Girl Talk is a weekly look at women in film — past, present and future.
Haley Bennett is all smiles. The female lead of Antoine Fuqua’s upcoming “The Magnificent Seven” remake is equally bubbly when talking about her nerve-jangling audition process, the physically demanding shoot and what she’s got on the docket in the coming months (“I’m going to need a vacation from the vacation!”), but even all that sunshine can’t obscure that Bennett is a serious actress who is only further growing into her career with grace. Bennett first popped up on the big screen in Marc Lawrence’s 2007 rom-com “Music and Lyrics” — yes, that was her playing the spacey but sweet pop star who saves Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore’s songwriting career — and has spent the next decade carefully choosing roles across a wide berth of genres and budgets.
But 2016 looks to be Bennett’s year, thanks to her starring role in Fuqua’s latest, which sees her as the lone female lead alongside seven (magnificent) men, and upcoming turns in much-anticipated titles like “The Girl on the Train” and “Rules Don’t Apply.” Bennett steals the show in “Magnificent Seven” as Emma Cullen, a tough-as-nails frontierswoman who finds, employs and basically wrangles up a motley crew of gunslingers — including Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt and Ethan Hawke — and sets them loose on the evil businessman (Peter Sarsgaard) who has taken over her tiny town.
At one point in the film, a dismissive fellow citizen wonders out loud why it was Emma who took it upon herself to find the Seven, a question she has a quick answer for: “Because I’m the only one who had the balls to do it!” It’s that combination of grit, tenacity and humor that set Emma apart, and allows Bennett to steal a movie that’s crammed top to bottom with star power. And how’d she land it? You can thank pie for that.
The Woman In Charge
Fuqua had previously cast Bennett in his 2014 crime thriller “The Equalizer” – though he wanted her for the lead, he said the studio wanted to skew a little younger, so he combined two smaller roles for her instead – and was eager to work with her in a bigger capacity. Despite their previous work together, Bennett swore she didn’t get any special treatment from the director when it came time to audition for the part.
“I didn’t get any breaks, I had to audition for the role just like anyone else would have had to,” Bennett said. “I felt that it made sense for me with Antoine, but I never thought it would be a reality. I didn’t think I would be casted. It didn’t seem touchable at all.”
The actress even trotted out some pretty canny tricks for the audition, including showing up both in character and with sweets to help ply her audience.
“I brought in a pie and was in character for the audition, even though that’s not really who my character is, but that is the reality of who the women were at that time,” she said. “They were not only baking and doing all the housework, but most of the time, because the men were gone, they were out in the fields plowing or trading or involved in war. I always joke that the pie was what pushed me over the edge.”
In reality, it was likely Bennett’s ability to recognize the kind of fractured and demanding world that Emma inhabited, long before she gathered up her so-called Magnificent Seven, that was essential to Fuqua’s understanding of the character as well. And for the director, Bennett’s femininity was just as important to the part as her ability to ride a horse or fire a gun – both things she does with ease during the film.
“She’s very delicate in her own way, but you know she’s tough enough,” Fuqua recently told IndieWire. “I wanted an actress that could really act and not try to act like a man, but just be tough. She fit that bill for me, because she had such vulnerability, and that’s important when you’re trying to hold your own in that world and be tough.”
Interestingly, Bennett pointed to Fuqua’s own ability to balance tones and attitudes as the reason why she loves his films and is so eager to continue working with him.
“I love the style of his films,” Bennett said. “They’re very masculine, gritty and dark. But there’s also this underlying emotion to them and I think that speaks to who he is. He’s this very masculine man but he definitely has a sensitive side and he definitely knows how to bring those two worlds together.”
“The Magnificent Seven” also afforded Bennett the chance to take on the kind of role that Hollywood doesn’t often provide to its actresses, especially younger ones who are still finding their footing in the industry.
“I think it’s very refreshing to see women in cinema having strength and their own independent storyline,” Bennett said. “They are serving her and that’s the definition of samurai: To serve.”
She smiled, “Typically, it’s the other way around.”
“The Blood Is Real”
The production of “The Magnificent Seven” was not “troubled” in the splashy sense of the word, but it was physically demanding for its cast. Filmed on location in Louisiana and New Mexico in the heat of summer, the shoot stretched out over two months. The film’s most important battle sequence took three weeks to film, battered by inclement weather that often sent its cast and crew running for the safety of the indoors.
“You can’t imagine it unless you were there,” Bennett said. “The elements were so extreme, so everything you see is real. The blood is real. The sweat is real. The heat is real. We were really given the royal treatment from Louisiana.”
And that’s to say nothing of the copious amount of horseback riding and shotgun shooting that the film, a true-blue Western, required of its entire cast. The horses and the guns didn’t really pose much of challenge to the ever-ready Bennett – she’d ridden before, and she’d grown up around guns, though she admits that she “fell in love with her Winchester shotgun” – but Bennett joined the rest of the cast when it came time to, essentially, learn to be a cowboy.
“We went through a cowboy boot camp, which is the best term for it,” Bennett said. “We were there for two hours a day riding horses and working with the fastest gunslinger ever recorded.”
Bennett even added in her own special routine to further round out Emma, both emotionally and physically.
“I also picked up boxing to beef up a bit,” she explained. “I couldn’t look like I had never done outside work before. It was important to have my character look like she could handle her own and also have the same reflexes that you would have had back then.”
It’s that kind of dedication that Fuqua knew Bennett would bring to the role, and he seems to be very pleased with the results. “It’s a balancing act,” he recently told IndieWire. “She’s not running around having to put on pants or smoking cigars and trying to be a guy. She was still a woman, and she was kicking ass when the time came to it.”
Despite the demands of production, Bennett looks back on the experience with a tremendous amount of affection. She even deems the experience as “fun.”
“Each scene was just so different and so fun,” she said. “You can see that we were having fun. There was a really nice vibe on set. We were always laughing. I was always smiling except between action and cut.” (When IndieWire asked co-star Peter Sarsgaard about Bennett’s on-set experience, he laughed and told us, “She’s generally like that. Anyone who tells you that this is just fun is out of their mind.”)
Bennett even relished the emotionally tough stuff, including perhaps the film’s most heart-wrenching – and violent – sequences.
“One of the first scenes that really set the tone for me was the scene where Emma’s husband is murdered,” she said. “Now, you wouldn’t think that would be a fun scene to shoot, but it felt so real. All these emotions were coming up for me and, as an actor, that’s what you do this for.”
The Very Big Year
“I mean I couldn’t have planned it better,” Bennett laughed when asked about her Very Big Year.
Beyond her starring role in “The Magnificent Seven,” Bennett will be soon be seen in two of the fall season’s other major offerings: Tate Taylor’s big screen take on Paula Hawkins’ best-selling “The Girl on the Train” (Bennett plays the pivotal part of a missing woman in the feature) and Warren Beatty’s long-gestating “Rules Don’t Apply” (the period-set piece allowed Bennett to explore Hollywood’s Golden Age, much to her pleasure). And that’s hardly it — in 2017, Bennett will be seen in both Jason Hall’s “Thank You for Your Service” as the female lead opposite Miles Teller and in Terrence Malick’s Austin-set romantic drama “Weightless.”
It’s only a matter of time before Bennett goes from actress who is having a pretty good few months to bonafide Hollywood It Girl, a moniker she’s not eager to pick up. “Yeah, that term scares me,” she said. “There’s no good context on ‘It.’ ‘It’ is a clown. A very scary clown. That’s a good way of thinking. I don’t want to be a scary clown.”
Jokes aside, Bennett seems to be far more focused on cultivating her career, rather than some sort of cool girl persona.
“I want to have a long career,” she said when asked about long-term plans. “I’m very happy with the choices I’ve been making and the people I’ve been working with. I hope I can continue along this path. I have a thousands wants, it’s hard to really hone in on just a few.”
But it sounds like Bennett has found one way to hone in on those wants, by picking up a few tips and tricks from her co-stars, including “Magnificent Seven” actor Chris Pratt.
“I was doing ‘Good Morning America’ with all the guys,” she remembered. “And Chris said something about how your career evolves and how in the beginning you don’t really know what you want and you’re really at the mercy of the industry. Then things sort of start to change and you can begin to cultivate your own career and start to carve your own path.”
“Right now, I definitely feel that I have the chisel in my hand and I’m carving away, at least I’m attempting to,” she smiled.
“The Magnificent Seven” world premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. It opens on Friday, September 23.