Before she was nominated for an Oscar opposite Jeff Bridges in “Crazy Heart,” and before she dazzled Bruce Wayne and the Caped Crusader in “The Dark Knight,” Maggie Gyllenhaal was the darling of the low-budget, independent movie set.
We loved her in “Secretary,” “SherryBaby” and “Happy Endings.” If you’re a real student of indie films, you might even remember “Mona Lisa Smile,” “Donnie Darko” and “Cecil B. Demented.”
Jake Gyllenhaal‘s older sister likes to surprise her fans with the diversity of her roles, and now she is really surprising people by starring in a big-studio family film called “Nanny McPhee Returns,” which opens Friday.
The sequel to the 2006 hit “Nanny McPhee” was written and executive produced by Emma Thompson, who also reprises her role as the mysterious and magical nanny who drops into the lives of needy families. The unattractive nanny somehow gets better-looking as the movie progresses, without the benefit of cosmetic surgery.
Gyllenhaal, 32, plays the mother of three children trying to cope during wartime after she receives word that her husband is missing in action.
When she walks into a suite at a Los Angeles hotel, the actress is taller than one expects (5-foot-9), and her clear blue eyes are spectacular. She has a girlish, high-pitched voice, but she has a serious and thoughtful manner, as befitting a graduate of Columbia University, and a new mother. Gyllenhaal and actor husband Peter Sarsgaard‘s daughter Ramona will turn 4 in October.
ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER: What’s a nice indie actress like you doing in a family film like this?
MAGGIE GYLLENHAAL: Actually, I’ve done a lot of different kinds of movies, including big studio movies like “The Dark Knight” and “Stranger Than Fiction.” This one appealed to me primarily because of the script, which was great, and because of Emma. I wanted to be around her. As for the family movie aspect, this is that rare family movie that really respects children, and really considers what children are actually thinking about.
Q. Is that important to you now that you are a mother?
A. I think so. Because I am a mom, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about children and what they’re thinking. I think that it happens naturally. Before, I wasn’t interested in those things, and now I am. It’s not that I wanted to make a movie that my daughter could see. It’s just more appealing to me.
Q. Is the acting different in a family film than in some of the edgier films you’ve been in, or is acting just acting regardless of the genre?
A. The genre does make a difference in the way I work. For instance, in “Crazy Heart,” if you’ve done your homework and learned your lines, there are no surprises and there is no way you’re going to make a mistake. You might feel something surprising, and you might react to that emotional surprise, but there’s another person in the scene to react to what you’ve done. If you’re open to rolling with that, great work can happen. This movie is different because if you’re supposed to stand in a particular place because a vase is supposed to fall on your head for comic effect, you need to be standing in that particular place, say that particular line at that particular time, so it’s much more technical. There are so many technical beats to hit, while still playing a human being. Throw children and animals into the scene, and it becomes the most difficult acting I’ve ever done.
Q. Besides what you said before about how it respects kids, what is it that you like about this movie?
A. Along with the synchronized swimming pigs and the magic, there are real subjects being discussed in this movie, like divorce, death, war, love and struggling families. These are things that are on children’s minds. It’s a fun and funny film, but it teaches children how to be good people. And for moms, it teaches you how to manage the unmanageable, and accept that you can’t be a perfect mother all the time. If you try, it will bring you to your knees.
Q. Did you know that four years ago before your daughter was born, or is that something you’ve picked up since motherhood?
A. I didn’t know it then.
Q. Did you think motherhood would be easier than it turned out to be?
A. I just didn’t have a clue. I don’t think that’s something you can know. There’s no way to prepare for the challenges, the immense joys, the surprises, the disappointments and the shocks. Your heart just rips open. It’s amazing.
Q. Do you think you’re a better person because of it?
A. I do, but it’s hard to tell. Being a mother is such a big part of my life now.
Q. Are you a better actress because of it?
A. I am.
Q. In what way?
A. I don’t know, but I am. Of course, part of it is just getting older. I might be a better actress now because of that. From 28 to 32 are important growing years.
Q. But there must be some aspect of motherhood that you can identify as making you a better actress?
A. I think motherhood does remind you how out of control you can be. Maybe that’s it.
Q. You made your first six films with your dad (filmmaker Stephen Gyllenhaal), and I was wondering …
A. No. No. That’s not right.
Q. I’m sorry; I read that somewhere.
A. Perhaps in very small roles or walk-ons, but I would say that is inaccurate.
Q. I stand corrected, but you did appear in some of his films, and I was wondering who came to who first? Did your parents put the notion of acting in your head, or were you always interested in acting?
A. I think it’s a little of both. When you grow up in the business, you hear it talked about all the time. You meet people who love movies, and value movies. These were people who made movies well, like Debra Winger. She worked with my parents, and I admired her approach to acting very much. I learned that acting was a way of expressing yourself, and a way of viewing the world. At the same time, I always wanted to act. I can’t remember not wanting to act.
Q. There are not a lot of silly choices on your résumé. Do you think the influences of being around people who did serious work had an impact on the kind of career you wanted to have?
A. Mostly, I’ve been lucky enough to make the movies that interested me. Some of them turned out the way I had hoped, and some didn’t. I think my choices are made because I value acting, and I don’t think it’s something to take for granted. I don’t believe in doing bad work for the sake of working.
Q. You must have been offered money to do some bad work?
A. I’ve read scripts that would have made me a lot of money, but I know I wouldn’t do them well because my heart was not in it. There’s just nothing to hold on to. I’d be miserable.
Q. Money has never been a factor?
A. Oh sure, money is considered. I’m not rich. But when you do an independent film with a tiny budget, it’s a three-year commitment when you figure in helping to find a distributor, going to festivals and doing publicity, so I need to feel committed to the work. Showing up for six weeks of work on somebody else’s movie is something completely different.
Q. Is it not in your nature to appear in a big studio movie?
A. I’m not saying that. A big-studio movie can be a quality project, but it’s a different level of commitment for me. I’m not afraid to do them, but if I’m going to do an independent film, then I need to really believe in it.
Q. There must be some perks to being in a big-studio movie?
A. Of course. The more people who see you, the more offers come in.
Q. Your career has moved at what I assume is an intentionally deliberate pace. Are you satisfied with the pace of your career?
A. When “Secretary” came out, I got a lot of attention all of a sudden, and it scared me a little bit. I was a little overwhelmed. So I am happy with the pace. It’s been right for me.
Q. Were you scared because you grew up in the business, and were aware of the horror stories?
A. No, I just think it scared me because it was a lot of attention that I wasn’t used to. It’s a complicated feeling.
Q. I would think that you would be accustomed to it with your family background?
A. My parents made little independent movies. I didn’t know anything about this kind of stuff.
Q. And now?
A. I don’t feel like a babe in the woods anymore. I’ve learned a lot of things. It’s like motherhood. I didn’t know anything, and now I know a lot more.