FROM her breakthrough role in the stylish sadomasochism drama Secretary to the grimly gripping Batman sequel, The Dark Knight, Maggie Gyllenhaal has proved time and again she’s got a keen eye for a critical hit.
But good taste is apparently not genetic.
“My daughter loves these Cinderella and Rapunzel books which someone gave us,” she says of Ramona, her three-year-old daughter with actor husband Peter Sarsgaard (An Education). The couple married in Italy in May last year.
“I hate reading them to her. They’re modern retellings and they’re not about anything. But it’s a complicated one – it’s up to her what she wants to read before she goes to sleep.”
At home – a brownstone in low-key Brooklyn, worlds away from the grand Beverly Hills hotel suite in Los Angeles where we meet – Disney cartoons aren’t normally allowed.
“But when she sees them, she loves them,” sighs the New York-born but LA-raised actor.
“She’s hook, line and sinker. She loves pink and sparkles, my high heeled shoes and make-up. It’s OK. You’ve got to pick your battles. But I do think it’s important to think about the movies that our kids watch, and what those stories are saying.”
The lack of good stories for kids is one of the reasons she signed up for her latest film, Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang. Set during World War II, it’s a sequel to the children’s film starring and written by Emma Thompson.
Gyllenhaal plays Mrs Green, a harried working mother left to look after a farm and three rowdy kids while her husband (played by Rhys Ifans, The Boat That Rocked) is off at war. Thompson plays Nanny McPhee, the magical nanny who appears when she’s wanted the least and needed the most.
Despite a nearly two-decade age gap – Gyllenhaal is 32, Thompson, 50, – they are now firm friends.
“I really do admire her,” she says. “She said to me the other day that I understood what she was saying before she’d finished a sentence. It’s really true.”
Thompson gave her some acting advice while they were filming.
“I told her afterwards, if another actor had done that, I would have felt like, f— you!” she laughs. “But because it was Emma, I was like, ‘Yes, anything you want!’ ”
The latest Nanny McPhee is a sweet, funny film with plenty of positive messages. In other words, compared with the rest of Gyllenhaal’s CV, it sticks out like a sore thumb. But suggest that it’s a surprisingly uncontroversial choice for her, and she bristles.
“It is sort of conventional, but it’s also witty and smart, and full of love,” she says, tucking a foot under herself as she warms to the subject.
“And I think there’s something very modern about it. I love the fact that Mrs Green is dropping the ball when the movie starts – she’s got a bird’s nest in her hair and she’s having a hard time. But she’s still the heroine.
“It’s pretty new that women feel solid enough in the fact that they’re entitled to be both professional women and mothers that they can stop saying, ‘I can do it all perfectly’.
“All my friends who are mothers say it’s hard. I can’t keep all the balls in the air perfectly. It’s not possible. And that’s OK.
“I was full of fantasies about parenting. My biggest misconception was that I could do it perfectly. But it’s designed to challenge you. No matter what you’ve done in your life, you’ll be a beginner when you have a child.
“I didn’t understand that. You’re constantly presented with things that there’s no way to be great at, because she changes all the time, and I’m constantly at that beginning stage again. I’ve never been good at that. It’s great for me to keep facing that over and over again.”
Gyllenhaal also liked the fact that it’s a wartime film made in a time of war – and aimed at kids.
“Absolutely,” she nods. “There’s lots in it for adults, but it’s really for the children, and those who have a parent away.” Shot in the English countryside during the northern hemisphere’s last summer, the film gave her and Sarsgaard the chance to spend their first months as newlyweds together, despite being a couple since 2002.
They were married in a small chapel in Italy on May 2 last year with her actor brother, Jake, in attendance accompanied by his then girlfriend, Reese Witherspoon.
Jake and Reese’s break-up was followed by the divorce of Gyllenhaal’s parents on Christmas Eve.
Her mother, screenwriter Naomi Foner, and father, director Stephen Gyllenhaal (Maggie’s feature film debut at age 15 was in films,Waterland in 1992, A Dangerous Woman (1993) and Homegrown (1998) that were directed by him) had been married for 32 years, and thanks to their children’s fame, the news of their break-up made headlines on celebrity gossip site TMZ.com.
Today, Gyllenhaal brushes off questions about it, although at a recent event she presented an award to the cast of post-divorce sex comedy flick It’s Complicated and reportedly mentioned her own parents, joking that, “I don’t think (they’re) sleeping together any more”.
“I’m definitely a supporter of civil liberties, but the paparazzi go way overboard,” she says.
“They love people’s infants and pregnant people, which is so unfortunate, because when you have an infant, it’s the last thing you want.”
She’s speaking from personal experience. They used to live in the star-packed West Village, where other residents include Sarah Jessica Parker and Julianne Moore.
On the day she went into labour with Ramona, their house was surrounded by “frenzied” photographers. The move out of Manhattan was partly to escape that (“they’ve relaxed a lot on us”).
But it might not have been far enough. A visit to the ocean-side Santa Barbara home of Jeff Bridges, her co-star in the critically acclaimed film Crazy Heart, got her thinking.
“It’s tough raising a young kid in New York. But northern California . . . I really love it up there,” she sighs.
LA would be in easy reach for meetings, but “you don’t have to be around any of it. What a nice way to live”.
Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang opens in cinemas on Thursday.