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Margaret Qualley & Dianna Agron Explore Sexuality, Discipline, and God's Love in Novitiate

Margaret Qualley & Dianna Agron Explore Sexuality, Discipline, and God's Love in Novitiate

Novitiate
Images courtesy of The Skinny Type

We talked to the two stars of the '60s-era film about life in a convent. 

There's something both terrifying and exhilarating about watching Oscar-winning actress Melissa Leo scream in the face of a young nun.

The moment comes halfway through Novitiate, a film about an isolated convent during the tumultuous era of the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II. which demanded global convents modernize the Catholic church. But at its heart, Novitiate isn't a period drama about a Reverend Mother losing her tight grip on her convent, though Leo's looming presence steals every scene she's in.

Novitiate is more of a powerful, unforgettable "girl meets God "love story, although nobody ever meets God. The film follows Sister Cathleen, in a breakout role by Margaret Qualley, who gives up her life in pursuit of love with a spiritual presence she'll never physically encounter.

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As she moves away from home and joins the convent like so many other teenage girls in the '60s, Qualley enters into a fiercely guarded, secretive world of religion, punishment, sacrifice (and phenomenal acting). Alongside Qualley and Leo, the convent plays host to everyone from White Girl's Morgan Saylor to Glee's Dianna Agron, who gives a powerful performance as the one nice nun in the novitiate, Sister Mary Grace.

Along her journey from religious calling to marriage with God at what seems to be America's most hardcore convent, Qualley suffers through whippings, doubts, and sexual urges. Before the film's release, we talked to Qualley and Agron about life on the convent, the production's overwhelming female power, and just how comfortable those nun outfits were.

OUT: How comfortable were those nun outfits in the film?

Margaret Qualley: Oh, it was really comfortable. It was awesome because we just put on the same thing every single day. I loved it. [Laughs]

Dianna Agron: The costumes were really restrictive and that's something that quickly gets you into the role. That wimple was as tight as could be on the back of your head-it was truly a corset for my head. There's this sort of grace and restriction that you're forced to apply to your character, as well [so] a day on set meant that I wanted to go home and have a run or a bath or something.

Well, there's that scene when you're in sort of a craze trying to take off the headpiece. Did it feel that crazy every time you took it off after filming?

DA: Yes! [Laughs] Every single time. If I wasn't in the scene or I was going to lunch, it wasn't the kind of thing that you want to leave on for even a moment more than you have to.

Margaret, in the scenes with the Discipline whip, did you have a body double or was that all you?

MQ: I did that myself. They actually had two, a mock one that wouldn't be as painful and then a real one. On the day [of filming], I just used the real one because I'd never whipped myself and I didn't know what that would feel like so I just went for it. It seemed like a good idea except that the next day, my back was covered in welts and bruises and we were shooting a scene that takes place before the whipping scene where I'm changing... so my back is exposed. I had to spend two hours in makeup with them covering up the bruises. [Laughs] I kind of sadistically didn't mind it and it was interesting, at least.

This sounds like it was a very grueling movie to film.

MQ: In some ways it was, but it was really special. It's a story about women and to be able to tell that story with only women was a really special experience. It's a 99.9% female cast; a female writer and director; [and] a female producer. Every department head was a woman.

Yeah, Novitiate is interesting in that it's almost entirely an all-female cast. How was that experience, Dianna?

DA: It isn't the first time for me, but it is very changing. As far as Maggie being a woman writing and directing this, the tone would've been harder to grasp had we had someone who wasn't a woman.

It's interesting because I just got back from Berlin where I was shooting a short film for the anthology movie Berlin, I Love You, and of the ten segments that are being shot in the film, I was one of two women. I'm happy for the opportunity but I'm also of the mindset that I should not be given a job just because I am a woman. I fought hard for all of my jobs. I think it's nice that these conversations are happening and there are women that I admire who are so fiercely cemented in this industry, but they work really really hard. Nobody is giving anyone handouts.

Definitely. Dianna, this role is obviously a far cry from your Glee days. What has the transition been like as you've moved into the independent film scene?

DA: I find that independent filmmaking can be a little bit more truthful with the storytelling. You don't have 10 executives telling the director that this needs to be in place or she needs to look like that or something. You're all birthing a baby together and usually I find that on these sets, everybody from the director all the way down really values input.

With being on the same set every day, did it start to feel like you were living in a convent with these girls?

MQ: Yeah, one night we actually slept at the convent to see what that would be like and abided by the rules that our characters would have to abide by. We had no cell phones or computers or television or music or any of those novelties. We ate dinner together in silence. It was really magical because you become attuned to things in life that don't really register since we're so overstimulated.

It's definitely hard to find silence in the world lately. After filming ended, did you look for opportunities to find some silence in your own life?

MQ: I don't have to look so actively. [Laughs] I'm definitely an introvert and I tend to spend a lot of time alone anyway.

That definitely helps. [Laughs] In the film, your character has a smaller, quieter story arc that explores her sexuality. Do you think it was about sexuality or more of her just trying to find comfort?

MQ: Well, something that was really important to [the director] Maggie was making it feel like the relationship with God was a first boyfriend-a real love. I think there's a limit to how much you can project onto someone and be in a relationship inside your own head. That can only take you so far. At a certain point, you need simple, real, human love. I think that's what it was. I think the gender is secondary, if not irrelevant. She needed love and comfort and connection.

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