This interview took place in April 2020.
I’ve been talking to Margaret Qualley for about 30 minutes, carefully navigating her career from Kenzo campaign model to Hollywood’s newest golden girl. I have to admit I’m a little worried. While her rapid rise to Tinseltown star is an endearing story, it’s nothing I’ve not heard before, and I’m anxious that our interview is going to offer nothing new to her narrative.
“I was not a popular kid,” Margaret begins, almost unprompted, and my ears prick up. “I used to put up signs of cows being slaughtered in my North Carolina high school and I would rummage through the trash in the cafeteria to separate recycling. I’m definitely [climate] conscious and it’s definitely something I think about. There are a lot of ways I could improve my lifestyle to accommodate my carbon footprint.”
She segues into telling me that she was recently given a reusable straw and cutlery kit from the eco-conscious make-up artist Katey Denno, who is just one of many people schooling her on the environment.
“The younger generation is where the real change is coming from, because they are the ones who are having to deal with the impact, so it’s frustrating when people whose lives are barely affected by it are so dismissive of these problems,” says Margaret. “God, wouldn’t it be great if we had a Bernie Sanders [in the White House] to educate us on all this, or an [Alexandria] Ocasio-Cortez or an [Elizabeth] Warren?”
Despite being an Emmy-nominated actress with an Academy Award- winning film – Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood – under her belt, it’s clear that Margaret is just like any other Gen Z-er: dedicated to making a difference in any way she can. At other points in our conversation she acknowledges the “insanely privileged life” she’s had, given that she comes from Hollywood stock, but she’s still grounded enough to recognise that she can use her platform to make a positive impact. You only have to take a quick look at her Instagram account to see that she’s a keen supporter of the Coalition for Rainforest Nations, an organisation dedicated to preserving green spaces around the world. As for her politics… “I would say that young people feel they don’t have a choice right now. It feels very dire.”
Previously, she has stated that her goal was to eventually settle in a place where she could teach dance at juvenile detention centres, a dream loosely inspired by old videos of Johnny Cash performing for prisoners. Towards the end of last year, she ful lled that ambition. “The month leading up to Christmas and through the holiday, I was going on Mondays and Fridays,” she says. “I’ve been visiting juvenile halls with young women. From an early age, the idea of a person being stuck in a room by themselves and locked up was terrifying, and I feel the same way now.”
“Privatised prison – those two words just shouldn’t go together. It’s a really corrupt system and a lot of good people get caught in the crosshairs of it. It’s been really rewarding to do that with these young women and to talk to them. I got a lot out of that [experience].”
Her work at these centres came during a moment of downtime following her breakthrough role as Pussycat, a member of the notorious Manson family, in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. Tarantino himself noted that Margaret’s was the only performance that didn’t end up with multiple scenes on the cutting-room floor, owing to her captivating performance alongside Brad Pitt. She further proved her acting prowess with an Emmy-nominated performance in the biographical miniseries Fosse/Verdon last year, in which she starred with Michelle Williams and Sam Rockwell, and utilised her dancing capabilities to perfectly portray the renowned actress and choreographer Ann Reinking.
Despite having only recently broken into the industry, Margaret has a family tree that is firmly rooted in Hollywood. Her mother is the Golden Globe-nominated Andie MacDowell, who appeared in Groundhog Day, Green Card, and Four Weddings and a Funeral. “I was born in Montana but I grew up in North Carolina, so I actually didn’t have too much exposure to moviemaking as a kid,” says Margaret. The truth is, even though she would visit her mother on film sets when she was a child, she never actually saw herself following in her footsteps. “I grew up dancing and I didn’t think I was going to act until I was 17. I moved to New York at 16, and went to my first acting class a year later.”
What’s interesting about Margaret’s career is that it’s flourishing in the aftermath of the #MeToo movement. As I write this, Harvey Weinstein has just been found guilty of rape and sexual assault. While Andie’s breakthrough role in Sex, Lies, and Videotape was also one of Weinstein’s first successful films under his company Miramax back in 1989, Margaret’s comes at a time when Weinstein has been shunned by the industry. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is actually the first Tarantino film not to be distributed by the Weinstein brothers.
“I am aware of it and I’m grateful for it. I’ve been really fortunate, I’ve had really positive experiences of moviemaking,” she says when I ask her if she can feel a change in Hollywood. “I’ve had a lot of fun, but I know that is not the case for everybody. How lucky am I to be working at a time when there’s care for people who weren’t properly being cared for before.”
While she has found form in her acting capabilities, Margaret had dreamed of being a professional dancer when she was a child, spending hours perfecting her technique as a wannabe prima ballerina.
Her realisation that she wanted to be an actress was met with relief from Andie, who had grown worried about her daughter’s decision to pursue a career in dance, given it can be underpaid, intense, and often doesn’t offer long-term prospects. I suggest that perhaps spending her childhood studying it essentially equipped her for a life in front of the camera, given that acting and dance are both performative disciplines.
“You’d think that but actually it was the opposite,” she says. “Ballet was so much about being good and perfect. I think that’s what made me really unhappy, because there is no such thing as perfect, obviously.
“I was also really competitive as a dancer – with myself, with other people in class. It was a competitive mindset and it wasn’t good for me. From day one as an actor I knew it had to be the opposite to that. If you’re going to do this, you have to make mistakes and allow yourself to be vulnerable, and you can’t ever be competitive because it doesn’t make sense, as there isn’t a right or wrong. It’s been really good for me, as someone who can be a control freak, to try to relinquish control to the best of my ability, as a job. What a freaking cool job!”
Dance has, however, become an outlet for the 25-year-old. Describing it as a big part of her mental health, she takes time out to dance when she’s not on-set. Plus, despite her prior misgivings about dance, she owes a lot to it. Back in 2016, an ad dropped for the Kenzo World scent on YouTube and went viral within the first 24 hours. Rippling around the world via social media, the film was directed by Spike Jonze and featured a then relatively unknown Margaret performing an epic piece choreographed by Ryan Heffington. As the views continued to clock up online, one burning question kept being repeated: who is that girl? It solidified Margaret’s status as one to watch.
These days, she’s already setting her sights on the next big thing, craving a role that allows her to challenge herself. She’s keen to try at least one project in every genre, and will soon be able to tick off horror from her list, as she’s just confirmed a role in Scott Cooper’s A Head Full of Ghosts. You will also be able to see her starring with Robert Pattinson in French director Claire Denis’s upcoming flick The Star at Noon. It’s fair to say that Margaret is on the right track.
As we reach the end of our conversation, I suggest we finish on a positive note and talk about what she’s looking forward to. “You sure you don’t want to end on a thought like ‘Well, we better change things around or we’re all going to be dead’, or, ‘Should I have kids or not, because I’m bringing them into a world that might be ending?’” she says, half- joking, before more sternly adding, “I mean, that’s true. It’s an ethical question. Is it ethically sound to bring a child into this planet?”
“Is that something you think about?” I ask, content that we’ve successfully added something new to the narrative.
“Oh yeah, I am totally conscious of that. These catastrophes aren’t new. I first became aware of climate change when I was a little kid. I was in sixth grade, and I remember it pretty clearly, actually. I remember thinking, ‘Well, I’m glad I’m alive.’ I know that, despite any hardships that could be in store, I am very grateful to have a beating heart.”