A man, a woman, and an enclosed space — as any stage director knows, these components can be transformed into anything within the capabilities of the human imagination, a malleability essential to Zachary Wigon’s devious chamber piece “Sanctuary.” DominatrixRebecca (Margaret Qualley) and her number-one client Hal (Christopher Abbott) bring that same spirit of invention to their sessions, such as a face-off between a playboy corporate heir and the no-nonsense lady lawyer who gets him scrubbing the bathroom floor in his underwear with just a handful of demeaning remarks. The truth of the situation isn’t far off: he’s about to step into the CEO role in his late father’s chain of hotels, and he worries that paying a woman to jam a cotton swab into the tip of his penis may not gel with the career path he sees for himself, so he tries to amicably end their arrangement. She has other plans. But in the volley of mind games she plays over the course of one long night, is she looking out for her own interests or trying to force this passive sub into giving himself what he needs? Are those two things mutually exclusive?
READ MORE: ‘Sanctuary’ Review: Margaret Qualley & Christopher Abbott Roleplay With Sex & BDSM Kink In A Terrific Two-Hander [TIFF]
As Wigon slyly redefines the terms of this unorthodox relationship, Qualley and Abbott give an acting masterclass with a kinky metatextual edge, as two experts in involved fakery unpack the authentic challenges and benefits it can offer. Hearing the two discuss this sexy, cunning showcase for their talents, they shrug off the image of the chin-stroking thespian and outline a more instinctive process based on primal impulse and physical presence. Rather than mapping out each glance, touch, and retranslation of body language, they winnowed the text down to its core and trusted one another for an unspoken, in-the-moment guidance. The result is a frisky and vital film, fitting the daffy bickering of screwball into a more daring, taboo-testing romantic framework. Never before have the keywords “breeding JOI” carried so much emotional heft.
The day after the premiere of “Sanctuary” in New York, Qualley and Abbott sat down with The Playlist at the Soho Grand Hotel, an oddly apropos setting for a conversation about the mechanics of closed-door drama, the liberation of stepping outside yourself, Qualley’s past work with Claire Denis, and the secret to selecting the perfect stunt dildo.
How did you get acclimated to one another as scene partners? What happened during the early stages, as you were fast-forwarding to this dynamic your characters have established over a much longer course of time?
Margaret Qualley: We were pretty comfortable with each other, because we’d known each other a bit, and really wanted to work together. It was straightforward like that. We didn’t have much rehearsal time at all. We read through the script once at his apartment, then did a couple scenes at mine with [director] Zach [Wigon], then both of us just learned that script inside and out as our main preparation. We did it by rote, front to back. We only had eighteen days to make the movie, one-day weekends, so we knew it would be a marathon. We wanted to be as comfortable as possible with the words ahead of time, so that we can forget it all and just have fun on the day of shooting.
How’d you two know one another in the first place?
Christopher Abbott: I was actually just trying to remember that. There were a few projects we were gonna do that never came together, we’d emailed and talked about them. But we’ve got a lot of friends in common, so we see each other around. You know, it’s “the scene.” We’re both “on the scene.”
Every actor’s got their own process; for something where like this, with your characters so precisely attuned to one another, is there a phase of syncing up? Making sure you’re on the same page about the content and direction of a scene?
Abbott: We did that, but it came naturally. We had the same sort of intentions with the script. Neither of us looked at this as separate character pieces, but more like a single unit, together, being open and spontaneous with one another. We tried to give each other things to work off of. If I can speak for both of us, we didn’t really do ‘character work’ on this one. [Screenwriter] Micah [Bloomberg] is such a good writer, and it’s so dialogue-driven, that it’s about a commitment to the words more than anything. And then, to each other. Character takes care of itself, it’s all there on the pages.
How did the shoot play out? There’s this black-box feeling to it, which lends itself to long takes that can open up and breathe, but there’s also some elaborate camera work that must have necessitated changing setups and cutting.
Abbott: Takes-wise, we didn’t have too many. Zach works really efficiently. He knew exactly what he wanted, so he didn’t need much additional coverage for these scenes. We’d do some long sequences, though, so yeah — a bit of a theatrical approach, combined with this kind of overtly cinematic camerawork. Approach: theater. Execution: cinema. Right?
Qualley: Yeah, that’s it.
You’ve both done films in recent years that invite comparison with “Sanctuary.” Margaret, I was thinking about seeing you in “Stars at Noon” last year, another performance occupied with sexuality and sensuality, though in a drastically different way. Did you ever think about those forms of intimacy, and what separates them?
Qualley: In “Stars at Noon,” the intimacy was about character vulnerability. And so’s this, kind of, but “Sanctuary” can be titillating — it’s hot, it’s funny, it’s romantic. There’s the buildup, the talking, the almost-kissing, the payoff. Honestly, for me, the almost-kissing is the hottest part. Whereas in “Stars,” it was almost sad?
Abbott: Not to speak for you again, but I felt like so much of what your character did in that one was driven by circumstance.
Qualley: Oh, totally.
It’s reactive, responsive.
Abbott: She’s trying to move through this environment and adapt to it, yeah. “Sanctuary,” being just two people, gives more of a chance to dictate the action.
Qualley: There’s something disarming about that, too. “Stars” was fluid, dreamy, meandering. This is very tightly controlled, fiery. It pops.