Margaret Qualley on ‘Maid,’ Unexpected Success, and Acknowledging Alex’s Privilege

"Also, there are many Alexes that, despite their incredible efforts, are unable to navigate the system because it's made to be impossible," Qualley said.

At just 27 years old, Margaret Qualley has racked up notable performances in numerous films and television shows bound to be cherished for a lifetime. From “The Leftovers” and “Fosse/Verdon” to “Once Upon a Time in America” and “The Nice Guys,” she’s already collaborated with Oscar and Emmy winners, and now she’s in Panama, working on the latest film from Claire Denis.

But even with Qualley’s early accomplishments, she admits to feeling like she doesn’t fit into the mold of other performers. The actress said she hasn’t had much exposure to awards season, but what she has experienced so far has been just plain fun. Qualley jokes it’s something she should probably talk about in therapy, but she has a tendency to lower her expectations so she’ll never be disappointed — even when she ended up Emmy-nominated for her role as Ann Reinking in the FX limited series “Fosse/Verdon.”

“Nobody was expecting it at all, myself the most,” Qualley said in an interview with IndieWire. “My team wasn’t expecting it either. It was just going in with no expectations.”

Qualley brought the same measured approach to “Maid,” and it may result in similar surprises. Her latest project is making waves thanks in no small part to her enigmatic performance as Alex, a young woman hoping to raise her daughter out of poverty. Qualley responded to Stephanie Land’s novel and Molly Smith Metzler’s idea for the series — and that was it. “I don’t think anybody really expected it to reach the audience that it did,” Qualley said, especially considering the series looks at tough topics like domestic violence and poverty. “It’s not popcorn, it’s not easy to eat.”

She said it’s an especially validating moment for the show’s crew, who not only helped bring the show to fruition but did so in Vancouver during a pandemic. “A few of [the crew] got this tattoo on their butts that said, ‘Barely Maid It,'” Qualley said.

Rylea Nevaeh Whittet and Margaret Qualley in “Maid”RICARDO HUBBS/NETFLIX

Her modest expectations are reminiscent of how she talks about acting in general. “I have no technique,” she said, adding that she often believes she doesn’t know what she’s doing. In reality, she comes to performing from an emotional place. “I don’t know that I have the ability to zoom out when I’m doing anything,” she said. “I’m so in it that I really lose all perspective.”

Qualley said she has certainly loved seeing the discourse surrounding the series, with articles from different outlets deconstructing nearly every facet of the show. While she hasn’t engaged with much of it herself, the discussions have caused Qualley to look at valid criticisms, too.

“Obviously, if Alex were a person of color she likely, given the world that we live in, wouldn’t have been able to escape her situation,” she said. “Also, there are many Alexes that, despite their incredible efforts, are unable to navigate the system because it’s made to be impossible.”

The actress said she hopes to learn from everyone when she embarks on project, drawing back on advice she learned from fellow performer Julianne Nicholson when the pair worked together on the 2017 feature, “Novitiate.” “I remember being like, ‘Julianne, how do you do it?’ And she was like, ‘Well, before every take, I just remind myself this is all really happening. This is happening to me. This is all real life.'”

With “Maid,” Qualley cannot praise the crew enough, especially considering her co-star was 4-year-old Rylea Nevaeh Whittet, who plays Alex’s daughter Maddy. Qualley said she and the entire crew had to band together in instances where Whittet might not have wanted to perform. “She’d be playing with playdough and not want to put it down to do the scene, but the scene didn’t have playdough on it,” said Qualley. The actress would have to compromise with the young Whittet, telling her the second assistant director would hold it for the child and after the scene was filmed their sound guy might do a dance in celebration for the young performer’s skill.

Nicholson’s adage appears to have been utilized, particularly in the bonding done between Qualley and her on-set daughter. Qualley said one of the project’s biggest challenges was acting with a child, as she herself isn’t a mother. She knew that as a performer and by working with her own mother (actress Andie MacDowell) on-screen, much of her response would be automatic and subconscious, but those aren’t ingrained in the mind of a 4-year-old.

Rylea Nevaeh Whittet and Margaret Qualey in “Maid”Ricardo Hubbs / Netflix

“I made it really important for me to protect [Whittet],” Qualley said. “I wanted her to have the best fourth year of her life. I wanted her to remember this really fondly. I didn’t want it to feel like work.” Qualley spent time with Whittet the entire shoot, including every Sunday, for nine months straight. She knew she’d acquired her trust when the little girl cut her knee and ran to Qualley for comfort. “I was like, ‘Ah, sick, I’ve done it,” Qualley said.

Not only did Qualley have to act and gain the trust of a child, she also wrote a song inspired by her work on the series that she performed over the series’ end credits in the finale. Inspiration struck as she was journaling during her trip back from Vancouver Island during Christmas break. “I was learning so much in real time as Alex,” she said and it came out in a song. Qualley is good friends with Este Haim, who was also composing the score for the show, so the actress sent Haim what she describes as “an embarrassing voice memo” of herself singing the song and the rest is history.

“By the time Margaret sent me the demo of her song, we were halfway through scoring ‘Maid,’ and I was completely immersed in the world of the show,” Este Haim said in an email interview. “Every day, after leaving the studio, I’d still have sonic ideas and musical themes constantly swirling around in my head. So, when I received the demo I felt like I already knew Alex and the show so well that after hearing the demo once, I knew how I wanted it to sound both melodically and sonically. Margret has a gift for emoting, and this song she wrote was no different. She really captured the feeling and sentiment of Alex.”

After acting and singing in this series, she’s also executive producing the film “Sanctuary.” So does she see herself going deeper into the behind-the-scenes world of film and television, like Margot Robbie, executive producer of “Maid”? It’s a complicated subject for the actress, as she understands such roles can allow for greater creative freedom, but she enjoys focusing on the immediate project she’s working on.

“I look at some actors and I marvel at their ability to produce. Margot Robbie is a great example of it. She’s both an incredible artist and an incredible businesswoman and I don’t know that I have that capability,” Qualley said.

For now, Qualley is content to continue working with great creatives, absorbing their knowledge and using her influence where she can.

“I love Margaret, just being around her automatically makes me feel happy,” Haim said. “Whenever we’re together we just laugh and joke, like we’re in our own little world. She was really up for anything. Stray [Christopher Stracey] and I just pressed record and let her do her magic. I would make a billion more songs with her if I could.”

“Maid” is available to stream on Netflix.

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