Maggie Gyllenhaal on How Donald Trump's 'Access Hollywood' Tape Affected HBO's 'The Deuce'

The actress and other producers of the HBO series spoke on a panel at the New York Television Festival about how misogyny in the 1970s is still relevant today.
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On Thursday, Oct. 26, the cast and crew of HBO’s The Deuce spoke on a panel at the New York Television Festival as part of its creative keynote series. The panel consisted of star and producer Maggie Gyllenhaal, executive producer/director Michelle MacLaren, executive producer Nina Kostroff-Noble and senior vp programming at HBO Kathleen McCaffrey. It was moderated by Slate’s television critic Willa Paskin.

The Deuce tells the story of sex workers in the emerging porn industry during the early 1970s. The series has highlighted sexual violence against women, and though the story takes place more than 40 years ago, the harassment women experienced in the early stages of the porn industry is still prevalent in today's workplace.

Gyllenhaal discussed last Sunday’s episode “Au Reservoir,” in which her character, Candy, is excited to learn about the financial side of porn. Pornographic director Harvey Wasserman (David Krumholtz) then retorts that she can't fully understand the financial implications of the industry. When watching the episode last week, Gyllenhaal reflected on what's changed since the episode was filmed. "We didn’t know that Trump was gonna be elected. We didn’t know overtly all this stuff about Harvey Weinstein. All of this is sort of becoming explicit," said the actress. She argued that much of what her character was feeling in the episode is still felt by women today, "The way it felt to play it … it hurts. You can be angry. You can be political, you can be apolitical, but the truth is, if you’re invested in something and you’re capable of something and somebody tells you, 'No,' it hurts."

The filming of the series took place when women were coming forward to claim they'd been sexually harassed and assaulted by then-presidential candidate Donald Trump in the wake of the infamous Access Hollywood tape.

“Unconsciously, all of this was roiling under everything that everybody was doing,” said Gyllenhaal about the parallels between the show and the modern day. “When Trump was saying it was OK to grab women’s pussies because he had power and was a celebrity … we were making this,” she said. “Even though we thought the outcome was gonna be different, the conversation was in every cell of everyone’s body all the time. The fact that it’s all coming out now and that our show is a part of that conversation doesn’t surprise me because all these things were on our mind when we were making it.”

The women on the panel also discussed the empowering, but also degrading, sides of porn. “I think that pornography can be art. It can also be a whole lot of other things,” Gyllenhaal said. She added that her character “feels exploited and taken advantage of by some elements of pornography and totally empowered by other elements.”

MacLaren admitted to having certain preconceptions about the porn industry prior to beginning the project. “The thing that surprised me [is] we talked to several porn stars from that era, and they were very proud of what they created and what they did, and they should be,” she said. “It doesn’t mean that all of them had positive outcomes, but the ones that we talked to were very proud of this industry that they created, and that changed my thinking of what they had done and how they approached it and what they accomplished.”

McCaffrey revealed that working as an executive on the show taught her a lot about porn that she didn’t already know. While reading the scripts, she would have to Google what certain terms meant, which resulted in a lot of porn ending up on her work computer. “Whoever takes my computer — I feel like I’m the one person at HBO that can get away with it,” she joked. “I was just doing research.”

The porn industry in the ‘70s was led by men, but The Deuce prides itself on the show's sense of female empowerment. “There’s lots of great male directors, but I think, in this particular instance, having a female sensibility is helpful,” MacLaren said. The director admitted that she was surprised with the female empowerment she saw in the pilot. “I realized that these women are survivors, and not all of them make good choices. Some make really bad choices. Some of them have no choice; they’re in horrible situations. For the most part, they’re surviving in these impossible situations, and I was inspired by them,” she said.

Kostroff-Noble added that, while the show was created and written by two men — George Pelecanos and David Simon — they don’t let their gender get in the way of telling stories from a woman’s point of view.

“We’ve always been good about surrounding ourselves with a variety of perspectives,” the executive producer said of the show's writing process. “They’re both brilliant writers, but they never have assumed that they have every voice in their head.”

When it came to the hiring process for the show, Kostroff-Noble wasn’t as determined to hire females as one may assume. "It wasn’t like, 'We’re going to do this feminist porn show, so let’s hire a bunch of women,' " she said. Instead, she asked, “Who are the right people for the job?”