Maggie Gyllenhaal on The Honorable Woman and What Makes Her Say No to a Role

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Photo: Mireya Acierto/Getty Images

In The Honorable Woman — available on Netflix starting today — Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Nessa Stein, a billionaire telecommunications scion who's trying to foster peace in the Middle East and ward off a nervous breakdown at the same time. Two nights before her Golden Globe nomination, we caught up with Gyllenhaal by phone as she made her way to the Roundabout Theater, where she's playing Annie in The Real Thing.

What was the last show you binge-watched?
I loved Enlightened. I loved that you truly never knew if you were supposed to be rooting for Laura Dern or judging her. It’s like with a real person. And, of course, you’re intrigued by her because Laura Dern is playing her. It was uncomfortable to watch — you thought, “Oh, I trusted this person and look how she's behaving.” And then you think, “Oh, I’ve totally written her off. Look at this incredible thing she’s doing.”

Nessa is a character with really remarkable circumstances — she watched her father get murdered in front of her, she's running a huge company, she's a baroness, I could go on. Where did you look for inspiration when you were playing her?
I never find it helpful to model a character after a particular person; it's more like I take a good, microscopic look at a small part of myself. Nessa is someone who’s been performing herself for most of her life, and when you meet her, it’s when that performance starts to become impossible. So, she’s so graceful and intelligent and powerful, but so many other elements of herself have been shut out, you see those things starting to pop up and crack that façade. I totally relate to that even though what’s riding on it for me is not, like, a multi-billion-dollar foundation. 

As you say, the show begins with these cracks in the façade, and even though it is very much about her unraveling, you play her in a very understated way. Can you talk about that?
The scope of it is so massive that if you don’t play it on a totally, totally human level, it could run the risk of being melodrama. And who cares about that?

It made me think you're very calm in real life — you always seems so composed in public appearances. How do you keep it together in stressful situations?
I can be very mercurial, I can get very mad, and I can get very emotional. If I don't do that then I get panicked. The way to stay sane is to have feelings. I definitely believe in that. I also believe that an interview is not the place to lay out your most vulnerable heart, but my work is, for sure. 

Watching the show, I felt almost overwhelmed by the wealth of female characters, and you have a long career of playing compelling, complicated women. What are the things that draw you to a character?
Absolutely every single thing I’ve worked on — some of them massive failures in all sorts of ways: financially, artistically — every single one of them I’ve learned something. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s it’s going to be good or that I'm going to be pleased or that it’s going to be a good experience. I do think that I’m braver in my work than in my life. But the stakes are different. You're trying to get to a place where you feel like the stakes are high for the character you’re playing, but the truth is it’s pretend. You can say things or explore things and work with a different set of stakes than in life. I think I'm just looking for that opportunity.

What makes you say no to a role?
I remember saying I wouldn’t play the hooker who was happy about it, but actually, I’d be curious to see, well, what would that be like? And what would be underneath that? And what would be underneath what was underneath that? There’s not something that I would never play. But, like, a pretend version of the way that human beings interact with each other is not interesting to me. I have to recognize something in it that feels familiar.

In Honorable Woman, there are two brutal sexual assaults and other graphic sex scenes. And your first big role was Secretary, which I think showed sex in a way people hadn’t necessarily seen it before. With nudity and sex scenes, how do you decide what you’re willing to do?
Nudity and sexuality can be a really interesting way of showing people communicating or not communicating, missing each other or connecting. Because that’s what sex is in real life. When it's serving a different purpose than that onscreen, I don’t think it’s very sexy. It doesn’t have to be a super-connected, stare-into-each-other's-eyes-the-whole-time kind of scene — obviously, if you look at my work. I don’t believe in holding the sheets over your breasts in the morning-after scene. I don’t judge people who do. I remember Julia Roberts said something about nudity, that she didn’t want to do it because "It’s not a documentary." And I totally understand that and I completely respect it, but I don't know. I feel like my body and my body as it shifts and changes is part of my work.

With the rape scenes, it was important to me that they feel real. I asked a friend of mine who’s actually an expert on Israel and Palestine to read the script and talk to me about it. He said, "I have a real problem with any fictional depiction of rape because it makes it seem like it’s less brutal than it is," and I said, "I completely disagree with you. I think action in film is a way of looking at complication and the only problem would be if you made it seem manageable in a way that it isn’t." It was important to me that both those scenes feel like it had actually happened. Of course, it didn’t, and we were safe, and we were really respected and taken care of.

And then, the second one, I wanted it to feel like Nessa was complicit until the very, very, very last minute, which I think is really interesting, too. That Nessa went out, she got wasted, she basically picked this guy up, she wants to be fucked, she wants to be hurt, she wants it. And then she doesn’t want to be hit in the head with a vodka bottle and brutalized. That’s not what she wants, but I wanted her to be complicit until the very last minute and I think that’s really terrifying and unusual and something worth talking about and considering and not a cliché of something that we’re used to thinking about. I feel very proud of both scenes. I hope that they do make people think about all sorts of things.

I didn't want to talk to you about clothes the whole time, but the fashion on the show is so good. I read that you worked with the costume designer. Can you tell me about that process?
I came two weeks early, thinking, "It's eight hours, we’ll need time to rehearse," but [writer-director] Hugo [Blick] didn’t want to rehearse. So I spent all of my time with the costume designer [Edward Gordon] because I had like 50 looks. I loved him. He was incredibly collaborative. I always want that. This lady said to me a couple days ago at the theater — we were doing that thing Equity Fights AIDS where you have to go out in the theater and collect money. I was still in my costume and she said, "That’s an ugly dress, but I’m sure you didn’t choose it." And I'm thinking, “First of all, don’t ever say that to anybody! And second of all, of course I fucking chose it." You have to feel like your character. So, I always have a lot to do with the clothes I wear, but in this case it became my rehearsal.

It was doubly complicated by the fact that she’s a billionaire and we had no money. We both thought in a perfect world she’d be dressed head-to-toe in Céline, but they didn’t want to lend us anything. So, Stella McCartney gave us beautiful things. Both Ed and I called on people we loved, and he copied a Lanvin dress I had from an awards ceremony three years before. We saw this incredible Céline coat, which was so Nessa, but was 5,000 pounds. And so we went to the costume house and we got an old man’s oversize coat and put pearl buttons on it, and I hope she’d be thrilled by that.

I'm getting this award from Women in Film and I've been thinking about Nessa and how she looks and how she dresses. If you’re the head of a multi-billion-dollar corporation and you’re a diplomat, why should you have to look good? In some ways her attractiveness should be incidental, but, of course, it isn’t. Of course it helps. Like me, I’m not a great beauty, but I have to look as best I can as an actress, and Nessa has to look as good as she can. She uses her sexuality in her work. Whether that’s good or bad or feminist or not, I don’t know, but true. And I wanted her to be sexy, but also really have self-worth. I was really inspired by the clothes that we made for Nessa, which are very different than mine. I wanted to throw away all of my patterned Isabel Marant dresses and just shop at Christophe Lemaire. 

What was your favorite of her outfits?
I weirdly like that white suit, which I didn’t love at the time, but that Don Johnson white suit that she wears [in "The Hollow Wall"]. It's so bizarre. That’s not what she planned, but to wear that in the West Bank is so interesting. It’s such a beacon of peace, but also, Don Johnson, you know?