By Derek Lawrence
July 27, 2019 at 12:00 PM EDT
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  • Movie
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With her bare feet kicked up on the dash, Margaret Qualley may look like she’s as relaxed as can be in Once Upon a Time Hollywood. But with Quentin Tarantino behind the camera and Brad Pitt behind the wheel, she was secretly terrified. “I mean, how can you not be? I was just trying to soak up every minute, because I know this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” the 24-year-old actress tells EW.

And for Qualley — who stresses how “frickin’ nervous” she was to be involved in a project with such a pedigree, and how excited she was to be working with her favorite filmmaker — Once Upon a Time almost didn’t happen.

Auditioning for the film, she initially didn’t get the part. It was only after her father began trying to get her to visit him in Panama that fate stepped in. “He was like, ‘Book a ticket to Panama and you’ll get a Quentin Tarantino movie!’” she remembers him saying, which was funny because he had no idea about her audition, or even that such a movie existed. She did book that ticket, and it was on the beaches of Panama where, despite poor cellphone reception, a call managed to get through with a dream of a message: “You’ve got to fly home because you have a chemistry read with Brad Pitt.”

Andrew Cooper/Columbia

She ultimately landed the part of Pussycat, a member of the Manson family who catches the attention of Pitt’s taciturn stuntman, Cliff Booth, in 1969 Los Angeles. Somewhat familiar with the Manson story that plays a role in Once Upon a Time, Qualley further studied up with DVDs given to her by Tarantino, and a surprising musical selection. “I don’t know if you’re familiar with Charles Manson’s album, but I always listened to that on my way into work,” she reveals. “To be honest, it’s not bad. [Laughs] So I’d listen to that the last, like, 10 minutes of driving to Spahn Ranch to kind of get me going; it became an OCD thing more anything.”

But not even that routine could fully prepare her for the Tarantino experience. Likening him to both a “talented jazz pianist” and a “fluid machine,” Qualley praises his generous direction and infectious excitement. “He shows up on set every day like a little kid on Christmas,” she says. On one particularly memorable day, Tarantino appeared with fresh dialogue he’d stayed up all night writing in longhand; in addition to the script pages (which she kept and intends to frame), Qualley got some advice that really resonated with her.

“I remember Quentin came up to me after a take and was like, ‘Did you mean to make a noise? Maybe I’m wrong, but I had this impulse that you wanted to do something but you didn’t quite do it,’” Qualley recalls. “And I did mean to, but I was kind of scared to take up space, because I felt so lucky to be there and I didn’t want to step on anybody’s toes. He was like, ‘Well, do it on the next take if you want. If you feel like doing something, I don’t know exactly what it is, but if you have the impulse to do something, then just listen to yourself.’ And I think that’s such great advice, because it was definitely nerve-racking to be there, but he encouraged me to trust myself, which was really nice and meant a lot.”

A lot more filmmakers will surely be trusting Qualley in the coming years, considering that the Leftovers alum is earning praise for her role in Once Upon a Time just a week after receiving an Emmy nomination for her performance in Fosse/Verdon. But those future projects will have a lot to live up to. “Quentin said, ‘This is going to be the most fun you’ve ever had making a movie,’” Qualley says. “And he was right.”

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is in theaters now.

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