Sometimes Maggie Gyllenhaal has worked on films with directors who appreciated her brilliance. Sometimes she hasn’t.
“I have learned over the years as an actress that most people — and there are exceptions, and they’re incredible, and they’re always the most exciting directors — most people are not really that interested in an actress with a whole lot of ideas,” Gyllenhaal says. “So I learned as an actress over the years how to take what I needed artistically without asking for too much.”
Gyllenhaal has played daring roles throughout her career, from her breakout as a transgressive office worker in 2002’s Secretary to her Oscar-nominated role as a boundary-crossing journalist in 2009’s Crazy Heart to her achingly sympathetic turn as a sex worker-turned-filmmaker in HBO’s The Deuce, on which she also served as a producer. Her ability to convey rawness was perhaps most acute in 2018’s The Kindergarten Teacher, in which she played a woman who is tragically passionate about poetry. She has thrived in cult hits like 2001’s Donnie Darko, with her brother, Jake Gyllenhaal, and in blockbusters like 2008’s Batman epic The Dark Knight.
Gyllenhaal poured what she learned from good experiences and bad into her feature directorial debut, The Lost Daughter, an adaptation of the book by Italian author Elena Ferrante — which just earned Gyllenhaal an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.
After some experience with not asking for too much, now, she is asking for more: more honesty, more openness, and more love. Here is some of what she learned from directing the film. —M.S.
As told to Margeaux Sippell
1. As an actress, I’ve worked on sets where the director was brutal. And I’ve also worked on sets, less frequently, but I have worked on sets where the director was curious and interested in me as a fellow artist — and most importantly, full of love. Like, real love. I know how vulnerable it is to be an actor. I mean, I love actors, and it’s a very strange job. It’s very vulnerable, no matter what you’re doing— even if you’re doing a rom-com, truly. You’re in someone else’s clothes, you’re saying words that aren’t yours. The difference in my work as an actress when I’m working with someone who’s respectful and loving is impossible to describe. All my best work are those experiences.
2. Becoming a director had to do with just kind of realizing in myself that I wasn’t totally satisfied as an actress. I actually don’t think I totally realized this until I’d completed my film, but in some ways, I was maybe always a director. I often read books and I imagined them as film — I’m sure many people do that because film is just such a part of all of our lives — but I think I was doing that for a while kind of secretly, even secretly to myself, looking for a story that I wanted to tell.
I read Ferrante years ago. I just remember my littlest daughter was probably three, and she’s nine now. I read The Neapolitan Novels, which a lot of people read, those are her bestsellers. When I read them, I had this kind of shock of recognition. She was talking about a lot of things — not just mothering, but a lot of things about being a woman in the world, as a mother, yes, but also as a thinker, as an artist, as a lover, that I had never heard articulated before. Things that I think we have agreed, without even knowing it, to stay quiet about.
I read all sorts of things in that book where I thought, Oh, my God, this character is so fucked up. And then within five seconds of thinking that, I thought, Well, uh oh, actually, I really relate to her. So, does that make me so fucked up? Or, in fact, is this kind of a common experience that many women are having that we just aren’t talking about? In some ways, Ferrante kind of broke this agreement not to discuss any of these things. A lot of things that I think are kind of at the edges of our experiences as women just haven’t been put on screen before.
I thought, what if instead of having this shocking, electrifying experience alone in my room — I imagined many other women and people were having similar experiences, because her books were flying off the shelves—what if I could actually say these things out loud and create a communal experience where people would hear these silent truths expressed?
3. The thing about film is it’s both a personal kind of private experience and a communal experience at the same time. You’re having your experience in the dark watching this movie, but you might be sitting next to your mother or your husband or your daughter. I thought that would be a really radical thing to try to create for people.
4. I remember hearing Meryl Streep say, or I read that she said, when you have something you need, always ask for it with a spoonful of sugar. All the extra energy that takes, I learned how to do that, and I wanted a different kind of set. I wanted a set where nobody had to waste their time with that bullshit. Where, if people had ideas, they could express them, they could talk about them, or not. But there was space for them. And I think that’s what I created. I do think that we all actually love each other. It’s part of why the actors are so wonderful in my movie.
5. I definitely felt scared taking on something that in many ways was totally new. I also felt really invigorated by that. Stepping into something alive is always both scary, terrifying, and, I think, invigorating. Probably the thing that scared me the most was considering the film as a whole. Before we started, I was very comforted by one scene, one thing at a time. I even felt that way in the editing. You know when people say they have the movie in their head as they’re shooting? I don’t actually even really know what that means. Well, I can imagine what it means. It certainly is not the way I worked. But I did gather the story, and how the story was expressed, as we went along. I held it in my mind. I literally felt when it got finished, like my arms were full of all of these incredible things that my crew and my actors had offered me, and I had them in my mind and I was holding them there.
6. I had a feeling that my job was going to be to cast people who I had actual respect for — who I thought were going to come to work with their own artistic ideas and intentions — and then open myself up enough to actually love them. And that’s what happened. Look. In that kind of situation, as an actor, when you feel respected and loved, it’s so much easier to get out into dangerous emotional territory. Then what you end up with on film, is watching somebody actually learn something as opposed to watching somebody pretend to learn something.
7. When something is off — not so much with acting, but with everything else: location, the color of an umbrella, how a day is put together, a schedule — I can feel it in my chest. There’s a feeling I can recognize, which I didn’t know at first how reliable it was. I learned whenever I have this feeling, this niggling feeling, it’s actually always right. And so part of directing for me was learning to listen to that and respond to it. If I kept coming back and having that feeling, I always changed it. This particular kind of niggling feeling was never wrong.
8. Things come to me in this kind of unconscious, almost dream-like way. For example, out of nowhere, I thought, I feel like I could make it work in Greece. This is a crazy idea. I thought, I can be an outsider in the same way that Leda (Olivia Colman) is an outsider. I can see Greece from the point of view of a woman on vacation. And somehow I just went, I feel like I could make that work. As soon as I put that idea out there, it was like we were unstoppable.
9. If you hire people that you actually have curiosity and respect for, then it’s going to be easy to get curious about the work that they’re doing and what they’re offering, and make them feel that you’re interested and that you respect them and that they’re loved. I think it’s true for every job. I think it’s particularly true for actors, because they’re doing the strange thing where they’re acting like someone else and they’re really in another world.
I feel the same way about my DP, about my editor, about my production designer, about my first AD. I think what I’m really looking for, and the relationships that were the most exciting to me, are not relationships where I say, Look, here’s what I imagined, and then someone recreates that exactly. What I’m looking for is an actual interaction where I say, Look, this is where I’m beginning, and they offer me something which makes me think of something else, which makes them think of something else, and what we’ve created together is beyond what either of us could have imagined.
The Lost Daughter, directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal, is now streaming on Netflix.
Main image: Maggie Gyllenhaal on the set of The Lost Daughter. Photos by Yannis Drakoulidis/Netflix