Show business friendships tend to be fleeting ones: Thrown together on location, working intense 12-hour days, actors can connect deeply, and then, poof — their work done, they’re on to the next project, the friendship a fond but hazy memory.
Not so with Emma Thompson and Maggie Gyllenhaal. The stars met five years ago, on location for Stranger Than Fiction, the quirky romantic comedy they starred in with Will Ferrell, and they have been friends ever since. In the past few years, both have pursued remarkable careers — Thompson reprising her role as Professor Trelawney in the Harry Potter series, among other roles; Gyllenhaal earning an Oscar nomination for Crazy Heart — while nurturing their equally involving personal lives. Both are married to actors and pride themselves on being very hands-on parents.
Their most recent collaboration is Nanny McPhee & the Big Bang, opening this month, which Emma — who won an Oscar for her screenplay for Sense and Sensibility — wrote, produced, and costars in. (It’s a sequel to her 2005 hit Nanny McPhee, about a remarkably homely, formidable but kind caregiver.) Emma admits that she had her pal Maggie firmly in mind while writing the script.
We sat down with the pair recently and listened in as they shared some surprising ideas about marriage, mommyhood, and work — and where exactly a woman’s priorities really lie.
GH: Emma, what was your first impression of Maggie? Did you sense that you might become friends?
Emma: I just thought, “What an interesting person; I can’t wait to have a proper conversation.”
Maggie: And we did really quickly have a proper conversation. We had a couple of teas and lunches. And then a couple of years later, we were in London again, when Peter [Sarsgaard, her husband] was working, and Ramona [their daughter, age 3 1/2] and I were just hanging out together. It was a rainy, cold March, and Emma invited us over for lunch.
Emma: I understand what it’s like to come with your family, and to uproot yourself and come to another culture. You need a lot of support. People…say, “She’s got her daughter; she’s got her husband.” Yeah, but she hasn’t got anyone else.
Maggie: Do you remember? Ramona was all dressed—
Emma: The entire child looked like she had been knitted by hand.
Maggie: Not by me! [They both laugh.]
GH: What did you talk about when you were getting to know each other?
Maggie: We talked about kind of everything. We got down to the bone — we really did make friends that way.
Emma: You were a young, young mum. And I remember saying to you, “It’s really hard, and don’t let anyone tell you that it isn’t.”
GH: Show business friendships are often pretty brief. But you’re real friends, and I assume that’s because you really do admire each other. Emma, what’s the quality you most admire in Maggie?
Emma: Not being all about how she looks. A lot of very beautiful women can be a pain because all they’re thinking about is how they look. Maggie’s not trammeled with all of that. She’s very beautiful, but there’s nothing spoiled about her.
GH: How about you, Maggie? You’ve said that you want to be Emma when you grow up.
Maggie: What I meant was that Emma is a grown-up. I’m 32, and I’m realizing how much of me is not a grown-up…. And I don’t say that because she is perfectly organized and makes everything function perfectly, but because of a much deeper sense she has of herself in the world. And I admire that and I hope to be like that.
Emma: I do think that despite my best efforts to resist it, I am now a grown-up. It’s due to lots of very difficult decisions that you make over a long period of time — about motherhood, wifehood, and work, and all the things that one has to make decisions about. And not being as involved in yourself as you were…. I’m 51, so I have a very, very different perspective.
I certainly wasn’t grown up at 32. One is a child when one has a child. No one says, “You will never be the same again.” Which is the truth! And we’re all supposed to be happy all the time. What is that about? Why have we lost contact with the possibility of saying, “Do you know what? I can’t do that. Sorry, I can’t manage that as well.”
Maggie: Emma gave me the best piece of advice, and I’m happy to share it. I had one day on the set [of Nanny McPhee & the Big Bang] when I was overwhelmed. I was a newlywed, I had a 2-year-old…I had quite a long scene with five children and animals, and I remember cracking a little bit. You’re not allowed to fall completely apart when you’re carrying a movie; you’re a professional — but I did one day, just a little bit. Nobody knew but Emma, and she said, “Mags, you have got to allow yourself to drop the ball, because nobody can keep all those balls in the air.”
Emma: I don’t want your readers ever to think they have to have it all. I think that’s a revolting concept. It’s so false! Sometimes you’ll have some things, and sometimes you’ll have other things. And you do not need it all at once; it’s not good for you. You can’t be a great mom and work the whole time necessarily; those two things aren’t ideal. We have an awful lot to work on and to debate about in relation to our working lives, because it isn’t working for a lot of people, particularly for a lot of women….
The only way you can have it all is by delegating all the running of the home to other people — which I don’t ever want to do, nor does Mags. So you do it yourself, and it takes time and energy and effort. And if you give it the time, it’s profoundly enjoyable.
Maggie: I do care about my home feeling warm and clean and loving and welcoming, and that takes a lot of work. I mean, I had no idea how much work that takes. I am just getting above water on that.
When I was pregnant, we bought a four-story brownstone — we’d been living in this little apartment. I didn’t know what I was taking on; I didn’t know how to manage it at all. I got this book called Home Comforts, about the basics of housekeeping and homemaking. And I am fascinated by it. How there’s a marketing day — or a day when you do the big shop — and another when you do a little shop. And organizing all the meals for the week. And truly how if you’re organized, how different your life is.
I’m not naturally organized, but I’m getting there. Being a mother has absolutely forced me. You have to write things down and have systems for all of it. And then you set up systems and you realize they don’t work. [Laughs.] That’s the stage I’m in now: “I set up all the systems! Why isn’t this working?” And then you have to change them.
GH: Emma, what’s your approach to housekeeping?
Emma: We all do the washing up and the clearing up and the cooking — that’s all part of life, and that’s a pleasure. And I do love folding the wash and putting it away. I do the housekeeping in Scotland [where she has a country house] — but it’s very rustic. I have the smallest kitchen, and I have to keep it very, very clean.
Maggie: I was just teaching Ramona her first chore. It’s just carrying her little plate to the trash, scraping off the food, and putting it into the dishwasher.
Maggie: You know what I told her? I said, “When you go to other people’s houses, you’ll start to put your dish in the dishwasher and they’ll say, ‘Oh, no no no, don’t do that.’ Do it anyway.” We went to dinner at these other people’s house, and we started to put our dishes in the dishwasher, and they said that, and she said, “MAAAAAA!” I said, “See? People always say that. It doesn’t mean they don’t want you to put it in the dishwasher.”
GH: What are the parenting rules you really won’t budge on?
Emma: Only fight the really important battles. Sometimes be a bit naughty and anarchic. Surprise them. Stress the value and bliss of sleep.
Maggie: We don’t hit; I say, “In our family, we don’t hit.” But Ramona isn’t a challenge that way. She’s always been really verbal and able to express herself well, and we’re pretty verbal too, so we can have conversations.
GH: Neither of you has a regular nanny, and both of you spend a lot of time with your daughters. What have you been up to with your girls lately?
Emma: We have “hair salon” once a week in our bathroom. And I go in to my daughter’s school; I’ve done two productions with her. One year, they wanted to do the history of the world, which turned out to start with Slime — it was a musical, that was the first number — then went to Cavemen; then after that it went straight to the Plague, an interesting thing. Then Victorians, then Global Warming and Drowning, and then Aliens. And then the Aliens turning back into Slime. It was very good, lots of very good lyrics. I really did love doing it.
GH: Maggie, what do you like doing with Ramona? Any favorite games?
Maggie: I am playful, although I don’t believe it’s the mother’s job to be constantly entertaining her child. There’s something nice about just coexisting — just to be with her, take her on errands.
We get our nails done at the nail place on the corner, and that’s nice. I didn’t do that kind of thing much with my mother; she didn’t wear makeup or high heels; she didn’t, you know, moisturize. My mother [Naomi Foner, a producer and an award-winning screenwriter] was interested in political things. The joy of femininity wasn’t something she stressed. But all those feminine things can be wonderful, and I have really enjoyed finding all that stuff on my own. It’s nice to watch your mother sitting at a vanity. I do that. I almost never wear makeup, but sometimes when I’m going out I’ll do more, and my daughter loves watching.
GH: Now, how do you and your husbands, who are also actors, divide up child-care responsibilities?
Emma: Well, we’re mostly around, so it’s either me or Greg [Wise, her husband] who picks up Gaia [their daughter, age 10] from school. And we take turns working.
Maggie: In our case, it has to be me more — for me, [a mother has] a different kind of connection to a child. The mother is the one who carried the baby around inside her. There’s something undeniable about that.
GH: Can you each describe your husband in two or three words?
Emma: Exceptional, sensuous, and overactive. I love my husband’s face — and his Donald Duck impression.
Maggie: I’m terrible at this sort of thing; I can’t do it. The big thing is we’re able to talk to each other, which I think is pretty remarkable, to shift things and change things when we need to, and we care enough about each other to try to do that. That’s an amazing thing about him. He’s better at that than I am.
Also, Emma, you kind of gave me the idea that a part of my life, a part of my mind, has to be devoted to my husband. My mother’s generation has been bucking against that. But I’ve just been finding so much pleasure in sacrificing sometimes for my husband — going to where he’s working and tidying up his trailer because he couldn’t manage to do it, and bringing him things that will make him feel better, and being a wife in a more classical way. It feels really right to me.
GH: Do you have date nights, or is that hard to manage?
Maggie: At this point it’s not that hard. Our daughter’s 3 1/2, we don’t have another child yet, so I definitely cherish this little bit of freedom we have at the moment. We don’t leave her alone [with a sitter] hardly ever overnight — but we go out to dinner, we see friends. But we usually put her to sleep first.
GH: How about you, Emma?
Emma: We’re not big goer-outers.
GH: How about family rituals — what are yours?
Emma: Tickling Dad — he’s very ticklish. Oh, and cards in front of the fire, books in bed…
Maggie: A lot of our rituals are around food. We all have breakfast together, and dinner.
GH: What role does faith play in your family life? Maggie, I read that you celebrated Christmas this year with food from a Jewish deli.
Maggie: [laughs] Yeah. I’m half Jewish and half Christian. I identify more as Jewish. My mom’s Jewish, and so all the Jewish cultural heritage got handed down to me. And I think of Ramona as half Jewish and half Catholic. Peter’s Catholic, and he takes it pretty seriously, in his way. That doesn’t mean he goes to church all the time. It’s something deeper inside him. So we mix it up. I have my Jewish grandmother’s bowls, and I know how to make chicken soup in a way that Jewish mothers make it, and we have Passover seder. Ramona’s really interested in all that right now.
Emma: I was brought up within the Christian tradition, [but] I had a fairly secular upbringing. The guiding moral principles, the ethical principles, much of the philosophy, if properly applied, is very good. And I love Christmas. I know all the carols and all the songs, and Greg used to sing in the choir, so in spite of our secularism, we observe the Christmas tradition. And we talk about the [Christmas] story. It’s a very great story, and I grew up with it. It’s very interesting and full of metaphor.
GH: You’re both incredibly busy. What do you each do for yourselves?
Emma: Do you know what I’ve taken to doing? Walking. I love it. But if I have to get somewhere quickly, I take the Tube [subway]…. I do Pilates. I read, see friends. I lie about, staring into space.
Maggie: I do yoga, which is actually a big chunk of time — it’s two and a half hours to myself. I’ve been doing yoga for a while, and I’m good at it, so it gives me pleasure.
I like to cook. I put Ramona to sleep, put on an album, measure everything out, put it in bowls. I used to cook the way my parents cooked: They’d have a dinner party, and they’d still be cooking when their friends came over. When I cook that way, I have a terrible time. I can manage making salad when I have people over — anything else, I just can’t manage it. My brother [actor Jake Gyllenhaal] is an incredible chef, a really gifted chef, and he can cook that way. I can’t do all those things at once!
GH: Any favorite recipes?
Maggie: I’ll give you one that’s so easy: Buy salmon steaks; put lemon juice, olive oil, and lots of sea salt in a cup; whisk it up; pour it over the salmon steaks; and put them on Broil on each side for five minutes. They are foolproof. I have a rice cooker, so I put some rice in it, steam some broccoli, and it’s a beautiful dinner. It takes 20 minutes.
GH: Emma, how about you?
Maggie: How about Yorkshire pudding?
Emma: That’s the best! Well, you have to have Yorkshire pudding tins [popover pans]. And you’ll need 1 1/2 cups of flour, 3/4 cup each of milk and water, and 4 eggs, all mixed up into a batter dough. Then get your beef drippings [they accompany roast beef], and you put a dot into each pan. And when you’ve taken the beef out and it’s sitting, you put your tins in and wait until the fat is smoking, take them out, quickly put in a ladleful of Yorkshire pudding mix, and straight back in for about 25 minutes at the highest-temperature oven (475 degrees). It fills the kitchen with blue smoke. You’ll have to open the door and the window and go, “Smoke! Smoke coming through!” It makes an event, you know.
GH: That sounds like fun, in a terrifying sort of way. Now, since you’re such good friends, maybe we could end by talking about the importance of friends in your lives.
Emma: Girlfriends are vital, aren’t they?
Maggie: It’s a totally different relationship from a husband or someone in your family. And I think it’s pretty unusual when you’re a grown-up to make friends. I have a couple of girlfriends that I make a really big effort to see consistently, and we go and have dinner and drink some wine and talk. I have one girlfriend who lives in Brooklyn near me, and we do that once a week if I’m here.
Emma: And Maggie and I will always see each other when Maggie’s in London or I’m here. We’ll always make time to sit and catch up properly. As long as you get a good couple of hours of dinner or lunch…. Even though we don’t have a long history, I would still ring you up in the middle of the night and say, “Maggie, I really need your help; just talk to me now.”
Maggie: So would I.
Emma: And that’s very unusual. So expect a call at about 4 a.m.