“Dominatrix rom-com” doesn’t sound like the most obvious (or light!) sub-genre, but for “Sanctuary” stars Margaret Qualley and Christopher Abbott, the critically acclaimed romance marks one of the most fun projects to date in their respective careers. Even better: Qualley, after stealing scenes in Oscar-winning “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” and Abbott, whose breakout performance in “Girls” made him an immediate indie darling, have been trying to work together for years.
“I was so excited to work with Margaret, finally,” Abbott told IndieWire during a recent interview. “There were a few jobs we had almost done together, but I’m glad this is the one that we got to do, because we had so much to do together.”
“Sanctuary” stars Abbott as hotel heir Hal, who tries to end his psychosexual relationship with dominatrix Rebecca (Qualley) after inheriting his late father’s empire. However, Rebecca has other ideas about getting a piece of what she’s truly owed for fluffing Hal’s confidence, in more ways than one. Best described as a modern reimagining of “Pretty Woman,” “Sanctuary” is directed by Zachary Wigon (“The Heart Machine”) from a script by “Homecoming” co-creator and playwright Micah Bloomberg.
“I do like the idea of it being some kind of odd take on a rom-com,” Qualley told IndieWire. “I interpret the movie as being kind of silly and fun and ultimately a love story.”
Co-star Abbott agreed, adding, “I think it very much is in the rom-com territory, just a slightly different take on it, as opposed to like a thriller or a drama with elements of rom-coms. I think it lives more in a rom-com territory with elements of other genres sprinkled in.”
Qualley credited director Wigon and Bloomberg’s precise visions for the tightly wound film that has more twists and turns than audiences will ever expect.
“Pretty much nothing was improvised. The script very much reads like a play,” she said. “Both of us, for our preparation, just learned the thing front to back so we could just have fun on the day. Also, because we were shooting the whole thing in 18 days with a one-day weekend, we wanted to make the thing as easy as possible while we were actually shooting it. Zach completely shot-listed the entire thing beforehand, so it wasn’t shot like typical things are shot. We didn’t have coverage. We didn’t have close, medium, wide, this angle, that angle. Everything we shot was basically the edit. We would come in and do three to five, six takes of every set up but that set up was the entire scene. It was all pre-blocked and it was just written very precisely.”
The “Fosse/Verdon” actress continued, “It was like a very stable job, actually, which was comforting in a sense. It’s very rare to have the same call time and wrap time every day for an entire movie.”
Qualley gushed over co-star Abbott’s dedication to the role of Hal, arguably the straight man to Qualley’s unhinged Rebecca.
“I feel like Chris did all the work for me,” the Emmy nominee said. “He’s really one of the best actors today. My job was so easy, because basically all I had to do was watch him and listen to him and I learned my lines really well and I would just say them according to how he said his last one. He’s just so fabulous and it made the whole thing really enjoyable for me because I never knew what he was going to do, and I think that weaves into not knowing exactly where the relationships stand as far as being fantastical or grounded in reality.”
Abbott shrugged off the compliment, crediting both Qualley and screenwriter Bloomberg in turn.
“I think that for Margaret and I, I just think the dynamics and what happens is written,” he said. “For me and Margaret, our job was about being open with each other and just playing and just trying different things and experimenting and then just giving Zach options.”
Abbott added that “Sanctuary” came on the heels of the pandemic and unlocked another chapter in his own career.
“At that point, I hadn’t worked in a little while and there was something really nice about showing up [to set],” Abbott said. “The movie is obviously in one location and it was a built set. Nothing was being determined by light outside. It was just sort of a marathon. We shot it in a short amount of time but we would show up at the same time every morning, be done the same time every evening.”
Amid the ongoing Writers Guild of America strike, the pair’s emphasis on the importance of screenplays is being cast in a new light. For “Sanctuary,” the intricacies within Hal’s own scripts he pens for employee-slash-lover Rebecca offers a now-meta take on the relationship between screenwriters and actors.
“This is a wildly collaborative art form compared to other art forms. There’s no movie without a script, without something to shoot,” Abbott said. “We rely on many different people to do their jobs. Micah Bloomberg, who wrote this script, is a great writer, a great playwright. I think he injected some of his playwriting abilities into this film script, and that was our map completely of what to do. I think the comraderie between actors and writers is very important and real.”
Qualley added, “Completely. Nothing but absolute support. My job isn’t possible without writers. I very much depend on them.”
Qualley and Abbott’s onscreen camaraderie is set to continue, thanks to Yorgos Lanthimos’ upcoming “Poor Things.” The female Frankenstein-esque horror film also stars Emma Stone, Willem Dafoe, and Ramy Youssef, with both Abbott and Qualley appearing.
“We didn’t really have much to do, or really anything to do together in ‘Poor Things,'” Abbott said. “We were in Budapest at the same time.” Qualley added, “‘Poor Things,’ I’m like in for two seconds. I haven’t seen it, but I’m excited to see everything Chris does in that movie. We haven’t actually gotten to work together since then.”
And the duo are more than ready for another follow-up feature to deepen their own creative partnership. “I want more,” Qualley said. “I’m constantly looking for something for us to do together, because it was one of the most fun experiences for me. I just think he is the best. If you want to pitch a movie for us to do together, that’s a really good idea.”
Neon will release “Sanctuary” in theaters on Friday, May 19.