Margaret Qualley on Building Bond With ‘Maid’ Actor Rylea Nevaeh Whittet – The Hollywood Reporter

For Maid star Margaret Qualley, her job was all about building a relationship with child actor Rylea Nevaeh Whittet and making her feel safe on the set of the Netflix series that delves into domestic abuse and dealing with trauma as a mother.

“The thing that resonated with me the most from both the script and Stephanie Land’s memoir — which of course inspired the series — was just how much she loved her daughter and how important that relationship was to her,” Qualley, 27, tells THR. “Her daughter was her life. Given the fact I am not a mother, that seemed like the biggest hurdle, to convincingly be a 4-year-old stranger’s mom. That was my starting point: to get as close to Rylea as I possibly could to make her feel as comfortable in my arms as she could possibly feel, to make her feel safe and make her feel like she wasn’t at work and [could] have a great fourth year of her life. And then I was just down for the ride.”

In the critically acclaimed limited series created by Molly Smith Metzler, Qualley plays Alex, a woman who decides to leave her abusive relationship with her daughter in tow. To make ends meet, she starts cleaning houses while trying to be the best mother she can possibly be to Maddy. To prepare for the role, Qualley and Whittet would spend the entire day on set together, have lunch together and fall asleep together — and every Sunday, Whittet’s parents would drop her off so Qualley could run her errands with Whittet to build that sense of familiarity.

“We were really glued together,” says Qualley. “I love her, and it was such a gift to work with her. When you’re acting with someone, you’re both pretending, but when you have a 4-year-old asleep in your arms, she’s just asleep — you have a heartbeat against your heart. And that just makes you feel different.”

Andie MacDowell, who not only plays Alex’s mother, Paula, on the show but is Qualley’s mom in real life, saw how much determination Qualley had to build a strong relationship with Whittet.

“She made that child an actress — you can’t get that kind of performance from a child,” MacDowell tells THR. “It takes so much patience, and she created that with this child. This child adored her and was so comfortable because she spent every weekend with her. Every moment that she was on set, she was with Margaret as if it she were her mother. They had this real bond — it wasn’t fake. It really made a huge difference and it was a gigantic undertaking.”

The two grew so close, in fact, that Whittet felt she needed to protect Qualley in scenes in which she was yelled at by Nick Robinson, who portrays Alex’s estranged boyfriend and Maddy’s father on the show.

“She would get so upset and so scared by anybody [who] was being mean to me, because we were really close,” explains Qualley. “The first scene that we did with my mom, for example — she was terrified of my mom. And then I’m supposed to leave her at my mom’s house and drive away. But in reality, I’m laying on the floor, holding her ankles below the screen because she wouldn’t be in the same frame as my mom. She wouldn’t let me leave because she was scared [since] my mom had just yelled at us. My mom had to come over on Sunday to gain her trust back. She’s a very empathetic child. She couldn’t handle it when somebody was yelling at me.”

Adds MacDowell, whose character suffers from an undiagnosed mental health disorder: “My first scene with Rylea was a wackadoodle scene. [I’m] painting, and they showed up [as] I’m in one of my manic highs where my speech patterns are off — and she was terrified of me. I had a really hard time working through that thing, but then later we were able to explain to her that I’m acting. And she started to understand what acting was and she saw the real me, and I would go hang out a little bit with her over at the house and show her who I really was. And then after that, she liked me.”

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“We were really glued together,” Qualley says of her young co-star Rylea Nevaeh Whittet, who plays her daughter, Maddy. Says Andie MacDowell, “She made that child an actress.”

Empathy is also the reason Qualley was drawn to the project in the first place. When she first received the script and read Land’s memoir, she knew she wanted the part and immediately auditioned. And while Qualley did not serve as a producer on the show, she was instrumental in casting one of the most important roles of the series: the part of Alex’s free-spirited artist mother, Paula.

“It was probably the most selfish decision I’ve made in my whole life,” says Qualley about suggesting her mother play the part. “I was quarantining in Canada, and they still hadn’t cast the role of my mom. It just dawned on me one day, there would be no one better to play this part than my real-life mother. I wanted to work with her one day and wanted to wait until we had something really juicy. And then I realized, ‘Oh wait, this is really juicy …’ I proposed the idea and everyone was really excited about it. And then I was like, ‘Oh God, I hope she actually does it.’ But luckily she wanted to do it, and she came out right away and then it was heaven. I got to work with somebody that I’ve grown up admiring since the fricking get-go — my very first idol.”

“It’s a beautiful feeling as a mother to have had this experience with her and for it to be so well received and for it to touch so many people,” says MacDowell. “When it first came out, I was coming from London and people at the airport would recognize me and would tell me how touched they were — and I would say, ‘The lead is my daughter!’ To watch their faces was so much fun, to see them realizing it was my daughter and how much they loved her.”

The duo would hang out every Sunday — Qualley’s only day off, according to MacDowell — to eat soup and recuperate from the days that revolved around the heavy subject of domestic violence. Qualley says there was one scene in particular that left her shaken.

“There is a moment where Sean [Robinson] grabbed Alex by the shoulders and shoved her against the wall,” says Qualley. “Before we shot the scene, we mulled it over, the idea of Sean grabbing her and pushing her. And that was the first time that had happened in the show. Before that, it was primarily about emotional abuse, but we [raised] the stakes a little bit and [to see] how that felt. And on the first take of that … he grabbed me by the shoulders and pushed me against the wall. I just remember having the biggest reaction to it. I’ve never been in that circumstance — I’m really fucking lucky — but if it had that effect on me in a pretend world, I can only imagine what it does to you in real life.”

Luckily, Qualley and Robinson knew each other before Maid and were comfortable enough to shoot those difficult moments.

There were two scenes that balanced out the emotionally tolling scenes, though, one when Alex swipes through men on a dating app with stereotypical profiles. “Luckily, I was off-camera for that, because I was definitely chuckling along,” Qualley remembers. “It was kind of a fun, lighthearted reprieve from the rest. That was just a fun departure for me.”

The other was a scene in which Alex makes her way through the food in Regina’s (Anika Noni Rose) fridge, which, Qualley explains, was not originally in the script. “In the script, Alex was not supposed to eat any of it, and that was kind of crazy to everyone while we were shooting it,” she says. “I remember having a conversation with Brett [Hedblom, a producer] being like, ‘If you’re starving, wouldn’t you just eat it?’ They were really sticking to the script — and rightfully so, Molly’s a genius and it’s a really beautiful script — but we were all like, ‘Come on, she’s got to eat it.’ But they didn’t shoot that. And then once they assembled the episode, they were like, ‘Um, actually, yeah, she’s got to eat it.’ And so we did the shot of Alex stuffing her face and eating all of it. Luckily, I was hungry!”

Qualley, who spoke to THR from Panama, where she is shooting another project, says she will take what she learned from the set of Maid to the next one.

“Your perspective has value, as basic as that might sound,” says Qualley. “Within Alex’s world, she’s been living in an emotionally abusive dynamic. And when you’re in that kind of relationship, you lose touch with your own reality because you realize that you have to agree and comply in order to get by and that someone else is setting the rules, and that’s not OK. Everyone is allowed to have their view and you don’t have to adopt somebody else’s perspective in order to get through it all … While my circumstances are wildly different than Alex’s, I think that a lot of times, people in power encourage you to lose touch with your own reality in order to adopt theirs, to make things easier for them.”

She adds, “I value more than ever how different everyone’s perspective is. And while we’re all living in the same world, we’re all having completely different experiences. I want to try to be as true to mine as I can while giving everybody else space to have their own. That is a big thing that I took away from the show.”

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

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