WHEN Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard started coming to the Classic Stage Company in the East Village a few weeks ago to begin rehearsals for Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” they were surprised, marginally flattered and mildly annoyed to find that a phalanx of paparazzi had staked out the theater, flashbulbs at the ready.
Then they learned that Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, who had taken up residence nearby, were regular visitors to the coffee shop in the theater’s lobby and were the photographers’ true quarries.
“They actually had nothing to do with us,” Mr. Sarsgaard said with an embarrassed laugh during a recent interview.
“But,” Ms. Gyllenhaal added, “they were like, ‘All right, as long as you’re here.’ ”
“Two for the price of one,” Mr. Sarsgaard said. “Awesome.”
In the constellation of couples who fascinate and transfix — Tom and Katie, Brad and Angelina, Matthew and Sarah Jessica — Peter and Maggie are minor lights, their appeal driven not by exotic trappings (private planes, bodyguards, baby photos for sale) but by career paths and indie credentials that have defined them as actors first, boldface names third or fifth.
When Maggie Gyllenhaal was announced as one of the stars of Classic Stage Company’s Uncle Vanya, you had to wonder: Would she portray the alluring Yelena or the plain Sonya? It’s a testament to her talent that she could easily step into either part. At once an indie darling and a mainstream movie star with an offbeat beauty that has earned her modeling contracts and snarky online insults, Gyllenhaal, 31, has no problem transforming herself to suit a character, even if it means putting vanity on hold. For Vanya, however, she will be playing up her glamorous side as Yelena, the attractive but idle object of affection for a trio of men, including doctor-cum-environmentalist Astrov, played by Gyllenhaal’s real-life partner, Peter Sarsgaard. It’s her first time tackling Chekhov and only her second New York stage appearance after 2004’s Homebody/Kabul, but if the actor is nervous, it doesn’t show.
In recent years, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s heartbreakingly intuitive film performances and gawky beauty have catapulted her onto Hollywood’s A-list. She also has the honor of being one of Babble’s most-searched celebs, thanks largely to the many photographs of her breastfeeding her daughter — Ramona, now two years old — in public. Although we imagine that the paparazzi weren’t a welcome addition to feeding time, Gyllenhaal’s “my-kid’s-hungry-photographers-be-damned” attitude — not to mention her obvious joy at bonding with her daughter — earned her wide admiration among mothers everywhere. Recently, Gyllenhaal was on hand at Fisher Price’s unveiling of their new “Precious Planet” line, to present a check from Fisher Price to the Wildlife Conservation Society — a cause she feels strongly about supporting. Babble spoke to the Batman: The Dark Knight star about navigating subways with a toddler, sleep training, and her valiant effort to split parenting duties equally with her husband, actor Peter Sarsgaard. — Gwynne Watkins
You were talking about how important it is for kids to connect with nature through the zoos and parks when they live in the city. What has your overall experience of raising your daughter in the city been like?
There are things that are great. Like, I imagine that if I were living in the country, it would be very difficult to meet other kids, to meet other mothers. I think it’s easier in Brooklyn. We live pretty near Prospect Park, and when we go to the big meadow in Prospect Park and just let her go, she’s so happy. But I have trouble with, “Oh, don’t pick that up, that’s digusting! No, you can’t put that snow in your mouth, you can only put this snow over here in your mouth!” I don’t like that.
When Maggie Gyllenhaal grins, you don’t just see it, you feel it. Perhaps that’s why Duracell picked the movie actress to be the celebrity spokesperson for its fund-raising initiative “Power a Smile.” The concept’s simple: For every photo of a child showing off pearly whites uploaded to the site this holiday season, Duracell will donate $1 to Mattel Children’s Hospital UCLA. Looking trim and chic (despite the beginnings of a cold), Gyllenhaal kicked off the campaign with the help of five young ambassadors, who helped her wrap presents to bring to kids spending the season in the hospital. Afterward, the two-time Golden Globe nominee chatted with Time Out Kids about her most important role: playing mom to her two-year-old Ramona.
Why did you decide to become involved with this particular charity?
I’ve been fortunate enough not to be in too many hospitals so far in my life. I have been in some, sometimes with children, and it’s always really difficult. Now that I have a child, I feel so much more interested in making sure that all children are as happy as they can be. Since I’m lucky enough to have the time and the freedom to help people—particularly children–who need it, I think I have to do it.
You were born in New York City but grew up in California. Do you feel strongly about raising Ramona in the Big Apple?
No! [Laughs] That’s a terrible thing to say to you, right? My boyfriend [actor Peter Sarsgaard] and I are leaning toward maybe getting out of here…in a few years. We’d love to move to the country. But there are wonderful things about being in the city. It’s really easy to get your kid together with other kids. We go to Music for Aardvarks and dance class. We have all these little things we do in Brooklyn that we love, and Ramona can run around with the other children. And just the other day, we read in Time Out Kids, actually, that Elizabeth Mitchell was singing so we caught the train and went to see her at the last minute. There’s so much to do.
So what’s the downside of raising her here?
While the city’s great when you’re older, with a two-year-old I definitely feel like I’m stopping her every minute and saying, “Don’t pick up that cigarette butt! You know that’s disgusting!” instead of just letting her be a little freer, like I imagine we could if we lived in the country. Also, if I can rant for a moment, I do not understand how I’m expected to take the subway with a two-year-old alone! It’s so hard. My subway station closes its gates and the attendant leaves on the weekend, and I have to fold up my stroller, pick up Ramona and go through one of those little circular things. I mean I’m thinking of…if I had another child I don’t know how I would do it. I know that there are many women who have more than one kid and have to do it. I just don’t know how they make it work! Why can’t the subway be made more child-friendly? I’m a big fan of public transportation, but it’s just so hard.
Have you started looking into schools for your daughter?
Yes. And while we’re not totally freaking out, I have spent a lot of time thinking about schools for her. I would say I spent my entire fall, really, researching which schools I wanted to apply to for her. I put more energy into that than almost anything I can think of recently.
You’ve managed to continue your busy movie career since your daughter was born. Have you ever thought about quitting and becoming a stay-at-home mom?
No, I don’t think I could do that, but do I think about things in a completely different way now that I’m a mom. I have to make all sorts of sacrifices, and sometimes there are sacrifices I don’t want to make but that I have to make because I’m a mother. Like there was a project I wanted to do but I didn’t have a nanny [at the time], so I had to let it go. Then there’s the other side of it, where I’ll read a bunch of scripts that are not even close to good enough for me to justify being away from Ramona all day, whereas before, I’d read a script and think, Yeah this is kind of interesting, I’ll give it a shot. Now it has to be amazing.
I remember reading a story about the paparazzi hounding you as you went into labor and a few days after you gave birth. What’s your worst experience with shutterbugs involving your daughter?
You know, I kind of got told to stop talking about [the paparazzi]. I thought that it was helping things to say, “Look at this awful thing that’s happening!” But I think it actually kind of feeds the drama and I would rather not do that. It’s gotten much better since we moved to Brooklyn anyway. The photographers don’t really care about us enough to cross the bridge