Margaret Qualley has been practicing her jazz hands. Grinning, she shows them to me, fingers splayed and wriggling above a plate of vegetables at New York’s Souen restaurant in Soho.
It’s the coldest day of the winter so far, but Qualley has the warm, hyper energy of someone who’s just rolled up to Coachella. She strikes a pose and shouts, “Dance!,” as if inviting her fellow diners to step away from their macrobiotic meals and join her in a lively number. And for a minute, it seems like they might.
This month Qualley, 24, will return to the small screen for the first time since appearing on HBO’s The Leftovers to star in FX’s Fosse/Verdon, an eight-part series that traces the iconic but contentious relationship between legendary choreographer and director Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell) and actress and dancer Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams). As the married couple build their precise world of well-timed kicks and turns, Qualley enters the picture as Ann Reinking, Fosse’s longtime collaborator and lover.
A former aspiring ballet dancer herself, Qualley is something of a Fosse fangirl. She smiles when she recalls riding to dance class in her hometown of Asheville, North Carolina, with her older sister, Rainey (now a singer and actress), and their mother, the actress Andie MacDowell (who split from their father, former model Paul Qualley, when Margaret was five). “I spent a lot of time in the back of a minivan watching All That Jazz,” she says. In her teen years, Qualley became more serious about dancing and found herself on the fast track to a professional ballet career—until one day she decided to quit it all. “I had this epiphany that I was there for all the wrong reasons, you know?” she says, adjusting a red handkerchief knotted around her neck, her long, dark brown hair in two messy braids. “I realized I was there just because I wanted to be perfect.”
To prepare for Fosse/Verdon, Qualley pored over footage of Reinking—interviews, performances, and the famous “There’ll Be Some Changes Made” number from All That Jazz. She also talked with Reinking herself, an experience that Qualley describes as “magical” and that also made her cry (in a good way). “I’ve never played a real person before,” she says, letting out a charmingly loud, hiccupy laugh. “It’s intimidating.”
Qualley mentions that a few days earlier, she and the cast filmed the signature “Manson Trio” number from the musical Pippin under the watchful eyes of two of Fosse’s former dancers, Mary Ann Lamb and Pam Sousa. “[Fosse’s choreography] is so remarkable because it’s so specific,” Qualley says. “It’s like patting your head and rubbing your stomach. We were really lucky to have [them] come in and show us how it’s supposed to be.” Fosse/Verdon showrunner Steven Levenson describes Qualley’s character as “Bob [Fosse]’s intellectual equal…. There’s a strength about her that allows her to navigate her ups and downs with Bob. Margaret brings that strange combination: She’s a strong person—you can just tell immediately—but there’s also a delicate quality about her.”
While growing up, Qualley saw acting as her “mom’s thing,” but after leaving the all-consuming world of ballet behind, she found herself drawn to it. And, interestingly enough, her filmography reflects a desire to dissect the sort of power and discomfort that unrelenting perfection can breed. She can play a nun so in love with God she’ll accept physically abusive hazing (2017’s Novitiate), but also a deceptively pretty, fictional Manson girl (Quentin Tarantino’s forthcoming Once Upon a Time in Hollywood). This year, Qualley will also star as Mary Dalton, the rebellious daughter of a wealthy capitalist in artist Rashid Johnson’s highly anticipated adaptation of Native Son, which thrusts the racial tensions of Richard Wright’s 1940 novel into the present day. “I wanted to make it as uncomfortably close to home as possible,” Qualley says of building the timely character, a rich girl whose clueless quest to be racially progressive leads to fatal consequences for her and the novel’s black protagonist, Bigger Thomas. “I’m someone who grew up with privilege, and I’m aware of that…. I wanted to find all the annoying bits of myself and reckon with them and learn from them.”
She’s also set to star in a queer coming-of-age comedy called Adam, as well as two upcoming thrillers—Against All Enemies, about actress Jean Seberg’s involvement in the 1960s civil rights movement; and Strange But True, about a woman pregnant with her deceased boyfriend’s child. In January, she took on a sci-fi dystopia, playing an end-of-the-world beekeeper in Io, out now on Netflix. When it comes to choosing projects, Qualley gravitates toward what frightens her. “I like the idea while I’m reading [a script], where I’m like, ‘Yeah, it’s gonna be so scary,’ ” she says. “But then when I’m doing it, I’m like, ‘Oh, why did I do this?’ But I want to always be scared. I’m terrified with every job I’ve ever done, and I think I should keep feeling that way.”
This article originally appeared in the April 2019 issue of ELLE.