This profile of Maggie Gyllenhaal starts in New Haven, Connecticut. It's not part of the great actress' biography—yet. When I visited this cultured college town in mid-April, Parker Posey was performing in a play. The promotional poster for The Realistic Joneses at the Yale Repertory Theatre made no reference to Posey's mid-1990s reign as an art house darling, a critic's choice, a Film Comment subscriber's sex symbol.
Gyllenhaal, 34, has resided in these categories since she blew the doors down in 2002's Secretary, a dark comedy where Gyllenhaal's meek former mental patient blossoms under the sadomasochistic hand of her boss (James Spader). It was a jaw-dropping performance, and she soon proved her mettle in a wide variety of roles: a cosmopolitan coed in Mona Lisa Smile (stealing the movie from established names like Julia Roberts and Kirsten Dunst), a scheming chanteuse in Don Roos' Happy Endings, and Will Ferrell's reluctant, tattooed paramour in the overlooked Stranger Than Fiction.
She brought electricity to each performance, never coasting on her willowy good looks or batting her eyes toward magazine covers. Gyllenhaal just acted her ass off. And it got her places. Her casting as Rachel Dawes in The Dark Knight, replacing Katie Holmes, was proof that Hollywood sometimes gets things right.
Since co-starring in that 2008 box office behemoth, Gyllenhaal's roles, while solid, haven't been as full-bodied, as explosive. She received an Academy Award nomination for safely escorting Jeff Bridges to his own Oscar in Crazy Heart, essentially an update of Tender Mercies. She starred in the sequel to Nanny McPhee, a fact I still can't wrap my head around. Yes, she was a delight as a crunchy space cadet mom in Away We Go, Sam Mendes' twee road comedy. But Maya Rudolph was the one tagging along with John Krasinski.
Should I be concerned? I don't want one of my favorite actresses to battle Posey for work on the New England theater scene.
Gyllenhaal's newest movie, Hysteria (opening June 1st in Philadelphia), centers on the 1880s invention of the electric vibrator. Gyllenhaal is appealing as Hugh Dancy's forward-thinking love interest in this cheeky, fun romantic comedy, but the role would be considered a challenge for Meg Ryan circa 1993. Not someone whom film historian Leonard Maltin called "one of her generation's finest actresses."
Gyllenhaal was turned on—no pun intended—to Hysteria through Crazy Heart producer Judy Cairo. "She said, 'This a great script and it happens to be about the invention of the vibrator, which happened to take place in 1880s London.' And I thought, 'Oh, it did?' I was definitely curious to see what the story was or why a movie should be made about it. And the script itself, I thought, was excellent. Really, really smart. Really well-crafted." Plus, there was room to play Charlotte her way.
"I don't think this movie is served by an historically accurate depiction of the woman at that time," she explains. "[Charlotte's] politics are very simple, basically that women should be able to go to college and hold a job. Because it wasn't a realistic period drama about suffragettes, the point is that she should be like from another planet. She should be as shocking as possible in the constraints of the time, and I thought that would be fun."
Charlotte may not resemble Gyllenhaal's trademark incendiary work, but it's a strong, eloquent role in a quality movie. "There are so few good movies being made these days, there really are, but when there's a good one everyone wants to do it," she says. "Think about the actresses who you think are good: So many of them play strong, sexual, interesting characters and all of us are like, 'I'll do that one!'" Gyllenhaal says there are a few contemporaries whom she admires and respects. She doesn't identify those actresses nor the women "who don't seem like actors to me, who seem like something else." The work among this skilled secret society gets divided pretty evenly. "Like, OK, that one she's going to do and this one I'm going to do. And you go through different phases of being more wanted or less wanted, but I find it goes up and down based on things that are somewhat out of your control."
OK, but how do you go from Secretary to Crazy Heart and Nanny McPhee Returns in under 10 years?
"In some ways, it has to do with being young, doing Sherrybaby in five weeks and falling asleep in my clothes every night, being 25 and just thinking that is the coolest thing I can do," Gyllenhaal says. "And I love that movie and I love that performance. I didn't have a pleasurable time making it, but it was a great experience for me. But, for example, the character in Crazy Heart I feel like could have been a friend of mine. There's a different kind of subtlety. She's definitely a gentler character than either of the characters in Secretary or Sherrybaby, maybe more grown-up, more subtle, requires a different kind of listening to hear her.
"I'm in my thirties now, it's a different world, what's appealing and what speaks to me," she says. In the case of Nanny McPhee Returns, the script was, in Gyllenhaal's words, "phenomenally good." She cried while reading it on the New York City subway. Plus, she couldn't turn down working with Emma Thompson. "It wasn't that I went, "Let me do some lighter fare.' It was more that I thought, 'This is such a great script, such a fun, wild woman, and Emma's there every day.' It depends project to project." For Away We Go, Mendes, who had directed her husband, Peter Sarsgaard, and brother Jake in Jarhead, called Gyllenhaal out of the blue with a small part. She liked what she read and filmed her scenes in three days.
Gyllenhaal says family life—she and Sarsgaard welcomed their second child, Gloria Ray, in April—doesn't affect the roles she chooses. She would do something gritty "but I do think it's not worth it to take my family to Romania to do something that's OK, whereas maybe if I had no kids I'd go, 'OK, I can do something like this.'" Even if that hypothetical Romania-based role became her signature performance, considerations linger. "I would have to put [my older daughter] in school or take a tutor. You have to send your kid to first grade."
Getting older means that theater, another passion, is tougher to do. "It's hard with one child, and I imagine will be even harder with two, to do theater because you never get to put your kid to bed," says Gyllenhaal, who has starred in productions such as Uncle Vanya and Closer. "In fact, my favorite experiences in theater have been with my husband, and that makes it even more difficult because then neither of you are there to put your child to bed so it's a huge sacrifice."
It's all about how a project "works with my life and my husband's life and my husband's career. But I think both of us want to support each other to do things that are really great."
She's "kind of attached" to a couple of plays. She and Sarsgaard are looking at collaborations. There's a reunion with Secretary director Steven Shainberg for something that promises to be "wild." And if IMDB.com is to be believed, Gyllenhaal is part of a wonderful ensemble cast for HBO's adaptation of The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen's epic novel of family dysfunction. In September, she'll play "a total firecracker" who, along with Viola Davis (a terrific actress), takes on the Pittsburgh public school system in the unabashedly commercial Won't Back Down.
A couple of months ago that last role might have concerned me. What happened to the Maggie Gyllenhaal I knew? But that's silly. She couldn't spend 20 years being intense, unless she wanted to join Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Carciatureland. She hasn't traded credibility for popular appeal or developed the impenetrable shell of a bankable persona. The hardcore days of her youth are gone, but Gyllenhaal remains a performer with no pretensions and boundless curiosity. Those qualities, I'm pretty sure, don't lead to semi-obscurity in New Haven.