Credit: Barry Wetcher

Shortly after Tate Taylor agreed to direct the adaptation of Paula Hawkins’ best-selling thriller The Girl on the Train, a strange thing happened. He started getting phone calls from industry friends — casting directors, costume designers, even the film’s star, Emily Blunt — with a similar message. They’d each met an actress who was perfect for the part of Train‘s most enigmatic character, Megan Hipwell — the beautiful young woman whose seemingly perfect marriage captivates Blunt’s depressed alcoholic, Rachel Watson. To a one, Taylor says, colleagues would mention a certain actress, then say something like, “I can’t really put it into words, but she is Megan. She’s kinda kooky, but she’s cool…you’ve just gotta meet her.” So he did.

When Haley Bennett visited Taylor’s Mississippi home in the summer of 2015 for a get-to-know-you meeting that included ATV races, he quickly understood what everyone had been raving about. “It was one of those situations where you love her personality, you love her look, you love her energy, her sexuality,” he says. “And you think, God, I hope she can act.”

Boy, can she. Her mesmerizing performance flits from vixen to victim, from cloaked hauteur to naked agony, often in a single moment, and it has catapulted Bennett to the top of Hollywood’s It Girl list. But it sure took a hell of a long time to get there. She moved from Ohio to Los Angeles at 18 and quickly booked the role of an imperious teen pop diva opposite Hugh Grant in 2007’s Music and Lyrics. The life and career she’d dreamed of had come true, and her future seemed boundless. But then, almost as quickly, things stalled. “I struggled for many, many years following Music and Lyrics — I mean really struggled,” says Bennett, 28. “I always wanted to do things on my own terms, and unfortunately in this industry, that’s not something that is easily given. You’re at the mercy of other people, but then you still have that drive to continue on. That’s an equation for a lot of heartbreak.”

While she scrounged money together from friends just to afford rides to her auditions, filmmakers she’d read for would write her encouraging but apologetic letters about why they almost cast her. “[Those letters] never really made sense to me,” Bennett says. “It was made out to seem like it wasn’t my fault somehow, just maybe the fault of this weird industry.”

With the smaller projects she did land, like Gregg Araki’s 2011 sci-fi sex comedy Kaboom, she began to make important connections and went about learning everything she could. “My existence became a film school, in a way,” Bennett says. “I was like a sponge on set, and I had a piece of paper where I would have all the filmmakers I was working with add the films that had inspired them. At a certain point it was my most valuable possession.”

Eventually Bennett caught a break from a legendary director who’d actually made films on her treasured list: Terrence Malick. In 2011, the Tree of Life auteur cast her in his untitled project formerly known as Weightless, a movie that will finally be released next March. He also wrote her a recommendation to Antoine Fuqua, who put her in his 2014 film The Equalizer and most recently in last month’s The Magnificent Seven, in which she plays the vengeful widow who hires that band of renegades to protect her Western town. “Haley’s got a toughness about her, but she’s really delicate — she feels the direction of the wind,” Fuqua says. “That’s a rare, precious balance to have: where you just feel vulnerable and still have the audience worry for you, but at the same time, when you pick up a gun and start shooting, they believe it.”

Bennett admits her emotions are never far from the surface — an invaluable quality in her profession, but one that has its drawbacks. As much as that gift made her the perfect actress to portray Megan, it also made playing the role extremely difficult. “There was something about being in this world, and literally being in Megan’s snakeskin shoes, that made my skin crawl,” she says. “I really felt uncomfortable in my own skin, but I thought that was okay because I think Megan feels uncomfortable in her own skin.”

Credit: Barry Wetcher

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There is much more to Megan than meets the eye, and her traumatic past is explored in flashbacks after she goes missing and Rachel becomes obsessed with solving the mystery. “There’s this quality about Megan…you want to take care of her,” Bennett says. “She’s somebody that you want to save.” It’s a star-making performance, one that might propel Bennett into the Oscar race.

After a decade of setbacks, she’s suddenly an “overnight success” — and this time with no sign of slowing down. In November she’ll play a Hollywood singer opposite Alden Ehrenreich (a.k.a. the new Han Solo) in Warren Beatty’s Rules Don’t Apply, and she will star with Miles Teller and Amy Schumer in Jason Hall’s Thank You for Your Service in 2017.

“I feel at home on set now,” Bennett says. “It’s taken 10 years, but I feel okay — I’ve been on enough sets and I’ve worked with some incredible tastemakers and actors.” She thinks of her time with Beatty, another legend responsible for a few titles scribbled on her weathered list, and lets out a chuckle of disbelief. “Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined my life the way it is today.” Or what it’s about to be.

The Magnificent Seven (2016 film)
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  • 133 minutes