It’s not a great stretch to imagine Maggie Gyllenhaal in a film with sexual overtones.
After all, she first came to the attention of many of us with her weirdly smoldering performance in “Secretary.” Now she’s co-starring in “Hysteria,” a film about the events, in late-19th century London, that led to the invention of the vibrator.
Gyllenhaal had no trouble imagining it, or taking part in it. At a recent interview about “Hysteria,” she said, in her husky voice, “A lot of the movies I make have a lot to do with sexuality, because I’m interested in sexuality, and so is everybody else. I think that, for example, a sex scene can be like a soft core porn-looking thing, or it can be an amazing opportunity for a different kind of acting and communicating, which is what it can be in real life, too. I don’t know if porn speaks to that, but there are a lot of movies that do offer an opportunity to see what’s in a woman’s mind, sexually.”
Oddly, Gyllenhaal doesn’t have any sex scenes in “Hysteria.” The dramatic comedy focuses on a doctor and his associate (Jonathan Pryce and Hugh Dancy), who cater to women suffering from what science has since proved to be the imaginary disorder called hysteria – a condition that, in the based-on-fact story, could only be dealt with successfully by inducing utterly non-sexual orgasms in the doctors’ office.
Gyllenhaal plays the Pryce character’s daughter, a rowdy, outspoken woman who’s an early purveyor of women’s liberation.
“I really liked the character,” she said. “I also thought the script was great, and I was interested in how the vibrator was invented. That’s how it is with me. I’ll read something, and sometimes it’ll just pull me in and I’ll think I really have to do that. That’s how I felt about this when I read it.”
Though she appeared to be totally relaxed talking about the film, she admitted that it’s not all that easy when discussing it with friends.
“When I tell people what the movie is about, and try to think of what words to use,” she said, with a giggle, “that catches me up a little.
“We shot my scenes first and then I left, but we were all wondering, ‘How are you gonna do that?’” she added, referring to sequences where middle-aged Victorian women are eagerly climbing onto examination tables and doctors are literally warming up their hands. “We were all blushing and giggling about what these women were doing. I don’t think people talk about it very much and I think it does still make us kind of flushed and uncomfortable.”
But Gyllenhaal admitted that the situation presented in the film is both outrageous and kind of ridiculous when looking at it from a contemporary point of view. She then pointed out that she was referring to her character – Charlotte’s – political stances.
“The things Charlotte says are very simple, politically,” she explained. “They’re things that we all know now, and can all agree with, like women are equal. Nothing she says is radical now. So I wanted those simple political things to be like the life in her body. I wanted her to be excited and happy and overwhelmed with a passion for those things, as opposed to didactic. I wanted her to be like a dervish, like a wild person who could have been from anytime. But because of the perspective of the movie, which is a comedy, I felt that she could be sort of a magical person in the way she said the things she says.”
Asked what her husband, Peter Sarsgaard (who’s about to play the pornographer Chuck Traynor in the film “Lovelace”), thought of her being in this film, she said, “We’re both actors, and we’ve done two plays together. Being onstage with him, night after night, we both realized that we respect each other, and we think very similarly about our work. As far as this movie, he’s not a husband who would say, ‘Oh, you can’t make a movie about a vibrator, or don’t take your clothes off.’ I don’t think he would have married me,” she added, laughing.
Then another thought came to her.
“People with vibrator stores kept sending us vibrators while we were making ‘Hysteria.’ By the time I finished the movie I had been sent about 15 vibrators. It was the beginning of a pleasant surprise.”