Maggie Gyllenhaal and David Simon were having a civilized lunch one day when she mentioned, ever so calmly, that she wanted to masturbate on television. “I told him, and he sort of pretended to spit his water out,” she says, arranging her long body on the short wooden chair of a coffee shop not far from her Brooklyn brownstone. Gyllenhaal and Simon were discussing her role in The Deuce, the new HBO series from Simon, the creator of The Wire, and George Pelecanos, about the birth of the 42nd Street porn scene. Gyllenhaal had received the first three scripts as well as an offer to play Candy, a 1970s prostitute, which she thought would be “a very delicate thing to do in 2017.” The scripts were compelling, but Gyllenhaal didn’t know where her character’s story would go or what she, as an actor, would ultimately be asked to do. “When David called me, I said to him, ‘Obviously, my body is going to be required, but I also want to know that you’re interested in my mind. And that’s going to be part of what comes with having me in this process,’ ” she recalls now. “He was like, ‘I need you to trust me.’ And I was like, ‘I want to, but …’ ”
For starters, Gyllenhaal had never seen The Wire (“though I knew it was universally considered to be excellent”). Nor is she accustomed to accepting parts without a completed character arc in hand. Yet ever since her outrageously-sexy-if-you’re-into-that-sort-of-thing breakout role as the object of James Spader’s sadomasochistic affections in 2002’s Secretary, Gyllenhaal has proved her ability to bring unexpected depth to characters who might otherwise be written off simplistically as wayward or fragile or damaged — so much so that she takes issue with that characterization when I use it to describe them. “Damaged? Really? What does that mean?” she says. “Not a fantasy of a perfectly put-together woman? I mean, I think we’re all damaged, you know?”
Gyllenhaal hardly seems damaged as she sips her almond latte, having returned just this morning from a couple of days at her family’s country house, where she’d “woken up early with my little one and gone swimming in a lake.” She’s 39, wears pink Birkenstocks and, more often than not in our conversation, an expression that comes across as sort of amused, as if she’s pleasantly taking stock of a situation from afar. “I haven’t ever been someone who wants anyone to tell me, ‘Stand over there and be more angry’ or something,” she says of her acting career. “I’ve always had a real point of view.” And she’s always gravitated toward projects that were collaborative enough that her point of view would be valued. To make sure The Deuce fell into this category, she did something she isn’t accustomed to doing: “I said that I wanted to be a producer, to have a guarantee of control.” Never mind that she’d never produced anything before; had not developed this particular project; was coming into it fairly late in the game, and was told, as she says, “This is HBO. This is a huge network. Nobody is going to give you that.” When HBO did agree to give her a producer credit, “I felt like it was a non-explicit way of saying, ‘This is a feminist project.’ ”
At which point, the question of how to make a “feminist” show about prostitutes, pimps, and porn films became, in part, Gyllenhaal’s to grapple with. And suddenly, the fact that the complete season wasn’t already written was a feature, not a bug, because it meant that Gyllenhaal could relay ideas about her character to Simon and they would magically appear in the scripts “in much more interesting and complicated ways than I had imagined,” she says. “And then I would act them in my own way. They started writing for me: ‘I see how you’re interpreting what we’re doing.’ I had never experienced that before.”
To be clear: The show includes all the salaciousness and seediness that the terms “1970s,” “Times Square,” and “porn” imply, as well as a good amount of nudity, including for Gyllenhaal. But, in the context of HBO, the nudity is refreshingly equal opportunity. (“There are a lot of penises,” Gyllenhaal announces.) And the control that women can or do exert over their own bodies remains an overt theme.
“There’s this fake power structure for prostitutes where you go, ‘I’m in charge, I’m going to set the price, I’m going to set the boundaries,’ and yet you’re alone in a room with someone that could rape you if they wanted to,” says Gyllenhaal, who interviewed sex workers from that era as research. “I think that’s troubling, and I think that requires an amount of dissociation that makes it impossible to keep your mind intact.” She was also affected by the fact the show was filming during the 2016 presidential campaign. “We would be watching the debates at lunch,” she says. “I feel like my sense of sexism in relation to my own life got much clearer. So to be playing a prostitute who is dealing with herself in relation to her sexuality, her money, her art, her intellect, was pretty fascinating.”
Gyllenhaal has two young daughters, and she hasn’t talked to them about her role in The Deuce, but she has thought about them in relation to the work she’s creating. “Sometimes I do feel a little bit worried about the nudity being out there, but at the same time, I think that I’m using my body to make something really interesting, and I like the message that that sends my daughters.” And the Candy she’s helped create is far from a walking cliché with daddy issues: “Usually, because prostitution is so fascinating and interesting to us, that’s most of what you get about the character. But here you see her at work, you see her at home, you see her as a mother, you see her as a daughter, you see her as a lover, you see her as an artist, you see her as a businesswoman.”
You also, yes, see her masturbate. “I thought here’s all this performative sex, all this transactional sex,” Gyllenhaal explains. “I wanted to know what her desire looks like.” She made the ask; Simon obliged. “And after we filmed it, he was like, ‘Okay. Okay. We’re okay. We have made something feminist. We have.’ ”
*This article appears in the August 21, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.