Maggie Gyllenhaal feels right at home in the thick of the Sundance Film Festival. The annual pilgrimage that brings forth many of the grand titans of American Indie film movement gather en masse to buy and sell the hot and the lukewarm in this ever competing world of movies. , is the ski resort to be seen each January, and it is here, that Maggie Gyllenhaal returns with the comic oddity Happy Endings, an ensemble piece from director Don Roos.
The hauntingly beautiful Gyllenhaal has the choice role, as Jude, a would be chanteuse, highly manipulative, equating sex with power, whether that involves sleeping with a gay man, or the gay man’s wealthy dad. She might seem manipulative, but the actress, sinking back in a high, deep arm chair, immediately disagrees. “I really don’t see her like that, you know,” Gyllenhaal begins, wistfully. “I think we all end up sometime doing things that other people can see as manipulative, but I think she is at first just really doing what she needs to do to survive and here are these people with all of this stuff.”
Gyllenhaal says she has learned not to judge the women whose lives she has taken on of late, characters as distinct as Lee Holloway in the ferociously sexy Secretary, or the more desperate Jennifer in John Sayles’ Casa de los babys, or even the unpredictable and tough Valerie in the film noir thriller Criminal. “Sometimes I’ll read a script and something about a character that I read will mix with me in a way that makes some kind of chemistry”, the actress explains. “I don’t know why that is, maybe it’s something I need to go through, something I need to learn, something I need to think about and that’s what attracts me.
In the case of Happy Endings, I definitely had that feeling, and it’s rare, then mixed with that, it was someone who does things that I think on an initial viewing can be easily judged, or morally complicated, so I had to figure out this conundrum that he presented me with, which was, can I not judge this person? Can I be honest enough about who I am and about the way the world works to allow the possibility that I could find myself in this situation? Is there a way that I could find myself in the situation where I slept with someone and then with their father and was unclear about when I got pregnant and whose child it was? I think it’s easy to just play that as someone who thinks, ‘Oh, fuck it’, you know? ‘I’ll fuck him, I’ll fuck him. No problem. I just want their money’; and if you do that then nobody can relate to her. But if she’s a real human being, just like all of us, that finds herself in that situation I think ideally it can make the audience think: how am I like her?”
Like many of the women she has played, Gyllenhaal is innately and ferociously independent, a genuine intellectual, and from anyone’s standpoint, innately sexy. On screen, the actress has managed to combine these elements to present audiences with an atypical female persona, but it is her sexiness that is fascinating. Even when making out with Tom Arnold, of all people, in Happy Endings, we believe in her vibrant and genuine sexuality. It is tough for the actress to communicate what it is that makes her sexy on screen, but concedes that it’s “scary to do sex scenes” because of their obvious intimacy.
Yet she manages to convey cinematic sexuality in an often uncompromising way. “I think a lot of people that I’ve seen like in bad movies, doing bad sex scenes, tend to stop acting, just start imitating some soft core porn,” Gyllenhaal says, smilingly. “But I think that sex is communicating and that’s what it’s been in my life, whether it’s good or bad,” the actress concedes. “I love the two sex scenes in Happy Endings, because they are so different and they’re really communicating. I mean, the sex scene with Tom I feel really proud of, because we were saying something with that sex. It wasn’t just, ‘Okay now you get to see some nipples’, which you don’t actually, but it was a huge part of our story.”
Gyllenhaal, received acclaim for her 2002 stint in the dark and sexy comedy, Secretary. Most of the media stories surrounding that film centred on the film’s copious nude scenes, brave by Hollywood standards. But when it comes to discussing nudity, Gyllenhaal is philosophical. “It doesn’t freak me out that much. The thing that is a little strange for me about nudity is when it’s taken out of context. Like sometimes paparazzi people have you sign photographs. For instance, there’s one photograph of me that for some reason got out, it’s not naked but I’m like in a bathtub in Secretary, and you don’t see any of my body but I feel very exposed and I won’t sign that picture, whereas in the movie being totally naked I feel comfortable.”
Nudity aside, the 27-year old has found a more than comfortable niche as a Hollywood actress, slipping at times from Independent to mainstream, but primarily the former. Hers is a unique success story where she has gone for the choice role, rather than the lure of the big pay cheque. Maggie did go from Secretary to the more conservative Mona Lisa Smile. The film underperformed but again, the actress had a juicy role and has no regrets. “I like that movie, I had a good time and I like my work in it, but, something has definitely shifted for me in the past little while. I used to just make choices, completely based on: Do I see something in the script that I need to do?”
These days, the actress admits, she is basing her choices on a more pragmatic set of criteria. “I’m now starting to realise that I also want a lot of people to be able to see the work that I do, not out of some kind of narcissism but because I believe that the movies that I choose are saying something, and hopefully pushing the world forward in some way, just questioning things that seem immovable,” says Gyllenhaal. “So, I don’t want just the people who already know that things need to be questioned and it’s okay to be transgressive to see them, but I want people in Arkansas to be able to see them. So in order to have the power to do that I think you have to compromise a little bit.”
That compromise means taking on mainstream Hollywood and working on a film with mass market appeal. Apparently she has found the perfect film. “It also just happens to be a great script, called Stranger than Fiction with Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson and Queen Latifah. It’s a bigger movie, but it’s Marc Forster directing it, so it’s not like a piece of shit. I think it’s gonna be great so I think I am willing in a way that I probably wasn’t before to compromise a little bit in order to accomplish what I ultimately want to achieve.”