Haley Bennett on ‘The Magnificent Seven’ and the Letter Terrence Malick Wrote that Changed Her Career
You may not know Haley Bennett yet, but by the end of the fall movie season you’ll recognize her. The 28-year-old actress, who’s appeared in Hardcore Henry and The Equalizer, has been acting for almost a decade, but her trio of upcoming films this year are bound to put her on your radar.
Bennett co-stars in Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven remake opening this weekend, plays the missing woman in Tate Taylor’s upcoming adaptation of The Girl on the Train, and a 1950’s singer in Warren Beatty’s Howard Hughes dramedy Rules Don’t Apply. Next up, Bennett will star alongside Amy Schumer and Miles Teller in PTSD drama Thank You for Your Service and (possibly) appear in Terrence Malick’s Weightless. It’s safe to say Bennett is on the cusp of a breakout, even if she’s too humble to realize it. “Oh God, I don’t even consider that,” Bennett said when I asked if it feels like she’s in the midst of a big career moment.
I sat down with Bennett at the Toronto International Film Festival just before the world premiere of The Magnificent Seven. Unlike Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and John Sturges’ 1960 film, the new movie features a racially diverse cast of gunslingers brought together by a woman. I talked to Bennett about her role as Emma Cullen, a widow who hires the titular Seven, female characters in Westerns, and the letter Malick wrote that changed her career.
This remake is most different from the original in that there’s a female lead who’s a strong, independent character.
Absolutely. She’s not the damsel in distress at all. Me and Antoine talked about being sheepherders, they lead from behind. I think that rather than Emma being this tough leader, she led them from behind and made sure that everyone was doing the right thing, and serving the town and defending them. She is holding them accountable, rather than making demands.
She really is the leader of the Seven in a sense.
She is the leader in the sense, and what people don’t know, and hopefully what they will gather when they see the film, is that she does become one of the Seven. I don’t want to give too much away. Not only is she the leader, but she sort of transforms as well from what could’ve been a victim, and she turns into sort of a hero in a lot of ways, and somebody that I aspire to be more like in the sense that she is independent, she’s strong, and she’s in control.
Did you look at any other female roles in Westerns as inspiration for Emma?
I mean there weren’t a lot to base this character off of. Most of the time the female characters [are] definitely in the background or in the kitchen. There are some films, but I think in a film like this, in such a large action film, there hasn’t been a female character in a Western like Emma.
Do you think your character will change that for future Westerns in Hollywood?
I mean there aren’t a lot of Westerns being made. I think that was one of the most exciting things for me, because I was so jealous of the guys and their giddiness towards getting to make a Western. I asked myself, “Why don’t I get to?” I was super excited, but I didn’t share that same feeling because it wasn’t something that when I was little I sat down and watched Westerns with my mom or my dad. It wasn’t something I really could identify with. It was a learning process for me, what theses pioneer women actually went through and how involved they were in male roles.
Maybe Emma could be an introduction to strong women in the genre for audiences.
Yeah, especially for the younger generation. They haven’t seen a lot of Westerns. They’re a lot of fun; they are really hard to make though. So, sure.
I read that Terrence Malick sent a letter to Antoine Fuqua about your performance in Weightless and that’s how you got cast in The Equalizer. Is that true?
Yeah. Essentially I had auditioned, and I had worked with Terrence on Weightless. When I was up for the role Terrence wrote a [letter]. He actually wrote it on a typewriter and he sent it to Antoine. It was incredibly gracious and flattering, and he is a true gentleman.
What was your experience like working on Weightless?
It’s really a blur. It was so long ago and it feels like a different lifetime. It really was sort of a new beginning for my career. Because after I worked with [Malick], it was like he anointed me in a way and then he was sort of the catalyst to making other filmmakers pay attention to my work during the audition process. Maybe they looked at my work in a different way rather than just being an ordinary actor going into an audition, I guess.
I’ve been acting for ten years now and I worked with Terrence five years ago and my career has really changed since I worked with him. I’m not doing anything differently. I’ve done 22 movies, but I haven’t really changed, I’m doing the exact same thing. But it was the fact that I had worked with Terrence and he gave me that opportunity that people looked at my work differently. And the movie still hasn’t even emerged, at all.
Do you know if you’ll be in it? I guess that’s the big mystery, huh?
That’s the million dollar question.
You’ve got this film and The Girl on the Train coming out this fall. Is there a genre or type of role that attracts you most, do you like like to try out different ones?
Yeah, I’ve been quite experimental. There’s not a formula that I’m following, it’s just how I feel at the time. For instance, I did a very experimental film called Hardcore Henry and that was simply because I thought the filmmaker was very interesting and a risk taker. A film like that had never been made before so I chose to do that at the time. Doing Magnificent Seven was a no-brainer. I got to work with Antoine again and Denzel [Washington] and the cast was so incredible, and the role was so different. It’s just a case-to-case basis. It’s more of a feeling, more like a magnet. Something that I’m drawn to in a way that’s not really logical.
What kind of characters would you want to take on next?
It’s hard to say. You can’t sit here and try to predict what kind of character I’m going to be drawn to next. At the time when I read The Girl on the Train, it wasn’t like I was “Ooh, I want to play a hot mess next.” She’s dealing with loss and she’s a runaway, it’s very emotional. I wish that I could predict what I wanted to do next, but it’s not even possible. There’s types of films that I think make sense next, but it’s probably like a relationship. You get into a situation when you least expect it. It’s interesting, this whole process, it’s more about a feeling.
Does it feel like you’re on the cusp of a big moment right now with these new movies coming out this fall?
Oh god, I don’t even consider that. Yeah, it’s not even in my – I hope just to be able to continue working in this way and continue being proud of the work, and that’s the only way I can consider all of [it]. The moments are when I’m on set.