In one of the first scenes of Netflix’s “Maid,” a social worker asks Alex (Margaret Qualley) if she has any special skills. Alex, sitting with her toddler, Maddy (Rylea Nevaeh Whittet), on her lap, flashes back to sun-drenched moments on the seashore, smiling and safe, swinging her child through the crisp Washington state air. “No,” she says flatly. She’s been taught that being a mother, even a good one at that, isn’t considered a special skill when you’re asking the government for a bed, a meal or help getting away from an abusive partner.
The series, which premieres Friday, is inspired by Stephanie Land’s best-selling memoir, “Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive,” which chronicled her struggle to leave a toxic relationship, find work, amass her own resources and eventually get into the University of Montana’s writing program. Created by first-time showrunner Molly Smith Metzler, who previously wrote for Showtime’s “Shameless” and Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black,” the 10-episode limited series pushes the book’s narrative nuances and explores mothers and daughters through the lens of poverty, domestic abuse, intergenerational trauma and mental illness.
“There was something about the book that shook me,” says Metzler, who also grew up working class and is herself a mother. “It made me really angry how difficult America made it for a single mom who had done the right thing and left the [crappy] guy to make ends meet.”
The show stars Qualley, 26, in her first lead television role, opposite her real-life mother, Andie MacDowell, 63. MacDowell plays Paula, Alex’s narcissistic, vagabond mother who habitually refuses medicine for what appears to be an undiagnosed mental illness — the type of role MacDowell says she’s been waiting to play for a long time.
“Paula is lovable because she’s broken,” says the “Four Weddings and a Funeral” actress in her signature South Carolina twang. “[When] she does wrong, she’s not really in control of that. She hasn’t gotten the help she needs, so she’s acting out because she’s unwell. And her cruelty comes from that place, but she’s not malicious — not that it’s an excuse, because she does have the responsibility of being a mother and she does fail in that area.”
No similar failures exist in MacDowell and Qualley’s own relationship.
“The nature of our relationship on-screen is entirely different from our real life,” Qualley assures.
And if successfully working together for the first time isn’t evidence enough, the fact that Qualley suggested her own mother for the role of Paula should seal the case.
“It had to come from her,” says Metzler. “When we cast Margaret, all the producers [including Margot Robbie, whose production company, LuckyChap Entertainment, produced the show] thought her mom would be an amazing Paula. But we were afraid to bring it up because, well, it’s her mom. Then Margaret called us all and said, ‘I think we should go after my mom for this.’ And we were like, ‘Yes!’ ”
MacDowell was surprised that Qualley put her forward for the role. She thought perhaps they’d work together one day, but not necessarily so soon into her daughter’s still-nascent career, which began with smaller parts in films like “Palo Alto” (2013) and progressed to a breakout role as the moody teen in HBO’s “The Leftovers” (2014-2017) and a memorable turn in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” (2019). But MacDowell admits that it was wonderful to be able to mother her very independent daughter again during the nine-month shoot on Vancouver Island. “I cooked her soup on the weekends,” she says.
“I’ve always wanted to work with my mom,” says Qualley. “And it just struck me that this would be a really special opportunity . . . because the material was so strong and the mother-daughter dynamics were such a crucial part of the story, so it would be something really meaty for us to dive into together.”
Qualley, who was on her way to becoming a professional ballerina when modeling and acting called to her, is one of three children MacDowell shares with her first husband, Paul Qualley (along with their son, Justin, and youngest daughter, Rainey).
“We are very close,” says MacDowell of her relationship with Margaret. “We’re both truly emotional beings, and we spend a lot of time together, the two of us, so the dynamic of knowing how those emotions are alike, that was really easy for us to be able to fill those spaces [as Paula and Alex].”
The show is an emotional roller coaster, swinging from sweet highs in one scene to low, degrading moments in the next. And while it draws heavily from Land’s journey of trying to make it as a single mom and maid — a term now largely considered demeaning, with preferred titles such as domestic worker, housekeeper or nanny — Metzler also pulls from research and stories of domestic emotional abuse, and how victims, already a part of a continually underpaid profession, can fall through the cracks of the legal and social welfare systems.
“I learned so much,” Qualley says about playing Alex and reading Land’s book. “I learned about a whole life that I’m so privileged not to live. I grew up super privileged; I had a housekeeper at my mom’s house. And I know I’m just freaking acting. I’m just showing up and playing pretend.”
There were many moments when Qualley upped the “pretending,” as she puts it, since there was very little from her own life that she could relate to with Alex — most of all being a young, single mother. She credits actress Julianne Nicholson, whom she worked with on the independent feature “Novitiate,” with giving her the best advice she’s ever received: Before every scene, remind yourself that this is really happening. And as Qualley says she does with all great actors she works with, she asked MacDowell for advice, too.
“My mom’s more reluctant [than the others],” Qualley laughs. “She just says, ‘Oh, honey, you’re great,’ and she’s very complimentary and kind. I’m like, ‘Please give it to me, give me the lowdown, be hard on me, I want it.’ But no, she’s always just telling me to be kinder to myself. So, you know, I couldn’t be luckier.”
For MacDowell, the more tragic parts of her character came less from a place of pretending: Her mother had alcoholicism and she says that she experienced a darkness with both her parents. While she is adamant that Paula is not her mother, MacDowell did pull from life’s traumatic moments to inform the character.
“I’ve been around, you know, I’ve lived,” she says with a half-smile. “By the time you’re my age, you’ve had so many experiences with so many different people . . . who are unwell, that I know that behavior. There were very specific scenes [where I pulled from that]. Like when I’m at Maddy’s birthday party and totally drunk and I just turn to Alex, real sharp, and I talk right through her, like she’s not even there. Those choices I saw later and I was quite pleased with, because I was so into the character that I was creating as I went. I made the decision not to be afraid of whether I was liked or not.”
Though Qualley didn’t have the kind of life experiences to pull from like her mom, Metzler and MacDowell said Qualley dedicated herself to creating a space where she and her on-screen daughter, Whittet, a first-time actor, could emotionally sync up.
“I’ve never worked with a child before,” says Qualley. “When you’re working with a 4-year-old, you can’t just show up to set and [work]. Everything is scary and overwhelming and huge.”
Qualley wanted to be a safe person for Whittet so the young actor could fully trust her. That way, production would never be held up waiting for Whittet to get comfortable or readjust emotionally when Qualley needed to switch gears during a scene. So Qualley hung out with her before, during and after working hours. She’d make her pancakes on the weekends, presumably the same days her own mother was making her soup. They thought up nicknames for crew members and formed bonds with not just each other but also those working around them — all in the spirit of giving truly authentic performances that would do Land and her own daughter, Story, justice.
“This also goes into why I was so lucky to have my mom playing my mom: When you walk into the room and your mom’s your mom, there are certain things that are just built in. And that can go both ways, like an eye roll that is second nature,” Qualley laughs. “Towards the end of the season there’s this scene when we’re sitting in a Mexican restaurant and my mom tells me that she’s proud of me. I’ve never felt such a huge feeling on a set before, because it was Paula telling Alex, but really, for me, it was like my mom telling me at the end of this whole show that she was proud of me. It just meant the whole world.”