When beautiful screen newcomer Maggie Gyllenhaal bursts onto screens this Friday in the audacious and sexy dark comedy Secretary, audiences will be introduced to a brave and intellectual new talent, the latest ‘it’ girl if one were to believe the press.
But Maggie, who plays an initially insular and shy young lady who blossoms, both sexually and her own independence when working as a legal secretary for a somewhat weird boss, is taking it all in her stride. Interviewing her during the Toronto Film Festival, she jokingly refers to the press junket as “a virginal experience.” An interesting coin of phrase given the sexuality of the film, some of which is considerably graphic. It comes at no surprise that the 25-year old sister of younger brother Jake, was a little reticent about bearing more than just her soul for this film.
“Initially I read about three-quarters of it right at the part where he jacks off on me, Gyllenhaal laughingly recalls “I got right before that and I called every body, including my agent, and I said that I really want to meet [director Steven Shainberg]” despite not having done any major roles on film before. She loved the character and was desperate to read it. Then she read the last quarter of the script “and I got really nervous, less because it was about sex and S & but because I thought that in the wrong hands the movie could be anti feminist and reactionary,” says the actress. “And I knew playing the part would demand so much of me and I didn’t wanna give that or anything really to something that was going to end up saying something I didn’t believe in.”
As strong-minded a feminist as she was, Gyllenhaal still decided to meet with Shainberg “because I felt like I knew that everything about the script was moving towards trying to say something that was gonna be questioning things that seem to be totally staid and immovable, and when I talked to Steve he made it clear to me that that’s what he wanted to do.” For Maggie, drawing the line between a comment on feminism and female assertion, and titillating sexuality on screen, was fine indeed, and the actress thought long and hard on those very questions.
“I think that if it had been falling off one side of this line, it would have been a titillating movie where the girl was getting off on getting subjugated which was sexy and hot, which is in a lot of ways reactionary. I think the other side of it is very close to that and that’s why it is very complicated and like walking on a tightrope,” Gyllenhaal further explains. “I think that for the last century these rules have been set up by feminists, to help lessen the gap in equality between men and women. I am so thankful for those rules and I think it has allowed really amazing and interesting things to happen and have been extremely important,” elucidates the actress.
As a 24-year she says, she is “just beginning to be a woman now and I feel like those rules are no longer absolutely accurate or really necessarily helpful in the form that they’re in right now. I think that actually they feel to me a little bit constricting and I think that the only way to sort of move forward with what those rules were initially intending to do is to shape them up a little bit, and say, ?ell, what needs to fall away and what needs to be moved, and what needs to change as time goes by?'”
Which is where a provocative film such as Secretary comes in to play, argues Gyllenhaal. “I think that the making of this movie where the girl is submissive, is empowered, opened and awakened by the relationship that she has with this guy, I think, has to be allowed.”
Asked if Gyllenhaal can identify with the character, the actress pauses considerably. “I can identify with all of it. It doesn’t mean that I’m her which I’m obviously not, but I do think that certainly what happens to her is that she goes from being asleep and really unable to feel, coming from a world where she had not been encouraged to feel, certainly not the dark and complicated things in her which everybody has in them, to a place where she is awake and where she can acknowledge both what’s dark and complicated and kind of a little weird compared to what everyone said you are supposed to feel as well as the things that are beautiful and sexy and gentle and kind. She goes from being someone who is asleep to someone who is awake and I feel like she goes from being someone who–she becomes a woman. And I’m going through the same, so I can relate to that hugely.”
Maggie, who comes from a well established showbiz family [both parents are filmmakers], may have started professionally a bit later than her brother Jake, but admits the pair remain ferociously critical of each other’s work. “I think we are both each other’s toughest critic because we know each other so well, better than our parents know us. We know each other also in a very specific way and I think we can tell in ways that other people can’t tell when the other one is being dishonest. But I also think that we really hope the best for each other, you know, so we go into it like hopeful hard critics.”
Ironically, here in Toronto, each actor had a film at the Festival [Jake’s Moonlight Mile was having its world premiere]. “I’ve never been in a film festival where my brother has not had a movie there, too; he’s great.” Maggie describes her relationship with her brother as being very close. “I think some times, a couple of weeks go by and we won’t talk at all, but then as soon as we get to talk, it will be like immediately about the most important sort of complicated things that are happening. The thing that we are always asked about is if we are competitive and stuff, and of course we are competitive, we are brother and sister. And we fight some times, but we love each other.”
As for Maggie, career wise, next up, she plays a very different character in the new Julia Roberts film, and says that she is having a blast. No surprise there.