Actress Haley Bennett's a Knockout Who Fought Her Way to Hollywood Star Status
This interview has been weeks in the making. With a hectic filming schedule that has her hopping between South Africa and Namibia, pinning Haley Bennett down for a meeting has not been easy. But even though she has been waking up at 3 am and spending 16-17 hours a day on set, when the actress walks into the bustling Cape Town café where we agree to meet, she somehow looks as relaxed and refreshed as every other tourist in the area.
“When you are filming, you kind of have to surrender to the film schedule,” she tells me, settling in with a gin and tonic. The all-powerful schedule to which she refers is for the upcoming Red Sea Diving Resort, which is based on the true story of preparations for Operation Moses, amidst the chaos of which the Israeli Defense Forces rescued thousands of Ethiopian Jews during the Sudanese civil war in the mid-'80s. Bennett plays a woman named Yola Reitman, who is recruited by the Israeli intelligence forces to work undercover as the director of a diving operation on the shores of the Red Sea to facilitate the deliverance of 12,000 Ethiopian Jews from famine and persecution.
While filming in Namibia, Bennett had the opportunity to meet the woman on whom her character is based. The encounter left a mark on the actress. “Yola is one of the most amazing women I have ever met. She is so true to herself. If she wants to go on a humanitarian mission for a year, she’ll do it.” Although Yola played a vital role in the operation, her participation was initially questioned simply because she is a woman and the operation would be taking place in a Muslim country. “Yola wanted to do something that was important and that meant something. I think that’s how I relay it, and that’s why I wanted to take this role—I want to tell stories that are important.”
Bennett is passionate about using her craft to not only entertain, but also to educate and to immortalize the stories of those who have gone to extraordinary lengths to do what is right. It is quite fitting, then, that this film will be shot in both Namibia and Cape Town—two regions that have rich and complicated yet significant histories, filled with stories that have too often gone untold or have been misinterpreted.
It seems, though, that this time will be different: the director of the film, Gideon Raff, is of Israeli origin. Who better to eternalize this story than someone who feels a personal connection to it? This connection has allowed Bennett to trust the direction and the vision behind the film. “We’re all telling this story collectively but I have surrendered to his direction,” she says, laughing.
It is clear that South Africa has inspired Bennett. She beams as she tells me that this is in fact not her first time in the region—she shot the Chloé fragrance campaign here just a few months ago, “it was strange,” she shares, “but when I was shooting the Chloé campaign, I said to one of my friends, ‘I have this weird premonition that I’ll be working here again soon.’” Just two months after she uttered those words, she received confirmation that she would be coming back to her new favorite city to shoot Red Sea Diving Resort.
Bennett describes the team that she is currently working with—including Chris Evans, Alessandro Nivola, and Alex Hassell—as “amazing.” Bennett is the only female lead in a sea of men. “Again, I’ve sort of been the lone woman because God forbid there is more than one woman in a movie,” she chirps sarcastically. “When will we have a cast of five women and one man? Let’s talk about that story.”
According to Bennett, it is important that conversations of inclusion take place, but more than anything, she wants to get signed onto projects because she is qualified, not just because she is a woman. “I want to know that I am getting written into roles because my perspective matters. I don’t want to be there just because it’s convenient.”
Now that we’re a little more acquainted, the conversation turns to Donald Trump and the current state of politics in the USA at the moment. I am interested to know Bennett’s thoughts on some of the policies that have been implemented recently, notably the ban on trans people joining the military. Bennett immediately stares outside, and from this, I gather that she is not a fan.
“I’m from Ohio, and it’s a very Trump-accepting state, and it’s usually the determining state for who will take office. I don’t know how it is that I was born there because I just don’t share the same sentiments as the people there. I don’t even see eye to eye with my father when it comes to matters of politics. I definitely did not vote for Trump. In fact, I would love for Obama to come back into office.” She stirs her chilled gin & tonic incessantly, and just when I think she’s done she suddenly says, “I love Obama, we want Obama back!” to which we both nod and laugh before continuing the conversation, finished with politics.
We turn to what she does best: acting. This is Bennett’s tenth year in the film industry and her face lights up as she tells me about her craft. “I think that doing television would be very difficult for me. Playing the same character for many years is kind of scary to me, just as being typecast is scary to me. I don’t think anybody wants to do the same thing over and over again. That’s not interesting to me.”
Having starred in four movies that were released in 2016, each role markedly different from the next, Bennett has not only avoided being typecast—she has proven her versatility as an actor. Her performance in The Girl on the Train as Megan Hipwell, a complicated character struggling with issues of abandonment that led her to make some questionable decisions, is one of her most striking. Megan is married, yet she conducts an affair with both her neighbor (and former employer) and her psychologist. While Megan may be seen as promiscuous and manipulative, Bennett says that she wanted to avoid sexualizing her character, instead seeking the humanity in her—focusing on her pain, her sense of loss, and her addiction. We see the fruits of this effort in the way that Bennett portrays the enigmatic, mercurial character.
“I want to start over again,” Megan says in a cracked voice as we see jogging, dodging the glares of yoga-mat toting mothers, and engaging in a steamy affair. “So far I’ve been a rebellious teenager, lover, waitress, gallery director, nanny, and a whore. But not necessarily in that order. I can’t just be a wife anymore.” The montage fades away, and we see Megan sitting across from her psychologist, who seems bewitched and perplexed by this inscrutable character. In each scene Bennett puts a flicker of knowing mischief in Megan’s eye, suggesting that there’s more going on with Megan than we yet know. This slight subversion of expectation and the sense that her characters always have something up their sleeves is a Bennett trademark, and speaking with her I catch a glimpse of where it comes from.
This adaptability (along with a heavy helping of steely resolve) has served Bennett well during her long, hard road to the top of the Hollywood pile. “It’s like going into the boxing ring, getting knocked down, getting back up and doing it again just for the sake of loving it. You have to be a survivor and a fighter.” Bennett’s sense of humor shines through when she jokingly tells me about the biggest challenges that she has had to face as an actress: facing constant rejection and having to avoid cheeseburgers, beer, and wine in preparation for roles.
“In The Girl on The Train, there were sequences where I am running, and that was really challenging because I’m really lazy,” she says, laughing. Interestingly, Bennett claims that if she weren’t an actor, she would be a wildlife conservationist, an adventurist or a pilot—not jobs for the lazy. “I want to live, I want to learn, and I want to apply that to a career somehow.”
As our conversation draws to a close, I ask Bennett about her future plans. She contemplates the question for a few seconds, and then tells me that she’s not really sure. “Right now everything seems very final because I am approaching the end of this film. I am closing this book and this chapter of my life, and there’s sort of a sorrow that comes with that,” she says, a pang of sadness in her voice. “You spend so much time with people, and then you have to understand that this life is temporary and that you move on. It’s really sort of a gypsy kind of life. It’s good to have an open heart about it, but it’s also very difficult at the same time. After each film, I sort of have to grieve a little bit and say goodbye, and then re-open my heart and allow myself to encounter new opportunities.”
Perhaps this is what makes Bennett’s performances so remarkable: her ability to internalize the characters that she plays and the ways in which she opens herself up to the possibilities of what these characters might become, getting lost in their worlds while abandoning her own. It is this ability—whether it’s breaking horses and baking pies to win her place on the testosterone-soaked set of The Magnificent Seven, or being at ease hopping between Cape Town and Namibia—that will ensure that she never has to live her fear of doing the same thing every day. And while she may have to say a painful goodbye to the roles that she plays, her ability to create memorable characters will ensure that their stories persist.
Written by Keneiloe Nasilele Nkomo
Photographed by Doug Inglish
Styled by Sean Knight
Hair by Jenny Cho
Makeup by Sabrina Bedrani
Manicure by Stephanie Stone
Photographed at Cactus Cube Studio