Maggie Gyllenhaal: Acting for self-discovery

HAVING just watched Maggie Gyllenhaal play a cut-glass accented British peer in The Honourable Woman, the eight-part international TV mini-series which launches next month, it’s disconcerting when the Los Angeles-raised actor talks to me in her native stateside drawl.

Scene from The Honourable Woman. Picture: BBC
Scene from The Honourable Woman. Picture: BBC

“The accent? Oh yeah, I have done an English accent quite a few times now. I did it for Nanny McPhee Returns and Hysteria – I was very proud of them – and two plays early on. For The Honourable Woman I had just given another actor my dialect coach’s details, then a week later got sent this script. I thought, ‘Oh f***, what’ll I do?’ So I had a new person, but she was brilliant. She said, ‘You know how to do an English accent, you’ve done it before, now just relax.’ And the fact that she was a woman and slightly older than me, it just went into my bones. That was Nessa [her character] and that’s the way she talks.”

Gyllenhaal has an obvious advantage, having studied at RADA after graduating with a degree in English literature from New York Columbia University.

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“Yes, but it was just for a summer programme, and at the end of it they sat us all down and said you may not say you went to RADA, so I don’t. But it was great.”

During the filming of The Honourable Woman, Gyllenhaal worked on the accent by keeping it up at all times on set, whether or not the cameras were rolling.

“All day long I talked in an English accent so I could practise, and it meant people could say, ‘We don’t say it like that’. Also there’s a real range of how people speak, so there isn’t always a correct way. As long as you have a rhythm and sense of it, people buy it.”

People will buy Gyllenhaal as Nessa Stein, the thirtysomething daughter of a Zionist arms procurer whose assassination she witnesses as a child, because from the opening sequence she makes the role her own and delivers a character study within a political thriller. Inheriting her father’s company, Nessa switches its purpose to laying data cables between Israel and the West Bank and kicks off an international imbroglio. Written and directed by Bafta-award winning Hugo Blick, and set in the UK and Middle East with a cast that includes Stephen Rea, Andrew Buchan, Lindsay Duncan and Katherine Parkinson (The IT Crowd, Sherlock) and Lubna Azabal (Incendies, Occupation, Paradise Now), the thriller deals with family, politics, global business and allegiances, Whitehall, Washington, MI6, the CIA, the personal and the political. Most of all, it poses the question who do you trust?

“I’m very proud of this piece,” says Gyllenhaal. “The process of making it taught me so much about myself and how I feel about myself in the world. If no-one liked it or understood it, there’s a part of me that really wouldn’t have minded. We have gained something already from the process of making it. Something in me has shifted by working on it. The most exciting thing is to play someone learning something, and to learn something yourself, rather than seeing an actor pretending to learn. And from the screenings in Cannes, which went great, people seem to have got something out of it too.”

Nessa gave Gyllenhaal an insight into herself and the chance to explore a character of multiple complexities and shades of grey – something that playing Batman’s girlfriend in The Dark Knight, albeit her most commercially successful film to date, perhaps didn’t allow.

“I have never read a script that provided the possibility to play such a complicated, fully rounded woman. She is somebody coming to terms with who she is; perverse, powerful, graceful, intelligent, uncompromising, and at the same time there’s an ocean of things she hasn’t been forced to explore that, as the show goes on, explode inside her. She starts sleeping with strangers in stairwells… she’s a heightened version because the scope of the story is a Greek tragedy, but she’s like all of those powerful women, a massive combination of things and infinite possibilities. She cracks up and becomes more human.

“I relate to that. My thirties so far have been about that experience. Of course my circumstances are very different, but I understood it. Nessa is performing herself, and I didn’t understand how much I was performing my own life until I did this show.”

It would seem obvious for an actress to describe her life as a series of performances, but Gyllenhaal isn’t referring to treading the boards or acting on screen, she means performing in a wider, more metaphysical sense.

“It’s true for most human beings. It’s about the move towards being who you are and accepting the spectrum of feelings included in being a human being. That’s a scary thing to do, and that’s our journey. A lot of human beings are working on it throughout their life,” she says.

Apart from playing a woman in crisis, there’s also the much bigger political backdrop to The Honourable Woman through its Middle East theme, with decisions taken by central characters having life and death repercussions.

Gyllenhaal has never been one to shy away from controversy, on screen or off, and is happy to stand up and be counted as a Democrat supporter, backing John Kerry and Barack Obama and supporting the American Civil Liberties Union. She has spoken out against the Iraq war, commented that September 11 was an occasion to ask questions about the role of the US in the world, appeared in a video in support of whistleblower Chelsea Manning last year and publicly backed Pussy Riot.

Her willingness to engage in politics may have been forged in a typically American melting pot background with a father, Stephen, who had been brought up in the Swedenborgian religion, and a mother, Naomi Foner, who was of New York Russian, Lithuanian Jewish extraction. Gyllenhaal has referred to her upbringing as “mostly Jewish, culturally”.

“It’s important if you see something that’s really wrong or unjust to speak out against it and to support those things around you that you think are right. I was at a Tina Brown Women in the World event in New York, because my friend was giving an award. Masha Alyokhina and Nadya [Nadezhda] Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot were there, and they asked Nadya, do you have no fear? She said, ‘I think in this case, to be afraid would be stupid.’ They are so brave and I really admire them because they’re so much braver than me.”

When I suggest that she doesn’t have to put her head above the parapet and be counted, she demurs.

“We can all agree that Pussy Riot is braver on a whole other level. But what I can do is support them.”

For Gyllenhaal the political dimension of the mini-series and its willingness to ask difficult questions was also part of its appeal. “People in the States, and in the UK as far as I can tell, are hungry to talk about what’s going on in Israel and Palestine, but they’re afraid, so when there’s an opportunity to explore it in a way that’s compassionate and thoughtful and really considered, with people you can trust, then it’s an exciting prospect.”

Again, we’re back to trust. And this was a key consideration for Gyllenhaal when she decided to take on the role.

“I had to make sure that the show wasn’t saying something, even inadvertently, that I didn’t want to say. The process of thinking whether or not I could trust things was agonising. When I realised that Hugo Blick was compassionate, thoughtful, intelligent, I was more trusting than I have been with any director in my life. It’s not just about the politics, but about everything.”

Given the subject matter and her willingness to talk politics, what is her take on the Middle East? Gyllenhaal is circumspect, preferring to allow her performance do the talking.

“I would rather not say what I think,” she says. “The show articulates so beautifully how incredibly complex it is and articulates it with compassion and understanding. The character of Atika Halibi [a Palestinian woman working as a nanny for Nessa’s family, played by Lubna Azabal] in some ways could also be the honourable woman of the title.”

Along with the acting, Gyllenhaal has a family to organise. She married actor Peter Sarsgaard, a friend of her younger brother Jake in 2009, and the couple live with their daughters Ramona, seven, and Gloria Ray, two, in Brooklyn, New York.

“I have to support my family and fit into a slot. Without question, family comes first once you have children. If the kids are unhappy, have been run around the world and discombobulated, then I can’t work. That’s not to say I haven’t asked them to sacrifice for me, but you have to know how much their little brains can manage. There are tons of mistakes I’ve made, times I’ve had to say I’m really sorry, I have overextended myself,” she says.

“I take them with me most of the time. I make that a priority. This time I was five days away promoting The Honourable Woman and that’s the most I’ll do. I did two weeks once and that was too long. But you get better at anticipating these situations.”

Born in 1977 in New York, to a screenwriter mother and director father, Gyllenhaal was perhaps destined to go into movies, starting her career in her father’s films, along with brother Jake. (Questions about Jake meet with a friendly, “Well, you’ll have to ask him”.)

“It was a world that felt open to me in some ways but it’s just what I was meant to do. I would have found myself here even if my parents hadn’t worked in film,” she says.

Gyllenhaal has a strong sense of self and is sure of her beliefs, but was bemused to find one of the things she had always taken for granted – her name – wasn’t in fact her name at all.

“I was always Maggie on my driver’s licence, passport and in school, and my mum told me that was my name. And then we needed a birth certificate because I wanted to take my husband’s name as well as my name when we got married. Nobody could find it at first, and when we did, it said Margolit. My mum insisted that’s not true, but I was holding it in my hand! My mum, having just given birth, had written that in. So I found out very late in life that was my name. But I was always Maggie so I changed it.”

For Margolit or Maggie, recognition came in the independent cult film Donnie Darko in 2001, in which she co-starred with Jake; and her big break in the sadomasochistic black comedy romance Secretary, for which she received critical acclaim and a Golden Globe nomination the following year. Breaking into mainstream films, she earned another Golden Globe nomination for her drugged-up thief in 2006’s Sherrybaby, then came Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight in 2008 and in 2010 Nanny McPhee And The Big Bang. Always versatile, it was back to the independents and quirky subject matter in 2010’s Hysteria, which focused on the invention of the vibrator, then a role as a secret service agent in the action thriller White House Down last year. This year’s releases include an outing alongside Michael Fassbender in Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank, which premiered at Sundance, and River Of Fundament, a genre-defying six-hour operatic multi-dimensional extravaganza.

Keen to work on stage as well as screen, Gyllenhaal relished opportunities to clock up theatrical classics throughout her career, with a 2009 Off Broadway production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, and his Three Sisters in 2011, and in October she makes her Broadway debut with Ewan McGregor and Cynthia Nixon in Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing.

“I like a little bit of both film and theatre. The way I work on creating character is the same, but the experience of doing the same role over and over versus working your way through something very slowly is very different. I like a live audience, and almost create that in some ways when I’m on set. I feel like all the energy and personality floating around on a set or in a theatre are powerful and the best thing to do is put them back into the work. It’s like making a stew – see where it comes out.”

If switching from independent to blockbuster, black comedy to political drama are as seamless as a costume change for Gyllenhaal, so is switching her persona from down in the sandpit mom to red-carpet style icon. She wore Lanvin at this year’s Baftas, black lace Prada and Manolo Blahniks at the River Of Fundament premiere in February, and wowed in a Dolce & Gabbana white feathered gown at the Tony Awards in New York this month. At The Honourable Woman screening in Cannes, she went for a bleached blonde pixie crop (she’s now back to brunette), and clearly enjoys clothes and playing with her appearance.

“I have said before – I like this quote, I made it up – that it’s OK to think about clothes as long as you think about other things. It can be a real pleasure to wear something beautiful, some clothes are art, and no, I don’t want to support anybody doing something I don’t believe in, but I don’t say I would only wear organic clothes.”

What about the lack of clothes in evidence in the Agent Provocateur lingerie shoot, how does that sit with being a feminist? “I’m not old school. I’m interested in ways that are real, about inequalities rather than yelling about it, in real subtleties,” she says.

By way of illustration she returns to the character of Nessa, and muses on the fact that two female journalists had said that they didn’t think she was a very likeable character.

“The greatest male heroes are always complicated, with likeable and not likeable streaks. Any human being has that, but when women are the central character, we’re used to them being likeable. But when you’re a hero, you’re just a human being.”

As for the pressure to have leading lady looks and internet rumours that she has had a chin reduction and eye surgery, she laughs loudly. “If I’ve had surgery, it really doesn’t look very good!”

Whatever the modest Gyllenhaal may think about her looks, she’s cast in a romantic role with McGregor in The Real Thing, a partnership she’s happy to reprise. “I worked with Ewan on Nanny McPhee Returns and felt immediately we had a connection, and went, yes, we’re married and deeply in love. That’s auspicious for our next job together. We also did an adaptation of The Corrections in 2012 for a TV movie that wasn’t picked up,” she says.

Gyllenhaal says the Stoppard play casting was a case of mutual attraction.

“Sometimes I have to fight for a role, but they sent it to me and I thought it was the right thing to do next. It’s another one that’s really going to teach me about myself and where I am.”

What does the ever-questing Gyllenhaal think this role will bring? What’s the next stage on the journey of life as she moves towards being who she is?

“Well, we’ll find out.” n

Twitter: @JanetChristie2

The Honourable Woman, BBC2, 9pm, from 3 July