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Margaret Qualley: ‘Hollywood brings body image pressure but I try to learn about other things rather than obsess on how I’m seen’

Actress. Dancer. Coyote feeder. Margaret Qualley is hardly your typical celebrity offspring. Andie MacDowell’s daughter tells Johanna Thomas-Corr about her eating disorder, starring with Ryan Gosling, and being the film world’s new indie darling


BLOSSOMING TALENT: Sarah Margaret Qualley is an upcoming star.

BLOSSOMING TALENT: Sarah Margaret Qualley is an upcoming star.

Sarah Margaret Qualley with her mother Andie MacDowell

Sarah Margaret Qualley with her mother Andie MacDowell

Getty Images

Leading man Ryan Gosling

Leading man Ryan Gosling

 Sarah Margaret Qualley  at an ES Magazine shoot

Sarah Margaret Qualley at an ES Magazine shoot

BLOSSOMING TALENT: Sarah Margaret Qualley is an upcoming star.

It’s a sweltering hot day in Los Angeles and, in a bohemian cafe in the understated neighbourhood of Echo Park, Margaret Qualley is telling me how she spends her free time. “We call it coyote hunting but actually it’s more like coyote nurturing,” says the 22-year-old actress and model of her habit of cruising around Hollywood with her sister, Rainey, and feeding the city’s prairie wolves. “My sister and I are pretty dorky, so we drive around at night in her car listening to old Disney songs and feed the coyotes cans of wet cat food, which I’m sure is a terrible idea. Meanwhile, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty showtunes are playing in the background. It’s a big night for us,” she laughs.

Despite the heat, the star of HBO’s dystopian drama The Leftovers is wearing a high-collared white blouse underneath a grey jersey sweater and a jacket. “I’m such a grandma,” she laughs. Still, her normcore attire does nothing to disguise her rather regal beauty. She has inherited the luminescent complexion of her mother, actress Andie McDowell, and soulful eyes of her father, a former Gap model turned rancher and property developer named Paul Qualley. Her pale skin, full lips and tiny gap between her front teeth combine with her wry self-mockery and slightly awkward manner to give her the geeky charm of a character from a Wes Anderson movie.

In fact if you were to storyboard a Hollywood indie darling for 2017, you might come up with something a bit like Qualley. The former ballet prodigy had an early role opposite Ryan Gosling (playing a rebellious teenager who gets kidnapped because she resembles a porn star in the hilarious police caper The Nice Guys); became an internet sensation thanks to her free-spirited dancing in a Spike Jonze-directed viral ad for Kenzo World perfume; and more recently, won Sundance Film Festival plaudits for her performance as a shy teenage nun in the convent drama, Novitiate. Her upcoming projects include two Netflix films: Io, an indie sci-fi drama starring Danny Huston in which Qualley will play a girl racing to find a cure for what led to Earth’s destruction; and Death Note, a supernatural thriller based on the Japanese manga comics in which she stars alongside Willem Dafoe. But Qualley has a few quirks you couldn’t invent in a million years. Aside from the coyote feeding, she tells me, “I’ve recently fallen in love with bees so I’m trying to save them. I’m investing in an apiary!”

She may have attended the Met Ball this year wearing a striking white gown with sculptural sleeves by Prabal Gurung, but Qualley insists that mostly, her life hasn’t changed since she first found success in The Leftovers. The series, which ran from 2014 until this year, saw her take a leading role as Justin Theroux’s jaded teenage daughter. She attributes this to the fact that she lives with Rainey (27), a sultry blues singer and sometime actress who recently bought a house around the corner from the coffee shop we’re in now. “She’s my idol, my best friend in the whole world. I wanted to be close to her so I live in her guest bedroom,” Qualley says, sipping her iced tea. “We have a puppy together. His name is Books — he is adorable. I think I would find being in Hollywood intense if I had more of a social life but all I do is stay indoors with my sister and play with our puppy, watch movies.”

Still, she can’t escape her own buzz. Midway through our conversation, a dude in a hipster fedora appears at our table to declare that her deranged three-minute dance solo for Kenzo (released last summer) was “the coolest commercial out there”. It may be a fragrance commercial, but ‘My Mutant Brain’ has been a strong calling card. Choreographed by Ryan Heffington (known for his music videos for Arcade Fire and Florence + The Machine), it sees Qualley convulse wildly around the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in downtown LA, front-flipping, shooting lasers and leaping through an enormous floral sculpture.

When she turned up at Jonze’s Manhattan apartment for the audition, he explained he envisioned a girl losing control after sneaking out of a stuffy black-tie dinner.

“He’d yell out instructions like, ‘Now you’re a vampire,’ ‘Now you’ve lost control of your arm and it’s out to get you,’ and ‘Now you’re slaying dragons.’ He was filming all this on his phone while I was jumping on his coffee table and crawling around on his floor. When I left, drenched in sweat, my agents called me to see how it had gone and I said: ‘He either thinks I’m the craziest, most bananas chick out there or it’s gonna work out.’” It worked out.

Qualley was born in Montana in 1994, the same year that MacDowell’s career hit, Four Weddings and a Funeral, was released. However, since she and her siblings, Justin (30) and Rainey lived on a sprawling, 3,000-acre ranch without a TV, she says she only got around to seeing the successful British rom-com for the first time last year. “We didn’t grow up watching her movies. She made an effort just to be a mom, which I’m grateful for.” Later, the family moved to a small town called Asheville, which Qualley describes as the “hippy centre of North Carolina”. Her parents separated when she was five, and she split her time with her mother and father equally, though she says: “Like every child of divorce I had parent-trap fantasies. In fact, The Parent Trap was my favourite movie. I was a Nineties baby so I particularly loved the Lindsay Lohan version. I made a point of telling my mom how much I loved the movie — talked about it a lot. And then she started dating Dennis Quaid (who stars in the film). And I was like, ‘Noooo! You got it all wrong! This is not what I meant at all!’”

Her parents generally let her choose her own path. “It was: ‘You want ice cream twice a day, you can have it,’ and, ‘You don’t have to go to school if you don’t want to.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I have to.’ And now I think ‘Margaret, what the f*** were you doing?’” Qualley says her father taught her how to forge his signature so she could sign off her own report cards. “I use his signature as my own to this day.”

By that point she had already fallen in love with ballet, having been taken to dance lessons as a toddler. She also had a strong desire to get out of Asheville without ever knowing where exactly ‘out’ was. “I made (dance) my ticket out. I thought if I was really good I could go to ballet school.” She did, leaving home at 14 to board at the North Carolina School of the Arts. It was an experience both liberating and crushing. “I love the school … but it’s a normal part of the culture of ballet to go to a nutritionist in your first few weeks. They write down everything you eat and use a little roller that pinches you to measure the fat all over your body. They calculate all your measurements and then every semester, you get a letter saying either you’re too thin or you’re okay or you’re overweight. You have to adjust accordingly and if you don’t you’re not asked back the next year. It’s s*****; it’s really hard.”

At 16 she earned an apprenticeship at the American Ballet Theatre in New York and left to live in the city alone. But she became unhappy; although she loved dance “almost on a spiritual level” she increasingly found the training imposed too many unrealistic expectations. With her father now living in Panama where he had gone to build properties, her mother often away working, and her siblings at college, she needed a plan that didn’t involve returning to North Carolina. So she signed up with a modelling agent and found herself a Manhattan apartment and a high school to attend. “I wrote to my mom saying: ‘Look, I don’t think I want to be a dancer any more so I’m going to quit ballet and stay here. I will have this and this income next week.’ I laid it out in a way that she couldn’t say no because I was so organised.” Her mother wasn’t disappointed. “She had tried to talk me out of dancing for so long. It’s a hard life, a very short career and very gruelling.”

Surviving in New York was not a walk in the park. “It was funny being at high school and also grocery shopping and having a job. Other kids were going home to their parents, who were doing their laundry and I was like, wait, what?” she laughs. “I was super isolated. I was 16, alone in New York and modelling.” She began to miss the discipline of ballet, which at least provided a higher artistic purpose to her losing body fat. “With modelling, there’s nothing to work on other than losing weight. I definitely had an eating disorder.”

It was around this time that she took up acting classes — even spending a summer in London learning Shakespeare at Rada — and found it revelatory after the tightly disciplined world of ballet: “The mistakes are beautiful. It’s a very different way of storytelling and it’s liberating.” While she admits that Hollywood brings similarly ‘unrealistic’ pressures of body image, she finds it less uptight. “The best approach is to put my attention on other things. I try to learn about other stuff rather than obsess about how I’m seen.”

Qualley still dances whenever she can. “I’ll go to Ryan’s (Heffington) studio but I don’t do ballet because it’s too painful for me now. I’m too much of a perfectionist and I don’t have as much control as I used to. But if I take a contemporary class, I have a lot of fun.” She admits that she dreams of returning to live in New York one day but for now, work and the desire to be close to her sister keep her in LA. She was also recently linked to Cary Fukunaga, the 39-year-old director of cult series True Detective — though when I raise this, she refuses to comment.

One thing on which she’s only too happy to sound off though is politics. She was, like everyone she knew, horrified that Donald Trump won the election — “I imagined he’d be arrested before inauguration” — and attended the small but fierce Women’s March at the Sundance Film Festival in January. “There’s a lot of fire bubbling in all of us at the moment, and that’s exciting. The fact that everyone is becoming more involved in politics is a huge deal.”

She says her political conscience emerged early. “I went to a private school and I was an outcast. I was debating about vegetarianism and hanging up posters of cows being slaughtered in my cafeteria. Needless to say, I didn’t have many friends.”

It’s a typical Qualley comment: honest, sideways and intriguing. I get the feeling we’ll be seeing a lot more of her.

Belfast Telegraph