Margaret Qualley and Christopher Abbott on Their Cat-and-Mouse Dominatrix Thriller

Photo: Courtesy of NEON

Early in Sanctuary, the camera pans in on Christopher Abbott at a critical moment. Playing an ultra-wealthy hotel heir named Hal Porterfield, he’s answering a series of personal questions. Hal’s inquisitor is the dominatrix (Margaret Qualley) he routinely pays to humiliate him behind closed doors. As Rebecca asks about his excessive drinking, his STI record, and his medical history, Hal responds matter-of-factly. But when she interrogates whether it’s true he lost his virginity at age 25, something in Hal shifts. Their quick-fire rapport comes to a halt. “This isn’t what I wanted,” he tells her, Abbott’s face flinching with discomfort. “It’s not in the script.”

It’s the first in a sequence of twists that continue throughout Sanctuary’s 96-minute duet. Hal and Rebecca’s relationship is one of careful negotiation, governed by the dialogue Hal writes for them before each encounter. But this particular meeting is heightened. Hal’s father has died, and he’ll soon be appointed CEO of the luxe Porterfield hotel chain — a position he’s hardly equipped to handle. Rebecca sees an opportunity to bribe Hal. Over the course of the film, their push-and-pull takes on new dimensions, the power shifting between them as each lobs unprecedented threats and finds unlikely avenues of seduction, sometimes all at once. Hal is as privileged and insecure as Rebecca is confident and aimless.

Sanctuary, now in theaters, is part erotic thriller and part romantic comedy. Working off a screenplay by Homecoming co-creator Micah Bloomberg, director Zachary Wigon (The Heart Machine) takes what could be a staid single-location melodrama and turns it into a crackling missile. Abbott and Qualley make an ideal odd couple, in sync throughout their characters’ many gradations.

Which of you signed on for Sanctuary first, and how did you discover that the other was involved?
Margaret Qualley: I read it first, and the first person I thought of doing it with was Chris, and that was the same for Zach. We both love him, and we’re friends. I’ve been dying to work with him for some time, and it seemed like the perfect two-hander to be able to have a chance to have fun together.

Christopher Abbott: Yeah, Margaret and I were looking for something to do for a little while. This felt like the ideal one because it was just us two.

How did your friendship form?
Qualley: Showbiz? [Laughs.]

Qualley: We’ve both lived in New York and had seen each other around. I watch everything Chris does because I’m a fan, and he’s not so bad to hang out with either.

Abbott: I forgot exactly how we first met, but it was sort of over the years, being in New York on the scene.

We love the scene. Before cameras rolled, how much did you talk about the characters’ history, both together and independently of each other? We get tidbits about their pasts, but there’s still a lot that’s left to the imagination. 
Qualley: We went to Chris’s house the second time we got together. Chris made focaccia. And we all just read the script and had some wine and chatted really loosely. Then we did another version of that at my apartment, which is oddly similar to Chris’s apartment, just on the East Side. I didn’t make focaccia, but we did the same thing. I don’t think either of us dove too deep into figuring out what our history was. At least for me, the way I decided to do this — what I thought would be the most efficient, fun version of it — was to learn the entire script by rote and know it incredibly well so I could just play on the day. Also, we shot the thing in 18 days with one-day weekends, so it was really fast-paced. I think the beauty of this movie, hopefully, is that it’s two people just talking to each other and listening to each other in a really intense way. Anything that’s happened before or after kind of doesn’t matter, as long as they’re paying attention to each other in that second.

Abbott: I agree. I don’t think backstory was that important for this one. Whatever exposition is needed for the audience is sort of all we needed for the parts. These characters have a lot they don’t know about each other — and they don’t know much about themselves. A lot of stuff is revealed in the moment. It’s not like we were doing Lincoln.

Whether or not you specifically discussed or considered it, what do you think their first meeting looked like? Did Hal script their interactions from the very beginning?
Abbott: They talk about it a bit in the film, but it seems like that’s how they started. Without giving much away, you learn they have a history of this, and without each of them knowing it, they’ve started to form a bond with each other.

When the movie premiered in Toronto last year, you said it was heavily choreographed. You made it sound like it was blocked almost like a play, which makes sense considering it could very much function as one. A lot of actors resist that level of direction. Is it ever prohibitive?
Qualley: Some movies are good in that you can feel more improvisational in terms of where you can be physically, but in this case, I reveled in it. Sometimes I feel like the more rules there are in place, the more freedom you actually have. If I asked you to tell me a story, it might be really hard for you to think of a story. But if I said, “Tell me a childhood story,” you could probably think of one. And then if I were like, “Tell me a childhood story where you felt embarrassed,” then you’d probably be flooded with memories. The more specific you can be with something, sometimes the more you have to offer. Each experience is different, but for this movie, it felt good to have so many rules in place. It’s the same reason why people like boutiques over going to huge shopping malls.

Abbott: I enjoyed the healthy constraints that we were forced to have by Zach — not forced, but encouraged. Zach’s challenge was to make a one-room chamber piece as cinematic as possible. If it were up to me, I would just sit in a chair every scene. So it was a nice challenge to work like that. Margaret and I treated it like a play. The work was more about the words for us, and the physicality we left up to Zach.

What is it like to shoot a scene where one of you commands the other to clean a toilet in his underwear and then masturbate? Walk me through that experience.
Qualley: It’s a lot easier than you might think. It came quite naturally.

Go on. 
Abbott: I don’t know if you know, but acting is about drawing from real life.

So I’ve heard. 
Abbott: No, but the whole fun of doing movies is that sometimes you’re in circumstances you’d never be in in real life and you have to find the reality of that. I can say I’ve never done that in my life, but I did it in a movie.

Qualley: Likewise.

Is it the sort of scene that intensifies with more takes? 
Qualley: I guess one thing to mention is part of the reason it’s so choreographed is because we didn’t have time to do regular coverage. It’s not like we were doing wide shots, medium close-ups, over-the-shoulders. The movie was very much edited upon arrival. Only whatever was going to be used was shot, and you’d have three to five takes. We’d come in swinging.

Abbott: We played with the levels. You turn it up, turn it down, try different things.

What I think will surprise people about Sanctuary is how romantic it ultimately is. 
Qualley: That’s the hope.

It could be read as a warped rom-com by the end. Is that something you guys saw from the beginning?
Abbott: Very much so.

Qualley: I think we both saw this as a silly, fun love story.

Yeah, it’s people who are taking a silly situation very seriously, if that makes sense.
Qualley: Totally, but that’s all of life, kind of. It’s all so silly, and at the same time it’s everything.

It’s also kind of an erotic thriller and a callback to films like Belle du Jour. Were there movies or cultural references that were on your minds as you were reading the script or playing these characters? 
Qualley: Basically those 1920s talky vibes. That was one good reference, specifically in terms of speed.

Abbott: There’s also a bit of a tone in it that has a lot of Korean cinema influence. The Housemaid was a reference. There’s a heightened tone to the whole thing, and to the colors, with a mix of noir elements as well.

Chris, in the years since Girls, you’ve tended to play characters who are a bit more on the gruff and rugged side. Here, you’ve got someone who’s so nakedly unsure of himself despite certain appearances. Did you draw that same contrast?
Abbott: Just for my own sake of not getting bored, I try to do as many different things as I can. With this one, compared to the few movies I had done before this one, it was a change-up, and it was refreshing to do that.

You’re also both in my most anticipated movie of the year, Poor Things. I just read the novel and loved it. Yorgos is a director actors tend to feel very passionately about. What was the Poor Things shoot like for you?
Qualley: I’m going to let Chris answer this because I have the tiniest cameo in Poor Things. If you blink, you’ll miss me. But Chris, go off.

Abbott: That’s not true. That’s Margaret being humble.

Qualley: I mean, I shot for two days. It’s pretty true.

Abbott: I feel like you were there for, like, months. One day with you, Margaret, feels like a year. I mean, I loved it. I still haven’t seen the film, but I’m equally excited to see it. The teaser that came out is even more vivid and wild than I imagined it would be after having been there. It’s very exciting. I loved working on it and with Yorgos. I’m excited to see me in it, but also everyone else.

Margaret Qualley & Christopher Abbott’s Psychosexual Rom-Com