Maggie Gyllenhaal shot to the top of public consciousness with her unnerving performance in Secretary. Her stellar string of film work continued with Mona Lisa Smile, SherryBaby, Stranger Than Fiction, The Dark Knight and Crazy Heart.
Maggie may we talk?
SheKnows: As the maternal influence over five children on the Nanny McPhee Returns set, what was your most memorable scene with the kids?
Maggie Gyllenhaal: I like the scene, which took us five days [to shoot], which I’ve never done before, not on Dark Knight, not on Mona Lisa Smile, any of these movies, ever. Five days shooting was this scene where I come home from work and the skies are saying, “The person you need is Nanny McPhee.” I’m covered in syrup, I come home and the kids are fighting, everything’s crazy. I’m kind of hallucinating. She comes in and brings order. That whole madcap scene, that was my favorite.
SheKnows: I was told that one of the child actors cried after you set off back to America.
Maggie Gyllenhaal: They’re great kids. Also, that was part of my job to make it believable that I was a mother to them. It felt real. Also, when you’re working with kids, it’s different than grown-ups. Emma and I would be on our knees behind the camera making fart noises, or saying a line for them over and over again fifteen different ways to get different reactions from them. You get invested in them in a different way.
SheKnows: Ever get crazy like that at home for you?
Maggie Gyllenhaal: Well, I have one child. I don’t know, if I had to take care of five children alone and try to make a farm run and work at a general store, I think it would be possible to get that crazy.
SheKnows: How did you keep the energy level up for scenes like that? Five days!
Maggie Gyllenhaal: It’s hard. It’s not what comes most easily to me. The crazy hard stuff, that’s my gig. I love that. Shoot it quick, that’s my thing. This technical work is more of a challenge, but I liked it. That’s what’s difficult is how do you keep it fresh and alive.
Maggie makes it work
SheKnows: The clothes of your character were so warm with bright colors, how much input into the process did you have?
Maggie Gyllenhaal: I always input into the wardrobe, that’s how I like to work. Emma said at one point when we were talking about the wardrobe, that she thought that Mrs Green should feel like an English garden that you just want to lie down in. I agree. Then, Jacqueline Durran, who did the wardrobe, is the most collaborative wardrobe costume designer I’ve ever worked with, constantly interested in what I felt. I think that Mrs Green is somebody who does care about what she looks like and loves getting dressed up. She just doesn’t have the time to consider it. She strikes me as the type of person who is heading out and would grab a flower and just stick it in her hair [laughs]. You think about those things when you’re a mother and don’t have time to spend too much time on your clothes. I, personally, always have a hair band on my wrist in case I, or my daughter needs it. I think Mrs Green has those kinds of things, you know, when you reach in your pocket and pull out a bag of cheerios [laughs]. How did this get there? Oh yeah, I remember [laughs].
SheKnows: The mud looked like it was everywhere on the Nanny McPhee Returns set, was it ever simply too much [laughs]?
Maggie Gyllenhaal: I’ll tell you a funny story. In the flashback scene where I’m in the wedding dress, we were shooting it and I guess someone from props was trying to be helpful and put down a yoga mat because I was going to have to step out of this horse drawn carriage into the mud. My husband was going to carry me out from the mud into the house so I wouldn’t get dirty. So, I come out of the carriage and I stepped on it and slipped. I completely bit it in this wedding dress in the mud. It was a tiny little flashback, so we only had one wedding dress.
SheKnows: Oh my…
Maggie Gyllenhaal: Yes! It was the first take with this dress and this yoga mat killed it. We made it work. I liked the mud. It was kind of a funny challenge. It makes everything funnier.
Maggie Gyllenhaal goes UK
SheKnows: Your English accent was impeccable. Where did it come from?
Maggie Gyllenhaal: At first I thought I wanted to sound like Susanna [White, the director] who has a beautiful accent. She has a beautiful English accent, which is difficult for me to hear what they hear – the class that’s in the accent. I think that Mrs Green is someone who grew up pretty wealthy in the city and moved to the country. So she shouldn’t sound really posh, but a little bit. In the end, it was just the accent that came to me. I don’t know why.
SheKnows: Working with Rhys Ifans, this was a unique role for him as your brother-in-law trying to steal the farm. How did you find Rhys?
Maggie Gyllenhaal: Most of my work in the movie was with the children, five children ranging in age from five-and-a-half to 13 and animals and pretend animals [laughs] — working on real scenes that required proper acting. Emma’s script is no joke. I would be driving these huge dialogue scenes with kids and animals and that was most of my experience in the movie and it was fun. But, it was hard. Then, one day, I get to work, deep into the filming of the movie, to shoot this scene with Rhys. They were going to shoot it all in one take, us walking down a road trying to get me to sell the farm. They’re just going to follow us doing the scene. It has to be done perfectly. Like in Crazy Heart, for example, there is no such thing as perfect in that movie. If you’ve done your work and respond to the other person, anything can happen. In a movie like this, if you have to have a vase fall on your head because it’s funny and need to say this line, you need to be standing in one spot so the vase can fall on your head. So, it’s a different kind of technical work. So, I get to work to do the scene with Rhys, and I’m used to all these other scenes, not with grown-ups, and we start to do the scene and it was like awesome! It was like, “You’re a grown-up! You’re an expert.” It was super fun [laughs]. We couldn’t make a mistake.
SheKnows: Now sharing screen time with legend Maggie Smith must have been a treasure. Or, were you intimidated at all by her?
Maggie Gyllenhaal: I heard that Maggie doesn’t suffer fools gladly and could be scary. I was really scared to work with her. Thank God she likes me! She’d say amazing things. I heard her on the phone talking to her son after work one day. I could tell he said on the other line, “What time are you going to be home?” She said, “Oh, I don’t know. How long is a piece of string?” [Laughs] She literally did tell stories like the how now brown cow stories. Those were amazing.
SheKnows: Emma seemed to get a lot of her friends to join the cast. As one of the lone Americans in the film, how were you embraced by these UK acting legends?
Maggie Gyllenhaal: Am I the only American? Wow.
SheKnows: Yes, you are.
Maggie Gyllenhaal: You know, it felt very English — the whole thing [laughs]. The way Emma was with Peter, my husband, she was so thankful to him for giving me to her for months. She thanked Peter for staying and taking care of Ramona. Thank you, thank you. She felt that part of her job was to take care of me and make me comfortable. I didn’t need that, but I appreciated it. I like English people. My family has shot a lot in England. We did Dark Knight in London and Peter did An Education there, then we did Nanny McPhee there for four months. We’re going back in the fall. We’re used to it in some ways, it really is different. I don’t think I realized as clearly until I was halfway through this movie how true it is, the cultural differences. I think for the most part, you do have to do some translating. The same behavior doesn’t mean the same thing as it does here. Another thing, I got much more quick witted. That’s really a muscle you work there. That’s part of being American too, part of being socially agile here. But, it’s really everywhere there and if you can’t keep up, you can’t have a conversation. I remember thinking that the back part of my brain, the witty part, got a real workout [laughs].
SheKnows: How do you see Nanny McPhee Returns? Is it solely a children’s movie?
Maggie Gyllenhaal: It’s definitely a film for children, but extremely gratifying for adults. I cried watching it. I felt it was so true. I’m interested in what entertains children’s minds. I probably wasn’t as interested until I had one [laughs]. I think that is what is so special about it is it really is appealing to anyone that is a human being.