Maggie Gyllenhaal: Scones and S&M

Maggie Gyllenhaal's kinky role in Secretary has turned her into a hot property. But, as the 25-year-old actress tells Charlotte O'Sullivan, it's been one long battle for control
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The Independent Culture

At her London hotel, Maggie Gyllenhaal has just been asked what she'd like to eat. "I'm fantasising," she purrs, "about scones."

At her London hotel, Maggie Gyllenhaal has just been asked what she'd like to eat. "I'm fantasising," she purrs, "about scones." Naturally, I fear the worst. In her new film, Secretary, she plays a timid young typist, Lee Holloway, who, thanks to her handsome older boss, Mr Grey, discovers the joys of S&M. It's actually more complicated than that, but with a poster that shows a prone, miniskirted bum above long, high-heeled legs, this black comedy definitely has its nudge-nudge aspect. Hitherto, the 25-year-old Gyllenhaal was best known for being sister to the hairier Jake (the two acted together in the acclaimed Donnie Darko). Since Secretary, she has been anointed the extreme queen of indieland. I imagine the stream of male journalists eager to talk about the spanking, and the crawling on all fours, and the full-frontal nudity... Maybe, vis-à-vis the scones, she's testing her powers of suggestiveness. If anyone can make British teatime sound kinky, it's Maggie.

In fact, I've got it all wrong. Exhausted (she flew in overnight) and hungry (she couldn't eat a thing at lunch), it would be more accurate to say that she's hallucinating about scones. And now that I look more closely at her outfit – stripy summer dress and flat sandals – she isn't remotely slinky. The look is more ingénue, circa 1955. Luckily, that's a feint, too. Gyllenhaal, with her saucer-shaped, light-blue eyes, may be perky (and this is when she's tired). What she isn't, is winsome or coy. She's not out to seduce. She's not out to beguile. Phew.

Gyllenhaal, bouncing on to the sofa on which I'm already perched, starts to describe the Secretary shoot. This is, to put it mildly, quite an involved tale, and key to it all is her relationship with James Spader, the blond, weakly pretty star of Sex, Lies, and Videotape and Crash. The way she tells it, the behind-the-scenes antics were as charged and gamey as anything that goes on between Lee and Edward Grey.

Let me explain. When Lee goes to work for Mr Grey (Spader), she's drowning, not waving. Fresh out of a psychiatric hospital, she cuts and burns herself when she's miserable which, given her father's drinking problem, is all the time. Mr Grey takes a paternal interest and insists that she stop "the cutting", then starts punishing her himself. Lee, being a masochist, adores this, and when his attention strays, grabs it back; only for the plot to take another crazy-golf turn when he masturbates against her as she bends over his desk (the film's bleakest and best scene). We've become familiar with Red Riding Hood types who are fascinated by lupine men (Blue Velvet, Catherine Breillat's Romance, The Company of Wolves). The difference here is the meltdown experienced by the wolf in the face of Red's furious appetite for love...

But back to Gyllenhaal and Spader. She'd never seen Crash, or any of his teen movies. All she knew was that he often did "intense... and sexual stuff". In person, however, he made a big impression: "When I met him, I was immediately in love with him!" Apparently, he has a very formal way of talking. "After we'd done our first reading together, he said, with like ellipses between each word, 'Steve [Shainberg, the director], I think you've hired the – most – wonderful – actress!' So you know, he really endeared himself to me." She rolls her eyes. "I remember him saying, right before we started shooting, 'I always have one ally on a movie set. And this time, it's you!'"

She became his new best friend. "He'd just dote on me. He'd do things like get a PA to come to my door – we shared a split trailer – and she'd say, 'James wants you.'" She pulls a wry face. "And I'd like walk the two steps over to James's and knock on his door and he'd say [she drops her voice and stares into my eyes], 'Would you like a chocolate?'" This was no covert operation. "Sometimes, he'd come on set and say [she throws out her arm and puts on a ludicrously grand voice], 'Who can I talk to about getting a very expensive box of chocolates in my room?'" Chocolates, I say, to tempt little girls with. "Exactly!" She cries. "In fact, he used them that way and I let him! I was like, OK, this feels good..."

But, just as easily, his mood could change. "Other times," she says, "he would not give me the time of day, and it was really devastating, you know. I'd be [she adopts a soft, bewildered voice], what is wrong with James today? He's not paying me any mind." She snorts. "And he'd be like doting over the make-up artist."

It all sounds very confusing. She nods. "It was re-enacting what was going on in the film. I don't think it was conscious for me, but I think it was for him. He'd thought it through." She smoothes the cushions some more. "And he did this other thing, which was kind of extraordinary. He really kept his private life away from me. So I didn't have his phone number. I didn't know his kids' names... and it actually made it safer for me. The boundaries were so clear, they were like..." she grins ruefully, "brick walls. So that intimacy we had on set, I didn't feel it was going to bleed into my life."

What's striking, though, is how much real feeling did bleed into the mix, and is still there. She remembers holding his hand during a scene (where the cameras couldn't see) when he was having trouble remembering his lines. Her eyes sparkle: "He was really struggling... he wasn't with me, and all I wanted was for him to be with me, so I held his hand. And it was really cool, because I felt him be moved by me, by my doing that." She also admits to being hurt by an interview they did, once the film was out. "He said, 'The only person I was interested in on that set was Lee Holloway.'" She gulps at the memory. "I was like, 'What the fuck does that mean?' I felt sort of dismissed by that." A big sigh. "But then I said to myself, well, that was me. In his mind, in some ways, there's no distinction. And in my mind, too."

I wonder aloud how all these psycho-dynamics affected the rest of the crew. She says Shainberg was thrilled. "I mean, me and him had our own little club, too – we used to go off in a corner and make fun of James!" She looks at me, thoughtfully. "I wonder if Steven was cultivating that. Cultivating my relationship with James, cultivating my relationship with him, being like a master director." Her eyes widen. "Which would be great. I love that stuff! I love the idea that there's a director I can trust enough to let them manipulate me."

I think she's being a little disingenuous. Gyllenhaal goes on to talk about a running joke between herself and Shainberg, which had her as "the perfect indie actress who was like, just, gonna be so badass and do everything". In fact, she was more than willing to challenge his authority. She and Shainberg wrangled over everything, including the poster (she lost that battle, she thinks it's dumb and sexist); the nudity (apart from one bath scene, she feels she wasn't taken advantage of); the lines (on the whole, she won). "You know," she says, chuckling, "I learnt things from him, but I think he learnt from me, too." I press her for an example, and she says: "Oh, this is a silly one, but I remember for this scene where Lee masturbates in a bathroom, he said, 'OK, so you'll sit down on the toilet.' And I was like, 'What! How could you masturbate that way?'" She laughs. "It was sort of like, he didn't know..."

The 40-year-old Shainberg was obviously taken with his young star, and willing to treat her as an equal. But this didn't go down well with all of the cast. In fact, Lesley Ann Warren (who plays Lee's mother) was very put out. "She was just so jealous, so paranoid," says Gyllenhaal, with a stricken look. "I watched the dailies and I went to her later and said, 'You were great,' and somehow she took it into her head that I hated her in the film and was going to get her edited out of it! I kept trying to be nice, but she was such a bitch, in the end I gave up." She takes a deep breath. "Doing the scenes with Lee's family – that was hard. But the family's supposed to be forced and covered and fake, so..." she shrugs, doubtfully, "in a way, maybe it worked."

There's a knock at the door; it's the scones. Gyllenhaal falls on the plate, piles on the cream and jam, then, with long, delicate fingers, proceeds to wolf them down. "It's OK," she says, "I'll keep talking."

Secretary has changed everything for Gyllenhaal. She was raised in LA – her father is a director (Paris Trout), her mother a writer (Oscar-nominated for Running on Empty). After finishing a degree in literature at Columbia University, she landed a few small parts. Then came Secretary, released in the US in September of last year, which pushed her, if not into the A-league, then certainly the B+ (she's just shot two films, one with John Sayles, the other with Julia Roberts).

Along the way, this "little" movie managed to shake up something else. A few months after the Secretary shoot, she decided to leave LA for New York. She also broke up with her artist boyfriend of five years, "because he and I got stuck in this fantasy of what it's supposed to feel like to love and be loved". So, he didn't mind, I ask, hopefully. Gyllenhaal waves this away. "No, I mean, I think he did, but it was a good thing for me to do." She has a new boyfriend now. "I've realised that it's what makes me happy that's important. People play out roles without realising it. Now I feel like we're [she corrects herself], I'm trying to identify when I am, too, and acknowledge it."

She admits, however, that life post-Secretary has its downside. She was appalled by a journalist who told her he'd watched a tape of Secretary with a male friend, who said: "Let's fast-forward to the sexy parts." She shivers. "He was talking to me, and I felt all of a sudden, this person has seen me naked... At the time, I just went, OK, and let the interview continue. Now, if somebody said that to me, I think I'd confront them. Maybe now I would..." She bites her lip: "Stop [the interview]."

At this point, her very New Yorky agent bustles into the room. Gyllenhaal goes on to say how useful her parents have been – especially her mum Naomi, who's advised her to do less press. A dry aside from the agent: "Thanks, Naomi!" "This stuff is scaring me," continues Gyllenhaal. "But I have some control, I should use it."

She'd much rather be at home, she says, doing her dishes, or making her bed before she goes out. "I think a made bed is so much nicer to get into than an un-made one, don't you?" I think with horror of the rumpled mess waiting at home. Then we all troop down the corridor. "So I'll read that script..." says Gyllenhaal. "No," says the agent, "first we need to sort out your flight." "Oh God," groans Gyllenhaal, "I'm so tired." And off she trots, determined to make all her sweet dreams come true.

'Secretary' opens on 16 May