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.
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