It’s true that Maggie Gyllenhaal’s first two films were directed by her father Stephen (1992′s “Waterland” and the following year’s “A Dangerous Woman”), but no one was crying nepotism by the time she broke out of Sundance with 2002′s pitch-black comedy “Secretary,” an astute character study on BDSM behavior in which she bared all — figuratively, literally and both ways boldly. Since then, Gyllenhaal’s carved out an eclectic path through indie cinema (“SherryBaby,” “Donnie Darko”) and mainstream fare (“World Trade Center,” “The Dark Knight”), with her richest roles typically emerging from the smaller passion projects that she clearly loves most.
Such is the case with first-time filmmaker Scott Cooper’s charming country-music drama “Crazy Heart,” adapted from Thomas Cobb’s novel and featuring the music of co-producer T-Bone Burnett. In a performance that just nabbed him a Golden Globe nomination, Jeff Bridges headlines as 57-year-old crooner legend Bad Blake, a charismatically crusty drunk who’s watched his music protégé-turned-rival (Colin Farrell) become a superstar while he himself now stumbles through sets in southwest podunk bowling alleys. Gyllenhaal costars as Jean Craddock, a young Santa Fe journalist, single mother and fan who scores a chance to interview Bad. With a cautious rapport on both ends, the two give in to an unlikely May-December romance that couldn’t possibly work, but hey, what’s in a title, right? Gyllenhaal, who has a young daughter with her husband Peter Sarsgaard, sat down with me to talk motherhood, having an old soul and what she likes least about being interviewed.
Have you ever been in a relationship you knew you shouldn’t be in?
Sure I have. But I don’t think Jean knows she shouldn’t be in this relationship with Bad. Also, even though I do think that they can’t end up together, they love each other. They are ultimately redemptive and good for each other in some ways.
You’ve experienced something that profound?
Not exactly like that. But I understand it. God, who doesn’t understand that?
Co-producer Judy Cairo said you’re “an old soul.” Have you been told that before?
I don’t know what that really means. I just turned 32, and at this moment in my life, I’m learning a lot. Sometimes it makes you feel like a baby, you know? [laughs] Actually, I’m realizing what I learned making this movie by doing all the press, as you have to talk about and organize it. I’ve read really good scripts before — and it doesn’t happen often — where I thought, “I can’t do this. I don’t know how to do this. This isn’t for me.” I had that with this [movie], but I just knew, “I don’t know how I’ll do it, but I have to.” I feel more proud of this than I ever have, and I try to think, “Why?”
The people I’ve played before, some of them have been so fierce and bulldozed through. I used to think until recently that that was the idea, to be as powerful and strong as you could be, and now I don’t think that’s the ideal anymore. There’s this amazing strength in feeling your feelings and being vulnerable.
I’ve seen the movie twice now. When I watched it the first time next to a girlfriend of mine, I almost felt ashamed by how vulnerable and weak [Jean] is sometimes. Then I look at my girlfriend. She’s a professor and she’s just so great and strong, and I was like, “She’s totally weak sometimes, and me, too!” I’m still young enough that I feel ashamed of that as opposed to just [accepting that] that’s humanity. I’m starting to feel proud of having put that in a movie.
So which is it: Are you 32 years old or young?
I’m not clear. I had to go to this work party in Los Angeles with all these girls. I wanted to ask them, “How old are you? Am I too old to wear that gold sequined miniskirt? Because I would love to, and when I was your age, I didn’t want to. Are you 29? 35?” I don’t have a very good sense of what it means to be 32. I just turned 32, so you have to give me a minute.
You share a lot of screen time with Jeff Bridges, but anecdotally, what were the little moments you appreciated most in your downtime on-set with him?
We shot it so quickly that downtime was working. Everything we did was about the movie. We enjoy each other, but there was no time to have that be anything but in service to the movie. The very first day, we shot the scene where I say goodbye to him after the first night we spend together, when he comes over to my house and makes biscuits. Then we shot the scene on the bed where I get really upset, and he’s writing the song. Those are intense scenes to shoot on the first day!
Anyway, we had gotten to know each other better, so by the time we shot [our first appearance onscreen together], it was very fiery. In one take, I watched the air go out of the scene. He was just hitting on me too hard, and so all of a sudden, I was not available in a way that I had been before. You know what I mean? [laughs]
If you’re not trying to stick your landing — that’s my husband’s phrase, I love that — if you’re not trying to be some fantasy of what perfect is in the scene, you’re just trying to do a scene, sometimes it will tilt over too far and you’ll have to pull it back. Jeff would do that, too. We’d do a scene, and he’d be like: “I think we’re loving each other a little too much. We’re loving ourselves a little too much. Let’s pick it up and remember what it is we need.” It was a total joy.
What are the advantages of working on a smaller indie like this compared to a big blockbuster like “The Dark Knight”?
For me, this is how I feel most comfortable. It’s how I learned making movies, and I find myself making movies like this often. I do better when I’m constantly working, when you don’t have three days to shoot one scene. “SherryBaby,” sometimes we’d shoot five scenes in a day. That was incredibly fast. This one, we’d shoot two a day. Perfect for me, I think. You can’t get obsessed with complicated set-ups that are going to take you three hours to light. You don’t have the time. Everybody has to be innovative and ready to work.
You’ve played mothers in the past, but you said that motherhood has changed you as an actor. What did you mean by that?
It changed everything about me. It brought me to my knees and cracked me open and grew me up. I’m able to see the virtues in feeling because of my daughter, as opposed to, like I was saying, bulldozing through. Yes, I played a lot of mothers before I was a mother, and in a movie like “SherryBaby,” I’m playing a mother who’s not really a mother, who’s never had to put a bag of Cheerios in her purse, who just birthed a child and hasn’t had to go through the everyday stuff. It was fine to not be a mom in that movie. In that movie, for example, I play a heroin addict. I’ve never done heroin.
It’s a fine line, but in this movie, I did include a lot of my feelings about being a mother. My daughter was almost two, and I felt this surge that I think mothers have, intermittently. I’ve been focused on her so completely for two years, and got this strong feeling that I need something for me, and the movie was that.
That’s what’s happening to Jean. She’s been taking care of a four-year-old by herself, pulling together what was obviously a tough, complicated life, and putting so much pressure on herself to be a mom and function. She’s at an emergency level of: “I need something for me.” I let that be in the movie, and you know what? I think it’s easier for people to imagine, “What might it be like for me to lose a child?” That’s something you can imagine before you have a child because even for a mother, it’s imaginary. But the other things, like how much higher the stakes are…
In the scene where [Bad's] writing that song on my bed and I freak out, that scene is really about saying, “I’m fucked. Somewhere I know, as much as I try not to think about it, that you’re terrible for me. But I’m in love for you, and it’s over. You slayed me.” So much more is at stake when there’s a four-year-old involved, and I don’t think I understood that kind of thing before.
Beyond Jean’s encounters with Bad, have you ever interviewed someone in real life?
Yes, although I wasn’t thinking about that when I was interviewing him. I mean, I’ve been interviewed by people very successfully, where I went: “Oh my god, I revealed so much more than I intended to.” Jean’s a very green journalist and she’s also a fan. I was focused on trying to find something true about him, and I think she does. I think she’s a good writer, but I don’t think she has a lot of experience interviewing people.
Please tread lightly, but what do you like least about being interviewed?
I don’t like being interviewed by people who I don’t think really see me, who maybe watch the movie and whether they liked it or not, they didn’t understand me. It’s difficult to sit through an interview and try to explain things in a simple, clear way that are important to me about what I do with someone who just thinks in a totally different way. Sometimes that can be interesting, but I would prefer to talk to someone who thinks about movies in a similar way.
Are you into country music?
Yeah, and I came to it completely out of nowhere. I grew up in Los Angeles and I’ve lived in New York for 15 years — I don’t come from country music. So the things I found and picked totally on my own, I don’t know what T-Bone would think of them. [laughs] Gillian Welch is probably where it started, at maybe 19. I like Iris DeMent, Lucinda Williams, Merle Haggard, and I do like the Dixie Chicks. I just listened to that [side project with] Exene from X, the Knitters. I like the folksy old-school country more than that, but I thought that was pretty cool. See? I really do listen to country.