How Margaret Qualley put her mom to work with her in ‘Maid’

Margaret Qualley holds 4-year-old Rylea Nevaeh Whittet with the ocean behind them in “Maid.”
“I would have snacks in my backpack and a coloring book on me. I was constantly entertaining her. I wanted her to have a great fourth year of life,” Margaret Qualley says of her young costar Rylea Nevaeh Whittet on “Maid.”
(Ricardo Hubbs/Netflix)
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Margaret Qualley’s background does not mirror Alex’s, the determined single mom in Netflix’s limited series “Maid.” In the series, based on the 2019 memoir from Stephanie Land, Alex flails through a broken governmental system as she tries to escape an abusive relationship, young daughter in tow. In fact, Qualley’s youth was the opposite: Her mom is actor Andie MacDowell (who also stars in “Maid”); dad is model Paul Qualley. She’s a trained ballerina who debuted at the Bal des Débutantes in Paris. But it’s a testament to her budding talent that she resonates in the role, in a series that’s clearly hit home for many audiences, of any background.

She spoke to The Envelope via Zoom about working with her mom, giving up ballet and how she wrangled a 4-year-old through some truly harrowing scenes.

You co-star in “Maid,” with your mom playing your character’s unstable mother. How did that all come to pass?

It was my idea to cast my mom as my mom. I was already in Canada quarantining — we shot on Vancouver Island, so I was up there quarantining — and they hadn’t cast the role of my mother yet. This was one of the first productions back from the pandemic, and it was a time where I was questioning what mattered to me. I love working, and I love my family, and it was a great opportunity to do both of those things at once.

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5 things to know about Stephanie Land and “Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive.”

And the pandemic brought the importance of that home on a personal level?

It was a reminder that we don’t have forever in this world. Nobody knows how long they’re going to be around, and I’ve always wanted to work with my mom. This was a special wild card I’ve been saving. And I was like, “F— it, use all the wild cards.”

Margaret Qualley as Alex and Andie MacDowell as Paula in "Maid."
(Ricardo Hubbs/Netflix)

This is the first time you two have worked professionally together, but did you two ever put on plays at home or something like that?

Growing up, I didn’t have any interest in acting. I was a dancer. I’d dance in front of the television so that people would watch me. My favorite part of going to the movies was when they roll the credits, because then I would race down to the front of the theater and put on a show while everyone was still in their seats.

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This is in your home, not in a real movie theater, right?

No, in a real movie theater. In front of all those eyes — I’m talking 8, 9 years old. So I loved theatrical things, but I’d never really thought about acting. I was just serious about dance. Then when I was 17, I took my first acting class and I was like, “Gosh, I’ve been missing out.”

Do you miss dancing?

I went to a boarding school for ballet, and that was the pinnacle of perfection in my mind. And it’s a really silent culture. A silent, obedient, quiet place. But this acting class was messy and drenched in feeling, and I … didn’t give myself permission to feel those feelings in life. Once I had tasted that, I was like, “God, yeah.”

In “Maid,” Alex ultimately escapes to live in Montana — which is where you were born. Is that just a coincidence?

Such a wild coincidence. I’m one of those people that believe things happen for a reason, and if you’re on your path you’ll be made to know you’re on your path. I felt with “Maid,” that was one of those experiences. It gave me an extra oomph to believe it was right for me.

Margaret Qualley carries Rylea Nevaeh Whittet on her shoulders in a walk through the woods in a scene from  "Maid."
Rylea Nevaeh Whittet as Maddy and Margaret Qualley as Alex in “Maid.”
(Ricardo Hubbs/ Netflix)

Your co-star was a 4-year-old who played your daughter (Rylea Nevaeh Whittet), which must have been a special sort of challenge. How did you make that work with her?

I would spend the entire day with her. She’d be in my arms. She was a vegan, so I was a vegan then just for her, and I would have snacks in my backpack and a coloring book on me. I was constantly entertaining her. I wanted her to have a great fourth year of life. Some members of the crew were godsends; it was just like everything had to be fun. But the worst part was that she was terrified of my mom, because the first scene we did with my mom, my mom was yelling. So most of the shots I’m not in, if Rylea’s there, I’m lying on the floor or in the back of the car or holding her ankles. She felt safe with me, and that meant the world. That was my mission.

What’s still on your bucket list of projects you want to take on?

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I always want to be like the opposite of what I’ve just done. If I could do anything, I’d love to do a comedy. I love to be really silly — and I would just die to work with Adam Sandler. Not that he only does comedy, he does everything — he’s brilliant in every genre.