Margaret Qualley is among the vanishingly few people in Hollywood who can credibly wield the word “gosh.” Jimmy Stewart’s favorite interjection resounds through her sentences like a slingshot, going hand in hand with her soft North Carolina twang and sweet manner. She is one of an even smaller number of actresses who could take the prompt “You’re having an argument with your hand” and make it make sense. That was just one of the things Spike Jonze asked Qualley to do when she auditioned for a Kenzo perfume campaign he was directing. The clip subverts your typical fragrance ad: A glamorous woman in a green gown walks the halls of an architectural landmark. Then there’s a glitch in the Matrix. She starts going manic, flailing like a velociraptor, shooting laser beams from her hands like a sci-fi heroine racing into intergalactic battle and, yes, fighting with her own extremities.
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Even though it was less than four minutes long, that performance proved to the world that Qualley was incredibly game, without the usual starlet brand of hesitancy. (It’s an example of what she calls her “puppy energy.”) The moves were courtesy of her ballet training, while the spontaneity came from her next passion after ballet, improv. “I like to play, like a little kid,” she says. “All different kinds of play are fun to me.” As a ballerina, though, she got used to restrictions. “I think we all create our own rules for ourselves so that we can play in a certain way, but there’s a balance. You’ve got to have structure so that you can dance.” Maybe that balance is why her characters never feel trapped in the amber of a “type,” whether she’s playing a nun-in-training in Novitiate, Justin Theroux’s troubled daughter in The Leftovers, a strung-out Manson girl in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, or Broadway legend Ann Reinking in Fosse/Verdon, for which she received an Emmy nomination. Qualley has been acting since she turned 16, when she quit ballet and moved to New York City by herself, an experience she describes as “jarring, but also the greatest thing ever. I think I like ‘jarring,’ ” she says. “I like jumping in. It’s easier to dive into…