The moment Haley Bennett stepped onto set for our photo shoot, she was in character. Portraying a jazz singer from a bygone era, the 28-year-old actress applied her own lipstick and was apt to break into song. It’s her willingness to “go there” that has Bennett on the speed dial of every top filmmaker from Terrence Malick to Antoine Fuqua to The Girl on the Train director Tate Taylor, who here interviews Bennett in his charming southern drawl.
Words Allyson Shiffman
TATE TAYLOR: You’re seeing The Girl on the Train for the first time tonight!
HALEY BENNETT: Dun dun dunn…
TT: Let’s start with what attracted you to the role of Megan in the first place.
HB: I was in Louisiana working on another film, The Magnificent Seven, when I read the book. I was excited because it was three female characters and I was working on a film with all dudes. I found out from my agent that you were making the film and I knew that if anybody could make this something I would want to be a part of, it would be you. Especially after getting to know you, I feel as though you understand the intricacies of life…
TT: Well, you and I have both been served our share of shit sandwiches, so we know how to handle them.
HB: Yes. You are empathetic to the underdog and I think that this character as well as you and I are underdogs, and that was something that we bonded over. You really live in the real world, that’s what I love about you. So I drove from Louisiana to Mississippi. I like to bake, so I made you a cherry pie, and I didn’t think of putting a cover on it. I literally put it in the seat next to me and I was like, ‘What am I going to do now? Am I going to put a seatbelt on the pie?’ I get on the freeway and I’m terrified and I had to overcome that to try to get to you. I don’t know if I ever told you that I hate freeways.
TT: And then I make you get on a four-wheeler.
HB: Well, first of all you make me this amazing BLT sandwich, and I will never forget it. You gave me some clothes to change into, so I had on these really nerdy shorts, and we went out in the woods.
TT: You’re a badass. You were coming up a hill with the four-wheeler reared back and I thought, ‘Oh my god, it’s going to roll over and I’m going to have a maimed actress in the woods and I’m going to get in so much trouble.’ And then you told me a little bit about what you saw in Megan…
HB: Megan’s a rollercoaster ride. Obviously Girl on the Train is a psychological thriller — a woman goes missing — but if you take a closer look at the characters, we’re dealing with some real human issues, like alcoholism, addiction and abuse, and the characters have all suffered these great losses. That’s what hooked me. I’d spend the entire drive to set just biting my nails and trying to get into this Megan headspace and my stomach would just ache and ache… actually, I think that was partially due to the fact that I was starving. But I’d get to set in a bundle of nerves because every day I knew that I had to reach this weird nirvana with Megan and then I’d see you, Tate, and I thought about all your responsibility and how effortlessly you handled it all – the stress of making a film. You created this amazing environment and that brought me back to reality and that reminded me every day of what I needed to do.
TT: I know you grew up in Ohio. When did you say, “I’m going to be an actress” and were your parents cool?
HB: My mother wouldn’t allow me to move to Hollywood on my own — that was the one condition. I was 18-years-old, but she was like, “There’s no way that you’re going to survive on your own.” I probably wouldn’t be where I am now if it weren’t for them. In fact, I probably wouldn’t be alive if my mom didn’t move to Hollywood with me.
TT: That’s really cool. And you’re a singer too.
HB: Yeah, I can sing… I think. Actually, that was the scene for this shoot with Vs. Magazine. The setting was a 1940’s jazz bar and my character in the shoot is a mysterious singer. It was really cool.
TT: Are you pursuing that professionally at all?
HB: No, no, no. I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t ever pursue anything until I could play an instrument and I haven’t learned how to play an instrument. I didn’t want to be just an interpreter of the art, so I could sacrifice my singing career until I can really create my own material.
TT: If anyone would like to hear you sing, they just have to get you to do a racy scene and you’ll start singing The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow before you go on.
HB: That was to help calm me. I felt this overwhelming vulnerability at times because we went to some pretty raw places.
TT: Would you say it was the racier stuff that was the biggest challenge?
HB: It was definitely the racier stuff that I was sort of apprehensive and afraid to dive into, but that was part of the complexity of this character. I’ve always had an interest in these kinds of movies, especially by filmmakers like Brian de Palma; I remember seeing one of his films that you had been referencing, Body Double, laying on the couch. His films are suspenseful and sensual and strange. And I remember seeing other films by David Lynch and Hitchcock. There are so many different ways you can approach this racier content. So you imagine it one way in your mind and then actually realizing it is completely different. You’re on set and there are all these people around and you really can set yourself up for disaster.
TT: You were a real pro.
HB: We had our rehearsals and we talked about it thoroughly. The point of Girl on the Train is that it’s sort of uninhibited and that’s what made it so scary. The last thing I felt was sexy — I hope there’s this pathetic undertone to these acts that she was engaging in and her assertiveness is actually desperation; she’s striving for love and acceptance. So there’s sexuality but there’s a naivety to it. Does that make sense?
HB: You never remember how hard something was once it’s over. You put your clothes back on and hopefully the champagne washes away all the wreckage.
TT: Or the bourbon…
HB: Oh shut up!
TT: You and Luke [Evans] got very comfortable one night…
HB: Oh god. Luke is starring in Beauty and the Beast, so we drank a fifth of bourbon and we were singing during our love scene. So during our simulated sex scene we were singing Beauty and the Beast. It was actually not sexy at all.
TT: It was about 18o outside and you were just drinking bourbon and having a blast.
HB: Meanwhile, you were freezing your asses off. Then the owner of the house walks in and she sees what’s happening and she’s like, “Okay, I think we’re gonna go.”
TT: How different have your recent experiences been with other directors?
HB: God, tastes of the rainbow! It’s like comparing red to orange… Terry [Malick] is very unconventional – you don’t know really what to expect. He’s sort of recreated the wheel. And then, for The Magnificent Seven there’s a lot of action, so there were six months of preparation work before we even got to set. With Antoine [Fuqua]… well, the material was quite intense. I wouldn’t say I was scared of Antoine, he’s given me these incredible opportunities and I wanted to do a good job. So one day he came up to me without any context and went, ‘Haley, I just don’t buy it right now. You just need to go wherever you need to go and find the truth.’ The way you work is more spontaneous, and I was lucky to have so much talent surrounding me to vibe off of.
TT: Do you know what’s next for you? You told me you’re taking some time off.
HB: Yeah. I’ve been going full speed ahead for three years now.
TT: Are you getting a little antsy?
HB: Actually, yes, I have just started to get antsy. I’m really thinking of singing — I actually have the urge to do a musical.
TT: Anyone, if you’re reading, she’s available for musicals.
HB: By the way, I’m looking at a scar that I have on my left side; I have the mark of Megan on my leg six months later. I survived Magnificent Seven without any visible scars, but no, not Girl on the Train.
TT: Oh no, really?! I don’t think anyone else could have played Megan; you just killed it. The very person who almost slipped off her motorcycle on my land and recovered and started laughing.
HB: Thank you.
TT: Well, I look forward to tonight… I’ll make sure to bring some bourbon…
Photography Ellen von Unwerth — Styling Jaime Kay Waxman — Art Direction Jakob F.S.