When I meet Haley Bennett, perhaps this fall’s breakout star with memorable roles in both The Magnificent Seven and The Girl on the Train, she is persevering through a 104-degree fever. She offers with friendly concern to share some hand sanitizer after our handshake, and then gathers her complete professional poise for what she considers just another part of the filmmaking process, illness or no illness.
In many ways, I imagine her character from The Girl on the Train would approve since this is a woman Bennett herself describes as putting on a brave face at all times, despite what might be going on beneath the surface. Of course, that is also where the similarities between the actress and her character end. In the film, Bennett plays Megan, an icy cold blonde who is at the center of a story that was previously the bestselling novel by Paula Hawkins. In both versions, Megan goes missing early in the narrative despite living what central protagonist Rachel (Emily Blunt) imagines is an ideal life with her husband Scott (Luke Evans).
But looks can be deceiving. As we learn from Megan’s own narration—the film is told in non-sequential order—her marriage is as much a lie as her disaffected demeanor, a result of a life filled with disappointment and frustrations until she found herself in an upstate suburb that she describes early as “a baby farm.”
Bennett said in an earlier press conference that Megan is a character she felt compelled to wash away every night after living in her skin for a day. When I was able to sit down with her, we discussed further her feelings for Megan and how they might have changed from when she first read the novel last year. We also chat about how unique a film like The Girl on the Train is in our current studio climate.
Could you talk a little bit about when you first came to the book and did you read it before you got the script?
Yes, I read this book about a year ago. Maybe a little more than a year now, and I was working on The Magnificent Seven, and it was just an ordinary day. I walked into the bookstore and I don’t know—the cover, the colors of the cover, they do a really good job of drawing you in with The Girl on the Train, and it just caught my attention. I picked it up. I read the logline, and it said, “On the train, Rachel watches this seemingly perfect couple.”
And immediately, I was like, this is a great set-up for a film. A lot of tones of Hitchcock and Rear Window, which was one of my favorite films. And I was interested by this voyeuristic point-of-view, and the fact that things are never quite what they seem. In fact, they’re usually the opposite of what they seem.
You’re comparing it to Hitchcock. I was actually talking with Tate [Taylor] about that, and I think he said it was unintentional, but I think it’s there, because you have the voyeur who no one is taking seriously.
Yeah, I don’t know if that was intentional to Paula [Hawkins]. The idea was really, for her, spawned from her own experiences and riding the train. It’s something that’s very, very common. And for her, the lives of other people interested her. And “gosh,” I think she says. “What if I saw something that I wasn’t supposed to see?” And then it kind of snowballed from there. And then she—there was the aspect of the woman she’d been thinking of for a long time was Rachel, and this woman who’s infertile and can’t bear children, and then it snowballed from there.
She then wanted to include women who were in isolation and that were in, that they were these restless characters, and they were all quite lonely.
Megan is a very interesting character, because she’s an enigma for most of the movie. You’re not quite sure what she’s thinking. And I feel like so much of the character is not in the dialogue, but what you physically say between the lines. I wanted to know how you approached that as an actress.
Thank you. Yes, I think there were a lot of times I looked at Tate, and there was just question marks all over my face. She is just such an enigma. I think she almost has like schizophrenic qualities about her where she’ll resort to different personalities. She can go to the nanny. I mean, she’s the mistress of self-reinvention. So she’s really explored different facets, and I think she gets bored with these characters that she plays, so she takes on a new one. I don’t think we ever get to see who the real Megan is.
Obviously our perception of Megan changes as the story goes on, and you have read the book, but after playing her and studying her, did your thoughts on Megan change throughout the process?
Definitely. I think as time went on, I felt a great deal of empathy for her and what she had been through. And not just my character in this film, but also what Rachel was going through, as well. And I was able to draw a lot of comparisons between the two, even though they seemed so, so different. They were connected in more ways, in many different ways.
Earlier during the conference, you also mentioned this was a character you would want to wash away because of the darkness in her. Is that something you had experienced with other characters?
No, this was a first in terms of feeling like I needed to really shed a character. This was the first time that that gave me a physical reaction, like a physical—almost like a rejection.
Could you talk about how you worked with Tate to find that, because I know there was a lot of improvisation on the set.
I mean, there wasn’t a whole lot of time. It was important for Tate that we all sort of sit down and get to know each other, and to engage in a couple of rehearsals, but for the most part, we hit the ground running. And there wasn’t a lot of time to get to know each other, at all.
I haven’t read the book, but so much of what drives Megan in the movie is her backstory, which we only see in snapshots. So were you able to really develop her backstory with Tate off-screen?
I was able to leave that up to the book. It’s such rich material, and it’s told from her point of view. In fact, the whole story is told from three different women’s point-of-views. So it was interesting to experience the characters, not only through the way they thought, but the way that people thought about them. The way that the other characters view them, as well. Like the contradictions of who they were compared to who other people thought they were.
And how they view each other.
One of the things that I think is really interesting is your character is married to Scott, and you two have this very troubled marriage, but even though Rachel’s lying to him, she actually has more of a dialogue with him. And when I was talking with Luke [Evans], he pointed out you two don’t really share any lines of dialogue together.
Let’s see, most of my scenes where I’m relating with people are the therapist [played by Edgar Ramírez], and that’s really it. I think a lot of Megan’s relationship with Scott is without words and how they look at each other, and how they, their body language. And then a lot of their relationship is told to other characters, but not to each other.
Going back for a second, as you said, we have three really great feminine, adult characters. You don’t see that a lot in modern Hollywood movies. Do you think that’s changing? Because I don’t think this movie might’ve been made by a studio five years ago.
Oh gosh! I think it was barely made by a studio last year. [Laughs] I think that a lot of times in Hollywood pictures, the reality, the messy reality of women’s lives—it’s avoided, because I think people are just afraid of it. There’s a standard that women are set to, to try to keep everybody comfortable.
Going back to the voyeuristic aspect, Rachel is obviously a character who has some questionable obsessions. But I wonder, as an actor, if you could relate to her fascination of studying the surrounding world?
Absolutely. I think by nature, human beings are curious. And I think that’s only amplified as an artist. I think to try to understand human behavior and why people do what they do, and what in their lives have shaped them and impacted them to be who they are, it’s something. I mean that’s my entire life.
But you haven’t witnessed any murders yet?
No. [Laughs] That’s never the case.
Well, thank you so much, and I hope you can get home and feel better.
Thank you so much.
The Girl on the Train opens Friday, Oct. 7.