Maggie Gyllenhaal admits she wasn?t that impressed when younger brother Jake casually decided to follow in her footsteps and become an actor ? especially when he scored the title role in the 2001 cult classic Donnie Darko and looked set to be the star of the siblings.
His sister – who, as a teenager, used to boss him into taking part in her lounge room productions of Cats – got her own back a year later when she starred in Secretary.
Her daring portrayal of a disturbed woman who embarks on a sadomasochistic relationship with her boss led to a Golden Globe nod. Suddenly, it was game on for brother and sister.
“My brother and I used to be competitive when we were younger,” muses the 32-year-old. “But now I feel we’re different enough, old enough and love each other enough that competition feels like a waste of time.”
It helps that the pair have each carved their own successful – if slightly different – careers. With his leading man looks, Jake has specialised in big-budget hits, such as The Day After Tomorrow and Brokeback Mountain.
Meanwhile, his sister, with her slightly quirkier image, has reigned as the queen of indie, gathering kudos in smaller films such as SherryBaby and Happy Endings.
So it’s all happy families these days, except when it comes to cooking. It turns out Gyllenhaal junior, who recently split from actor Reese Witherspoon, is a fantastic cook and Maggie – a self-confessed perfectionist – will reluctantly concede she’s not in the same league.
“He’s exceptional – as good a cook as he is an actor,” she admits. “He was just here for the holidays and he cooked a lot. I have basic skills – I know how to steam vegetables and make pasta and salads – but I’m not so good at the harder stuff. I’d like to learn how to easily cook up something really great.”
I suggest that the test of a person’s skill in the kitchen is whether they can whip up “something great” without following a recipe.
“Actually, it’s very telling about me,” she admits, warming to her subject. “For me, the challenge is following the recipe, because it’s so difficult for me to be a beginner at something. I don’t like things when I’m not good at them. But I’m learning how nice it is to be a beginner. It used to be that if I wasn’t good at something, I wouldn’t even want to try it, but now I’m learning how nice it is to try.”
As the eldest child of director Stephen Gyllenhaal and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Naomi Foner (for 1998’s Running on Empty), Gyllenhaal grew up in Hollywood surrounded by luminaries such as Jamie Lee Curtis (who’s Jake’s godmother) and Paul Newman, who reportedly used to cook steaks on the back porch of the Gyllenhaals’ house.
“My mum was friends with him and his wife Joanne [Woodward],” she explains. “He also supposedly taught my brother to drive.”
It all sounds very glamorous, but the star, who married actor Peter Sarsgaard last May, is at pains to play it down.
“It’s funny, my husband says to me, ‘The life you led was amazing!’ and it’s true that there were people who made movies who used to visit now and then. But I don’t think [my upbringing] was as intense as the life my daughter is leading, in the sense that my parents weren’t well-known. Yes, they made small movies, but we didn’t lead a big, glitzy, fancy life.
I think my daughter’s life will be more like that, although I’m trying to keep it as laid-back and calm as possible for her.”
Gyllenhaal is speaking from her brownstone in Brooklyn, where she and Sarsgaard – most recently seen in An Education – moved soon after the birth of their daughter, Ramona, in 2006. Although she filmed The Dark Knight (a rare blockbuster for her) after Ramona’s birth, she says Crazy Heart is her first real project since she became a mother.
“I had about five movies that came out while I was pregnant and, although I was nauseous at the beginning, I was able to promote them,” she explains. “Then Ramona was born and I couldn’t even pick up the phone to do an interview. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. Having an infant is so hard and complicated. It’s very intense.
“I only worked about 15 days over seven months on The Dark Knight, which was manageable at a time when my focus was on my daughter. But Crazy Heart was offered to me when Ramona was nearly two and
I had this feeling that I needed a little something for me. It was like, ‘OK, I want to do some work. I’m a woman and an actor as well as a mother.’”
Gyllenhaal plays Jean, a single mum who falls for Jeff Bridges’ long-past-his-prime country music singer, ‘Bad’ Blake. Despite the age gap, the romance between the unlikely lovers is surprisingly tender.
“Someone sent me an article where a woman said it was another example of a sexist situation where it’s OK for a woman to date a much older man,” she recalls. “I thought, has she seen the movie? We’re not saying [the relationship] is healthy and great, we’re saying it happens. Love affects all kinds of people.”
Bridges, who recently won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Bad, chose Gyllenhaal for the role of Jean and has revealed that “working with Maggie just transcended all my expectations”.
Perhaps he recalled their first meeting in 2003, when a slightly tipsy Gyllenhaal bowled up to him and told him how much she loved his work.
“He was at the Mona Lisa Smile premiere, because his nephew [Jordan Bridges] was in the movie with me, and I thought, well, I’m a fan of his and I can talk to whomever I want because it’s my premiere,” she laughs. “So I went over and said how much I loved his movies, and he just said, ‘We’re going to work together one day.’ And we did.”
With her background, it was highly likely that Gyllenhaal would end up going into the family ‘business’. (Jake has said as much, adding that if his family were plumbers, he’d probably be a plumber now.)
“It did seem appealing because of what my parents did,” she admits. “Acting seemed exciting and artistic, but they insisted that I go to college.
I tried to leave at one point and we had fights about it and I stayed. I’m glad I did now, but acting was something I was good at, so I was into it.”
Of course, her connections made it easier for the young actor to start her career. She had cameos in her father’s films before making her feature debut at the age of 15, in his 1992 movie Waterland.
But she admits she was paranoid people would think she was cheating: “I wasn’t into the nepotism at all. Most [of the earlier roles] were tiny parts that I did to visit my dad on location more than anything else.”
But she scored the role in Secretary – complete with full-frontal nudity – without any help from her folks, who actually tried to talk her out of it. “I gave the script to everybody and said, ‘Am I crazy? Because I really love this.’ And a lot of people said, ‘This is dangerous, are you sure you want to do it?’ But I didn’t listen to anybody. There’s one scene in the movie that was kind of unnecessary, but most of the other nudity is great.”
The star admits she’s become more ambitious. “When I was younger, I didn’t care if no one saw my movies; it was almost cooler if no one did. Now I want people to see them. And I’d like to have more choice than I have.”
But she knows that more choice would invariably lead to more attention and she’s not sure that’s a pay-off she wants. “We were living in London last summer [where she was filming Nanny McPhee & The Big Bang with Emma Thompson] and Peter and I were able to walk around without any problems,” she remembers.
“We went to the tennis at Wimbledon by train and I felt lucky we didn’t have to go in a special car or sneak in through a back door. It isn’t that way all the time, but it’s that way enough of the time that I really appreciate it.”
As for the interest in celebrity offspring, Gyllenhaal says it worries her, but it’s Romona’s life.
“What worries me more is the travel. If [Peter and I] were Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, we could say, ‘Oh yes, I’ll make that movie, but it must be in New York and it must be filmed before midsummer break,’ but we’re not. If Martin Scorsese calls and tells me I need to be in Nova Scotia for six months, then I probably need to do that.
“So we’ve travelled around a lot with Ramona and, while there are some wonderful things about that, what a young child really wants is stability and routine; she wants a sense of home. We’ve been trying to protect that and it’s one of our biggest challenges.”
She misses her husband (her “favourite actor”) when they’re parted, but accepts it’s inevitable when you’re married to someone in the industry. Perhaps it’s because of those absences – Sarsgaard recently returned from a two-month stint filming Knight and Day in Europe, with Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz – that she so values their life together in New York.
“I’m really into my house,” she says with an embarrassed laugh. “I’m a newbie homemaker, but I’ve been learning a lot. I love my fireplaces and we have a kitchen we worked hard to make, so we like to cook and just hang out. In fact, I spend a lot of time thinking about food and cooking.”
Although a native New Yorker (“and even though I met Peter in LA, our romance was here”), the actor confesses she may be lured away. “Peter loves the country and he’s converting me. But it takes time to figure out that kind of stuff, so it’s not as if it’s happening tomorrow.”
Gyllenhaal needs to head out into the snow to pick up Ramona from nursery, which brings us to the question of how to balance career with motherhood. “I’m thinking about it all the time. I love my work – I love finding a brilliant project and getting lost in it, and getting dressed up for awards ceremonies and the like – but I also love my daughter and family. And the amount of work it takes to be a mum is greater than anything else; it brings you to your knees. I can’t do all of it perfectly by any means.
“But as Emma Thompson told me, you have to let yourself drop the ball occasionally. If you don’t, some important part of you won’t survive.”
Crazy Heart is in cinemas February 18. Nanny McPhee & The Big Bang is released in Victoria on March 25 and in NSW on April 1.