The type that defies hype

The first time the world took notice of Maggie Gyllenhaal, she was wearing heels and a pencil skirt and sashaying into an office with her hands manacled to a steel rod stretched across her shoulders. She was in the habit of stapling documents together...

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Published: Thu 21 Sep 2006, 1:27 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 4:56 PM

magiewith her chin and picking them up with her lips before expertly placing a cube of sugar in her adoringly sadistic boss coffee. Yet it wasn't just beautifully choreographed masochism that made Gyllenhaal's performance in Secretary so gripping (though that was unusual enough); it was the gentleness she brought to it, the round-faced, sweetheart-lipped smile, and above all the conviction that this, however apparently violent or sexy or perverse, was a plain old-fashioned love story.­

Since that moment four years ago, Gyllenhaal has become known as a maverick in a way that has generally only been applied to directors. She is more maverick than muse, making personal and unpredictable choices, and taking charge of them without throwing her weight around in the manner of an actor-turned-producer. Both she and the filmmakers she has worked with speak of the movies they have made together as intense collaborations. For Secretary, for example, she sat down with the director, Steven Shainberg, and went through the script line by line over the course of an entire month. Gyllenhaal laughs as she recalls that on the first day of shooting their new film, World Trade Center, Oliver Stone tried to tell her where to stand, and quickly learned the error of his ways: "I said: 'Well, do I have to start at the desk?'"

And he said: 'Oh, you're a Do-I-Have-To!'­­

Gyllenhaal, who at 28 has a quirky look that would have appealed to Charlie Chaplin or DW Griffith (she has the zaniness of Mabel Normand, the baby face of Mary Pickford and the seductive quality of Clara Bow), spent the early part of her career being turned down for parts because she wasn't conventionally pretty or sexy enough.' I was tough on the outside - 'You must have a boring idea of what beautiful or sexy is' — but on the inside that's a hard thing to hear," she later said. After Secretary, people were desperate to cast her, but told her that she didn't' mean enough money-wise, which made her think: "What can I do to make myself mean enough money-wise that I can do whatever I want?" So in the past few years, Gyllenhaal has increased her marquee value with some big Hollywood films like Mona Lisa Smile, with Julia Roberts; she has done some grit like the forthcoming Sherrybaby, in which she does a harrowing turn as a drug-addicted mother. And she's long done quirkier things — Donnie Darko, the film that made her brother, Jake Gyllenhaal, famous; a John Waters production, Cecil B DeMented; Spike Jonze's Adaptation.­

She has learnt something new, she says, with each one. "I think what happened to me was I was so lucky to have made Secretary so young," she says. "It's unusual to be given an opportunity to express yourself as an actress that young, and that thoroughly. I came to feel like: this is the way to do it. I guess I always like to work in a way where, really, truly, anything is acceptable. So that you might walk into a scene where your husband's in the hospital and you might feel nothing. It's possible. And that would scare a lot of directors because it's hard to acknowledge the way human beings really behave. All these movies I'e made over the past few years I'm proud of because I look at them and I think: that was a real, live conversation I was having there — with the other actors, with the director. It looks alive.'­

This autumn, all four of the films she's so proud of are being released in the US: Oliver Stone's blockbuster; Trust the Man, a romantic comedy co-starring Julianne Moore and directed by Moore's husband Bart Freundlich; Sherrybaby; and Stranger Than Fiction, in which she plays Will Ferrell's love interest. What with that, a recent engagement to Peter Sarsgaard and a baby coming in October, Gyllenhaal is at the peak of her strength.­

magie1When I meet her in a hotel in New York, Gyllenhaal is curled up on a sofa, bare feet tucked under her, gloriously round belly cloaked in a dark brown shift dress. She is here to speak about Stone's film, in which she plays Allison, the pregnant wife of Will Jimeno, one of two Port Authority police officers pulled out of the World Trade Centre alive. This is the second 9/11 movie Gyllenhaal has appeared in during the past year and, true to maverick form, her politically outspoken remarks on the occasion of the first, The Great New Wonderful, unleashed a barrage of criticism. She was quoted at the time as saying that the US was responsible in some way for the attacks. Immediately, families of survivors, firefighters, policemen all expressed outrage. There were so many complaints sent to her fan site that it had to be shut down.­­

In the midst of this she met Allison Jimeno, and said she'd drop out of the Oliver Stone project if Jimeno was offended by her remarks. "I wanted to tell them the absolute truth of what I meant," Gyllenhaal said. "If they didn't want me to play Allison after that, I wouldn't have.?­

Meeting the Jimenos, she says now, was "very intense". "Will is much more gregarious than Allison, but I kind of had my focus on her, and I could feel — and I don't know if she would acknowledge this or agree with this — that there were places where her heart was still broken."­

Michael Pena, who played Will Jimeno, is said to have moved in with the family, he was so devoted to portraying them accurately. Gyllenhaal says that "with Allison and me it was a very different thing. We just spent time together. And it wasn't that important to me to be just like her, but when I watched the movie, there was this gentle thing that Allison has that I did not know was in my performance. I thought: 'Oh, I seem so much more like Allison than I anticipated'." Shortly after she took off the prosthetic belly she wore to play Allison, Gyllenhaal discovered she was actually pregnant.­

For all the cast, it seems, the subject was one they needed to digest. Gyllenhaal, who was born in Manhattan, raised in Los Angeles, and had lived in New York since she was 17, was in Paris when the planes hit. She had recently wrapped Secretary, she had split up with her boyfriend of five years, she just wanted to leave the country. But when the towers fell, all she could think of was getting back. "Which is unusual, I think," she adds, "A lot of people left."­

It's often thought that because she grew up in the film industry, Maggie Gyllenhaal had a predictable set of advantages. But Gyllenhaal's parents were, on the whole, far more interested in politics than glamour, and if there was anything she must have taken for granted when she was young, it was a certain outspokenness of intellect. Her father is Stephen Gyllenhaal, a film and TV director who adapted Graham Swift's novel Waterland and made Paris Trout, which starred Dennis Hopper. Her mother is Naomi Foner, an Oscar- nominated screenwriter who frequently collaborates with her husband. In 1993 they made A Dangerous Woman together — both Maggie and Jake had supporting roles as children — and in 1995 Losing Isaiah, in which Jessica Lange rescued Halle Berry's crack baby at birth.­

Certainly, the family trade was appealing enough for both siblings to enter into it, and now both of them are more celebrated than either of their parents. Jake, now best known for Brokeback Mountain, postponed university and embarked on a successful career while his elder sister finished her English degree at Columbia University. He drew a great deal of attention as the star of Donnie Darko, in which Maggie had a small supporting role as his character's sister; it was released a year before Secretary. She has admitted that it was unnerving to watch her brother scale such heights before her, but these days no question is more guaranteed to make her hackles rise than one about sibling rivalry. "I'm so bored with that question," she says every time she is asked, followed by: 'I don't feel competitive with him any more'."­­

Gyllenhaal is more reluctant to talk about her family-to-be. She and Sarsgaard, who announced their engagement last April, are impressively matched on the basis of their work alone. Sarsgaard, who was the violent killer in Boys Don't Cry, has built up an impressive body of work in the past few years — in Kinsey, in Sam Mendes's Jarhead, in the much-lauded independent The Dying Gaul. They are planning a fairy-tale wedding after the baby is born.­

Asked whether impending motherhood has changed the way she feels about things, or about herself, she replies, with a sweet sort of certainty: "I've been feeling — and I know it's so hard when I have a big belly, it's a provocative state to be in — I've been feeling like my job, in the midst of doing press, is to keep my baby out of it — is to protect my baby. And I guess it's practice, maybe, for being a mother. I do have enough instinct to know that it's sort of a dangerous world."­

One thing she gained in her youth was a sanguine knowledge of how hard the business was, and how fleeting the attention can be. She arrived on the scene a steely minded sceptic.­

"I knew the difference in my parents' lives and some of their friends' and colleagues' when they had made a movie that was very successful versus when they had made a movie that wasn't," she says. "You intuit that stuff as a kid. I'm sure there are things that I completely take for granted that I learnt from my parents about this world of making movies that has probably been both helpful and hurtful. I don't have that kind of blinding sparkle of Hollywood! It's so amazing!'"

On the other hand, she adds, "Some of it I've also experienced as sparkly and glamorous. You know, when Secretary came out, I felt like a queen. It was amazing, I got swept up in it for a little while — going to this event and that event, and then at a certain point I realised: "Oh, this is not happening because all of these people love me. This is happening because there's, like, a business behind it, and they're trying to sell the movie.

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