A maverick in the world of movies, Maggie Gyllenhaal has always been at her luminous best in risque roles. And they really don’t come much more risque than her latest. She talks to Tom Shone
THE other week, Maggie Gyllenhaal went on a chat show, her first since giving birth to her second daughter. “I was much more myself than I usually allow myself to be,” she says. “There was no way I was going to be perfect or be totally witty and on it, and I wasn’t. My head was milky.
“I just went and did my job and talked about the movie and went home to my baby.”
But that is the appeal of Maggie Gyllenhaal. With her heart-shaped face, blue eyes and Cupid’s-bow lips, she has the looks of a cutie-pie from the 1920s — a Clara Bow or a Claudette Colbert. But on screen she plays women with jobs and children and bad boyfriends and bra-strap marks. She is as real as a blush, or a bruise, with the same “quality of flushed transparency” that the critic Pauline Kael saw in Debra Winger, whether playing the single mother who falls for Jeff Bridges’ booze-hound singer in Crazy Heart or Batman’s lost love in a Barbara Stanwyck-style bias-cut dress in The Dark Knight.
We are sitting in the window of a cafe in New York not far from where she lives with her husband, the actor Peter Sarsgaard. The Beatles are playing. The waiter — bewhiskered and waistcoated in best Brooklyn-hipster fashion — has just delivered two cups of coffee to our table.
“She has this authenticity, this accessibility,” says Tanya Wexler, the director of Gyllenhaal’s latest film, Hysteria, a jolly romp about the invention of the vibrator in Victorian England. In it, Gyllenhaal plays Charlotte Dalrymple, a knock-’em-dead suffragette whose father helps develop a treatment for ‘hysteria’, which involves inducing orgasm — or ‘paroxysm’ as everyone demurely calls it — in his women patients.
It may sound far-fetched, but this actually happened. “It’s shocking, and it’s funny,” says Gyllenhaal. “Women would go to the doctor and the doctor would give them an orgasm as a cure for hysteria, which was this kind of catch-all diagnosis for women in the Victorian era.” Symptoms included irritability, insomnia, sexual desire and a loss of appetite. “Probably an orgasm would help, but probably not from your doctor.”
Gyllenhaal has a high old time in the role, slamming doors and arguing with patriarchs of the medical establishment, shaming them by virtue of her own ruddy-cheeked vivacity.
“I always knew that Charlotte had to be played by a woman women love,” says Wexler. “I thought, ‘Who is Katharine Hepburn now?’ There are very few actresses who have that strength and that mettle. You know, the girl who can’t help but raise her hand in class, even though the boys are going to make fun of her. Maggie is so that. A pure beating heart.”
In person, Gyllenhaal is warm, clearly very bright and — above all — relaxed, with a dulcet, sandy voice and the low centre of gravity of someone entirely comfortable in her own skin, which may explain her ease in slipping into others’. She spoke in an English accent for the entire Hysteria shoot. (She has mastered an English accent before, for Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang, in which she played a harried mother opposite Emma Thompson’s magical nanny.) One crew member was shocked when she broke out in an American accent once filming was over: “She’s American?”
While filming, she would watch herself on the video monitor — a habit she’d picked up off Jeff Bridges during the making of Crazy Heart. “And I thought, ‘Wow, I’m a woman in this movie. I’m actually a grown-up woman.’ It was the first time I’d ever really felt that. Not a half-woman, half-girl mixture. I felt really proud. I was just about to turn 33. So when she says, ‘I’m a woman like any other,’ [to Hugh Dancy in the film's climactic courtroom scene] I could see, looking at the monitor for that second, what a complicated thing that is to be.”
The realisation is attributable, in part, to the arrival of Ramona, five, and Gloria, seven weeks, but also to the realignment of Gyllenhaal’s relationship with her own parents. They divorced three years ago after 31 years of marriage. “Obviously divorce is hard and really horrible but my mother and father have both opened and blossomed in these different ways,” she says.
Both parents are in showbusiness: her mother is a screenwriter who recently directed her first film, her father a director-turned-academic who lectures at Columbia University. Hers was a “loud, noisy, somewhat chaotic” New York upbringing with lots of parties and the occasional star in attendance — her brother Jake’s godfather was Paul Newman.
“It wasn’t like they were a quietly sad couple,” she explains. “They were very tempestuous and for a long time I felt that was what love was supposed to be like. My dad would have people over for dinner, everyone would come over and he’d be half-finished cooking and everything would be everywhere and it would be delicious and great and things would get burned but they’d be better that way, or at least that’s what we were told. That is my father — very exciting and wild and smart.”
When they were younger, Gyllenhaal used to boss her brother around, putting on a production of Cats but casting him as the cat with no lines. But it was Jake who got the headstart in Hollywood, appearing in the award-winning October Sky aged 19 and the cult hit Donnie Darko three years later.
Although she’d had walk-on parts in her father’s films, Maggie didn’t think seriously about acting until she left Columbia (where she read English) and took a lead in the 2002 indie film Secretary, for which she received a Golden Globe nomination.
Talk about an entrance. Sashaying into an office wearing heels and a pencil skirt, with her hands manacled to a steel rod stretched across her shoulders, Gyllenhaal brought a spellbinding sweetness to this tale of office sadomasochism — a straight-up love story, in her reading.
During their first spanking scene, her hands intertwined with her co-star James Spader’s, unnoticed by the camera. “So I told Steve [Shainberg, the director]. Actually, I was so young I asked James, ‘Do you think I should tell Steve this is what is happening with our hands?’ He said yes. So I told Steve, and they shot it. I think if they didn’t have that shot of our hands, the movie would be very different.”
In Secretary and later Happy Endings and Sherry-baby (which earned a second Golden Globe nomination) Gyllenhaal explores her characters’ sexuality with unique frankness, curiosity and tenderness. I ask her what she thinks of Lena Dunham’s cult television show, Girls, which comes to Sky Atlantic in the autumn and pulls off much the same trick.
“That’s the thing that I really like about that show,” she enthuses. “I think there is a history of sex scenes that are lit in these very beautiful ways and the woman is wearing a demi-bra and arching her back and it’s not something that is recognisable as any sexual experience that I’ve had.
“If you think about sex, whether it’s good sex or bad sex, whatever that means, it’s a really intense way of communicating — even if what’s communicated is that the people are incapable of connecting. That’s what I’m looking for in a role. Otherwise it’s not worth it.”
When she’s acting, she says, “you have to go, ‘OK, here’s Hugh Dancy. In what place in our hearts do we connect?’ I’m in love with Channing Tatum in my next movie [Gyllenhaal is currently filming the political thriller White House Down] — where do we connect?”
In her personal life, she is much more guarded. “It’s safer to be open like that when somebody is going to say, ‘Cut’,” she says. “Obviously there are certain relationships in my life — my husband, a couple of dearest friends, my family — I can go really deep with. But I don’t do it with everybody.”
She and Sarsgaard met at a dinner party in Los Angeles. She had just filmed Secretary and broken up with her boyfriend, a painter, in that order.
“The minute we started talking, we were immediately drawn to one another,” Sarsgaard told me when I interviewed him last year.
“In terms of who you’re going to spend your life with, I found pretty much everything I desire in a person — she’s a phenomenal actress, so hot, so intelligent — which I don’t think happens to that many people. I feel very fortunate. She’s a one-stop shop.”
The couple married in 2009 and live in Brooklyn. They have twice taken jobs together in off-Broadway productions of Chekhov. On both occasions, in Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters, they’ve played characters who have affairs with one another, allowing them to encircle one another, gaze and simmer, longingly — perfect marriage therapy, I suggest.
“Peter is the most exciting actor I’ve ever worked with in my life, hands down,” says Gyllenhaal. “So that’s sexy. You’re on the stage with him going, ‘You’re the one that I want’. Being on stage with him was wild.”
Are there downsides to acting with your spouse? She thinks carefully. “I had this idea in the beginning [of Three Sisters] that Masha and Vershinin are having the love affair of all time. And he had a different idea. And I was really angry at him. I couldn’t understand why he wasn’t adoring me and Masha in rehearsal.
“And then I realised that is a part of what this love affair is. It is really imperfect. This fantasy I had of this love affair of all time is just that, a fantasy. Every woman I know is in love with an imperfect man. That’s part of the attraction, what’s sexy about being human.
“And while I was learning this, Vershinin and Peter were getting more and more attracted to me. I was learning about my husband and I was learning about the character he was playing.”
This is the way it goes for Gyllenhaal: her roles and private life in constant conversation. “Whenever I think, ‘There’s something in there, I want to do that role,’ there’s always something in there for me to work out.”
Next up is Won’t Back Down in which she and Viola Davis play two inner-city mothers trying to set up a school. The day after we meet she is due to fly to Montreal for a costume fitting for White House Down.
Sarsgaard, meanwhile, is making a Woody Allen film in California, so she must take Gloria, Ramona and their nanny with her.
“It doesn’t get any easier,” she says — not that she has time for exasperation.
“I think when I was younger I had some fantasy of trying to do this perfectly. But I have a lot of things on my mind. I just had a baby seven weeks ago. And this is the only dress that fits me.” She looks down at her summery wraparound dress. “It is beautiful, it’s true. But it’s a good thing you didn’t see me in the other ones.”
She laughs a low, throaty laugh that says, “Here I am, for better or worse, take me or leave me.”