She was known for playing troubled characters, but as a new mother Maggie Gyllenhaal’s ready for happier roles. By Gill Pringle
As Jake Gyllenhaal, 27, became an overnight teen idol with the big-budget action films The Day after Tomorrow and Jarhead, his big sister Maggie, 30, quietly became the darling of the independent film world, breathing compassion into tender portrayals of disturbed souls.
While the Gyllenhaal siblings are talented, nepotism played a part in their early careers. As a teenager, Maggie made her film debut in 1992, opposite Jeremy Irons in Waterland, directed by her father, Stephen Gyllenhaal. A year later, both siblings featured in Debra Winger’s A Dangerous Woman, again directed by their father, from a screenplay by their mother, Naomi Foner.
But Maggie’s real breakthrough came with 2002′s Secretary – this time without familial assistance. Her portrayal of the masochistic secretary Lee Holloway earned her a Golden Globe nomination. Roles in 2002′s much-honoured all-star drama Adaptation and in 2003′s Mona Lisa Smile opposite Julia Roberts followed. It became clear that the actress is at her best when tackling troubled characters, such as SherryBaby’s Sherry Swanson. Gyllenhaal’s unsentimental portrayal of a recovering heroin addict who, on her release from jail, sets about winning custody of her daughter, earned her a second Golden Globe nomination in 2006.
Gyllenhaal, who is engaged to the actor Peter Sarsgaard, was in no hurry to return to work after giving birth to her daughter, Ramona, 21 months ago. But the opportunity to work with Heath Ledger and Gary Oldman in The Dark Knight proved irresistible. “I seriously wasn’t looking to work at the time. I had a three-month-old when I was first approached, and she was seven months old when we finally shot.
“And this was a good job to have as a new mom, because I would work for three days, have a week off, work for another day, have another week off, so I was able to manage for myself, in my heart, the time away from her… I’ve barely worked since my daughter was born. I did this and I also made Farlanders with Sam Mendes, but mostly I’ve been with her. Being a mother changes everything and has deepened everything in my life, including my acting.
“I’ve been asked whether I’ll choose things that are safe, that have a more child-appropriate content, and I don’t think I will. I’ll carry on choosing what’s interesting to me. But I do think that it’s really difficult to get me away from my daughter. It’s tough to find a script that’s good enough for me to think, ‘OK, I really need to do this instead of being with my daughter’.
“The thing about motherhood is that it really does crack you open in every way. I never knew that I could be so tired; I never knew that I could work so hard. I never knew that I could love so much or be so patient or be so excited by the tiniest little thing. Everything about it has surprised me,” says Gyllenhaal.
If The Dark Knight marks a change of direction for an actress best known for more complex portrayals, she says she enjoyed playing a strong character: “I now suddenly find myself interested in playing people who are strong and capable and maybe not as broken as some of the other people I’ve played. I feel like that’s sort of what I’ve made a career doing and that this is sort of more unusual, to play somebody who’s pretty together, who I really admire.”
It’s a far cry from a career that has been notable for its controversy. Replacing Kate Moss as the face of Agent Provocateur, she posed for suggestive promotional shots for the lingerie chain just six months after giving birth. All the same, that was a storm in a B-cup compared with the unwelcome notoriety and outpouring of hatred she found in 2005 after being quoted as saying America was “responsible in some way” for the September 11 attacks. Days later, her fan website, maggie-gyllenhaal.net, was shut down after it became overloaded with hate messages and crashed. “I was so surprised by the way it was misunderstood, and the disdain that came back at me was a real shock,” she said later. “I regret what I said, but I think my intentions were good. Neither the red carpet nor an interview about a movie is the right place to talk about my politics. I realise I have to be careful, because it’s very easy to misunderstand a complicated thought in a complicated world,” says the politically active Democrat, who, like her parents and brother, supports the American Civil Liberties Union.
An accomplished stage actress, Gyllenhaal is wise to the benefits of working on the New York stage, enabling her to remain close to her Brooklyn home – and her daughter: “I’ve been reading tons of plays recently because there’s a theatre that I’m thinking about working with. But the thing about doing a play is that, for me, it really has to be good. And because you’re doing the same thing every day, it’s important to be working with people who are extraordinary, otherwise it gets really boring, and it’s awful. So I’m really trying to find something that I feel will sustain me for a long time. There’s no point in doing it otherwise.”