in conversation

In Conversation: Maggie Gyllenhaal

The actress on The Kindergarten Teacher, The Deuce’s James Franco question, and storytelling through sex.

Photo: Ryan Pfluger for Vulture
Photo: Ryan Pfluger for Vulture

“I’m not interested in showing the wish of what it looks like to be human,” says Maggie Gyllenhaal. “I’m interested in showing what it actually looks like.” That’s exactly what the actress has done with her work as prostitute turned porn auteur Candy in the current season of HBO’s The Deuce and as the emotionally desperate title character in The Kindergarten Teacher, the latter of which begins streaming October 12 on Netflix and is already earning Oscar buzz for its star. Though Gyllenhaal’s approach — always humane, always intelligent — has remained steadfast since she broke out with 2002’s Secretary, lately she says, “something in myself — it’s hard to say exactly what — has shifted.” That shift, as well as a great many other things — from her excitement about telling fully feminine stories to the controversy over her Deuce co-star James Franco — is what we discussed over lunch at a quiet Italian restaurant in Manhattan’s West Village.

I assume that, like everyone else, you watched the Kavanaugh hearing. What were you thinking and feeling about what you saw?
I wept through a lot of Dr. Ford’s testimony. I was coming back to New York from L.A. while the hearing was happening and listening on the way to the airport. When I got there I rushed to the airport lounge to keep watching, and then I was able to stream it on the plane. I didn’t anticipate how consuming I’d find it. I missed a bunch of work stuff I was supposed to do because I didn’t do anything other than watch. I found it shocking how little performance there was to her testimony.

In contrast to Kavanaugh?
I wasn’t thinking about it in contrast to Kavanaugh; Kavanaugh had a different job to do. I don’t think we often see people in the kind of spotlight that Dr. Ford was in who are so lacking in a performance aspect. Even though it was difficult to watch, to see somebody being so human in that moment felt so moving.

I’m wondering if there are connections between your feelings in that regard and your work.  
I’ve been thinking about this, too. My work does relate to it. What I’m trying to do, even though I’m an actress performing, is create something human and not performative. Because what’s underneath a performance is what’s most vulnerable, most human, most interesting. And we aren’t fed a lot of that. Instead we’re told what it looks like to love or what a powerful woman looks like. And a lot of times that’s an oversimplified fantasy. I’m compelled to explore the opposite of the fantasy.

How much of your interest in behavior is about going inside and understanding yourself and how much is about wanting to communicate outward with other people?
I get magnetically pulled towards a project because there’s something in it that offers me the opportunity to explore the edge of my understanding about myself. But then, also, don’t you find with your closest friends that what’s compelling you at a certain moment is also compelling them? As a culture, as a community, we’re often thinking about similar stuff.

The Zeitgeist is a real thing.
Right, exactly. The Kindergarten Teacher is an example: I’ve sat through two screenings and been there for the end of a few more, and hearing the reaction of people watching that movie is really interesting — the laughter, and people gasping at the end when it takes its first turn and when it takes its second. I feel like there’s something happening in this movie that’s new, and I think people don’t make noises like the ones I’ve heard in the screenings otherwise.

Can you pinpoint what that new thing is?
There was something in The Kindergarten Teacher in the way that [writer-director] Sara [Colangelo] wrote it that was feminine, and I’ve been thinking a lot about what that means. Wait, I have organize my thoughts all the way from the beginning to explain myself here. So I went to the dentist probably six months ago. I had a bunch of cavities to be filled and I was nervous. I like to listen to something if I have to go to the dentist and I’d forgotten—

Sorry, you listen to headphones while you’re in the dentist’s chair? That’s a great idea.
Yeah, and I remember Nick Cave had a new album out the previous time I was at the dentist and I listened to that.

Nick Cave seems intense for the dentist’s chair.
[Laughs.] I had been listening to him, yeah. God, I take good care of my teeth and it doesn’t fucking matter because I always have cavities. Anyway, I was going to the dentist and I didn’t have anything to listen to. While I was in the waiting room I went to Audible to see if I could find something and they were advertising the audiobook of Juliet Stevenson reading Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. I listened to that for this long dentist appointment, and I was interested in this idea about halfway through the book of how difficult it is for a woman’s “whole and entire” feminine experience to be expressed because we’re living in a fundamentally masculine world. She [Woolf] uses [Charlotte] Brontë as an example and says that Brontë is an amazing writer, but she’s so angry — understandably so. She’s hiding her writing paper underneath her sewing at the table. She’s full of rage and sadness. All that clouds her writing. I was fascinated by that. Just because a woman is writing doesn’t mean hers is a fully feminine piece of work. Sorry, can you tell I had a lot of coffee today?

I’m glad you did!
Yeah, so what I’m getting at is that because so much of the culture that’s out there is fundamentally male, most women’s muscles for relating to masculine art and making it feel personal are very well exercised. I’m glad to have that muscle but when I was in high school and saw The Piano I was like, Whoa. Watching that movie was a different experience. I didn’t have to do any switching to understand that film. Or reading Elena Ferrante and going, What she’s explaining is so fucked up and then going, Hold on, I totally relate to it. The comfort and connection that you feel by seeing your experience purely expressed is unusual for many women. I apologize if I’m monologuing.

No, no. Go on.
And I felt when I read the script for The Kindergarten Teacher that it was a pure expression of something feminine. In a way the movie is an exploration of the consequences of starving a vibrant woman’s mind, told from the point of view of women filmmakers. And our conclusion is that the consequences are fucking dire! I do think there’s something new about that.

Is it possible to achieve a fully feminine work of art if men play a key part in its creation?
Mm-hmm. As long as you’re working with people who are curious and interested about the reality of the characters’ experience. The Honorable Woman was an expression of the feminine experience and it was written and directed by a man who was an interested, curious artist [Hugo Blick]. And The Deuce is a mixture of feminine and masculine expression. There were times when I would say to George [Pelecanos] and David [Simon], “Look, this is what I’m trying to express here,” and they would say, “I don’t understand.” I’d explain what I meant and I could feel it was different from what they had intended but they were still interested.

Can you think of a specific example of that kind of back-and-forth?
I have a good one from the new season. In episode three there’s that blow-job scene. As we were working on it, David said, “I think she should walk out.” And I was like, “I don’t think she should. I think she’s got to do it.” Otherwise she’s kind of a superhero. Almost every woman can relate to doing a much more subtle version of what Candy is being asked to do in that scene — acquiescing in a way they wished they hadn’t. And that could be a lot of things. Maybe it was laughing at a joke that was totally inappropriate. To actually give the blow job, I think, is much more rare. But if Candy walks out, you lose everyone’s understanding. Anyway, we all agreed on that but what I really advocated for was for her to give the blow job and then to have a moment alone after. George said to me, “I don’t totally understand the trajectory. She’s conflicted but decided to give the blow job. Then you have the moment alone with her where she looks quite upset. Then the moment in her apartment where she’s almost triumphant. It’s very difficult to put a finger on exactly what’s happening with her there.” And I said, “I don’t think it goes from A to B to C. I think it’s a very feminine trajectory. She has a lot of feelings about what she just did.” That’s what I love about it. And we kept it in.

You said earlier that the roles to which you’re drawn are the ones that let you explore the edges of yourself. What’d you get to edges of with The Kindergarten Teacher and The Deuce?
I only finished shooting The Deuce a few weeks ago, and it takes a little distance from having done the work in order to be able to analyze it. I don’t know. I know I could probably go beyond that answer for you.

If you don’t mind.
Okay, in a simple way, watching the presidential campaign, which was going on when we were shooting the first season of The Deuce, and seeing Trump be elected despite saying he can grab women’s pussies had an effect on me. Like a lot of people I went, “I can no longer live in this wishful-thinking way about where we’re at in the world.” The reality is that we’re in a different place. I think part of why people were so compelled by the [Kavanaugh] hearings was because, again, it was an opportunity to see where we are as a country. And as painful as that can be it makes you feel sane to know here’s where we really are. Anyway, maybe I also feel a kind of wild, radical energy at the moment. And that energy is in Candy and Lisa [her character in The Kindergarten Teacher]. They’re women who are waking up to the fact that they’re starving. They’re deeply unsatisfied.

And you’re saying Trump’s election stirred up some of that wild energy?
It was waking up on the day that Trump was elected and looking around and going, “How have I accepted this?” I was looking at all the ways that I’ve given myself away, compromised myself, twisted myself into pretzels in order to get what I needed. Why? What has it gotten me? I think a lot of women had that experience.

Maggie Gyllenhaal. Photo: Ryan Pfluger for Vulture

But what about in your business? How have the revelations about male abuses of power that were going on in Hollywood, and then subsequently #MeToo and Times Up, affected the way you go about your work?
There is a conscious effort to make changes. For example, in the second season of The Deuce all the directors except one are women. That was a conscious choice on the part of HBO and the show’s producers. I think it’s worth putting energy into affirmative action in terms of having diversity in positions of power because the door was shut for so long. All of this requires the most careful continued thinking and that’s difficult to do that because things are moving so fast. But I have a lot at stake: It’s my industry, it’s my work, it’s my gender. All these things we’re talking about have affected me. And so has getting older.

In what way?
For a long time I bought into the idea that if you are a woman who is a storyteller and a lover of movies then the best way to express that is as an actress. Obviously there are women my age who are directors who didn’t buy into that idea, but I did — and now I’ve broken that down inside myself. Now I want to direct, and though I might never put it this way, I didn’t always feel entitled to want that.

I have a couple questions about James Franco in relationship to The Deuce, and I understand if you don’t want to get into it. But you were talking earlier about the need for careful thinking about male abuse of power and #MeToo and all these connected issues. So I’m wondering if you can walk me through your thought processes after the allegations against him came to light.
Like I said before, in this moment of change, in this incredible moment for women, it’s important to think as deeply and as carefully and as specifically and in as nuanced a way as you possibly can. Simple black-and-white thinking or action is always going to be problematic. There are some situations that are easy: “This person is a rapist and therefore needs to go to jail.” Then there are the situations that are much more complicated. I was part of a group of intelligent, thoughtful people on The Deuce — David Simon and George Pelecanos and also Richard Plepler, who runs HBO — who were using everything we had in order to consider how to move forward.

That part is what I’m most curious about. I feel like one of the problems we have right now is that we don’t have any good models for how to handle these kinds of situations in anything resembling a healthy or progressive way beyond “cancel that person.” How did you all take steps to move forward?
Well, we took the allegations really seriously — learned everything we could about them. All of us felt that it was important to talk to the people who were on our crew and in our cast and make sure they felt that they’d been treated with total respect and felt safe — everybody did. I think about our show in particular: It’s about misogyny, it’s about inequality in terms of gender in the entertainment business. It’s about the subtleties of transactional sex. And I felt that it would have been a terrible shame to stop telling that story. I had so much more to say about all of these things by playing Candy, and I know that Emily [Meade], who plays Lori, and Dominique [Fishback], who plays Darlene, and Jamie [Neumann], who plays Dorothy, also had feminist interest in continuing this story. So those are some of the things I felt.

I was reading an essay about the show where the writer was arguing that James Franco’s continued presence hurts her experience of watching The Deuce because it falsifies some of the arguments the show is making. Do you understand that line of thinking?
I’m so not objective. I’m not the right person to talk about that except to say that neither of James’s characters on the show are heroes. I would say he’s walking right into the eye of the storm — he’s continuing the conversation with the work that he’s doing. I don’t think there’s a way to do this show without consciously knowing that you’re part of a larger conversation about exploitation and misogyny. That’s what I think. I can’t speak for him [Franco]. I think everyone’s been respectful in terms of not asking me to do that because that’s not right either.

Because you’re not him.
I’m not him, and I don’t have to take that responsibility. But I also feel that these larger problems we’re talking about are systemic. I remember when the #MeToo stuff was first starting, all of these wonderful men I know were going, “Oh my God, did I ever do anything to disrespect a woman sexually?” And I was like, “Of course you did.” There are exceptions to that rule, and not everybody took their pants down and masturbated in front of people in a hotel room, but did you ever do something to disrespect a woman sexually? Yeah, I’m sure you did, because you live in a culture where you’ve been told, to a degree, that that’s okay, and we’ve been told that we should accept it, to a degree. The problem is very, very deep and we all have to look at the ways that we can shift things. Every single one of us.

How close is the correlation between your desire to direct and Candy’s desire to do the same thing? It’s striking that the artistic awakening you just described yourself as having mirrors Candy’s so closely.
I think it’s one layer more complicated than that. When we started working on The Deuce I sat down with David and George, who gave me a sense of where the show was going. Candy wasn’t a director then. She was going to become a producer. And as we went along with the first season, and I’d say as early as the second episode when she makes her first porn movie, I wanted her to be an artist; I wanted her to be a director. So some of that came from me. But then, yes, playing somebody who’s learning that she’s a director is totally a part of what made me felt like I could direct myself — or that I was entitled to. Candy is so inspiring to me. I actually have the rights to an Elena Ferrante novel — getting that required a lot of letter writing — and I’m going to direct it.

You had to write a letter to Ferrante?

That seems nerve-racking.
I mean, I don’t know who she is. Nobody does except for two or three people.

There’s a lot of speculation.
I didn’t read any of that. I was like, “She [Ferrante] said she doesn’t want us to know. Fuck off.” She’s so intense about her privacy that you’re like, “She’s wise, she knows a lot, she should be able to do what she wants.” And I know it’s fictionalized but she’s so personal in the writing anyway.

What did you have to convey in your letter to her?
I think ultimately it was up to her whether or not she wanted to give me the rights to make the film. I took writing the letter as an opportunity to convey why I wanted to make the movie and some very early thoughts about how I might do that — particularly because I’m setting it in the United States. But also I took the letter as an opportunity to reach out to somebody who writes about things that move me and begin a conversation with her about some of those things. I have to say, I spent weeks on that letter. But I’ve been working on the adaptation and now I’m about two-thirds of the way through.

You’re writing the script?
I’m writing it, which is such a pleasure. I mean, my mother is a screenwriter and I’m somebody who understands my own thinking by writing. Writing is where my heart is right now — it’s just me. One of the things I’ve learned as an actress is how to how to get the things I need artistically without asking permission. That’s a craft actresses need because there are so many people along the way who can tell you “no.” So I’m really enjoying working alone right now.

I think of you as having a very modern sensibility as an actress. Did you have any particular models or inspirations when you were starting out? Earlier in your career people would compare you to actresses from, like, the ’30s, which never made much sense to me.
I remember seeing The Grifters when I was in high school and having Anjelica Huston and Annette Bening blow my mind. And Anne Bancroft — her style; her general vibe. Who else? Gena Rowlands. Diane Keaton: She created something amazing in The Godfather II where there could’ve been a blank. I’ve gone back and watched Meryl Streep in Silkwood three or four times. Actually, I remember on the first season of The Deuce there was a scene with Candy and her son that James [Franco] was directing. I texted him and said, “Do you remember that scene in Silkwood where she [Streep’s character Karen Silkwood] thinks she wants to go home and see her kids?” She’s with them, and one of them has to go to the bathroom and the other spills ketchup everywhere and it’s insane. Then she gets in the car and smokes a joint with her friends, and you see that her fantasy of mothering is very different than the reality of mothering. I texted James about that, and then I went to watch that one scene and ended up watching the whole movie. Her [Streep’s] performance is incredible.

This is probably a dumb question about acting, but I was rewatching your scenes in The Dark Knight, and I got fixated on the question of how an actor decide to calibrate a “realistic” performance in a movie like that, which takes place in a world that’s sort of like our own and sort of not? In real life if you’re at a party and a lunatic in freaky clown makeup barges in with a gun, wouldn’t you just go “what the fuck?” and run away? But you’re so calm in those scenes. Does what I’m asking make any sense?
The thing you have to do is to figure out what the circumstances of the movie’s world are, and that movie’s world is a mythic one. I did one night of Damn Yankees with the Roundabout Theatre company, and that show’s world is one where people all of a sudden start singing. Inside of that you can ask, “Am I in a world where all of a sudden people start singing but they’re not acting like they’re singing? Or am I in a world where people are singing like, ‘Aren’t I great when I’m singing?!’” There are all sorts of ways to do things. You just have to be consistent: The edges of this world are here.

Do you discuss that with the other actors?
I don’t like to talk about that kind of thing.

About acting?

Why not?
I don’t know. I see very young actors get on set and tell all their character’s secrets: “So I’m thinking this and this and this.” Hearing that is like a balloon deflating. Keep it to yourself. When you talk about those kinds of things on set it gives people a chance to tell you no. And sometimes my ideas are so wild. They’re not things other people will understand.

Like what?
I remember one time on The Honorable Woman thinking, Okay, in this scene she’s 104 years old.

Your character?
And she might be on mushrooms. [Laughs.] You don’t want tell a director that because they’ll say, “No, she’s 36 and she’s not high.” So I don’t ever share that stuff.

Going back and reading old articles about you, your brother comes up a lot. People often ask if you two are competitive. It’s sort of…

My question is probably trite too, but do you think about the roles your brother chooses to do — he’s taken some physically and emotionally grueling ones recently — and what they mean for him as an actor and a person?
Yeah, I do, and there are times when I think, knowing Jake so well, I’m glad you’re doing that. And there are other times when I’m like, Why are you doing that? When he did Sunday in the Park With George, I thought, Right on. You are going to blow everybody away. I knew what that was going to do for his heart and his mind. There are also ways in which we’re very different. He’s business-minded in a way that I find inspiring. I respect his ease and understanding of the business elements of our jobs. I think if you have the same job as someone — my husband and I have the same job, too — it means so much because you know the very specific minutia of what it meant to take this job at this place at this time. It’s valuable.

Another thing that stories about you often mention is your interest in depicting sexuality. Is too much made of that? Or if that is a subject you’re especially interested in, where does that interest come from?
I have lots of thoughts about that. I’m excited by the idea of using sexuality to get people’s attention and then starting a deeper conversation. The nudity is shocking or titillating or whatever, and then you go, “Now really look at this woman’s life. I’ve got your attention. Now can we talk about something real?” And there are things that can only be portrayed in a sex scene that can’t be articulated any other way. And to do a sex scene where you’re not articulating something — how do I put it? Sometimes I see sex scenes where people stop acting and they’re not communicating through the sex. That’s a missed opportunity. That said, on the first season of The Deuce I had transactional sex scene after transactional sex scene. The point was to show what a workday looked like for Candy but I found doing those difficult. I made them into a scene. I thought, She cares about being good at her job. So she’s trying to show everybody that they’re getting their money’s worth.

You also don’t seem to have any vanity or timidity about using your body on camera.
My body is part of my instrument as an actor, and being 40 and putting my body in my work is interesting. I walked by an ad the other day at the 59th Street stop on the A train. The entire wall was plastered with this advertisement for underwear, and it showed all of these very attractive — but very real-looking — women and I cried a little when I saw it. I thought, I wish I’d seen that when I was 12. It would have changed so much about the way that I’m hard on myself about my body.

At the beginning of the conversation we were talking about how you’re drawn to projects that allow you to explore the edges of what you know about yourself. Do you have any clues about what edges you want to explore next?
Right now that kind of energy is what I’m putting into the writing of the Ferrante piece. But there are a few projects that I’m developing. There’s a love story about [Ludwig] Mies van der Rohe and his relationship with Edith Farnsworth, who he built the famous glass house for. It’s a very unusual love story and it requires my having a real partner to tell it. I actually have an incredibly interesting actor attached to play Mies van der Rohe but I’m not sure I’m allowed to say who it is yet. But just thinking about your question, I wonder — in The Kindergarten Teacher, I’m alone. In The Deuce, well, thank God for David Krumholtz, but Candy barely allows our characters to be friends. So maybe the thing I’m interested in next is having a deep collaboration with another artist in a way that I haven’t in a while.

What you were saying before about getting people’s attention with titillation made me think about the ways we tend to we talk about entertainment now, which is to maybe overpraise ideas or arguments and undervalue sensory pleasure. How much do you think about balancing those elements? The Deuce for example has lots of interesting ideas in it, but it’s also just cool to see how the show re-creates seedy 1970s New York. 
I’m always thinking about that. That’s part of what I’m talking about with using sexuality to get people’s attention: It’s a way in the door, you know? The Kindergarten Teacher, too, has a kind of [Roman] Polanski psychological thriller aspect at the same time as it has all these other things going on. I love a Ken Loach movie, don’t get me wrong, but I know there’s a limited audience for that. I like things with a little lemon juice squeezed on top. But I want all the different elements in there. I’m not satisfied with some of it. I want it all.

This interview has been edited and condensed from two conversations.

George Pelecanos and David Simon are The Deuce’s co-creators. Simon, as you probably know, created perennial greatest-show-ever contender The Wire, as well as Treme. And Pelecanos made his name, and still plies his trade, as crime novelist. The Man Who Came Uptown is his latest. The scene to which Gyllenhaal is referring involves Candy meeting with a male producer to talk about him helping to finance the porn film she’s directing. He says he will — provided she gives him a blow job. Gyllenhaal’s shifting facial expressions when Candy hears that offer, and in a subsequent shot of the character reflecting on what she’s just done, are pretty amazing examples of nonverbal acting. From Sonia Saraiya’s Vanity Fair essay: “But his [Franco’s] presence is not good for The Deuce. It seems to be a betrayal of the show’s characters — or a misunderstanding of its central appeal — to continue to double-bill him in the drama. The Deuce is so good at revealing the indignities and paradoxes of power dynamics in the sex industry — which only casts its approach to offscreen controversy into deeper relief. It risks turning the show into a walking contradiction.” The Lost Daughter is the Ferrante novella that Gyllenhaal is adapting. This is a good time for fans wishing to see the enigmatic Italian author’s work translated to the screen: HBO’s eight-part adaptation of My Brilliant Friend is due in November. Gyllenhaal’s mom is Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal, who wrote the screenplays for Bee Season, Losing Isaiah, and the great Running on Empty, the latter of which earned her an Academy Award nomination. Foner’s directorial debut, Very Good Girls, starring Dakota Fanning and Elizabeth Olsen, premiered at Sundance in 2013. Her husband, Maggie and Jake’s dad, is director Stephen Gyllenhaal. Foner Gyllenhaal’s first marriage was to the noted historian Eric Foner. Her sibling, of course, is Jake Gyllenhaal. Maggie acted with her younger brother in 2001’s cult favorite Donnie Darko, in a small role as his character’s sister. During an appearance on The Late Show in 2017, a grinning Maggie told Stephen Colbert, “Jake was a demon child … and then I got naughty later.” Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard have been married since 2009. That same year, the couple, who have two daughters together, acted onstage in New York opposite each other in a production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. Prior to that they co-starred in the 2007 short film High Falls. She also posted about these ads — for ThirdLove underwear — on her Instagram. “So hot, so beautiful,” she wrote. “I wish there were ads like this in the subway when I was 12, like my daughter.” The charmingly rumpled, excellently mustachioed Krumholtz plays The Deuce’s Harvey Wasserman, a porn director who helps Candy achieve her artistic ambitions (with varying levels of enthusiasm).
In Conversation: Maggie Gyllenhaal