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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.
Actress Maggie Gyllenhaal may be best known for playing Bruce Wayne’s love interest in “The Dark Knight” or earning an Oscar nomination for her role in “Crazy Heart.” But the Columbia-educated Gyllenhaal — recently dubbed “the ultimate hipster actress” by syndicated columnist Naomi Schaefer Riley — is also known for her social activism, including a stint as host of the PBS documentary series “Independent Lens.”
In her new film “Won’t Back Down,” Gyllenhaal plays a mother who fights to improve the public school her daughter attends. The plot of “Won’t Back Down” centers on parents and teachers teaming up to take over a failing school by invoking a “trigger law.” Although that particular circumstance has not played out fully anywhere in the U.S., some grass-roots parents’ groups in places like California are attempting to invoke trigger laws and seize control of failing schools.
“Won’t Back Down” will be released Sept. 28, and the film’s trailer is playing in theaters. Gyllenhaal recently spoke with the Deseret News about her passion for education issues.
Deseret News: In the context of “Won’t Back Down,” what are your thoughts about public education in America?
Maggie Gyllenhaal: I think if you live in a democracy, which we do, that it’s incredibly important to have an educated electorate. Because otherwise, how do you choose your leaders? It ends up being based on the sort of feeling they give you, or what their hair looks like, as opposed to really taking the time to think about and analyze their policies. And of course whoever our leaders are is so incredibly important.
I’ve always thought even before I had kids, which I do now, that education was a fundamental part of having a functional democracy and really important. What I’ve been learning is that in many, many, many places in this country, it isn’t working in the way that it needs to be.
DN: You mention your kids. (Gyllenhaal and her husband have two daughters, ages 5 years and 5 months, respectively.) How has having kids affected the way you’ve looked at education?
MG: Before I had children, it was all theoretical — or it was about my education or the way that I had been educated, and the things that worked for me and didn’t. And now I’ve got children around me all the time and I see their little minds and how they work and how easy it is to engage them, and then sometimes how incredibly difficult it is and how it takes somebody who is really trained as an excellent teacher to help. I guess the simple answer is, it’s just not theoretical anymore. I’ve got my heart in it, as opposed to just my brain.
DN: How relevant do you think “Won’t Back Down” is to ongoing efforts at reforming and improving public education?
MG: I guess for me the movie is a little bit like a fairy tale. It’s not ultra realistic in style or even in terms of the story that it tells. It’s meant to inspire; it’s meant to inspire a conversation. I don’t think it’s necessarily meant to be a model of exactly how to change the educational system. But I think it’s meant to be about the real truth that we can change things — that one person, two people can really change. I think it is our responsibility when we see things going on in our community and our lives that we believe are fundamentally not right, or not functioning in the way that they ought to be, to try to do something about it.
And sometimes it feels like too much and it feels like we’ve got all these other things going on in our lives or it feels like we’re never going to be able to make a difference, and I think part of what this movie is saying is, “You can.” It’s not just these kind of superhero people. It can be anyone — and it’s people who are really flawed just like we are, who aren’t perfect parents.
DN: What are some of the questions do you hope people will be asking each other after they’ve seen this film?
MG: A couple things. One is, “Are you satisfied with the way your children are being educated?” And then — because basically it’s always going to be a class issue on some level, some people who are going to be able to pay to educate their kids, or they’re going to be able to live in districts that are much better funded — the question after that is, “Are you satisfied with the way that most children in America are being educated, and what could you do about it even if you’re okay with the way your kid is being educated? What kind of responsibility do you feel like you have to change it?”
Maggie Gyllenhaal is most comfortable playing complicated, flawed women, whether in her break-out role in the dark sex comedy “Secretary” or even reprising the part of Rachel Dawes in “The Dark Knight.” So when she was asked to play the determined single mother willing to take on the public school bureaucracy in “Won’t Back Down,” she was up for it only if she could make the character human and relatable.
“I didn’t want to tell the story of someone who does something heroic, who is immediately identifiable as an exceptional, remarkable, heroic person when she starts,” said Gyllenhaal, who turns the role of single mother Jamie Fitzpatrick into a harried, disorganized woman who often has time only to feed her daughter pop tarts for breakfast before rushing her off to school. “I wanted many people to be able to relate to the possibility of doing something heroic. I also wanted her to be really flawed as a mother, and by that I mean like any other mother, trying to manage as best she can, making mistakes, sometimes being able to think about them and sometimes not.”
Playing such a character required a lot of conversations with Daniel Barnz, the co-writer and director, throughout the film’s 10-week shoot in Pittsburgh.
“It’s funny how everyone gets concerned when you are playing a heroine in a big movie that you be really relatable and likable,” said Gyllenhaal, who is just returning to work after her second maternity leave. “All the way through, it was a fine line to walk.”
Gyllenhaal stars opposite Viola Davis, who plays a beleaguered teacher at the same elementary school that Gyllenhaal’s character’s daughter attends. Together, the two women must go up against a resistant faculty, a resigned group of parents and an entrenched school board to take over the failing institution. Though the film isn’t based on any one true story, poor-performing schools around the country are experiencing similar public advocacy.
Set to bow on Sept. 28, “Won’t Back Down” is reminiscent of such populist, issue-driven films as the Julia Roberts-starrer “Erin Brockovich” and the 1979 Oscar winner “Norma Rae.” Gyllenhaal recognizes that although the issues on this one are different, the same challenges remain: “In this movie, you had to find the emotional life within the politics.”
At a point when sadomasochism is being explored in the best-selling novel Fifty Shades Of Grey, the Hollywood actress is now starring in yet another risqué film. She plays a women’s rights activist in Hysteria, a romantic comedy out next month about the invention of the vibrator.
Maggie, 34, who is married to Swedish actor Peter Sarsgaard and has two young daughters, told GARTH PEARCE how much she admires her mother.
“MY mum Naomi taught me that protection of her daughter, at all costs, is what counts.
“She was always ferocious against anyone who attacked me. It went on even to my adulthood.
“When I appeared in the film Secretary, with its strong sadomasochistic themes, she could have been horrified.
“But she ended up protecting me against Gloria Steinem (the American feminist) who wrote in the New York Times that the movie glorified pornography. She wrote back, defending it.
“My mum came from an older generation of feminists and had moved forward in a way in which Gloria Steinem had not.
“That does not mean to say she let me go into the movie without questions being asked.
“She was very wary of the director of Secretary and asked me: “What the f*** is going on?”
“But she respected that I wanted to keep the content of that film to myself. Unlike my brother, Jake, (Brokeback Mountain star Jake Gyllenhaal) who invites all his friends to visit his movie sets, I can’t stand having anyone I know around when I am acting. It would not — and does not — feel right.
“My mother wrote scripts (she was Oscar-nominated for Running On Empty) and my father, Stephen, directed films.
“So they both know the problems with films which focus on sex — and were concerned for me. When my mum watched Secretary, which is a complicated, hard movie, she did so while giving me total support. That meant everything.
“She is not puritanical, nor has she ever given me a lecture on morals. She came with me to the film’s launch at the Deauville Festival in France and met the director, Steven Shainberg.
“Her attitude was: “This guy is the first to give my daughter a chance and he’s going to be a friend of mine.”
“I had been turned down for parts in the past because I was not conventionally pretty or sexy enough.
“I remained tough on the outside and would say things like, “You must have a boring idea of what beautiful or sexy is.”
“On the inside, of course, that’s a tough thing to hear.
“It was my mum who convinced me I was both pretty and sexy so I had the strength to deal with those criticisms.
“She had also taught me that Hollywood is not glamorous. It can be wonderful but it can also be hurtful and tough.
“This is why I am probably more interested in political issues (Maggie campaigns for human rights) and enjoy working for charities. My career took off after Secretary. With Hysteria, it’s about the invention of a sex toy in Victorian England which was used by doctors on women. It is controversial but also fun and historically accurate.
“I was not shocked. Don’t forget the script for Secretary was sent to me by my agent with a note which warned: “You might be appalled.”
“I read it and saw my boss had to smack my bare bottom in one scene. So that really did concentrate the mind.
“Mum did not judge us when we were growing up. She had an artistic approach to life, which I admire. It made me feel relaxed about love. I found that being in love was important to me. I always felt happier when in love.
“I had the same boyfriend for five years before Secretary came out in 2002.
“I think we were involved in a young way, fantasising about what it was like to be in love and trying to live up to it.
“I had great times, too, when I was single and searching.
“I did not find many people who I was interested in, to be honest. Only a couple captured me, in the sense that I wanted to know more about them.
“My husband? We met at a dinner party. He did not know who I was but I knew his work a little bit. It was love at first sight, for me. I just wanted to be alone with him.
“As for being a mother myself, I will support and protect my girls as my own mum did with myself. I have been set a fine example.”
From the outside looking in, Maggie Gyllenhaal thought she could pick a perfect parent out of a crowd.
“I used to be judgmental of the way other people would parent,” the actress, 34, shares in Scholastic Parent & Child‘s August/September issue.
“I would look at someone talking on a cell phone while her baby was asleep in a stroller and think, ‘How can that mother have her cell phone out?’”
But shortly after the birth of daughter Ramona in 2006, as a new member of the motherhood club, Gyllenhaal found her perceptions on parenting suddenly shifting.
“Then you actually have a baby and you’re like, ‘She’s sleeping; I have 10 minutes; I’ll make three phone calls,” she says.
“I think so much of my judgment — not only about how people parent, but about people in general — went away when I became a mom.”
Aside from her newfound approach toward other mothers, Gyllenhaal — who in addition to Ramona, 5½, is also mom to daughter Gloria Ray, 4 months, with husband Peter Sarsgaard — also came to a realization regarding her own parenting powers.
“I was 28 when Ramona was born, and I had this idea that I think a lot of people in their twenties have, that I was supposed to do it perfectly. At least, if not perfectly, then exceptionally well,” she admits.
“I’ve realized that that isn’t possible and that part of being a human is making mistakes — and making lots of them.”
And while Gyllenhaal understands “the element of parenting where you have to be a mom and say no,” she is thoroughly enjoying her blossoming relationship with her mini-me, Ramona.
“The fun part is being with this little person and learning about the world and listening to her questions,” she explains.
“She comes and runs errands with me and we make it fun. When we talk, she talks like a person. She knows the words that she needs. She’ll ask me if she doesn’t. I like that.”
An advocate for a strong education — it’s “one of the most important gifts you can give your kids,” she states — the Won’t Back Down star is looking forward to her daughters’ intellectual futures … with one exception!
“Besides literature, I liked history. I had trouble with math, though,” Gyllenhaal admits.
“I kind of faked my way through it. I don’t know how I’m going to help my daughters with it when the time comes.”
Following Warner Bros.’ move to push Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby from this December to next summer, Sony Pictures has also moved up Roland Emmerich’s White House Down more than four months from November 1, 2013 to June 28, 2013.
20th Century Fox’s The Internship and Universal’s R.I.P.D. are also scheduled for June 28.
White House Down stars Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Woods, Richard Jenkins and Joey King and concerns a para-military takeover of the White House.
The film has a similar theme as Antoine Fuqua’s Olympus Has Fallen, starring Aaron Eckhart and Gerard Butler. That project is about an ex-Secret Service agent who must defend the White House from terrorists, so Sony might be trying to hit theaters first.