Dark Star

Dark Star

Margaret Qualley swapped out professional ballet's constant quest for perfection to instead tackle divinely imperfect roles on screen.

Margaret Qualley swapped out professional ballet's constant quest for perfection to instead tackle divinely imperfect roles on screen.

Photography: Inez & Vinoodh

Styling: Mel Ottenberg

Text: Alexandra Ilyashov

This article appears in the pages of V110, on newsstands now.

For Margaret Qualley’s breakout role as the lead in Novitiate, the Maggie Betts-directed drama about how the Catholic church’s radical reforms of the 1960s Vatican II era impacted nuns, preparations included studying scripture and a nunnery slumber party. “I’m not religious, so it gave me an excuse to learn about Catholicism and read the Bible for the first time,” Qualley says of depicting a young girl’s journey through the postulate and novitiate stages of becoming a nun. The film premiered to critical acclaim at Sundance and has since accrued Oscar buzz.

“One of my favorite parts about acting is the opportunity to learn about things that wouldn’t usually be a part of my life,” Qualley explains. She and her castmates slept over at a convent and adhered to their characters’ stringent practices, like vows of silence and 6 AM wake-ups, “just for fun, to see what it would be like following all of the rules, which was really fascinating,” she says. Costars include a gloriously formidable Melissa Leo as the Reverend Mother, Dianna Agron as the caring but conflicted big sister figure for Qualley and her fellow nuns-in-training, and Julianne Nicholson as Qualley’s agnostic mother grasping to maintain a relationship with her increasingly devout and detached daughter. A former nun taught the cast rudimentary sign language used during vows of silence and how to walk, “limiting all extraneous sensory experiences because you don’t want anything to distract you from God, which essentially means looking down while you’re walking,” Qualley remembers. “Also, you obviously don’t touch anyone. That was really difficult for me, because I’m a really touchy-feely person—I like to hug people!”

Qualley got her start in another relatively dark role, that of Jill Garvey in the HBO series The Leftovers. “It was my first-ever job and I was nervous as hell—I don’t think I slept before a day of work for the entire first season, and it was the best, most high-pressure acting school I could’ve dreamed of,” she says. Working with Liv Tyler made an impression on Qualley: “I really look up to her. She is so lovely, generous, and kind.” Even though both The Leftovers and Novitiate are decidedly somber and religious projects, that’s not by design, Qualley insists. “I audition and try out for happy roles all the time, but no one wants me to be a part of their happy stories. I’m telling you, I try.”

The 23-year-old was born on a Montana ranch, spent her formative years in North Carolina, and moved to NYC as a teenager. She studied ballet professionally until age 16 and didn’t harbor any acting aspirations, despite the family connection, as her mother is Andie MacDowell. (“I had a pretty normal childhood, and she was just my mom,” Qualley recalls.) After taking an acting class at her then boyfriend’s suggestion, Qualley “just fell in love” with the craft. “A big reason why I quit ballet was that I wasn’t doing it because I loved it anymore; I was just doing it because I wanted to be perfect,” Qualley muses. “Acting is so appealing because imperfections, messiness, and mistakes are often the greatest parts. I think I’m kind of a control freak sometimes, but reckoning with the fact of being out of control is actually great.”

Nowadays, Qualley is based mostly in L.A.’s Echo Park neighborhood, crashing with Rainey, her musician older sister and “best friend in the whole world.” There’s little overlap between dancing and acting for Qualley, but the mediums work well in opposition: “Ballet is black and white—there’s a right and wrong way to do things—and acting is way more grey. The harder you try, it actually kind of backfires,” Qualley explains, though her rigorous dance background was relevant for Novitiate. “The ballet world has a lot of similarities to young postulates’ experiences and to the convent,” she notes. “There’s discipline and yearning for perfection in both, and you’re following a certain path in order to achieve what you think

is perfection.”

This spring, Qualley danced again for the first time in years, in a Spike Jonze-directed Kenzo short film:  “After I quit ballet, I didn’t really dance at all, because I was so hard on myself. It was painful to go to class and not be as good as I used to be since I wasn’t training the same way,” she says. The exuberant Kenzo dance sequence starkly contrasts with her classical ballet training. “The point was not to be perfect; it was about allowing yourself to be messy and goofy and fucked up, and it reminds me of what I initially loved about dancing,” Qualley points out, raving over working with Jonze. “He just has this way of making everything feel so spontaneous, alive, fun, and playful, and you can feel that in his movies.” These days, the Qualley sisters take dance classes in L.A. and Margaret gets moving solo, albeit in private. “I spend a lot of time lately in hotels, and if I’m feeling sad or lonely, I’ll put on music and make myself dance around my hotel room and jump on the bed,” Qualley reveals.

She recently starred in the psychological thriller Death Note, and this fall, Qualley shot Adam, a “really tiny movie” that addresses LGBTQ identity politics and activism. Part of the plotline involves “Camp Trans,” a group that protested the exclusion of transgender individuals from the erstwhile Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. “It’s a comedy, and it’s lighthearted and funny for a great portion of the script, but it’s also about stories that really matter,” Qualley explains. Next, Qualley starts filming “another really light story where I play a meth dealer who is prostituted out by her brother,” she says with a laugh. “I just like things that scare me and make feel uncomfortable.” 

BRA ADAM SELMAN EARRINGS VINTAGE FROM SCREAMING MIMI'S BRACELETS EYE CANDY ON EYES YVES SAINT LAURENT MASCARA VINYL COUTURE IN I'M THE CLASH ON LIPS YVES SAINT LAURENT GLOSSY LIP STAIN POP WATER IN NUDE STEAM
Credits: MAKEUP DICK PAGE (STATEMENT ARTISTS) HAIR WARD (THE WALL GROUP)

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