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Maggie Gyllenhaal on Saturday at The New Yorker Festival described how the current climate has pushed her to take risks with her roles, both on- and off-camera.
On television, Gyllenhaal is starring in the second season of HBO’s The Deuce as Eileen “Candy” Merrell, a call girl turned adult film director. In her new movie, the Netflix thriller The Kindergarten Teacher, she plays a teacher who develops an obsession with one of her young poetry students. Gyllenhaal is a producer on both projects and next up, she plans to make her directorial debut on a film adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s 2006 novel The Lost Daughter.
“I never felt interested in directing, or that I could direct,” Gyllenhaal told The New Yorker‘s Lauren Collins. “I feel like something about the climate right now and what’s happening in the world has shifted my thinking about whether or not I can direct, or can begin to think about directing. Also, playing Candy on [The Deuce], that shifted me in terms of feeling like I could.”
Speaking on the same day that Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court, Gyllenhaal acknowledge that, despite the confirmation, a “sea change” is underway after Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony.
“Dr. Ford getting up and saying that for years she told herself it was OK, and that she wasn’t raped, so it didn’t matter — and to [now] stand up and say: This was an assault and a violation and it wasn’t OK,” she said. “Even though it didn’t have immediately the effect that we hoped it would have, it has shifted something. There is a sea change going on, in every way I feel it.”
The culture shift was sparked by the #MeToo movement last fall, and Gyllenhaal credits the bubbling undercurrent of that shift as something that pulled her to the roles of Candy and Lisa Spinelli in Kindergarten Teacher. Both are women who experience an awakening about what they will and won’t accept out of life.
“Many, many women right now, in my experience, are waking up to the feeling that we have learned to live in a compromised way,” the actress explained of the real-life parallels. “And it’s this very painful waking up to realize that, ‘I’m actually not OK. I’m not OK with that, politically, artistically in many ways.’ I think that’s what it was in inside me at the time that I didn’t know had a name that called me to [Kindergarten Teacher]. And it’s very similar in Candy.”
On The Deuce, Gyllenhaal has spoken about how she fought for a producer credit so she could be a part of the creative conversation. “I wanted to know they wanted my mind as well as my body,” she previously told The Hollywood Reporter about having a say in how her character’s sexuality would play out onscreen.
On the porn industry drama, Gyllenhaal introduced new on-set safeguards for the female actresses, like having an “intimacy coordinator” for sex scenes, and she also wrote and performed a scene that required her character to have a realistic “non-performative” female orgasm: “I said to [show creator] David Simon, ‘I think you need to see a real feminine orgasm in order to show the contrast and to show that these are performative because you also see a lot of performative orgasms on TV that are supposed to be real anyway, so can we get down to the real because it will illuminate the misogyny and the performance.”
During Saturday’s talk, Gyllenhaal said of her role as an actress-producer: “If I feel like there’s something misunderstood or if there’s a piece that’s missing, I’ll make an argument, an intellectual play, for why this is important now.”
And speaking out extends to behind the scenes, as well. Before the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements launched, Gyllenhaal, who said she would like to eventually start a production company with her actor-husband Peter Sarsgaard, said she met with other actresses about their experiences with sex scenes. “When you do a stunt, even if someone just pretends to slap you, there’s always someone there,” she said. “Someone who is looking out to make sure that you are physically safe, and there isn’t with sex scenes. And why not?”
The group of women also spoke about what Gyllenhaal said is “just the way” things are on set. “Often they’re like, ‘We don’t have any time. Is it cool if you just get wired for sound, just like right here?” Which means you pull your shirt up and someone’s got their hand up your bra, and maybe you have to open your pants,” she said. “We were all like, ‘Yeah, that’s not right. I never even thought of that.’ There are hundreds of things like that.”
Though Gyllenhaal did not address James Franco’s role in the #MeToo movement during the panel, she recently explained that after her co-star and the show’s executive producer was accused of sexual misconduct, she personally spoke with both Franco and the women on the show, in addition to the outside party that was brought in. “We had to do the most careful, nuanced, intelligent clear thinking, all of us, and assess the situation,” Gyllenhaal told NPR’s Terry Gross during a recent episode of her Fresh Air podcast. “And for me, and I think this was true for everybody involved, I felt that continuing to tell our feminist story was the most important thing, and made the most sense, even in light of those allegations.”
Gyllenhaal told Gross that she felt it was her job to make sure there was no misconduct found on their set. “I felt as a producer, it was my job to confront that and talk with [Franco], and also to talk with the women on our show, both in the cast and on the crew, and make sure that everyone felt that they had been treated with absolutely nothing but respect in the workplace,” she said.
The results, she said, were satisfying: “In terms of making a show … I think it would be a terrible shame not to be able to continue the conversation, which is, I think, a deeply nuanced conversation about exactly what’s happening culturally right now, in terms of misogyny, in terms of an imbalance of power, in terms of sex as commodification, in terms of all the subtleties of that.”
Simon had said in January that HBO had received no complaints or “any awareness of any incident of concern” involving Franco on the show’s set, and that he would remain in his role as star, executive producer and director. The series was later renewed for both a second and a third season — the third being the last — though Franco has been largely absent from the show’s marketing.
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