Taken from the spring/summer 2018 issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here.
Maggie Gyllenhaal’s priorities aren’t what they used to be. “What I feel entitled to ask for has shifted a little bit – not in terms of, like, ‘I want a bigger trailer,’ but, ‘I’d like to see that cut, I’d like to comment on it,’” the actress describes. Now, for the first time in her career, she’s been making these requests as a producer, on projects for which she also plays the leads. In the grimy, 1970s-set HBO series The Deuce, set in and around Times Square, Gyllenhaal is a self-propelled sex worker named Candy. And she plays the eponymous lead in Sara Colangelo’s Sundance hit The Kindergarten Teacher: the creatively frustrated, increasingly unhinged Lisa.
Today, Gyllenhaal is still tender from dental work that morning, feeling at her numb jaw as she eats a plate of blueberries and mushrooms (“not as weird as it sounds”). She tells me all about how women at work – not always synonymous with “women in the workplace” – have been a focus of her own career. (I bet you remember Secretary, to begin with.)
Though she had signed on for both projects prior to the Trump presidency, The Kindergarten Teacher was shot over the summer of 2016, during the US election campaign, and The Deuce was filmed not long after. That political cycle, and particularly the way it concluded, reshaped Gyllenhaal’s worldview – and her approaches to Lisa and Candy. “There was this combination of despair – (a word) which implies a lack of hope – and astonishment about where women are in the world right now. A reckoning with the difference (between) where we wish we were and where we actually are. I thought, ‘I have nothing to lose, I might as well face the truth of where we are.’”
If Gyllenhaal’s filmography is anything to go by, we’re mostly trying to make a living – and to live with verve and purpose, if we can manage that first thing. Since making her debut with a minor role in John Waters’ Cecil B Demented, she has acted alongside her real-life brother, Jake, as his character’s academic sister in Donnie Darko (2001), earned a Golden Globe nomination for her portrayal of a struggling addict and mother in indie hit Sherrybaby (2006), and won an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress playing a journalist in Crazy Heart (2009). But it’s really 2002’s Secretary that established Gyllenhaal to the wider public, by way of BDSM in pussy-bow blouses with James Spader. That’s a dream scenario for anyone, but Gyllenhaal’s performance as the socially anxious Lee is the star attraction in the kind of tender exploration of female sexuality still rarely seen on screen in Hollywood.
In Secretary, Gyllenhaal’s character was doing a girl’s job, and both Candy in The Deuce and Lisa in The Kindergarten Teacher explore similarly ‘feminine’ vocations, as a prostitute and schoolteacher respectively. We meet them in stories about what authority looks like to them. Candy and Lisa, as with Gyllenhaal in this new phase of her career, are doing their best to dress for the jobs that they want, which is ultimately to be the boss of themselves. “In some fundamental way”, the actress says, “I would like to try and be as honest as possible about the reality of my feminine experience, as opposed to living in a fantasy about it.”
‘Ordinary’ women who are really anything but is an on-screen character model that never quits, but only if you’re into the kind of frankness Gyllenhaal describes above. “Sometimes you find a character, and the trick is, ‘How do I put what I’m on the edge of exploring about myself into that character’?” says Gyllenhaal, who, at our berry-and-’shroom lunch, is newly blonde. This is because she’s preparing to shoot season two of The Deuce and, as she puts it decisively, “Candy needs to be blonde, for real – she just does.” It’s a choice that Gyllenhaal made despite questions from her colleagues on the show, and despite not really knowing the reason why herself. Maybe it was just looking at a picture of Debbie Harry and knowing. “‘Couldn’t you have just worn a wig?’ But no.”
Gyllenhaal sees her characters as mentors and pupils, albeit unruly ones, and peregrinates between those roles in the way she responds. “The characters that really appeal to me sometimes find their own way to me. Like, ‘Wow, I’ve been offered this and it coincides exactly, even if I don’t quite know how yet, with what I’m exploring about myself.’” Besides, she says, laughing, the alternative isn’t really feasible for her any more. “In movies I’ve taken for reasons other than that, it’s like, ‘Oh my God, the fuck am I doing here?!’ I would rather sell shoes instead of taking jobs where I don’t have that feeling, because I’m just so bad in them.”
Hastily going blonde is one way to explore sides to yourself you never knew existed, but Gyllenhaal’s Candy has been an attitudinal lodestar to the actress more than a sartorial one. “Music always ends up being a big thing,” she says of how Candy colours her world. “All I have to do is open up and things come.” In the first season of The Deuce, her Candy playlist included Rihanna, The Velvet Underground (“Candy Says”, naturally), and the soundtrack for the Tony Kushner musical Caroline, or Change. Art also factors into how she thinks about Candy, according to Gyllenhaal: Nan Goldin’s slideshow film of graphic portrait photography, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, transfixed her for close to an hour when it was exhibited at MoMA last year, and the work of Irish filmmaker Vivienne Dick helped show Gyllenhaal that the “fantasy of the 70s – this kind of exotic difference – is really a fantasy.” By coincidence, the film she saw followed a group of sex workers, with whom Gyllenhaal felt a sense of communion. “Something about the tone of it was like, ‘That’s just like me, just like my friends. It’s just different circumstances. That really opened up my eyes.”
Gyllenhaal considers this kind of attuning herself to the world of her character as both preparation and personal development. “Usually, the (self-exploration) is not as literal as, ‘I’m starting to produce, just as this character is interested in producing and directing,’” she says. Working on The Deuce, it was. On the show, Candy begins as a prostitute only. She agrees to do a porn movie as a favour to a friend – sex on camera didn’t pay as well as sex with customers did, at the time – then becomes enamoured with the idea of orchestrating pornos herself. Candy wants more, despite not having much to begin with – although, as Gyllenhaal admits, “It seems to me that prostitution had a slightly different connotation in 1971 than it does now. This need for sexual freedom and experimentation and using sex as a way to understand who you are was maybe more generally on the tip of everyone’s tongues.” Her research for the role has led her to feel that “sex workers are completely marginalised now. They have been pushed to the edges of our culture. Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s a lot of respect for sex workers right now.”
In The Deuce, Candy is at the vanguard of modern porn – it’s presented as a new frontier, which Gyllenhaal was intrigued by. “Candy comes from such a different place than I do in film,” says the actress, “and it gives her freedom to be like, ‘Why would you put the camera there? Come on, that’s not hot. Put the camera here.’” According to Gyllenhaal, Candy is an auteur. “She has an innate understanding of storytelling because she comes to filmmaking from such an unusual place. She doesn’t stop herself. She’s so hungry for something else that she doesn’t have that problem I talked about before: What am I entitled to?” Gyllenhaal, having said all of this in an impassioned rush, pauses. “Well, actually, she does – but her hunger is so deep, her need is so big, that she’s like, ‘I want this. I’m going to try and get it.’ For her, it’s a matter of survival. She trusts her point of view. She’s a thinker – she thinks things through.”
When Gyllenhaal began feeding back on scripts to The Deuce’s co-writers, David Simon and George Pelecanos, her approach was a hodgepodge of those Candy-ish qualities – and maybe some nerves, too. “Instead of just being chill and writing my notes out, I was afraid they wouldn’t hear me unless my notes were presented absolutely perfectly: not too tough, a little humour – and clear, so they couldn’t possibly be misconstrued. Writing them took me hours. I would wonder, ‘Does my husband (Peter Sarsgaard) or my brother (Jake Gyllenhaal) have to write notes like this, with this level of obsessive care?’ For episode seven, I was sick with flu in bed with my kids. Trump had just been elected. They gave me the cut and I was like, ‘I just don’t have the fucking time.’ I wrote my notes out in a much simpler way, and they were still heard.”
Lisa’s motivation in The Kindergarten Teacher – a sensitive remake of Nadav Lapid’s 2014 original – isn’t far from Candy’s when it comes to contending with the shortcomings of professional and personal work. Lisa is a children’s teacher, mother, and, as she seems to feel most deeply, clandestine poet. She begins writing classes at a Manhattan college at night, where her work is dismissed by her classmates and instructor as derivative and impersonal. Back at her day job, she becomes fixated on a brilliant five-year-old who speaks in gorgeous verse. Lisa plagiarises the student’s work for her night class. They love it, allowing her to playact a life in which she is taken seriously. As Gyllenhaal gently explains, “She doesn’t have any help, or anyone interested in what’s going on with her and her mind. She is basically saying, ‘I cannot keep twisting myself around this way of living that is (expected of me) as a woman.’ But the doors she opens to try and get out of where she is are confused.” The situation goes haywire slowly, then all at once in the last 20 minutes of the film. Gyllenhaal says, “I relate to her starving hunger for more, and to not being satisfied with a lot of things I convinced myself I was satisfied with for a lot of my life.”
Gyllenhaal, who repeats the word ‘imperfect’ throughout our conversation with a tone of high respect, elaborates: “I’ve always been drawn to finding a character at the moment when they either can’t take it any more, or a certain element of curiosity has opened up in them.” While Candy’s ambition is unflappable, Lisa is hopeful and even, in her way, trying – but she’s also truly had enough. Gyllenhaal is still rooting for Lisa as she flails, just as the viewer is led to throughout the movie. “You’re not going to know if she’s good or bad. You’re not going to be able to make a clear assessment that’s going to stick with you all the way through,” she says. “There are going to be moments where you love her, and also moments where you are like, ‘What the fuck, I related to her so deeply and now she’s doing something so terrifying! Who am I, then, and what does that say about me?’”
Those questions feel familiar. If you switch around the pronouns, people are asking it of so many others they thought they trusted, and who fucked that trust up. “Every man I talk to now is saying, ‘Oh God, I’m racking my brain to think if there was ever a time I disrespected a woman sexually,’ and I always think, of course there was!” says Gyllenhaal. James Franco, her co-star on The Deuce, has been accused of sexually exploitative or inappropriate behaviour by five women to date, and in 2014, admitted to sexually propositioning a 17-year-old via Instagram. Expecting women to answer for the misconduct of their own male co-workers is fraught for many reasons; instead, I ask her for her thoughts on working with people who have been accused of sexual misconduct. “We have been living in a culture where women are systematically disrespected. Most of the men that I know want to help, but they are part of a corrupt system, and some of them probably did things that they wish they hadn’t done, just like I did, just like you probably did, so I think that intention is very important.”
“Every man I talk to now is saying, ‘Oh God, I’m racking my brain to think if there was ever a time I disrespected a woman sexually,’ and I always think, of course there was!” — Maggie Gyllenhaal
I ask if she thinks there’s a way to recognise intent without sacrificing consequences. “If you are a rapist, then you need to go to jail, but many of the things that we are talking about are in grey areas. Those grey areas matter, and they’re important – and there need to be consequences for grey-area behaviour, too. I think an ideal situation is where you have an intention to change in your work and your life and at the same time you take responsibility and suffer consequences for behaviour that is no longer acceptable to us.” What would any of this look like, though? “Now that it’s all on the table, if you want to change and be part of fundamentally changing the system, then come and help us. Let’s do that, instead of having a gender war. There are people that need to have a reckoning for behaviour that was unacceptable. I absolutely believe in that, but I also think we have to accept imperfect people into the movement. Otherwise there won’t be anyone in it. The fantasy of someone you admire being perfect is a very young idea, anyway. And it’s unfair!”
“In order to change the system,” the actress continues, “we need as many people on our side as possible. I love what Dave Chappelle said (in his 2017 special, The Bird Revelation).” She paraphrases his quote, which goes: “We should forgive the ones of us that are weaker and support the ones of us that are stronger. And then we can beat the thing. If you guys keep going after individuals, the system is going to stay intact. You have to have men on your side. And I’m telling you right now, you’re gonna have a lot of imperfect allies.” Gyllenhaal adds a conclusion of her own: “If you want to come and try to help, even if you are imperfect – and every one of us fucking is – come and help.” She thinks for a second. “But if you’re an asshole who’s terrified that you’re going to lose your power if you include women in the conversation, then fuck off!”
Of course, because Gyllenhaal is fascinated by these lines of thought, they become her characters’ fascinations, too. Right now, she’s reading film critic Laura Mulvey’s feminist essays about the male gaze because she thinks they would resonate with Candy. “Once you really get in it, everything is grist for the mill. You’ll hear a song and be like, ‘Oh shit’, and it’ll explode something in your mind about the world. It’s like how, if you’re in love, everything you come into contact with is about the affair.”
Gyllenhaal hints that one of her next affairs might be with her husband of nine years, Peter Sarsgaard, whom she calls “a great actor”. She’s more candid (but only a little) about her hopes of directing an adapted screenplay for The Lost Daughter, a novel by Italian literary phenomenon Elena Ferrante, whom Gyllenhaal adores for the quality of her candour. “Ferrante is a feminist hero for me, and part of what I find so heroic is her honesty – her honesty about the complicated nature of all of this. She thinks, and takes the time, and considers.” (Candy.) “She tries to tell the truth about where she is at; she’s not fronting at all. She even goes back and says, ‘I was wrong about that,’ or, ‘I was confused when I wrote or did that.’” (Lisa.) “I admire that so much: just the constant considering, rethinking, acknowledging and trying to understand someone who comes from a different perspective. I really find that exciting.” (Maggie.)
The Kindergarten Teacher is out internationally next week
Photography Mel Bles, styling Sasha Kelly, hair Peter Butler at Tracey Mattingly using ghd, make-up Benjamin Puckey at Bryant Artists using La Mer, nails Tracylee Percival at The Wall Group using Chanel Le Vernis, set Design Whitney Hellesen at Webber, photography assistants Edward Bourmier, Mitchell Stafford, styling assistants Simone Faoro, Lucy Gaston, make-up assistant Misaki Ishihara, set design assistant Jeff Ricker, production Roxanne Doucet at Rosco, production assistant Donavan Powell, retouching Pheonix Bespoke