WHEN Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard started coming to the Classic Stage Company in the East Village a few weeks ago to begin rehearsals for Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” they were surprised, marginally flattered and mildly annoyed to find that a phalanx of paparazzi had staked out the theater, flashbulbs at the ready.
Then they learned that Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, who had taken up residence nearby, were regular visitors to the coffee shop in the theater’s lobby and were the photographers’ true quarries.
“They actually had nothing to do with us,” Mr. Sarsgaard said with an embarrassed laugh during a recent interview.
“But,” Ms. Gyllenhaal added, “they were like, ‘All right, as long as you’re here.’ ”
“Two for the price of one,” Mr. Sarsgaard said. “Awesome.”
In the constellation of couples who fascinate and transfix — Tom and Katie, Brad and Angelina, Matthew and Sarah Jessica — Peter and Maggie are minor lights, their appeal driven not by exotic trappings (private planes, bodyguards, baby photos for sale) but by career paths and indie credentials that have defined them as actors first, boldface names third or fifth.
Over lunch at a trattoria near their Park Slope home, Ms. Gyllenhaal and Mr. Sarsgaard come across like a shinier version of That Brooklyn Couple who gave up the hubbub of Manhattan to raise their child in a quieter, tree-lined borough. They paw affectionately at each other’s collars and complete each other’s sentences; juggle their work schedules to accommodate their 2-year-old daughter, Ramona; and grumble about carrying strollers down subway staircases.
On closer inspection, though, that veneer of mundanity starts to unravel: the couple, who have been together since 2001, are not married, live in their own brownstone, refer to each other as lover (at least Mr. Sarsgaard uses the term) and can often arrange their work schedules so that one of them is free to attend their child. They also happen to make their living in front of millions of people; when they perform onstage, the playwright John Guare comes to their previews; and when they travel to work in Montreal, they hang out with the rock band the Arcade Fire.
This makes them noticeable enough around New York that they attract attention even for routine conduct — Ms. Gyllenhaal ignited an online controversy in 2007 simply for being caught by a photographer in the act of breast-feeding Ramona — which has instilled in them a self-consciousness, as individuals and as a couple.
So there is an added frisson to their coming collaboration in “Uncle Vanya” (which opens on Thursday and runs through March 8), one of the rare instances when the two will appear together in a professional capacity.
Mr. Sarsgaard and Ms. Gyllenhaal said they would work together more often if there were more low-risk opportunities like this, at a small Off Broadway theater with an accommodating director.
“It is only about the experience of doing it, and with your lover; why would we engage in anything any other way than that?” Mr. Sarsgaard said. “Why would we join forces commercially? It would be ——”
“Kind of disgusting,” Ms. Gyllenhaal said, finishing his thought.
Their individual résumés explain why the prospect of their acting together is so intriguing. Mr. Sarsgaard, 37, is coming off a widely praised Broadway revival of Chekhov’s “Seagull,” in which he played Trigorin with Kristin Scott Thomas as Arkadina, to add to a repertory of reserved yet sympathetic characters in movies like “Shattered Glass,” “Kinsey” and “Garden State.”
Ms. Gyllenhaal, 31, who was last seen on screen in the summer blockbuster “The Dark Knight” (playing a role she inherited from Ms. Holmes), has her own tradition of playing astonishingly raw and unglamorous characters, in films like “Sherrybaby” and “Secretary” and plays like Tony Kushner’s “Homebody/Kabul.”
Thus, some coincidence — and some convincing — was required for them to come together in “Uncle Vanya.” Last summer Brian Kulick, the artistic director of the Classic Stage Company, began assembling the production, hiring the veteran Chekhov interpreter Austin Pendleton to direct and Denis O’Hare, a Tony Award winner for “Take Me Out,” to play the titular misanthrope.
Finding an actress to play Yelena, the young married beauty who inconveniently attracts the affections of Vanya and the melancholy country doctor Astrov, was a months-long process. It was only after another actress turned down the role that Mr. Kulick turned to Ms. Gyllenhaal.
And it was she who suggested Mr. Sarsgaard for the role of Astrov, a suggestion that took the play’s creative team by surprise. As Mr. Pendleton recalled, “I said, ‘But he’s in “The Seagull.” ’ I didn’t even know Maggie and Peter were together.”
Though Mr. Pendleton did not realize it, what made the bargain unique is that Mr. Sarsgaard and Ms. Gyllenhaal have acted together on only one previous occasion, in the 2007 short film “High Falls.” In that movie, directed by Andrew Zuckerman, a friend of the couple, they played a husband and wife who jeopardize their relationship when they each reveal crucial secrets to the same confidant.
The project was not quite their “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” but Ms. Gyllenhaal recalled making the film as a taxing experience. She was about seven months pregnant with Ramona when “High Falls” was shot. “I didn’t have an artistic mind at that time,” she said. “I hated the feeling of not having the energy to have a point of view.”
(For his part, Mr. Sarsgaard said, “I had a great time.”)
Mr. Sarsgaard and Ms. Gyllenhaal wanted the “Vanya” roles, but faced a final hurdle: securing child care for Ramona. They are generally careful to organize their schedules so that one can take care of her while the other is working.
(Ms. Gyllenhaal is also extremely circumspect about discussing Ramona in interviews. When Mr. Sarsgaard began to talk about his daughter’s penchant for singing songs as she walks down the street, Ms. Gyllenhaal put her hand on his. “No more Ramona talk,” she said.)
Eventually the two were able to work out a baby-sitting system that involved a nanny, Mr. Sarsgaard’s parents, Ms. Gyllenhaal’s best friend and her mother, the screenwriter Naomi Foner. “My mom kept saying: ‘Michelle Obama’s mom is going to the White House with them. It’s fine,’ ” Ms. Gyllenhaal said.
By the time they agreed to do “Uncle Vanya” it was December, and previews were four weeks away. That left them little time before rehearsal to pore over the nuances of their roles, but both Mr. Sarsgaard and Ms. Gyllenhaal were willing to admit — up to a point, in the presence of a reporter — that they saw certain kinships with their characters.
Like Astrov, Mr. Sarsgaard said, “it is very possible that I could have ended up on 80 acres of land by myself, and fallen in love at a distance with a gorgeous woman I could never have been with.”
Ms. Gyllenhaal, meanwhile, said she could relate to the undulating tides of scrutiny that Yelena endures from other characters. “You have some people saying, ‘You are a gorgeous woman’ in the same breath as ‘Can you please not talk anymore?’ ” She added, “It’s like going on the Internet.”
They are also aware that there will be many theatergoers who come to see “Vanya” because of them — and happy to use the preconceptions of such spectators to their advantage.
“Those expectations are probably awesome for watching the play,” Mr. Sarsgaard said. “It probably fills in an enormous amount that could be lost, and makes each moment where we might interact seem significant, beyond what it should be.”
Their “Vanya” co-stars say that by ceding the limelight to the celebrity couple in their ranks, they will be repaid in other ways. “In this economic time there’s a limited amount of people out there wanting to see theater,” Mr. O’Hare said. “What a great boon for us, to have people who have a profile like that, to attract people to come see us.”
There is also the heightened tension imposed by the design of the play: most of the interactions between Astrov and Yelena in Acts I and II are brief, glancing near-misses. It is not until Act III that the two characters truly collide, in a heated scene in which Astrov aggressively confronts Yelena with his romantic feelings for her.
It may be satisfying for the audience to see Ms. Gyllenhaal and Mr. Sarsgaard finally confront each other, but the actors said it was a scene they were still struggling with.
“We have never, ever done this one scene without one of us dropping a line,” Ms. Gyllenhaal said.
“Usually just one of us, though,” Mr. Sarsgaard said, pointing to Ms. Gyllenhaal, who laughed.
“In some ways,” she said, “that scene is about my completely relinquishing control — giving into him completely. And so I do. And sometimes I can’t remember my lines.”
Ultimately, Mr. Pendleton said, there was little instruction he could give the actors in this scene. “I’m not going to tell two people who live together how to work out a physical seduction,” he said. “That’s just ridiculous.”
Whether or not the couple perfect that scene by opening night, Mr. Pendleton said, they had already brought a fresh take to “Uncle Vanya” with their “infinitely exploratory” acting process, which he explained: “You don’t make decisions until you absolutely have to. You just try everything, well into previews. Because of that I think they’ve inspired the whole group.”
It remains to be seen if performing “Uncle Vanya” will make them more comfortable with their grade of celebrity status. Ms. Gyllenhaal said she could foresee a time when their desires to protect Ramona’s privacy and lead a more domestic existence would compel them to leave New York. “Both of us crave a quieter lifestyle lately,” she said. “We would probably like to move somewhere greener.”
Then again, Mr. Sarsgaard said, “Maggie thought we were moving to the country when we moved here,” to Park Slope.
Eventually, they say, they could envision themselves acting onstage together again — perhaps in Chekhov’s “Three Sisters,” playing Masha and Vershinin, another tempestuous literary couple.
But those fantasies will have to wait for several months at least, while Ms. Gyllenhaal dives back into film projects and Mr. Sarsgaard tends to Ramona for a while. (“The tables have been turned,” Mr. Sarsgaard said.)
Should “Uncle Vanya” merely prove a once-in-a-lifetime, let’s-never-do-that-again occurrence, the two said it had nonetheless been constructive for their relationship.
“I think you call me a genius in the play, right?” Mr. Sarsgaard asked Ms. Gyllenhaal.
“A couple times,” she gamely replied.
“Now that she’s got that straight in her head, we’re cementing it in there,” Mr. Sarsgaard said. “I feel like that will give me another five years of clear sailing.”