Looking back at Maggie Gyllenhaal's early career
Maggie Gyllenhaal used to be a girl who never said no. To an acting role, that is. She auditioned all the time and would take whatever she could get, no matter how small the part. “I think I got pretty good at taking something that was about nothing, and infusing it with a little bit of life.” Having got used to working this way, it came as a shock when her daring performance in Secretary, as a self-harmer who finds happiness through S&M, suddenly produced a deluge of offers. “I very quickly had to learn how to choose what it was I wanted to do,” she recalls.
Almost overnight, Gyllenhaal became the queen of indie cinema. Her next film, the soft-centred Julia Roberts vehicle Mona Lisa Smile, therefore looked like a bizarre choice. Gyllenhaal, now 27, explains that she auditioned for the film before Secretary was released. Even so, she was allowed to do what has become her forte, and turn Giselle, a bed-hopping student at a stiflingly conservative all-female college in the 1950s, from a traditional “bad girl” into something more complex and morally ambiguous.
“That part was very different on the page,” she recalls. “It was like the character was so remorseful that she was sleeping with everybody, and oh God, she needs to cry at the end. I tried to make it someone who was enjoying her life and make no judgment about her. Just little switches you can do to make something a little bit better.”
Gyllenhaal pulls off a similar trick in Criminal, a remake of the Argentine con movie Nine Queens, released next month. She plays Valerie, a hotel receptionist whose brother (played by John C. Reilly) is trying to cheat her out of the family fortune. The director, Gregory Jacobs, wanted her to play the femme fatale, but Gyllenhaal’s instincts took her somewhere completely different.
“Whatever happens just kind of comes out of me,” she reveals. “I don’t make conscious choices. What I realised is that Valerie is performing the role of a femme fatale. That is not really an accurate depiction of any woman; it’s kind of a fantasy. What I liked is the ways I kept failing at it and I’d get angry or upset. You know, ‘These f****** shoes are killing me!’ That stuff was the most interesting to me, and the most accurately feminine as opposed to the male fantasy of it.”
Directors have not always found her easy to work with. “I suppose as long as they want to communicate it’s fine, but there are many who don’t, who think that what you do with a young woman is tell her to stand over there and look pretty. I can’t do that.”
Others, such as Tony Kushner, who worked with Gyllenhaal on production changes to the play Homebody/Kabul, adore her: “An actor like Maggie,” he says, “has a deep aversion to doing anything false and will say: ‘I don’t get this, what is this?’ She’s not intimidated by me or anyone.”
Some simply find Gyllenhaal confusing. She recently auditioned for a “big movie” and the director had no idea what the actress was doing. In fact, she recalls candidly, he thought she was terrible. “I said: ‘Look, neither of us is going to have a good time on this if we don’t understand each other, so let’s be really totally honest: I don’t want to do it in this boring way. Are you interested in doing it in this other way?’ And he was like: ‘No’ .”
Don Roos (The Opposite of Sex), Gyllenhaal’s director on last month’s quirky Sundance opener Happy Endings, was more accommodating. On paper, her role as a woman who sleeps with a gay man and then falls in love with his father was another “bad girl”. Gyllenhaal, though, “dared” herself to think of her as enriching both men’s lives, and Roos went along for the ride. “I think most directors would have said: ‘You ‘re supposed to be tough in this way and soft in this way.’ And I’m saying: ‘No, no, no, I’m soft in this way and tough in this way’. ” She adds: “I want to challenge the people watching (my films) to look at their life and question their ethics.”
If Gyllenhaal is at all bothered about losing work because of her desire to pursue her own vision, she does not let on. And because she gives herself 100 per cent, dangerously merging her own feelings with those of her character, it is perhaps for the best. While this approach produces authentic performances, making Shall Not Want, in which she plays a mother trying to rebuild her relationship with her daughter after serving three years in jail, has made her ambivalent about melding reality and fiction.
Though normally unfazed by sex and nudity (as is evident in Secretary), there were a couple of sex scenes in Shall Not Want which seemed fine while she was doing them, but when she got home she said to herself: “ ‘I’m never going to do another love scene again. I don’t like it. I’m acting like I’m so strong about it but I’m really not.’ And then I thought: ‘Well that’s because it was awful stuff happening to this girl.’ The way I work, what’s happening in the movie is indistinguishable from what’s happening inside of me.”
She looks down and picks at the huge toasted cheese sandwich that’s just been placed in front of her. “You know,” she says, fixing me with her big aquamarine eyes, “I get really thrilled by that kind of blurring of boundaries when I’m working, but I don’t know that it’s necessarily good for me. I am actually only just starting to recover from having made that movie.”
This blurring of the divide between self and character was partly what led to Gyllenhaal’s break-up with her long-term artist boyfriend during the making of Secretary, though one imagines it has been good news for her present beau, the actor Peter Sarsgaard. “I learnt that there are all these cultural ideas of what love should be, what it should look like, what sex should look like, what relationships should look like, what they should feel like, and I think a lot of young people especially try to fit themselves into those fantasies. I now think the much wiser thing to do is to say: ‘It looks like how it looks to me. It feels how it feels to me. And whether that’s OK with everybody is not important’. ” Crikey!
Gyllenhaal’s daring has not always impressed her family, well versed though they are in the ways of Hollywood. Her father is the director Stephen Gyllenhaal (Paris Trout), her mother the screenwriter Naomi Foner (Oscar-nominated for Running on Empty), and her younger, and until recently more famous, brother is Jake Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko, The Day After Tomorrow). All tried to dissuade her from going full-frontal in Secretary. Jake famously turned down the role filled by Michael Pitt in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, allegedly because of concerns over the nudity. Maggie sympathises with her sibling, suggesting that directors are not always as careful with men as with women. “I’m not sure that what (Pitt) did in that movie wasn’t verging on gratuitous. It’s so hard to know when you’re an actor, but he was so exposed, and I wasn’t sure exactly to what end.”
Gyllenhaal made sure she did not fall into a similar trap with her last two films in typically individual fashion. Most actresses’ contracts contain either a strict no-nudity clause or one specifying precisely which parts of their body can be shot. Gyllenhaal’s gave directors carte blanche — however, it gave her the last word on what went into the final edit.
“It’s like the perfect nudity contract,” she bubbles, “because if you’re having sex with somebody in a scene, you’re not thinking: ‘I don’t want you to see my breast . . .’ But if it ends up being a terrible movie and it’s put together in a way that feels exploitative, then I have the power to say: ‘Sorry, you can’t use any of that’ .”
You can bet she exercises it, too.
Originally published in The Times, 2005