For W’s third annual TV Portfolio, we asked 21 sought-after names in television to pay homage to their favorite small-screen characters by stepping into their shoes.
In Netflix’s acclaimed series Maid, Margaret Qualley stars as Alex, a young single mother who leaves her abusive boyfriend in hopes of building a better life for her 2-year-old daughter, Maddy (Rylea Nevaeh Whittet). With a small child to support, Alex takes on a series of odd jobs (including cleaning up trashed homes filled with blood, human excrement, and the like) while battling homelessness and countless indignities. Meanwhile, her own mother—played by Qualley’s real-life mom, Andie MacDowell—is a flighty presence in her life, causing her even more stress.
Speaking from a taxi in Paris, just weeks after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Qualley sees the parallels between Maid’s subject matter and the very real implications for young low-income mothers. “It’s incredibly upsetting,” she says, “and impossible not to think about.” But the actress, who is in France working on The Substance—the closely guarded film from director Coralie Fargeat, in which Qualley stars alongside Demi Moore—has plenty to be optimistic about. This summer, she received an Emmy nomination for her performance in Maid and got engaged to her boyfriend, Jack Antonoff, the six-time Grammy-winning musician, songwriter, and producer. Here, the 27-year-old discusses getting into character physically and emotionally, and why she aspires to be more like Dorothy Zbornak from The Golden Girls.
There are so many layers to your role in Maid. How did you prepare for the part?
I really occupied my time by hanging out with Rylea, who played my daughter, as much as I could. I was trying to make sure we had a relationship that you could feel, that she felt really comfortable with me. It was also just a logistics thing: She had to feel really safe in my arms, because otherwise we couldn’t get through the day.
How does one go about gaining the trust of a 4-year-old?
You just hang out and pay attention to them: Watch ’em dance, listen to ’em talk, do what they like to do. I would just kind of carry her around everywhere I went, and we got really close. I think attention is love, really.
Do you find that there are certain roles that are more conducive to intellectual research over emotional research?
It’s really project-dependent. With Maid, everything was just hanging out with Rylea. But I did this movie, Stars at Noon, where I speak Spanish. So, learning Spanish was the priority there. What I’m doing now [for The Substance] is really physical.
How so? I’m imagining you doing stunts.
I’m not doing very many stunts. I basically want my character to feel like she’s never experienced pain, so I’m doing a lot of yoga to try to make my alignment really good, trying to make myself feel like a baby would feel. That’s what I’ve been working on. [Laughs] I mean, it’s pretty good for me. I’ve never worked out like this in my life. I’m, like, Herculean. Not really—but the true test is that I’ve never been able to pop backs very well, and now I can pop anyone’s back with the lift-them-up-and-squeeze-them tactic.
What’s one thing about your mom’s acting style or process that people might be surprised to learn?
The last time I saw her was in L.A., and she had my sister and her boyfriend and me and my fiancé, Jack, over for dinner. She was about to start working on this movie, and she was performing a monologue for us. She was really excited about it. And I guess that’s something I think is really special—having done a job for X number of years and still having that fresh, excited take on it. And still having that feeling of a little kid who wants to perform for the room.
I speak for us both when I say we’re so lucky to be able to do this job, because it’s not often that people get to do something for a living that brings them so much joy. I feel like the big goal in life is to be looking at the world like a kid as much as you possibly can—that’s one of my big goals, is to try to play like a kid. Because I can be hard on myself. I can live in my head, and I can lose sight of what actually makes me happy.
Your fiancé, Jack Antonoff, recently spoke with Lynn Hirschberg for her Five Things podcast and mentioned how he’s found his person in you. I’m wondering how you would define your person?
My best friend. [Laughs] The person I’m the most excited to talk to and be around all the time.
Have you given the details of your wedding a lot of thought?
I have a general idea, but not detailed plans.
So you’re not the type of person who has been planning their wedding since they were a kid?
Right. I vaguely remember being a kid and having outlandish ideas about what I wanted when I was older. Like, I wanted a house with monkey bars built into the ceilings. I don’t think anything that I wanted as a child I would actually want now. And it’s upsetting because people told me that in real time. I was like, no! I will want monkey bars on the ceiling forever!
Integrating monkey bars on the ceiling into your wedding sounds like a good idea.
There you go.
Let’s talk about The Golden Girls. Do you remember the first time you watched it?
I grew up with it on. In North Carolina, my babysitter Julie and I would watch The Golden Girls together all the time after school. It’s just that comforting, cozy, homey feeling of a time before. It brings me back to being a little kid and sitting on the couch with Julie, who’s a real-life angel.
Do you find that you identify with Dorothy Zbornak as a character?
The truth is, I think Dorothy’s actually smarter than I am. I feel like she’s the smartest person in the room. So maybe it’s less of an identification with her and more of an aspiration. She’s not looking for attention. She’s just sussing out what’s happening, assessing the situation, and saying what we’re all thinking as audience members, but in a really articulate, funny way.
She’s like the chorus in Greek tragedies.
Yes, I couldn’t agree more. Dorothy is the hero. She’s the epitome of cool. And she’s very well-dressed. She doesn’t get the love she deserves—and I’m ready to give it to her.