Quentin Tarantino’s oeuvre is filled with fast-paced dialogue, profound movie references, and over-the-top violence, but there’s also a lot of feet. The filmmaker’s infamous foot fetish is well evidenced — Uma Thurman’s bare dancing feet in “Pulp Fiction,” Christoph Waltz giving Diane Kruger a pair of high heels in “Inglorious Basterds” — and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is no exception.
In one of the movie’s most memorable scenes, seductive Manson family member Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) props her dirty feet on a dashboard after stuntman Cliff (Brad Pitt) picks her up on the side of the road as the duo form an unlikely friendship.
Qualley wasn’t so sure about putting her toes in the spotlight. “I genuinely was like, ‘Quentin, this is a bad idea. I don’t have good feet,’” the scene-stealing actress said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “I was in pointe shoes for far too long to have toes that can be shown to the world.”
They talked it through. “We had a big debate about it, me, Quentin, and Brad, with them trying to be like, ‘You’re fine,’ and me being like, ‘No, guys, really, look, these are not good,'” Qualley recalled. “‘I know that I undermine myself pretty regularly, but I’m genuinely telling you these are not good feet, look at these. I know I’m self-deprecating, but I’m not being in this particular instance.'”
Eventually, Qualley caved and “did the foot thing,” she said, with no regrets. “I used to actually be pretty mortified with my feet,” she said. “Maybe I can finally just give up that now.”
When Qualley first auditioned for the part of the fictional Manson Family member, the casting director put her performance on tape for further consideration. But Qualley wasn’t jazzed about her work, and didn’t think the “Hollywood” team would be, either; she called her audition a “no-go.”
She was visiting her father in Panama when her agent called her about coming back to Los Angeles to read a scene with Brad Pitt. “I was like, holy freaking shit, this is insane,” she said. “Obviously, I was terrified.”
Tarantino calmed her nerves. “One of the coolest things about working with Quentin is that he’s so excited about what he’s doing,” the actress said. “He’s like a little kid on Christmas every time that he shows up to set. So when I get there, he’s so excited to show me the studio that they’re working on and show me all the various artifacts that they’ve made for the film, like the Apple cigarettes and the posters of Leo’s character and all that.”
Qualley, who is used to being the most excitable person on set, found a kindred spirit in Tarantino. “There’s nothing about him that’s cynical or jaded or trying to just play it cool. No one on the set is playing it cool,” Qualley said. “I could take out my nervous energy with enthusiasm because it was not frowned upon. It was like, ‘The cool kids are excited,’ which was really special to see.”
The filmmaker immediately set about getting her up to speed with key aspects of her fact-based role. While Qualley knew a bit about the Manson history, it was the kind of stuff gleaned from a podcast here and there. Tarantino loaded Qualley up with some rare Manson Family documentaries — “very strange ones that you can’t find yourself” — from his own DVD collection. (Qualley had to buy a DVD player just to watch them.)
The research led her down some dark pathways. “There’s such a combination of youthful innocence with this overtone of menace and doom,” she said. I guess I was just kind of hugely surprised by the way in which these child-like, loving people were so corrupted and brainwashed.” Ultimately, Qualley found herself driving onto the Spahn Ranch set listening to Manson’s old songs — “which actually aren’t that bad!” — to get herself into the right headspace.
Qualley may be one of the film’s big breakouts, but she’s hardly a newcomer to the movie business. The daughter of actress Andie MacDowell and former model Paul Qualley, she abandoned her early career in ballet to explore modeling and acting at the age of 16. In recent years, her credits have ranged from HBO’s “The Leftovers” to “Native Son” earlier this year, both of which are a world apart from her role in Tarantino’s latest. A week before “Hollywood” premiered, she picked up her first Emmy nomination for “Fosse/Verdon,” in which she plays childhood idol Ann Reinking.
She also starred in Spike Jonze’s kinetic Kenzo short, with some of her own moves from her audition eventually making it into the final product (and now, given her self-admitted nerves, almost seems like a self-portrait). Six years into her acting career, she already seems to know what she wants when she takes a job.
“I realized that I have a lot more fun if I trust the director, because if you really trust the people that you’re working with, you don’t have to watch your own back as much,” she said. “You can kind of just feel free to do whatever if you feel like you are on the same page with the people that you’re working with. If you feel like you’re in good hands, then it doesn’t really matter. It makes your job so much easier.”
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is now in theaters.