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How Madeline Brewer Became Hollywood’s Go-To “Bad Girl”

Claire Stern

It’s not until about midway through Hustlers that audiences meet Madeline Brewer as the fidgety and unpredictable Dawn, an addict with a criminal record who is recruited from Craigslist to help the infamous ring of strippers drug and rob their clients. But she becomes central to the narrative in writer-director Lorene Scafaria’s crime dramedy, inspired by a New York magazine article, when she helps the police conduct a sting operation to catch her co-conspirators in the act.

Though we could easily dismiss Dawn as a selfish, disloyal betrayer who throws her friends under the bus, Brewer brings a newfound sense of empathy to the character. We feel her inner anguish and admire her quiet toughness, even as she unceremoniously lets everybody down. “I came up with my own personal take on Dawn to make her more human than just the one who screws everything up,” Brewer tells InStyle.

That’s not to say she hasn’t done it in previous roles. A then-18-year-old Brewer was first introduced to the public on season 1 of Orange Is the New Black as Tricia Miller, a recovering addict and small-time thief who tragically overdoses on Oxycontin. Yet despite her convincing portrayals on screen, Brewer, now 27, had a relatively chaste upbringing in New Jersey, where she attended theater school and was even crowned winner of the Miss Pitman Pageant her senior year. “Believe it or not, I’ve never done a drug harder than smoking pot,” she says.

In fact, when Brewer was growing up, she aspired to be Glinda from Wicked on Broadway. “The bubbly ingénue,” she says. Then, her agent sent her out for a new Netflix web series, and the rest is history. “I’m so honored to be part of a show that brought a diversity of women’s lives and backgrounds and skin colors to the forefront,” she says. “Those are my favorite kinds of stories to tell, because I am a woman, and the people I love most in the world are women.”

Ahead, we spoke to Brewer about her new movie, J.Lo Oscar buzz, and the last thing she binge-watched.

The seventh and final season of Orange premiered this past summer. Did you reunite with the cast for the wrap party?

Samira [Wiley] and I are on Handmaid’s Tale together, and she was like, “Dude, we should go.” I was going to go with her but then something came up at the last minute. I did go to the premiere and see everybody though. They’re family. That #orangefamily is a hashtag for a reason.

How does it feel to star on two major streaming networks?

It’s awesome. Both Netflix and Hulu are great in their own right, and I’ve met some really incredible creative people on both of those streamers. To be honest though, when I booked Orange and when I booked Handmaid’s Tale, I was just like, “I’m an actor who needs a job.” It was more that than anything else. Being on Orange really set me up to have a more critical eye about the things that I invite into my life as an artist.

What did you think about that bizarre Handmaid’s Tale wedding that went viral?

I think it’s wonderful that people are fans, but that to me was on par with the weird Kylie Jenner party. It’s just a little bit like, you don’t get it. You’ve fetishized it for your own use. When people dress up as the characters and go to a climate strike walk or the Women’s March, it’s great — that is the purpose of cosplay when it comes to Handmaid’s Tale costumes. Ultimately, it is fiction; it is entertainment, but the use of it on the hanging wall with the handmaids there and you’re literally wearing a white dress — a symbol of the oppression of women and this entire ideology surrounding women’s virginity and keeping them chaste — ugh, god, it was so layered and so uncomfortable. That being said, I’m glad you liked the show.

Let’s talk about Hustlers. How familiar were you with Jessica Pressler’s 2015 article when you got the script?

I actually hadn’t heard of it. All of this was happening when I was in high school, so it wasn’t really in my face. But as soon as I read the script, I immediately read the article. Initially, I was skeptical because I had worked on this other film, Cam, that was written by a sex worker about a sex worker, so it’s given me a much keener sense when it comes to those types of stories. They can go so wrong. But Lorene [Scafaria] is the real deal. She knew what kind of story she was telling, and she knew how she wanted to tell it.

Your character seems to be based on a woman named “Marjorie” in Pressler’s account. Did you ever meet her in person?

I didn’t meet anybody. I had no idea Dawn was based on a real person. The woman who Constance [Wu’s] character was based on, Roselyn Keo, tagged me in something on Instagram saying, “The real Dawn was this woman who housed me and fed me and was a really good person.” If I’m going to play a real person that’s based entirely on a real person, I would’ve done the research, but Dawn is loosely based.

How did you prepare for the role? Did you visit any strip clubs?

It was more imagination than preparation for me. First of all, I’ve done a lot of research on people who use drugs. The key thing to remember is that people don’t just start doing drugs like, “It’s Tuesday, let’s try meth!” What’s going on inside someone’s head when they’re on a drug is really what’s going on, and everything else you see and hear is just a symptom of their thoughts — what they’re covering up, what they’re thinking, what they’re afraid of, what they’re really feeling — instead of sniff-sniff, neck scratch. It’s about diving into the mental state of someone on that kind of drug, plus a lot of Googling and WebMd-ing what happens when you’re on it. Living in L.A., I’ve been around enough people who are super high on coke. There’s just a look in their eyes.

The 2000s-era costumes really pay homage to the trends of the time, from low-rise jeans to bejeweled Juicy hoodies. Do you have a favorite look?

I was so madly in love with Dawn’s wardrobe. You put her in a room next to Constance and J.Lo who are quite literally dressed to the nines in real chinchilla, with their perfect eyelashes and makeup, and Dawn just looks like a cheap knockoff. It doesn’t even look like she’s even trying to be like them — she’s too high to care. I always thought that Dawn likes the crime more than she likes the fruits of the crime. She was a bad girl. She liked to stir up a ruckus. Our costume designer, Mitchell Travers, was so thoughtful in the things he put her in. Everything was a little too expensive for just anyone to buy, but certainly most of her money was going to her habit. She looked like a Barbie doll who has been left outside in the rain. Everything’s a little smudged and a little out of place, but she’s still cute.

The entire cast was incredible. Who was the most fun to be around on set?

James Devaney/Getty Images

There’s been a lot of talk surrounding J.Lo getting nominated for an Oscar.

So deserved. Her performance was truly outstanding — it’s a total departure. She showed everybody what she’s known she can do for a long time, but they just had to see her strip on a pole to Fiona Apple to start really listening, because that’s unfortunately the society we live in. The entire film is so original and so artistic; they took this Showgirls thing and made it into an arthouse film. You have to really know what the hell you’re doing to be able to do that. I’m totally biased, but I’m pretty sure she’ll get it.

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SMALL TALK:

Who is your Hollywood fairy godperson?

[OITNB costar] Jackie Cruz is my fairy godmother, always. And my makeup artist, Jenna Kristina. I just told her the other day that I think she might be my life coach.

TheStewartofNY/Getty Images

Who have you been the most star-struck to meet?

I once forced Ann Dowd [Aunt Lydia on The Handmaid’s Tale] to introduce me to Viggo Mortensen. I’m really not super shy, but I couldn’t believe that he was sitting right across from me at the SAG Awards.

What’s the last thing you binge-watched?

I just finished The Politician. There was nothing about it that wasn’t the greatest thing ever. Even if you watch it just because you’re binge-watching through your free time, force it.

Who was your first celebrity crush?

Justin Timberlake. I was a huge *NSYNC fan.

What do you wish more people knew about you?

I’m not antisocial, I just like to sleep more than I like people. I struggle with that sometimes, when I want to go out and see people, but also, I could stay home and sleep.

What’s one book you could read over and over?

Anything by Haruki Murakami. And this brilliant woman named Olivia Gatwood just released a new book of poetry called Life of the Party. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Her writing is so cinematic — it’s haunting and beautiful and the imagery is so special.

Is there a pop culture moment that sparked your interest in Hollywood?

I’m obsessed with Anna Delvey. I still can’t get enough of that story. Jessica Pressler is the one who broke it, because she’s amazing. I know Shonda Rhimes is working on an adaptation and Lena Dunham has talked about doing one too. I love the fact that there are two powerhouse women telling the story of another brilliant woman in different powerhouse ways.