An alluring presence wearing a black knit shawl over a leopard print dress, the beautiful and always fascinating Maggie Gyllenhaal goes from strength to strength, playing a series of independent, strong-willed women, including her latest in the con artist drama, Criminal. Never one to repeat herself, Gyllenhaal won’t be seen playing ‘the girl’ in typical Hollywood films, as she explained to Paul Fischer.
Question: When you started Criminal, and were doing the earlier scenes, do you do them with a knowledge and thought of where the character’s eventually going to go or do you play for the sake of the audience going along the journey?
Answer: I think I play each scene with the information I have up to that point, the person I’m playing whatever the circumstances are, whatever I know up until then, that’s what I know. I didn’t do anything really for the sake of the audience.
Question: On the page it might have seemed like a difficult character to tap into so how did you tap into her?
Answer: Well, I guess interested me about her is that she seemed to be somewhere on the page, a classic girl in the con movie, femme fatale which is appealing to me. I’m interested in that. There’s something attractive about that for me, but I think it’s something that she’s performing with an intention and I don’t think that she’s necessarily performing it very well. And I liked that idea. Someone who’s trying to perform herself and not only succeeding…. I definitely felt that when I was playing her. I didn’t know where to put my hands and here I was in this suit and there were times when I felt I was totally pulling it off and times I felt like what am I doing – it’s not me. And I think that’s what Valerie is going through.
Question: Were you a fan of this type of movie? Did you like con movies?
Answer: Yeah. I mean…I don’t know, I didn’t think of it as a genre movie although that’s what it is. It’s very classic con movie. I don’t think it’s doing anything particularly shocking or new. It’s like a new read on it really. What is so interesting about this one is that everyone is conning everybody else. So what I feel about the movie is that when you watch it, you have to invest yourself. There’s nobody saying this is a person you can trust, this is a person you can’t trust. The movie doesn’t say that. It says, trust this person for awhile – Oh look at cute little sweet Diego, he’s definitely not lying and then you see he’s definitely lying. And then all those scenes you valued up till then when he was your protagonist – do you throw all of them away, some of them away. Wait, where are we??!! Who can I trust? You have to invest in somebody and chances are you’re probably going to invest in somebody who’s going to deceive you. Cause everyone is deceiving.
Question: Has anyone ever conned you?
Answer: Yeah, I’ve been conned a couple of times, but now I’m a little more savvy.
Question: What kinds of things happened to you?
Answer: This is a teeny little con. One time when I was in London alone and was 18 and having lunch in a café outside by myself. I had asked for the bill and taken my wallet out and put it on the table waiting for the bill to come. This guy came up to me and said ‘I don’t think you’re going to be able to pay for your meal’ and I said What? And he grabbed my wallet and ran down the street. It wasn’t really a con but it’s got a little something in it. And once when I was traveling alone in Spain I met this couple – it’s a long story – but they conned me into buying them this expensive dinner. I was like I’m being conned and I can’t get out of it. It was so strange.
Question: Are your emotions at that point more frustrating or embarrassed that you allowed it to happen to you?
Answer: I was sort of fascinated both times actually. I was a bit thrilled both times to be honest. I remember talking to this English Bobby on the phone and I told him the story about my wallet being stolen and he sort of started laughing. He asked me what my wallet looked like and I said it had a brand of the Virgin Mary branded on the front (laugh). He was laughing and said he’d get back to me if they found it.
Question: What was it like developing the fraternal relationship between you and John C. Reilly?
Answer: I think he and I are sort of similar actors in the sense that I’m not a very literal actor. I didn’t feel like he had to feel like my brother. I felt like he had to feel like something and I was gonna let whatever he felt like be OK. So we just kind of interacted with each other a little bit. We stoked the fire of antagonism a little bit and we let that be oK.
Question: A lot of young people postpone college. I just want some advise for some young people who might be trying to say I can’t do both. And you have.
Answer: I feel so, so gratified about having finished college. Because basically what I got out of it was I learned how to articulate myself, I learned how to say what I mean. It basically gave me confidence really more than anything. And also the ability to analyze the text which is not so important in a movie like this but very important in doing the Tony Kushner play. I mean I don’t think I could have done that play if I hadn’t gone to college.
Question: You were an English literature major?
Answer: Yeah, but it doesn’t matter really what your major is. You don’t have to have that be your major; that just interested me so I studied that. It was really more like sitting in a seminar, saying something and having everyone understand it and feeling… I think the confidence it gave me is the most important thing it gave me. And I think it’s really worth something. A big part of being an actress specifically is feeling entitled to your artistic opinion, feeling that it means something, and being able to stand by it. Now things are changing but maybe 10 years ago, it was really difficult for a young actress to walk onto a set and disagree with the director and having that be OK and have a conversation about it and everyone be cool with it unless you’re working with Robert Altman or… all the greatest directors want to collaborate with their actors as far as I can see. I think it’s the people who are less talented who don’t want to. Having an education and being able to articulate what it is you want and why is invaluable.
Question: Now that you and Jake are working so much, do you get any time to spend together?
Answer: Yeah, we try and find time to spend together. We just spent a week together.
Question: Around here?
Answer: No, on vacation.
Question: Secretary was such a defining career moment for you. Has it been a challenge to find women who are as interesting as that character?
Answer: Well I just did 3 movies where I played 3 really interesting women back to back so I feel there is no shortage of real interesting women’s roles. But I found them and did all of them just now.
Question: Can you talk about them and tell us the differences?
Answer: Yeah, I just played “The Great New Wonderful” which was a very small movie in NY and I played a woman is a cake decorator and decorates cakes that cost 15 grand. She’s an entrepreneur and sort of stuck in the Ny world. She has a crack-up. She’s a great woman and I loved her. Then I did a movie called “Happy Endings” directed by Don Roos and where I play a woman who’s sleeping on her cousin’s couch and can’t get it together, but she has this incredible kind of wisdom. She has this love triangle with this gay kid and his dad. And she’s so wise about it – wiser than I would be in my life about it. She’s amazing; I love her. Then I did this movie which may be the one closest to my heart that I just finished 2 weeks ago and I’m still recovering from in some ways I think called “Shall Not Want” which is a movie that I’ve been attached to. I found this incredible script about this woman who just got out of prison and have a 5 year-old. I had been holding onto to it for years and was trying to set it up and get it going. We did it, we made it and shot it in 25 days and that movie…I just felt she was another incredible woman. It was a movie shot in 25 days as I said, where I’m in every moment of it and I’m playing somebody who is a recovering drug addict who got out of prison. It takes place in 2 weeks – the 1st 2 weeks I’m out of prison. It had hard stuff I was dealing with in that movie. I’m still trying to figure out what the right line is between myself and the people I play. Sometimes I go too far one way or too far the other and I think in this movie, I got totally sucked into the person I was playing. We were shooting 14 hour days in Newark, going home really to basically eat something and sleep. So most of my waking life was playing this woman and working constantly. Not like a big movie where you shoot for an hour or 2, then they light for a couple of hours. This was constantly, constantly, constantly working and it just takes a little while sometimes to recover from something like that.
Question: Do you get any time for a personal life when you’re working that much?
Answer: I have to figure that out. I also did a play in that time. A play is much easier to maintain your personal life with because if you’re rehearsing, you’re working like from 11 to 6 or 11 to 5 and you get to have your whole morning and your whole evening. When you’re doing the play, you have all day. It’s a much healthier way of working. On a film, it’s hard. It’s 12, 14, 15 hours a day and even when you’re not actually acting… a movie like Shall Not Want, I was always acting. I was either changing my clothes really quickly and wiping off the lipstick and putting on the other lipstick because it was really yesterday and then working constantly, constantly. Either that or yes you do have an hour off when you’re waiting but they told you they were going to be ready in 10 minutes so even though an hour has gone by, you’ve been ready for the past 50 minutes to go and work at any moment. So it’s a really active kind of energy and it’s really tiring. for me, I think I’m learning how to have a life and work on something like that. The real test will be having a family; when I have a family I’ll have to because you have to come home, you have to eat dinner w/your kids and have to be there.
Question: Do you think you’ll be doing that anytime soon?
Answer: At some point. No, not yet. At some point I’m planning to do that.
Question: Do you have a mentor of some sorts? Someone who helps pick scripts, or ideas when you’re working on a character?
Answer: My boyfriend can be that for me. He’s an actor also. I have an acting teacher who’s very helpful to me and she can be there for me too. I talk to my friends about it, my agents, my managers who are really smart and interested in not me becoming a commodity, but actually being an artist. So I have a lot of people around me who can talk to me about it. Then in the end, there’s usually something in me that says I have to do this one. But it’s something in me always.
Question: You studied religion in college as well?
Answer: I did but I don’t know how that got to be the thing I studied. I studied English literature; I took 2 independent religion classes with Roger Durman who’s a great teacher at Columbia but I wasn’t a religion major really.
Question: Can you see yourself doing one of these popcorn movies or is that not you?
Answer: Yeah, I can. I would like to do a big movie that many, many people see but I just know I would be miserable if it didn’t have something to it…if I couldn’t do what I do in the midst of that. So I’m looking for something like that.
Question: Do you get offered those kind of films?
Answer: Yeah, sometimes. None that have sparked me yet.
Question: Actually all of your films have a great sense of integrity. All of your characters have a great sense of integrity. What do you think you tied that into in this character in Criminal? What was the bottom line w/that character for you?
Answer: I think she was somebody who was really struggling in the face of people who were dishonest and bullying her. I think she was basically trying to survive it. That was a hard one. I didn’t know I was going to feel like that to play it but that’s how I felt. It’s funny because people have been saying today that she’s really strong , but I think she’s definitely the weakest woman I’ve played.
Question: How so?
Answer: I just think she’s being bullied by somebody and she’s just trying to function as well as she can.
Question: But she gets back on the person doing the bullying. Doesn’t that offset the weakness?
Answer: Yeah, she does, but I don’t think it fixes it. I would have liked to have seen 5 minutes after the very end of the movie… I wish the movie would have continued 5 minutes longer with a private moment with her. Yeah. Or even on the way to the restaurant. I know what you mean.
Question: Are you going to be taking a break soon?
Answer: I’m doing this cartoon type movie…not cartoon exactly. It’s the one where you put these lights on your face. Not CGI.
Question: Motion capture.
Answer: Motion capture. Just 7 days quick. It’s called Monster House. I play the disenchanted babysitter with these kids who are getting attacked by this house.
Question: That doesn’t sound anything like your other recent films.
Answer: No, but you have to switch it up. But I did it just very quickly. And then I would like to take a break. There are all these things I want to do but I have to see what comes together.
Question: What do you do to pamper yourself in any downtime you have?
Answer: I’m pretty good at indulging myself. I really like to travel. I’m about to go travel for a week. I like to get massaged, go into steam rooms. I take care of myself.
Question: Do you have a favorite getaway place?
Answer: No, not yet. I would like to have a home in the country that I could go to. First in this country and the other in the Mediterranean. The thing that I do that really helps me take care of myself is hang out with my girlfriends. I have a couple of girlfriends who are like healing. We take care of each other. They know when I need to be taken care of and I have yet to have them really take care of me but I really need to let them.
Question: Where do you want to travel to?
Answer: A good friend of mine just moved back from Nepal and spends a lot of time in India. I’d love to go to India with her, I think.
Question: What advise would you give to young actresses in this town who want to have a career that’s based on the integrity you have?
Answer: I would say that you have a right to your opinion about the work that you’re doing. That you’re an artist who is as equally important as the director. If you believe that, you can work in any circumstances, however difficult. You’re not going to do good work if you’re not choosing something because it inspires you. You’re just not. I just don’t know how you could. So that’s not going to lead to something good. I mean every once in awhile you have to say Yeah, I’m going to make this sacrifice to get this thing but for the most part, I don’t think that’s a good idea.