Maggie Gyllenhaal is used to playing strong women and on the big screen and on stage, so she admits it was a little tough for her to play the emotionally wounded and vulnerable Jean Craddock in the dramatic movie “Crazy Heart.” In “Crazy Heart,” Gyllenhaal’s character is a journalist at a small-time publication who meets a has-been country singer named Bad Blake (played by Jeff Bridges) for an interview. Jean is a single mom with an admitted history of making the wrong choices in her personal life — and, not surprisingly, Jean ends up falling in love with Bad, an irresponsible alcoholic.
In real life, Gyllenhaal is much more assured than Jean is, and the actress has a stable family life that includes her husband, actor Peter Sarsgaard, and their daughter, Ramona. I caught up with Gyllenhaal at the “Crazy Heart” press junket in New York City, where we talked about her favorite country music, which person she would most want to interview in real life, and what it was like having a bunch of musicians on the “Crazy Heart” movie set.
When they first meet, Jean Craddock and Bad Blake bond over their love of Left Frizzell’s music. Did you know about Lefty Frizzell before doing “Crazy Heart”?
Did I know Lefty Frizzell as a musician? It’s interesting that you ask me that because I actually do listen to country music and it completely came from me. I was born in New York and I grew up in California and I’ve lived here for 15 years, in New York. There’s no reason at all why I should like country music and I do.
The country music that I listen to though, I’m not sure what ["Crazy Heart" producer/composer] T Bone [Burnett] would think, because it’s not influenced by where I’m living at all and none of my friends listen to country. It’s all my own thing. I didn’t know Lefty Frizzell, although I did listen to Merle Haggard and Hank Williams and some of the other old school guys that we talk about.
I didn’t listen to Lefty Frizzell until I started the movie and did the interview. But I do love Gillian Welch and Iris Dement, Emmylou Harris. I love the Dixie Chicks. I do listen to country music. And I don’t know why, I just like it.
Did you ever go out on the road with band? ?
No, I never have.
Were you a big concertgoer as a kid??
Yes and no. I had a boyfriend who was really into music and very snobby about music and really kind of liked a certain indie rock thing and looked down on my CD collection. I was completely ashamed by it. I definitely thought at the time that my music wasn’t cool enough.
You’re a mother in real life, even though you and Jean lead very different lives. Can you talk about the similarities between you and the Jean character, from a mother’s perspective, that you brought to this role?
I’ve played mothers before I was a mother and I think successfully, sometimes anyway. I’ve also played heroin addicts and not been a heroin addict but for me, in this particular movie, my state as a mother when I made the movie is a huge part of the movie for me and also a huge part thematically I think of what happened to Jean. My daughter was almost 2 when I made this movie and I was having that feeling that I think parents must have intermittently throughout their children’s lives. I had it for the first time, like I had been focused almost completely on my daughter, on being a mother and I had this kind of surge of a feeling that I needed to do something for me, that I was also a woman and an actress and not just a mother. I worked.
For some reason, I think in the production notes or something, because everyone all day today has been saying to me that this was the first movie I’ve made since she was born. It’s not. I did “The Dark Knight” when she was 7 months old and I also did “Away We Go” but “Batman” ["The Dark Knight" was literally 15 days over eight months. It was very different. It was difficult, but my focus was on my 8-month-old. As much as I could, it was impossible for me to take my focus from her. "Away We Go" was three days pf filming for me].
So basically this was in some ways the first thing. If I say that I needed something for me it was this movie. I had so much kind of built up and kind of welling in me that needed to be expressed from having become a mom and it’s in the movie. And basically, I think that’s kind of what’s happening with Jean. I think she’s been trying to be a good mom and pull it together after what must’ve been a complicated beginning with this child. I think she’s at an emergency state of what I’m describing and I think she just feels like, “I need something for me. I need something that feels good to me. I don’t care if it’s bad for me. It’s better if it’s bad for me.”
How do you take the intense feelings you have for your own child and transfer them to a child actor you don’t know very well?
Well, I don’t think it’s that simple. I think it’s the feeling of wanting to be free and to be an individual and be …
Coming into your own?
Yeah, that’s sort of more where it resonated. I didn’t feel anything like what I feel for my daughter for Jack Nation, the little boy who played my son. It’s not like that for me. It’s sort of a little more trippy. It’s more that on a sort of bigger level I think these things were sort of very simpatico. Or, for example, like the scene where [Bad Blake] is writing a song on my bed and I kind of get upset, I think that scene is actually not anything that’s actually expressed. It’s not about what I’m saying. It’s actually about, for me, for me kind of saying, “I’m completely screwed here. I’m in love with you already. It’s over. It’s done. It isn’t good for me but there’s nothing that I can do about it. It’s over.”
When you have that feeling and there is a 4-year-old involved the stakes are massively raised and I just don’t think that I could’ve understood that before I had a child. But in terms of like the everyday stuff I think you can sort of fake that if you’re not a mother. I’m not sure. Like in “Sherrybaby,” for example, I played a mother but it didn’t matter because I wasn’t really a [good] mother. I mean that woman had never put a bag of Cheerios in her purse and had never put her hand in her coat and pulled out like a squeaking giraffe — ever. She gave birth but that’s it. So it was almost better that I wasn’t a mom.
Actually, I just watched this ["Crazy Heart"] recently, I watched it at the premiere and he asks me, “What’s the most important thing about you?” And I say, ‘”I have a child.” So for me in this case, being a mother and the way I am a mother is all tied up in the performance.
Was your daughter with you when you when you were shooting “Crazy Heart?”
If Jean Craddock weren’t a mother, do you think she would’ve gone on a self-destructive path with Bad Blake? Did being a mother actually protect her from that choice?
Yeah, I think so. What’s so nice about working on a script that’s so good and with an actor who’s so good is that you don’t actually have to make a lot of choices. I think if you’re working with a weak script you have to solve things often and if you’re working with someone who’s not there with you and going to respond to you, you do have to make a lot of sort of actor choices. If you’re lucky enough not to be in that position and you know where you’re coming from and what you want and all these sort of basic acting things you can kind of just let anything happen.
Usually though, even with a really good script or something, there will be one thing that I’ll kind of think, like, “Oh, that’s something to avoid or something that I kind of need to think through,” one thing that I’ll hold onto. I remember thinking before we started shooting, like, ‘Okay, how does,’ and this was way before we started shooting, “How does a capable, smart woman fall for like a serious drunk?” Obviously, it’s a much more interesting movie if she is a capable and smart woman than if she’s just like a wreck. So how does that happen? Then, you know what, I never thought about it again. I think that’s how I did it. She’s just not thinking. I am a person who uses my brain and I don’t think, too. It happens to us.
Jean meets Bad and is apprehensive at first. But then he calls and says, Do you want me to come over or not?” And Jean hesitates.?
Yeah, but it’s over. It’s done. The second I walk in the room, it’s done. I mean, it’s done and that’s how it is. There a few moments, I think when I say goodbye to him and we’ve spent the night together, I say goodbye in the driveway, I played that scene like, “This was crazy and goodbye. I slept with Bad Blake. How did that happen?” But it’s also kind of over.
Do you think her desire for adult affection made her vulnerable?
This is the thing for me on this movie, when a movie works for me whether it’s successful to other people, there are movies that I’ve made that work for me and I usually, when I read them I know, like, ‘I have to do this movie.’ I don’t usually know why until later and I’m just figuring out why for this one. I think the reason is that I had that feeling, that I had to do this and wanted to see why and then it’s so different, this role, for me than some of the other roles that I’ve played that I’m proud of.
The other ones, some of the others I think about,?I think I was fierce. I was so fierce and kind of like a powerhouse in some of my other roles that I like and I think when I was a little younger I thought that was the idea, just be as strong as you can be and that you could fight anything that got in your way. Like Lee Holloway in “Secretary,” she’s the submissive, but she’s a f*cking powerhouse. This woman [Jean Craddock] is not like that.
When I watched “Crazy Heart,” sometimes I watched some of the things that I did in the movie, and when I first watched it I watched it with my best girlfriend because my husband was away and I was so ashamed watching some of it. I thought, “God, she seems so weak.” Then I was looking at my girlfriend who’s a professor and she’s so great and so awesome and strong and I thought, “She’s weak, too, and so am I.” Sometimes I’m not. I think it’s only recently really, like in the past couple of months even, that I see the real power in feeling your feelings and being vulnerable and not being so ashamed of the weaknesses in you and to expose them sometimes. So that’s what I learned here and I didn’t know that. I knew it in my work before I knew it in my life.
If you had a chance to sit down and interview anyone, like Jean did with Bad Blake, who would you pick and what you say?
These are always the questions where later on I think, “Oh, I should’ve said, if I really got that chance I’d have said,” but I have to say that I’d like to talk to David Lynch. Oh my God. I loved “Inland Empire.” Unbelievable movie. I mean, I didn’t enjoy myself when I was watching it, but what would I ask him? It haunts you, yeah and it goes so down and dark and terrifyingly dark and then brings you back up again.
Your 2009 movies “Crazy Heart” and Away We Go” both featured characters traveling on the road, and you get an incredible sense of the locations. What did you think?
I think so. We shot ["Crazy Heart"] really quickly in Santa Fe. The movie takes place in Santa Fe and we didn’t have to pretend that part of it. You get there and you’re like high …
From the good air?
Did you have any trouble with the high altitude?
See, I don’t like the desert. It’s not my thing.
[Says jokingly] So you don’t go to Burning Man, the annual art festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert?
[She laughs.] No. That’s not my thing. I was a little bit afraid of going to Santa Fe and being in the desert and I loved it. I loved it. I did. It just went along with everything else in this movie which was so intense and so fast and so open. I mean that’s what happened with Jeff [Bridges] and [me].
I just knew that the movie wouldn’t work unless these people actually deeply love each other. It wouldn’t have and I think he must’ve known that, too and we just met, didn’t have any time and we just sort of went, “My heart is open. I’m up for anything.” And I felt exactly the same thing from him and we just did the movie.
Jean is young enough to be Bad’s daughter. Do you think she’s drawn to him because of her dysfunctional background??
Yeah, of course. I think that’s true. That’s the thing: What brings people together? My friend who is a screenwriter and really smart and great and who I love came to see the movie at the premiere and liked it a lot and said, “I watched you walk into the room and I thought that if these people were supposed to be lovers, the movie isn’t going to work. If they pretend that they’re going to be lovers they’re cheating. Then I watched it work.” I think that, too. I love that about it because it does make you have to be compassionate about why people love each other. I don’t know why they [get together], but you’re right, it’s all those things. You can be so attracted to the thing that makes you the sickest.
Do you have any plans to do another play?
I am, yeah … I was just talking with Austin [Pendleton] actually about doing another play with Peter [Sarsgaard, Gyllenhall’s husband]. Also, Tony Kushner, whom I’ve done a couple of things with and I’ll just do whatever he wants whenever he asks me to. I’ll just drop everything and go and do it. So we were talking about doing something, too. It’s really easy for me to get together with Austin and Peter because we don’t want to do it.
Peter, my husband, and I did “Uncle Vanya” in the winter in a tiny, tiny, tiny little theater and Austin Pendleton directed. He’s a brilliant genius who I’d do anything with. It’s easy to get something together with him because you just go [and do it]. Like we don’t want to do it in a big theater. We want to do it in a place where you don’t even maybe have to have reviews, where it’s just small enough where you can sell out for six weeks. It’s so funny with Austin because you feel like you’re in acting class and people come and write things about you and it’s very sort of … Austin is like taking an acting class. That’s really how it felt.
You were very well-suited for Chekov.?
Totally. I love it, especially Austin’s Chekhov where anything can happen. That was like heaven.
Can you talk about filming the concert scene?
Well, I was only a part of that one where I’m sort of photographing [Bad Blake] badly. I definitely decided that she was not a photographer, that she was working at a small enough publication where she was like, “I have to take pictures, too? OK.” But the concert scenes, they went to Albuquerque and they were really more of a part of it than I was. I didn’t go to Albuquerque. They just went for the night.
What did you think about seeing Jeff Bridges on stage as a musician?
Well, everyone was playing music all the time. Steven Bruton who was T Bone’s partner and passed away, to whom the film is dedicated to, he was around and he and Jeff would sing “Fallin’ & Flyin’” to me, and it was just kind of all the time happening. Everyone was practicing, playing. The musicians who were playing, most of them were real musicians and so music was really just a part of it.
What did you talk about with any of musicians involved in “Crazy Heart”??
I did spend a lot of time with Steven Bruton. I mean the musicians who were the day players, who were playing musicians in the movie I didn’t [talk to]. The only scene that I’m in is that one scene at night where I have another focus which is really Bad Blake. But Steven and I did get to know each other really well, and I hadn’t listened to Lefty Frizzell before.
My husband listens to a lot of blues which is actually where that question about Son House and Big Bill Broonzy came from because I’d heard a lot of that music. He played me music and we talked a lot about sort of some of the background of the music, because I do think that Jean does listen to country music and knows more about it than I do, although not a great deal more. I think she does walk into the interview without a massive amount of information but I that’s part of their connection, that she says, “I can feel that you must’ve liked Lefty Frizzell,” not that that takes a genius, but it takes knowing more about music than just Hank Williams.
What’s next for you?
“Nanny McPhee [and the Big Bang],” which is amazing. I think it’ll be really, really great, that movie.