In 2016, the actress Haley Bennett was positioned as the next big thing: a total star, with plump porcelain cheeks blushed by the softest rosacea. She was hailed as an exciting new actress, a babe. Bennett costarred in The Magnificent Seven, The Girl on the Train with Emily Blunt, and a handful of other films that year. Then—professionally, anyway—she appeared to slow down.
“Gosh, it’s funny, because 2016 feels like it was yesterday,” Bennett said on a recent Tuesday afternoon. She was in New York for the week, and paid a visit to the art and antique gallery Dienst and Dotter, in NoHo, which belongs to a friend of hers.
It turns out, during that time, Bennett went through the most transformative changes of her life, both career-wise, and within herself. She had a baby, starred in the stage production of Cyrano de Bergerac with Peter Dinklage, and produced her first film, Swallow, which comes out in theaters today. Bennett stars as well. And through all this, she took control of her own life, and found her voice.
“Cooling off certainly wasn’t my intention,” she explained of the past few years. “I guess I was redirecting a focus toward having greater control, and refocusing my work in a way that was more meaningful to me so that my process made more sense—and kind of giving up on the beliefs that others had regarding my career.”
This shift started with Swallow, the story of a young, newly wed housewife named Hunter, who marries into a wealthy family. She develops pica, a psychological disorder that causes a compulsion to eat things that are inedible: a thumbtack, a marble, dirt. Hunter is also pregnant—making her tendency to swallow household goods even more horrifying. But there is something about Hunter, something that is revealed in the movie, which lurks beneath the surface and sheds light upon her anxieties and mental-health issues.
At the time she filmed Swallow, Bennett herself was two months pregnant, lending another dimension of understanding that the actress felt toward her character.
“It isn’t always the case that every child is born loved, cared for, protected, adored, in a fun, creative, loving, home,” Bennett explained. “And when you’re not born of those things, it creates a whole slew of issues—this feeling of not having self-worth or trying your entire life to prove yourself, or prove your value. And I think that it has really negative impacts upon women, specifically. It’s part of a greater conversation that creates toxic situations for women. And in this case, it’s where we meet Hunter.
“Hunter is designing her house in a way that she feels everyone else wants her to,” Bennett continued, referencing the Swallow storyline, in which her character spends her days occupied with the interior design of the new home she buys with her husband. “There is this very polished, tidy veneer, from the way that she takes on these roles of host, homemaker, wife—she wants to be the perfect wife. The perfect mother. And I really appreciate and like stories where there’s something lurking beneath the surface that’s trying to find its way to breaking through. It was important for us that, even with this veneer, there were moments of honesty and truth and an indication that this was a role that she was playing. Rather than her true, authentic self. And certainly, as time goes on, you feel a gradual sense of this veneer fading. And eventually the film becomes hyperrealistic.”
After choosing to participate in Swallow as both an actor and an executive producer, Bennett felt inspired to pursue more roles that were multidimensional, layered, and complex. As a result, she has two more upcoming films: Devil All the Time and Hillbilly Elegy, which also stars Amy Adams and Glenn Close. Seated at a backgammon table in the art gallery, she recalled playing the game with Close nonstop on set.
"We were backgammon maniacs," she said. "It’s all we did in our spare time. That and puzzles." Resting upon the the backgammon table was a blue leather-bound notebook, containing bits of the script from Swallow, and notes that Bennett had written about her character while she got to know her. She described it as her baby, a relic from the set—part of her process and the way she worked, all of the prep she did, and a detailed examination of the text and her relationship with it.
"I carry it around," she said. "It reminds me of the truth of why I love doing what I do, and creating, and what I’m able to create through my experience."
The way that Bennett spoke about her role as Hunter, it was as though she were discussing someone close to her—and in some ways, it sounded like she saw some reflection of herself. Indeed, she admitted every character she plays has a bit of her in them. But Hunter especially had some crossover with Bennett, who went through her own self-discovery during filming. She realized she’d spent her entire career being patronized, told how to look, and where her career as an actor should go. Like Hunter, her individual spirit and beliefs were somewhat stifled, as the narrative of her life was further foisted upon her. Both she and Hunter broke themselves free of all that.
“It’s an original and universal story about someone who seems like a passive character, but she ends up becoming a powerful character,” Bennet said. “Not in a grand way, not in a superhero way, not in a Captain America way. But in terms of taking control of her life, and doing extraordinarily difficult things like investigating one’s trauma, shame, and then giving that shame back. She’s someone who, ultimately, doesn’t give in to the expectations of others. And that’s something that I want to teach my child: to be an individual, to take control of their life, because I’m the only one who has to live my life.”