'Fosse/Verdon' Star Margaret Qualley on Using Ballet Background to Play Dance Idol

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The FX series gave the supporting actress Emmy nominee the chance to play her idol — and to return to her first love.

If you had told a young Margaret Qualley that she'd one day play All That Jazz star Ann Reinking, she might not have believed you. The 24-year-old daughter of actress Andie MacDowell and former model Paul Qualley quit ballet at 16, but her turn as the legendary Broadway dancer in FX's Fosse/Verdon landed her an Emmy nomination for supporting actress in a limited series. And playing opposite Michelle Williams and Sam Rockwell was just one highlight in a busy year for the Leftovers star. She also appears in Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and this spring wrapped filming the lead in My Salinger Year, based on Joanna Rakoff's best-seller.

Your background as a dancer was essential to executing the choreography in Fosse/Verdon. Are there other ways you bring your ballet training into acting?

One of the reasons why I stopped dancing is because, at a certain point, I just became obsessed with the idea of being perfect. In the ballet world, that is a pretty common theme. What's so great about acting is the messier you are, the more that you make yourself available to make mistakes and being vulnerable, usually the better it is. There are certain things about me that are dancer traits and will always be a part of me: I like to work hard, I'm prompt, I'm not good at being late or being cool. I think probably dancers can't help but think about certain things, maybe body awareness. At the same time, I'm probably one of the clumsiest people I know.

Did you feel a special connection to Ann Reinking as a fellow dancer?

I grew up really idolizing Ann Reinking; it was one of the most surreal opportunities for me to try to play her. I was really fortunate because I had the opportunity to talk with her on the phone before we started shooting; we ended up talking for two hours. It was the coolest thing just to get her blessing. At the end of the conversation, I basically said, "I have to be honest, I feel nervous, I've looked up to you for so long." She was really, really sweet and said, "Well, be honest and trust yourself, I believe in you. And if you ever want to call me, I'm here." I definitely abused that power and ended up calling her once or twice a week.

What kind of industry response did you see after your 2017 Kenzo ad with Spike Jonze took off online?

That Kenzo dance ad really was huge for me because I quit dancing when I was 16 and I really didn't dance at all until then. What was awesome about it for me personally was in no world was it trying to be perfect — the point was to have fun. It reminded me of all the reasons why I used to love dance, and I'm thankful to Spike for that. I was really focusing on ballet, and I never would have been the dancer that I really wanted to be. And to work on Fosse/Verdon with Broadway legends teaching me Fosse choreography … I feel so fortunate; it's been a very circuitous route to being able to do things that childhood me would freak out about — and adult me does as well, to be honest.

You kept a journal on the set of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood; what's an entry that would make it into your memoir?

There was one day that I was with my sister in L.A. on my day off, and I was driving down Sunset Boulevard. I saw all these old cars and thought, "Oh, it must be the Quentin set." Then we slow down, and sure enough, I saw Bob [Richardson], the DP, and Quentin right there setting up a shot and I roll down my windows. I think he thought I was a fan, then he's like, "Margaret?! Oh, that's what you look like!" because I was just wearing a T-shirt or whatever. It was the most Hollywood experience that I'd ever had and will ever have. I'm obviously so excited to be there, but his enthusiasm level matches mine. Quentin shows up to set every day like a little kid on Christmas, so I don't have to temper my enthusiasm. Even Brad Pitt was excited; it's like, the "cool kids" are excited.

What draws you to a project?

An instinctual connection to the story of the character or the opportunity to work with somebody I really admire. Sometimes you get really lucky and you have all of those things. With Fosse/Verdon, I felt like I grew up with Ann — I was also dying to work with Michelle Williams and Sam Rockwell and Thomas Kail and Steven Levenson. But I have to lower my standards — it can't always be this good! I'll settle for one of those things.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.