Maggie Gyllenhaal, a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker, has immersed herself in London life over the past four months while filming her latest movie here. She’s expanded her circle of British friends, enrolled her daughter in a local playgroup, trooped around Tate Modern and various other art galleries and explored London’s bustling street markets so comprehensively she could probably write her own guidebook.
‘Portobello Road is great, obviously. The Columbia Road flower market is so cool,’ she says, ticking them off on her fingers. ‘And Borough Market for food, that’s really great.’
Today we meet in her favourite restaurant in Holland Park – and the staff welcome her like a long-lost sister. ‘Yeah, it’s like my local,’ she giggles. She knows the waitresses so well that she interrupts our chat when she sees one of them in tears.
‘I have to go over and see if she’s all right,’ she says.
Perhaps that’s the mothering instinct, which Maggie, 31, admits has overwhelmed her since the birth of her daughter, Ramona, who will be three in October and is at home with her father, Maggie’s husband, the actor Peter Sarsgaard, in the ‘big, beautiful house’ they’re renting.
‘Oh, motherhood is all-consuming,’ she says. ‘I remember people saying, “Believe me, everything in your life is going to change…” And I thought, “Why? That’s such a bourgeois way of thinking.” And then you have a child and yes, everything changes. It affects the way we live, what we do and where we go – everything. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.’
After Ramona’s birth she took nine months off ‘just to be a mother’. Her first film on her return, The Dark Knight, was a huge multi-million-dollar blockbuster with Christian Bale as Batman and the late Heath Ledger as the Joker, and Maggie was able to pop in and out on a shoot that lasted some seven months.
By the end of the shoot, her daughter had reached the toddler stage, and she decided it was time to return to work properly.
‘The Batman film was the perfect job in a way, because it was spread out over such a long time. And then Ramona was a little older and I started to feel like I wanted to express something other than milk. And that’s when Sam called me about Away We Go…’
The Sam in question is Sam Mendes, Oscar-winning director of American Beauty and husband of Kate Winslet. And the part he wanted Maggie to play was LN, a full-on earth-mother academic who has radical views on parenting.
Maggie could instantly see the funny side of playing a woman who breast-feeds her toddler in public as a political statement, sleeps in a giant bed with her children and husband and refuses to use a pushchair because it ‘separates’ mother and child.
‘I laughed out loud when I read the script,’ she says. ‘Once you are a mum you pay so much more attention to the way people parent. I’ve seen people like LN and I have a little bit of that hippie mum in me.
‘I care about my daughter’s feelings – I don’t leave her in the cot to cry. When I was pregnant I thought it would be all organic food and cloth nappies… And then you’re on a plane and she’s dropped her food all over the floor and there’s nothing else but crisps and she’s hungry and it’s like, “OK, let’s have the crisps.” LN wouldn’t do it, but I do.’
Maggie virtually steals the show from a big ensemble cast. Away We Go is a romantic, funny road movie about a young couple, Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph), who are expecting their first child when they discover that his parents are leaving Colorado to move abroad.
They then set out to visit friends and relatives – LN is Burt’s cousin – to try to find a new place they can call home. Maggie’s first day on set involved a scene where the young couple walk in on her character as she’s breast-feeding a child (as opposed to a tiny baby) and are taken aback.
‘The child is actually twins so that we could change them from scene to scene, and they were so unhappy being away from their mother. I came in, first day, thinking, “OK, I’m not a mum today, I’m an actress.” And then I ended up managing these screaming 11-month-old twins for the entire day.
‘I don’t think I could have taken on this role if I hadn’t been a mum myself. Actually, I don’t think we could have shot the scene. Because I know how to make a baby feel better. And that’s what I ended up doing.’
You wonder, too, whether the role of LN appealed to Maggie as an appropriate way of answering the internet prudes who were outraged after she was snapped by the paparazzi breast-feeding her own child in public in New York.
‘Oh no. I didn’t see that stuff until much later,’ she says firmly. ‘I didn’t think about it at all.’
Maggie is easy company but perfectly capable of cutting off a line of enquiry if she’s not keen on going there. In the past, she’s clearly grown tired of being asked if there is a competitive edge to her relationship with Jake, her younger brother (by three years) and star of films such as Brokeback Mountain, Zodiac and The Day After Tomorrow.
During our conversation she refers to him affectionately several times. ‘He’s my brother. I love him. He’s taking a rest right now and starts working in the autumn near where we are, so we’ll see each other a lot.’
From the outside, it can seem like a tight-knit, incestuous world that she inhabits – her husband Peter worked with Jake on Jarhead, which was directed by Sam Mendes. She worked with Kirsten Dunst on Mona Lisa Smile and Dunst ended up dating Jake for a while, although he’s now with Reese Witherspoon.
‘I do know people who make movies, obviously,’ she says. ‘But my two best girlfriends are nothing to do with it. One is an academic and the other is a photographer. They will come with me to a premiere and know that I’m barely going to be able to talk to them, and they don’t hold it against me. They know that they are there to hold my hand as opposed to be taken to a party, and they are cool with it. They see through the silliness of it all.’
Maggie and her brother know the business as well as anyone and were literally raised on film sets with famous friends popping round for lunch. The late Paul Newman was Jake’s godfather. Their mother, Naomi Foner, is a screenwriter and their father, Stephen Gyllenhaal, a director – Maggie made her screen debut in his film Waterland when she was just 15.
She studied English literature at Columbia University, and flirted with the idea of becoming a teacher before being drawn back into the family business.
‘When you are at college you think you can do anything. I really liked school and I still have a fantasy of being an English teacher. I’m sure any teacher reading this would say, “This woman has no idea how hard it is!” but I think about the teachers who engaged me, and they changed my life. That’s a great thing to do.’
Maggie is in London to make Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang with Emma Thompson (who wrote the film and reprises her 2005 role as the indomitable governess with magical powers), and she’s clearly a little in awe of Thompson.
‘Early on, Emma gave me a couple of notes. And she’s not directing me, she’s acting with me! If some other actor started giving me notes I would tell them to “**** off” – there is not one other actor I would allow that from. But they were fantastic notes – clear and totally helpful. I just thought to myself, “She’s teaching me and I’d be an idiot not to accept it.” And Emma’s what, 50? It would be silly of me not to acknowledge that she knows more than I do.’
Maggie is equally passionate about politics – she’s an outspoken Democrat and landed herself in hot water in 2005 when she suggested that American foreign policy might have provoked the attacks on the Twin Towers. Later, after a storm of criticism, she said she regretted the comments and that it was probably a good idea not to add politics into the mix when giving interviews.
That said, she is delighted that Barack Obama is now US president. ‘It’s amazing, it feels like the Red Sea parted, and I’m very hopeful. My daughter’s sense of race will be so incredibly, deeply, fundamentally shifted by this, as will that of her generation.’
Her film roles have reflected the edgy, unconventional side of her personality – playing a sadomasochist who has an affair with her boss in her breakout role in 2002’s Secretary, a con artist in Criminal and a drug-addicted thief recently released from prison in SherryBaby.
Her mother has, she says, been the single biggest influence on her life. ‘I believe your mother is the major influence in your world and then, ultimately, you can decide, well, I’ll take this from my mum but I won’t take this. And as I’ve gotten older I think I’ve also influenced her. She was never into things like fashion, she was much more intellectual. But I’ve gotten more into that stuff and I think I’ve shown her a lot about it.
‘I think that my mother made me believe – in a way that wasn’t totally helpful in retrospect – that I could do anything. Mostly that’s an incredible gift to give, but later you kind of think, well, I can’t actually do anything. As much as you say I could have been a great ballerina, that’s not true. But it comes from a lovely place, and it really got through to me that she believed in me and that I was capable, and could really soar.
‘And she gave me wonderful advice. When I was in school she said, “Assume people like you until they give you a clear reason to think that they don’t.” It’s wonderful to walk into a scary room and think, “Why would they not like me, they’ve never met me?” At times people don’t, and you have to deal with that, but it’s a very positive outlook.’
In the Nanny McPhee sequel, Maggie plays a mother-of-three in wartime Britain who hires Emma Thompson’s character to look after her troublesome brood. It’s the kind of feel-good period film that, pre-motherhood, she might have said a polite “no thanks” to. But it does, she insists, have contemporary themes that her generation can relate to.
‘Ten or 15 years ago there was this idea that women could do everything, and that they should be able to have these great careers and be mothers too. And I think that was a very helpful way of looking at things for a while.
‘But now, with my generation, I think that there’s a sense of, “I can’t do everything, and nor should I have to. I need help and I need a husband and another set of hands, and even then I still might need help with babysitting.” Working and mothering is extraordinarily difficult. So that’s a big part of my character in Nanny McPhee – she can’t do everything.’
Maggie doesn’t have a nanny at the moment, but certainly would if she could find the right one. ‘I’m really hoping that doing Nanny McPhee will bring me good nanny karma! I would like a nanny who would stay with me for five years through another child, a nanny I could trust, who would travel with me. Actually, Emma has been sharing her wonderful nanny with us while we’ve been here, which has been incredibly helpful.’
And Sarsgaard, whom she met in 2002 through her brother, has been on dad duty. ‘He’s been great. He’s been happy to be here with us and he loves spending his days with Ramona.’
Sarsgaard starred in Kinsey and Flightplan (and is excellent as the sophisticated older man who seduces a teenage Lynn Barber – played by 24-year-old British actress Carey Mulligan – in the soon-to-be-released British movie An Education, based on Barber’s autobiography). Maggie married him in a picturesque chapel in Brindisi, Italy, in May this year, with family and close friends in attendance.
‘I love being married,’ she says. ‘It definitely has shifted things. I took very seriously the vows we made that we will stand by each other, and we will.’
Earlier this year, the two of them played the leads in a Broadway production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. ‘It was brilliant. I’ve never acted with anyone where I enjoyed it more,’ she says – although working together wasn’t all plain sailing, she admits.
‘His character, Astrov, has so many lines in one scene, it’s like “talk, talk, talk”. And he couldn’t remember them and I was giving him a really hard time, which is not something I would do with any other actor – I was like, “Why don’t you know these lines?” And we got into a fight about it. But then we walked out to lunch, still kind of hacked off with each other, and I said, “Do you think we can just leave that in there?” And we did, and it set a precedent. Now we want to do another play together.
‘He has been writing too,’ she explains, ‘but I think he really wants to go and do some acting work so he’s got first priority. Then again, if Martin Scorsese calls and says, “Maggie, I need you in October”, I’m sure he’d understand… But I do definitely need a rest and, much as we love it here in London, I want to go home and just be mum.’
Home is a sprawling brownstone in Brooklyn, but they are considering moving out of the city she loves. ‘We’re starting to feel it would be wonderful to get out into the countryside. My husband would be happy to be in Nova Scotia and never see anybody – he is really outdoorsy. A couple more movies, play some superheroes, and maybe we’ll get another house.’
She giggles at the thought of it. Maggie Gyllenhaal is clearly enjoying herself and whether she’s in London or a remote part of North America, she’ll keep on mixing it up, combining motherhood with a career that’s taking her to the very top of the Hollywood A-list.
For now, it’s time to go back to her temporary home via an impromptu bit of mothering. ‘Have you got enough – was that OK?’ she asks me, before heading off to console the young waitress, hankie at the ready.
Away We Go will be released on Friday