Haley Bennett was 19 when she made her film debut as pop star Cora Corman in 2007’s “Music and Lyrics.” About nine years later, after appearing in about a dozen more movies, she was hailed as Hollywood’s next big starlet for her starring role opposite Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt in the 2016 remake of “The Magnificent Seven” and for her work as the mysterious Megan in “The Girl on the Train,” the adaptation of the novel of the same name.
Despite the success and the spotlight, the now-32-year-old actor says she never felt particularly welcome in the full filmmaking process until “Swallow,” her new drama from first-time feature film writer-director Carlo Mirabella-Davis, in theaters March 6. Not only does Bennett star in the movie, but the indie also marks her producing debut.
“Immediately when I came on, I was invited, literally invited [by Mirabella-Davis], to take a more creative role in helping to shape the story, which had not been my experience in the past — I was always told what to wear, where to stand and where I looked my most attractive,” Bennett tells Variety.
The film follows Hunter (Bennett), a seemingly perfect housewife who lives in a beautiful home with her Ken Doll-like husband (Austin Stowell) in an affluent bedroom community outside New York City. However, things begin to unravel and traumas are revealed when she develops pica, a psychological disorder characterized by the compulsion to eat inedible objects and substances, including marbles, thumbtacks, paper clips and dirt.
Mirabella-Davis first reached out to Bennett by writing her a letter asking her to be in the movie. “I really wanted to see her in a lead role, just so that everyone could see the full range of her amazing talents,” he tells Variety.
“Amazingly, she agreed to sit down with me,” Mirabella-Davis continues. “And it was sort of an instant telepathic bond we had about the character and the story that we wanted to tell.” Bennett, along with her boyfriend, director Joe Wright, signed on as executive producers.
From day one, the actor — who was two months pregnant with her and Wright’s first child during the shoot — worked side by side with Mirabella-Davis as well as cinematographer Kate Arzimendi, production designer Erin Magill, costume designer Liene Dobraja and producers Mollye Asher and Mynette Louie.
“I remember an early meeting where we were in the midst of discussing the character with great joy and focus,” Mirabella-Davis says. “Haley kind of stopped for a moment, and she was like, ‘I never get to do this.’ And I thought, ‘Wait, what? That seems so surprising to me. Isn’t this how movies are made? Isn’t it crucially important to talk about the character with the lead actor?’”
“Swallow” premiered last spring at the Tribeca Film Festival, where Bennett won the best actress award.
“I have spent a majority of my career feeling patronized,” she says. “I think a lot of women have that experience. And so coming to believe that was my worth, and then having this opportunity to fully express myself and to be a full messy human being, was extraordinarily liberating.”