Maggie Gyllenhaal: from ‘difficult’ roles to lauded Hollywood director

With a string of plaudits for portraying complex characters, the actor is now focusing her ‘quiet fire’ behind the cameras with a stunning debut film

From her breakthrough role in Secretary, wearing stilettos, a pencil skirt and manacles and attempting to operate a stapler with her chin, to her directorial debut which digs into the messy truths about motherhood, Maggie Gyllenhaal has always been attracted to what she has described as “troubled women. The ones that are a real challenge. They really need me.”

It’s a quote that really gets to the heart of what distinguishes Gyllenhaal. An Oscar-nominated actor, and now– with her Elena Ferrante adaptation The Lost Daughter – an award-winning screenwriter and director, she is drawn to the kind of women whose stories don’t usually get told. She delves into the uncomfortable angles and sharp edges of her characters and found her niche by not quite fitting into the mould.

The mould – that cookie-cutter starlet formula – was particularly entrenched when Gyllenhaal was starting out in the late 90s. And her beauty – the heart-shaped face dominated by huge ice-blue eyes, the slightly melancholy downward slant to the lips – has always felt as though it was transposed from another time. You could imagine her as a contemporary of Mary Pickford in the era of silent cinema.

As the druggie ex-con mother in Sherrybaby (2006).
As the druggie ex-con mother in Sherrybaby (2006). Photograph: Alamy

The industry fretted that she was not conventionally “hot” enough, a criticism that Gyllenhaal brazened out at the time, but which she later conceded was “a hard thing to hear”. And when it wasn’t trying to manoeuvre her into a sexpot persona, Hollywood was instead dismissing her as “quirky” – a description she firmly rejected, stating that: “Describing someone as quirky is a way of erasing them.”

Perhaps the fact that Gyllenhaal’s first major role was as Lee, the submissive office worker in Steven Shainberg’s BDSM romance Secretary, added to the industry’s confusion as to where exactly she fitted into the somewhat homogenised mainstream movie landscape. She brought an apple-cheeked sweetness to the film’s transgressive themes, a forceful emotional intelligence which diffused any potential charges of prurience that the picture might have otherwise attracted. Consequently, she threatened to blow a gasket in the Hollywood production line.

Director Laurie Collyer, who cast her as an ex-con drug user and mother in the gritty drama Sherrybaby, realised early on that one of Gyllenhaal’s major strengths as an actor was the very thing that set her apart from many of her contemporaries. In an interview to promote the release of the film, she explained: “I think celebrity culture breeds conformity and Maggie is truly nonconformist, truly finding her own way. Even just the way she dresses – I know it sounds really superficial, but it all represents something: she’s her own person.”

Maggie Gyllenhaal in Secretary (2002).
In Secretary (2002). Photograph: AA Film Archive/Alamy

Gyllenhaal was born into the movie industry, but her upbringing didn’t fit the template of the second-generation Hollywood brat. Born in New York on 16 November 1977, Margalit Ruth Gyllenhaal is the older sister of the actor Jake Gyllenhaal, and the daughter of director Stephen Gyllenhaal (Paris Trout, Family of Spies) and screenwriter and director Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal (Losing Isaiah, Bee Season, Running on Empty). She only discovered that her first name was Margalit – a nod to her mother’s Jewish heritage – rather than Maggie when she asked for her birth certificate in order to take her husband Peter Sarsgaard’s name.

She has jokingly described her parents as being somewhere to the left of Trotsky but credited them with engendering in her the political engagement which has been core to her identity. She has always maintained that, “being politically active is incredibly important to me. My parents have been politicised and radical throughout my life – they taught me that I’m a part of a global community and it’s partly my responsibility to fight for what’s right.”

Gyllenhaal’s political activities range from driving voters to the polling station in Florida, speaking out in support of the jailed whistleblower Chelsea Manning, and hosting a benefit for Pussy Riot.

Gyllenhaal on the set of The Lost Daughter, her film adapted from the Elena Ferrante novel.
Gyllenhaal on the set of The Lost Daughter, her film adapted from the Elena Ferrante novel. Photograph: PictureLux/The Hollywood Archive/Alamy

More controversially, in 2005 she took aim at US foreign policy, suggesting that the United States “is responsible in some way” for the 9/11 terror attacks. Subsequently, a Maggie Gyllenhaal fan-run website had to close comments after it was bombarded with criticism. Gyllenhaal at first doubled down, saying that “not to have the courage to ask these questions is to betray the victims of 9/11”. But later she acknowledged: “I regret what I said, but I think my intentions were good. Neither the red carpet nor an interview about a movie is the right place to talk about my politics.”

Another key lesson learned from her parents was that of the vagaries of a movie industry in which “you can be on top of the world and then the next year you can be nowhere. And then, later, you’re interesting again; and then, suddenly, you’re not. I watched that happen to them, and I watched it hurt them. I think I’m a bit armed by having seen that.”

It’s a pragmatic approach which has enabled her to be unfazed, though slightly irked, by questions assuming there is a sibling rivalry between her and Jake, whose career took off a few years before hers did with the film Donnie Darko.

Gyllenhaal’s insider’s eye view of the way the industry works – she started out in small roles in her father’s films, and appeared as Jake’s sister in Donnie Darko – also facilitated a smart balance in her own choices, weighing high-profile blockbuster-type films, like the Julia Roberts vehicle Mona Lisa Smile and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, against more daring and challenging independent projects.

Gyllenhaal in The Kindergarten Teacher (2018).
Gyllenhaal in The Kindergarten Teacher (2018). Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

Notable examples of the latter include Frank, in which Gyllenhaal played a scaldingly ill-tempered musician opposite Michael Fassbender, who was obscured throughout within a papier maché head. And then there was The Kindergarten Teacher, a profoundly uncomfortable portrait of a woman who becomes obsessed with nurturing the poetic talent of one of her six-year-old charges. Gyllenhaal enjoyed sneaking into screenings during the film’s festival run and eavesdropping on the audience’s squirming discomfort.

Television also provided Gyllenhaal with meaty opportunities, such as the sex-worker-turned-porn director Candy in The Deuce – she agreed to the role on the condition that she could serve as a producer on the project, giving her input in the writing and editing. She also won a Golden Globe for her performance in the BBC political thriller series The Honourable Woman.

What defines her as an actor, according to her friend and Honourable Woman co-star Genevieve O’Reilly, is the fact that “Maggie is naturally and confidently curious. She is unafraid to ask questions. She is a really active listener and has a gentle honesty which provokes thought and conversation.” She adds: “Maggie is someone you lean in to. You can’t help it. I think she has a quiet fire at her core that is at once warm and potent, audacious and fiercely intelligent.”

Gyllenhaal, centre, in the Julia Roberts vehicle Mona Lisa Smile (2003).
Gyllenhaal, centre, in the Julia Roberts vehicle Mona Lisa Smile (2003). Photograph: AF archive/Alamy

Gyllenhaal brings all this to bear in her superb, sinuous adaptation of The Lost Daughter. There’s an obvious kinship between Gyllenhaal and Ferrante – both are drawn to difficult, unpredictable female characters. And with what now seems to be an act of rare foresight, Ferrante granted permission for the adaptation on the condition that Gyllenhaal, and nobody else, directed it. “She said it has to be me, which I took as a real vote of confidence. I needed that at the time.”

The Lost Daughter has already made its mark on the awards circuit, picking up Best Picture, Best Screenplay, the Breakthrough Director award and the Outstanding Performance (for Olivia Colman), at the Gotham Awards.

Whether the film will achieve the same success elsewhere is less certain – it is, after all, a portrait of an “unnatural mother” (played by Colman, and as a younger woman, Jessie Buckley) which refuses to condemn her maternal failings. She’s the kind of character that conventional audiences and awards voters are likely to find challenging, ambiguous and a little bit scary. A perfect fit, then, for Maggie Gyllenhaal.


Wendy Ide

The GuardianTramp

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