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When The Wildest first caught up with Rainey Qualley, the actor and musician was on her way to her family’s ranch in Montana, where she would be joined by enough people to fill the cast of a holiday rom-com: her sister, actor Margaret Qualley and her fiancé, Jack Antonoff; her brother, his fiancée, and their new baby; as well as their mother, Golden Globe-nominated actor Andie MacDowell (who did actually star as the matriarch of a holiday rom-com family in 2020’s Dashing in December). Oh, and an assembly of animals — including the ranch-requisite chickens, cows, and horses.
But back at her home in Los Angeles, Qualley’s family is decidedly feline: Myrtle, Wizard, and Jesus are all rescues she fostered as kittens but couldn’t bring herself to let go. Animals, it seems, always surround Qualley. “I’m an animal person,” she admits. “Although, I definitely have a soft spot for cats.”
Rescue-wrangling was hardly the only commitment filling Qualley’s schedule in 2022. When we spoke, she’d just finished filming two movies back to back: This Bloody Country, a thriller set in Utah in 1869, and The Whisper Network, in which she plays a singer-songwriter trying to break free from a toxic relationship with her rock star boyfriend, played by Ryan Hansen. In the weeks leading up to the shoot, Qualley wrote and recorded many of the songs her character sings in the film.
“It was a challenge because of how little time I had to get them done, but I’m a pretty fast writer,” she says. “I’m always recording lyric ideas and melodies on my phone, and now that the shoot is done, I’m working on some additional stuff for the soundtrack,” which she started recording two months ago.
As a musician, she’s better known as Rainsford. Her music is the kind of reflective, cathartic stuff you’d turn on after a break-up if you’re looking for something that could easily be the backdrop for performance art.
As if it set out to prove that point, the video for her 2020 song “Love Me Like You Hate Me,” featuring her sister Margaret and Shia LaBeouf, depicts the ups and downs of a couple’s relationship through the medium of interpretive dance. These days, her sound might be evolving a bit. Upon the early 2022 release of her single “Brutal,” a collab with Norwegian pop singer Anna From the North, Qualley told SPIN that a lot of her music has a bit of a “sad girl” vibe, but she’s not quite there anymore.
“I wrote a lot of songs in heartache and that felt really important — and it was at the time — but I want to write stuff that comes from a more joyful place...I’m also just happier now,” she told the music publication. “I don’t really have anything to adhere to besides my own feelings and intuition.”
At the time, she had 80 unreleased demos on her laptop, and most of them, like “Brutal,” were reflective of past relationships — dark rainclouds that have since given way to light. Her inspirations include Kate Bush, Prince, and Etta James, and like all these groundbreaking artists, Qualley wants to make music that defies any set rules or convention.
That creative instinct is in her blood, after all. Her father, Paul, is a musician, whom, she says, “had a short-lived career as an Italian pop star.” But Qualley’s path to her career in entertainment wasn’t always the plan, despite calling Andie MacDowell Mom. She dropped out of NYU when she realized college wasn’t necessary if what she really wanted to do was be an artist. So, Qualley took classes at an acting studio in New York City, summered at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in the U.K., and continued to work on her music.
“I love straddling those two worlds,” she says. “Because with acting you have to sort of wait for someone to give you permission to act — to cast you — but you can make music whenever you want.”
In 2012, her first big appearance in Hollywood was as Miss Golden Globe in 2012, and one Qualley described to Vanity Fair as “an overwhelming way to move to LA.” That same year, she made her feature film debut in the dramedy Mighty Fine, acting alongside her mother. In 2014, she played the lead in the indie romance Falcon Song, and in 2015 made her splashy TV debut in the first episode of the final season of AMC’s Mad Men.
The past few years have brought notable credits: Ultrasound, opposite Mad Men’s Vincent Kartheiser and Shuroo Process (both released in 2021), and the Freeform mini series Love in the Time of Corona (2020), featuring Leslie Odom Jr., Tommy Dorfman, and Nicolette Robinson. Last year, Qualley appeared in Shut In and the short film Delilah. You can also look out for her in The Latin From Manhattan: The Vanessa Del Rio Story — already on the festival circuit — and The Daylong Brothers. A quick scan of the actor’s IMDB credits would impress anyone, but she has a lot of gratitude for all of her wins, big and small — something she picked up from her mom.
“I do think I approach things differently from my parents when it comes to my career, though,” she says. “Still, if there’s one thing my mom taught me, it’s to be thankful for every opportunity that comes my way and to always work hard. Not that she ever really told me that. She just works really hard herself and so has always led by example.”
Like her mother, who spoke to Marie Claire last May about setting healthy boundaries outside of show business, Qualley leads a life that isn’t solely focused on Hollywood. She devotes much of her time and energy to animal advocacy. Last August, she appeared in a PETA campaign calling for a boycott of SeaWorld, the ocean-themed amusement park chain where — as we learned from Blackfish (2013) — orcas, dolphins, and other marine mammals have to do tricks and live out their drastically truncated lives in too-small tanks.
“It’s so sad,” she says. “These bright, social animals that require so much space are being torn away from their families and forced into these tanks where they suffer and go crazy. It’s just the worst.”
When we spoke, Qualley was looking forward to getting back into fostering. She is especially fond of fostering young kittens — those who require constant care and attention (including bottle feedings throughout the night). “Fostering kittens brings me so much joy,” she says. “I can’t do it while I’m working, but it’s what I’m looking forward to most now that the movies are done.”
The 32-year-old got into fostering about nine years ago, when she was living in New Orleans in her early 20s. She found a litter of kittens in the backyard of an abandoned house across the street from where she was staying and took them in. She cared for them and eventually found homes for all but two, Myrtle and Wizard, whom she adopted herself.
Jesus is Qualley’s third cat and joined the family a little later, after she moved to LA and began fostering for the city’s shelter system. Her mother named him and was supposed to adopt him (MacDowell had been making a movie in Mexico, and Qualley thinks she had Jesus on the brain), but work commitments forced her to delay the pick-up. By the time her mom was ready to take Jesus home, Qualley had grown too attached to let him go, so he stayed put.
“He’s the Pam to my Jim,” she says, referring to the love-locked characters on her favorite TV show, The Office. “He’s my best friend. He follows me around the house and is super cuddly. Myrtle and Wizard are also very sweet, but a bit more selective with their attentions.”
As it happens, Myrtle deigned not to show up to The Wildest photo shoot. Qualley says she often hides when strangers are present. Jesus and Wizard are much more social and often spend their time together cuddling, playing, and grooming each other. She adds that Myrtle “puts up” with Jesus and Wizard, but she really only hangs out at dinnertime.
“They’re all great cats, though,” she says. “They love playing with ribbon toys and other classic cat stuff. And I love annoying them — rubbing their bellies until they bite me a little or gently spanking their little cat butts.”
Qualley says the cats draw the line at being dressed up: “I tried a Santa costume on Jesus last year, but he hated it. He just stared at me like, ‘Why are you doing this to me?’ He looked so cute, but I didn’t want to make him suffer just for my entertainment, and the other two wouldn’t even try it.”
Qualley got her first cat when she was four or five years old. “I named her Sally Diamond Ring,” she says with a laugh. “My mom let me choose the name, and I thought it sounded pretty.” Sally Diamond Ring (never just “Sally”) was one of many beloved animals who surrounded Qualley during her childhood in Asheville, North Carolina. “I did grow up on a farm, though, and I remember when I realized that the food we were eating used to be the animals that I had loved so much on the ranch,” she says.
After that, she tried to be a vegetarian, but her parents objected to cooking separate meals just for her, so she had to wait until her teen years to fully extricate meat from her diet. “I also took an environmental science class in high school where we watched videos about the meat industry and its impact on the environment,” she recalls. “Once you realize where meat comes from, it changes your perspective.”
Although “booked and busy” doesn’t quite describe just how much the environmentally conscious artist has on her plate these days, Qualley is often tempted to take in a fourth cat, especially when she is fostering. After all, if this farm-raised Hollywood darling is not surrounded by four-legged beings, life is not complete.
“Letting them go is the hardest part,” she says. “I’m fortunate, though. Usually, when you foster, you relinquish the kittens back to the shelter, and you never know what happens to them, but I always try to find homes for them myself — through Instagram or friends of friends — so I know where they are going and can check in on them, which eases the pain of having to give them up. I’d have, like, 50 cats otherwise!”
“Having dogs, rescue dogs, is not always convenient or comfortable — you have to get used to being uncomfortable. But it’s so worth it. The love is immeasurable.”
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