This story originally appeared in the Movies and Limited Series issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine. A portion of the interview previously ran on TheWrap.
On television, Maggie Gyllenhaal defines strength, leadership, vulnerability, naïvete and femininity as the lead in “The Honorable Woman,” where she plays Nessa Stein, the head of a Jewish industrialist family caught in the tangled web of Israeli-Palestinian politics. In real life, Gyllenhaal has been defining those same traits: Her outspoken remarks on ageism in Hollywood, published online in advance of this magazine, set off a firestorm of debate, driving tens of thousands of tweets, a Facebook trend and hundreds of comments on TheWrap.
The conversation with Gyllenhaal started with no agenda except to talk about how her performance on the SundanceTV show last year was sparking Emmy buzz. (She has already won the Golden Globe for the role.) She was headed to the airport with husband Peter Sarsgaard and en route spoke about her career, the scripts she gets and why she favors strong-minded roles.
Sharon Waxman: What are you up to at the moment?
Maggie Gyllenhaal: I finished “The Real Thing” on Broadway, and I’m developing some interesting things I’m excited about. I’m not shooting. Working on “The Honorable Woman” and with Tom Stoppard — [after that] it’s hard to find something that really turns me on. It’s a luxury to take a second and wait and look for something that’s really exciting.
What are you developing?
We’re developing this really interesting thing about this woman Victoria Woodhull, who in the 1860s and ’70s was a spiritualist. There was a big movement toward spiritualism then. It was after the Civil War, everyone had lost people important to them. She was probably a prostitute, a stockbroker, an advisor to Cornelius Vanderbilt and the first woman to ever run for president.
Would this be a biopic?
I think probably it will be a long-form television series, just like “The Honorable Woman.”
How did you find that role?
It just came to me. Most of the time the things that you’re meant to do, there’s an ease in the way they come to you. I read it over a weekend, my manager and I were reading it together. We both have little kids and we’d keep calling each other. “Have you read to Episode 3?” “No, I have to put my kid to bed.”
I was really, really blown away by the script, by the spectrum of the person I could play. I’d never seen anything like that before. Not just because it is eight hours long and written by someone who was interested in women. It’s an unusual part of women not usually put on television.
In what way?
She’s very intelligent, very graceful, powerful — and also, at the same time, like a tiny baby, totally disoriented and confused. She’s full of sexuality and femininity at times. And other times, not at all. She’s terrified and extremely brave, and all the things that lie in between. Like all of us actually are. There’s usually not an interest in exploring all those things.
There’s a fantasy of what we think we’re supposed to be — that’s the script that I usually get. After “Crazy Heart,” so many scripts I got were for the sexy single mom. So where is the kid when you’re fucking on the kitchen floor? I can’t relate to those except in a kind of fantasy way.
I often get sent scripts of women who are completely crazy and fucked up. And yes, there are some people that are that far over on that spectrum, but most people just have a little flash of that.
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Because of Nessa, lately I get sent very, very powerful, exemplary women. And that, also, I don’t buy. We actually live somewhere in between. That’s the thing that excites me.
Nessa goes through high drama–having a child with a terrorist, for example.
The stuff that Nessa was dealing with — it’s an opera, definitely, larger than life. Peter, my husband, said it’s Greek. But the things Nessa is fundamentally dealing with are things I relate to as a woman in her thirties. When the piece begins, she’s doing an exquisite job of performing herself, of who she thinks she’s supposed to be. By the end of the first episode, that veneer starts to crack. Then you have a couple of episodes of her trying to keep it together, and she gets carried out into the ocean of being alive. I totally relate to that, in my own much less Greek, operatic way.
Does Peter chime in on the work?
Peter read a little of “Honorable Woman” for me, which is really unusual. I said, “I can’t do this job. I’d have to take our kids to London and Morocco — it’s eight hours of television.” He said, “I don’t see how you can say no to this.” He really did push me to take it, and to do it. It was a beautiful thing.
We talk about the work when we’re having a problem, mostly. Sometimes talking about what happened during the day is a way of making a connection. When you’re working hard, you don’t see each other that much. There’s no one who sees my work more clearly than he does.
I almost hate to ask about this, because I don’t want to sound cliché, but there’s a lot of discussion about where women are in the entertainment industry. How do you feel about that situation?
I did go see “Mad Max” this weekend, and Charlize Theron fucking killed it. That’s a much larger-than-life movie, it’s not about reality, but she’s playing a woman that I felt I could relate to. She swung open the door for all sorts of things in film. I read somewhere that
In terms of film, I read very little that’s exciting to me. In TV I read things that are more interesting, but I also read a lot of things that are really bad.
Men and women are both looking for women to be real, something that actually looks like the world around us. There are things that are really disappointing about being an actress in Hollywood that surprise me all the time. I’m 37 and I was told recently I was too old to play the lover of a man who was 55. It was astonishing to me. It made me feel bad, and then it made me feel angry, and then it made me laugh.
But at the same time, I feel like things are pretty amazing right now. A lot of actresses are doing incredible work playing real women. I don’t feel despairing at all. I’m not turning a blind eye to the sometimes really disappointing reality, but I’m more interested in looking with hope for something fascinating.
It sounds naïve, but there’s a naïve element and pure element to what’s happening in television now. I feel really hopeful about it. Everything I have, except for one project for $500,000, every idea I have, I want to make on television right now.