alking to Maggie Gyllenhaal can be a little disorienting. She has a high-pitched, cartoonish voice, which she uses to express deep things. One critic memorably said that she possessed a “Kewpie-doll silliness”, but clearly it’s a flaw in our culture that we expect serious thoughts to be couched in sonorous tones. “We live in a masculine world,” she says, “and in America – especially very recently – as much as we would like to believe otherwise, it’s a misogynistic world.”
The 41-year-old, Oscar-nominated for Crazy Heart (2009) and so mesmerising in BBC2’s thriller The Honourable Woman (2014), is explaining the difficulties women encounter in clearly expressing something feminine in art. “It’s not impossible, and it certainly happens,” she says, “but I think just because something is written by a woman, or directed by a woman, that doesn’t necessarily make it feminine – because the context that we’re in is fundamentally masculine.”
From childhood, she continues, women have to develop a way to relate to stories where “the main character, the most interesting character, is a man. Every once in a while, I’ve come across things that didn’t require it. I keep thinking of being 15, and seeing The Piano and being very deeply struck by it. I’m still in the process of thinking about what it means to make something that’s feminine.”
We meet in a hotel in London’s Mayfair to discuss her new film The Kindergarten Teacher. She’s dressed in a dark tailored suit; her hair is cropped. Those enormous blue eyes, capable of conveying both hardened resolve and a kind of bruised melancholy, haven’t been dimmed by a long-haul flight.
She says she’s “particularly proud” of The Kindergarten Teacher, which she also produced. A remake of a 2014 Israeli film, developed almost entirely by women, it’s a psychodrama rippling with moral ambiguity. As Lisa, a preschool instructor who forms an intense relationship with an unusually poetic five-year-old, Gyllenhaal scratches away with subtle gestures to suggest an intellectual dissatisfaction nudging into desperation. Is Lisa truly nurturing the boy’s talent, or just using it to elevate her own humdrum existence?
Far from being your usual story of an inspirational teacher, the film is a dark exercise in obsession, a gripping allegory about what happens when an artistic mind is starved of stimulus. “I loved the feeling when it showed at Sundance [Film Festival], where people went in expecting one thing and the rug was pulled out from under them,” says Gyllenhaal, laughing. “The film is truthful and hard to sit with, but that’s the intention.”
Gyllenhaal seems to have a fondness for films that are hard to sit with. While she has shown up in big studio fare such as The Dark Knight (2008) and Mona Lisa Smile (2003), the actor has spent much of her career making independent work – often dramas about complex and discomfiting subjects. Spot the laughs in her drug-addicted ex-con in 2006’s heartbreaking Sherrybaby, or her fractured Israeli-British heiress in The Honourable Woman, or her savvy prostitute-turned-porn-director in HBO’s The Deuce (2017-present). She also has a knack, best exhibited in the S&M satire Secretary (2002) and the tragicomic fable Frank (2014), for adding weight and nuance to characters who might otherwise have been written off as simply “quirky”.
Although she has gained considerable clout in Hollywood by now, the process of getting there wasn’t easy. When she was younger, she auditioned for “this really bad movie with vampires”, she told The Hollywood Reporter. “I wore a dress to the audition that I thought was really hot. Then I was told I wasn’t hot enough.” More recently, Gyllenhaal – who is married to fellow actor Peter Sarsgaard, with whom she has two daughters – was told by a producer that, at 37, she was “too old” to play the lover of a 55-year-old man. So be it, she says – she is “happier with” her recent work than anything she’s done before. “Right now,” she explains, “I’ve been trusting my instinct about what jobs to take and it’s been really serving me well. But I’ve had to go through some painful learning. That’s the way life works – you have to go through hard, dark times to keep learning and ultimately keep moving forward.”
Gyllenhaal is voluble and expansive but occasionally checks herself, as if an abort switch has been triggered. For instance, she’s done plenty of films where she has thought, “Oh wow, I’m not proud of that”, but when I ask her to list them she shuts down. She just tells herself, “That [film] was a mistake and here’s what I learnt from it and the product itself is not what is valuable about that”.
One thing she doesn’t consider a mistake is working with James Franco on The Deuce, the gritty Seventies dawn-of-the-porn-industry drama. Franco, who plays twin brothers on the show, has been accused by a number of women of sexual misconduct. Even though he has denied the allegations, Gyllenhaal says that the show’s producers – of which she is one – took them very seriously, asking all the female cast and crew if they were comfortable still working with him. They were.
Emily Meade, who plays a budding porn star, had a separate concern, however – shooting the sex scenes. As a result, and in the wake of #MeToo, The Deuce became the first HBO show to require a female “intimacy coordinator”, who ensured that the actors never felt uneasy on set. Given that the drama, at heart, is about misogyny and inequality in the entertainment industry, it also helped that seven out of eight directors on series two were women. “It’s different dealing with sexuality when a woman is at the helm,” says Gyllenhaal. “If you’re trying to articulate something about a feminine experience of sexuality, it’s nice to have the eyes on you. It’s like having a comrade when it’s a woman.”
Gyllenhaal, a leading figure in the Time’s Up movement against sexual harassment and gender inequality, says there has been progress within the industry. “For a long time, women behind the camera have been shut out, certainly, but I’ve seen over the past maybe 10 years so many women who are working as a first assistant camera, and I’m just anticipating all of them graduating to become cinematographers – and that will really change film-making.” Yet, she continues, “the money is lagging. That always happens – artists and culture move faster than the money, always. We did not have enough money making The Kindergarten Teacher, not by half, and yet we were a group of women and we were like, ‘OK, we never expected to have enough money, we’re used to that, this is how we do it’, and we just made it happen.”
Should male actors help lead the charge by taking pay cuts? “Mmm, yes,” she says with a wry smile. “But there are lots of different ways to help. HBO, for example, gave me a raise for The Deuce so that I would have pay parity with James Franco. If you have a big company with power and money like HBO, making a decision like that makes it very difficult for other competing companies not to do the same.”
Although reticent about discussing her younger brother Jake, with whom she co-starred in the 2002 cult favourite Donnie Darko, Gyllenhaal says she does compare her on-set experiences with him. “I have to be more considerate,” she explains. “I would see a cut of an episode on The Deuce and would then spend hours perfectly composing the email that I wanted to send with my notes attached. I’d think, does my brother have to do this? Probably not – he’d just pop off an email, you know what I mean?”
She is just as vehement on politics as on film. Born in Manhattan’s Lower East Side to director Stephen Gyllenhaal and screenwriter Naomi Foner, she was raised to be a liberal democrat and fight for what’s right. In 2005, she risked national vituperation when she said that the United States “is responsible in some way” for the 9/11 attacks. She hasn’t changed her tack since Donald Trump’s election, and also frequently calls out the president for his chauvinistic rhetoric. Last October, she was, in her own words, “heartbroken” when Brett Kavanaugh was sworn in as Supreme Court Justice, despite Christine Blasey Ford telling Congress that she believed Kavanaugh was going to rape her at a party three decades ago.
Gyllenhaal was quoted as saying that Ford’s testimony “lacked performance”. Does she think women are punished for not performing in a way that’s expected of them? “Mmm, I don’t know,” she says. “To me it felt like people were very struck by her lack of performance, because that isn’t what we’re used to seeing. It felt so truthful in a moment where I think we’re really lacking truthfulness, and I think both sides agree about that. You hear the far right saying all of the media is fake, and then you know our president just shamelessly lies to us all the time. So to see somebody stand up and say, ‘I’m terrified, but what happened was deeply not OK’ was... well, it had a real impact on me.”
Gyllenhaal isn’t planning on acting in her next project, an adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter, which she intends to be her directorial debut. Still, she wouldn’t have picked the career if she didn’t also believe in the potency of performance.
“My playwright friend sent me this Anne Carson quote the other day and it just knocked my socks off,” says Gyllenhaal. “It’s this quote from a foreword of her translation of some Greek tragedies by Euripides. She says that, ‘There is a theory that watching unbearable stories about other people lost in grief and rage is good for you... Do you want to go down to the pits of yourself all alone? Not much. What if an actor could do it for you? Isn’t that why they are called actors? They act for you. You sacrifice them to action’. Basically, it’s an actor’s job to help you work through something painful without you having to destroy your own life.”
The Kindergarten Teacher is released in UK cinemas on Friday 8 March
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