, lost girl.
Do you relate to your character?
She’s probably a better person than I am. But I definitely felt some of the things that she feels: She has this overwhelming urge to be a good person. She craves love and intimacy.
How did you land this part?
I met with the director, Maggie Betts, and we just got along really well. I knew she was doing this story about nuns and at our first meeting I was like: “I’m not Christian at all and I don’t know much about this world but I would like to learn about it.” I don’t know if that’s the best way to start a conversation, but it was how our conversation started. Fortunately, she was like: “OK, let’s do it.”
Tell me about your other movie, Sidney Hall.
I have a small part in it. I only have a couple scenes and I basically just chew out Elle Fanning. I’m really mean to her. She’s a very sweet girl, so it was hard to do that.
How would you describe your character?
She’s just a mess. A New York party animal and a lost soul. The opposite of a nun.
What was your first acting experience?
I had a tiny part in Gia Coppola’s film, Palo Alto. I don’t even say anything. I was just happy to be on set hanging out because I was visiting a friend and Gia needed a girl to essentially cry to James Franco. So she was like: “Margaret, will you do that?” And so I did that and that was my first acting experience: James Franco made me cry. After that, my first real part was Jill on The Leftovers.
What was your big break?
I’ve been really lucky and I’m so wildly grateful. But I don’t know if I’ll ever feel like that. I’ll always want to continue doing things that scare me.
Did you ever have a normal job?
Other than babysitting neighbors in North Carolina I didn’t. I was a dancer and that was very much a job to me growing up — an unpaid job. But I was in the ballet studio for like six hours a day. I was going to drop out of high school and join a small company, but that’s when I moved to New York and began studying at the American Ballet Theater over the summer. I met with a modeling agency and I started to get jobs. So I guess my modeling was normal-ish. It’s not a normal job at all, though.
What have heard about the Sundance scene?
I’ve been told to wear waterproof shoes. And try to see as many movies as I can.
What will you pack?
I’m bringing my dog — I just rescued a dog with my sister His name is Books. He’s half lab and half chow chow and he’s adorable. My sister and I share him. She has to come to Sundance, too. So warm clothes, long johns, my puppy and my sister.
How will you spend your free time at the festival?
Snowboarding. I don’t do any tricks but I can go down a nice, steep hill without falling.
What is more important to you: Looking stylish or staying warm?
Staying warm. I just did this sci-fi romance type of movie with Anthony Mackie. The first two months were in France, and the last fifteen days were in Bulgaria. I was freezing. I filled up hot water bottles and put them under my costume, so the second half of the movie I look pregnant. I was like: Fuck this. It was so fucking cold. I don’t give a shit about anything. I’m wearing three-inch wool thermals under my costume and a hot water bottle on my belly. So what if it looks like I gained fifteen pounds?
What do you think about Robert Redford?
My old dog passed away but he was named Butch from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid. That was a favorite of my parents when I was a little kid. I saw it when I was five — I probably saw a lot of movies that I shouldn’t have seen when I was a kid. I just love it because of my dog.