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Until last year, Maggie Gyllenhaal had never signed on to a project without knowing its entire story, so she had some hesitations when she was given only the first three scripts for The Deuce, HBO’s drama about the birth of the porn industry in 1970s New York. It wasn’t until she met with creators David Simon and George Pelecanos, of The Wire fame, that the mom of two (with husband Peter Sarsgaard) began to see herself playing the prostitute Candy. What ultimately sealed the deal for Gyllenhaal, 39, was becoming a producer on the series (debuting Sept. 10). “I was excited by the world, the clothes and the ideas,” she says. “It turned me on — and I don’t mean sexually.”
What made you want to sign on to The Deuce?
There’s some element of what draws me to something that is very difficult to explain. It’s kind of a magnetic pull — and usually it has something to do with me and where I’m at. There’s something at the edge of my consciousness about myself and the world that is at play in this project. We shot so much of it during the 2016 presidential election. We finished shooting maybe the very end of October, so the five or six months leading up to that were pretty intense in this country. On a more intellectual level, I felt like there was something really interesting about exploring misogyny — and not just misogyny but also femininity — in relation to art, in relation to sex, in relation to intellect, in relation to the ability to make money, in relation to all of those things.
Did you have any reservations about the role?
Playing a prostitute, or a sex worker I should say, in 2017 is a very delicate thing. I was very aware of that, and I wanted some kind of guarantee that it wouldn’t turn into something that I couldn’t ultimately stand behind. I got the feeling George and David and I wanted to tell the same story, but I didn’t think that was quite enough. We’d never worked together before. So I asked to be a producer on the project because I thought it would be that kind of guarantee that my mind would be included in the storytelling process, not just my body.
Was it difficult to attain producer status?
Basically all my agents, my manager and even my friends were like, “You’re never going to get that. This is big time. This is HBO. It’s a project that you didn’t develop and you don’t have any producing credits under your belt. There’s no way. I don’t even know why you’re asking for this.” But I just knew that it was the right thing to do. I wasn’t sure if I could do it without that guarantee. I was on an airplane about to take off with both of my kids next to me and I remember getting a call saying, “They’re going to give it to you.” It was thrilling. I felt like it was a signal to me that they were interested in everything I had to offer, and that they wanted a real collaboration.
What did your involvement as a producer look like?
I would see cuts of the previous episode as we were shooting the next one. [Executive producer] Nina [Kostroff-Noble] would joke with me and say, “OK, what was the thing that kept you up last night?” Because always [with] each one, I would go, “Here are my five notes — but this one, I literally can’t sleep unless it shifts.” I would say for the most part, those things got shifted and they heard me and ultimately agreed with me. There were definitely places were they were like, “Um no, we definitely disagree and here’s why.” But it was very back-and-forth and collaborative.
An early criticism of the show is that it normalizes sexual violence against women. Did you anticipate that response?
We did, especially because David had told me that at the TCAs the previous year HBO had been taken to task for some of that. We were aware that was on people’s minds, and of course it’s great that it’s on people’s minds. We were just sort of like, “Our show is about this. Our show takes this on.” And I think it takes it on in a really honest way. One of the main things it is about is sexual exploitation and misogyny and sexual curiosity and empowerment. I mean, empowerment is such a reductive word. To be honest, I don’t even really know what that means. Having demand over your own desire? It’s all of those things at once.
But I think without portraying real violence against women and the possibility for violence against women, without portraying the exploitation that can be and often is inherent in porn, how do you tell the story? At the same time, through porn my character is totally woken up and enlivened. She finds a sense of self. What I love about the show is that I don’t think that it’s moralizing on one side or the other. It’s trying to portray something in a complicated way that includes all of its gray areas, and I don’t think you can do that if you shy away from the reality of the possibility of violence and the possibility of exploitation, which is a part of it. If we had made something that didn’t include those things, as David says, we would have made Pretty Woman, and that’s not what we’re trying to do.
Being the female star and producer of the show, it seems most people look to you to field questions about how the series treats women. How do you feel about playing the role of spokesperson?
I feel like it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot anyway since Trump was elected president: misogyny and my sense of feminism and the sexism I encounter in the world. I think before he was elected, I imagined that we were in a very different state than we’re in. And when I was faced with the reality of where we actually are, I’ve spent so much of my time thinking about these things. So I guess every time I do any interview about The Deuce, it ends up being a conversation about where we are as women politically right now, and sometimes I think, “How much is that where my mind is at and how much is that actually the way to do publicity for this show?” I just find that whenever I open my mouth and anyone asks me questions, that’s what comes out. But I do feel like, what an amazing time to be talking about this, to be talking not only about misogyny but to be talking about femininity also — because, in a way, misogyny leaves out the incredibly interesting and fascinating aspects of being a woman.
You’ve said before that you think sex in film can be an opportunity for “really interesting acting.” Do you still think that after the number of sex scenes you had to film as Candy?
I do still feel that way. It was intense having to do these sex scenes with people I really didn’t know and had no relationship with outside of this transactional sex that we had to portray. Those are not the kind of sex scenes I’ve done in movies before this. They’ve been love stories and they’ve been conversations between two characters. But I think if you don’t really portray that transactional commerce element of sex work, I don’t think you’re telling the truth about it. But I found that hard, to be honest. There are a lot of scenes where you see Candy just, like, fucking somebody, and then you don’t see them again. That’s her job.
How did you feel about the nudity piece of it?
That was a part of the gig. I don’t mind nudity because it is definitely in service of telling a story that needs to be told. Of course, I would have a problem with gratuitous nudity but I don’t see this that way at all. And I think it’s amazing to be able to use every part of myself including my body to tell the story that we need to tell. It’s so interesting because you have to sign a nudity contract per episode. So you get the episode, you read it and then you get to say, “No, no, no. That doesn’t feel right, and we need to reassess how that scene is going to be shot because I don’t want to be naked in that scene.” So every actress and actor was in a constant dialogue about what they felt was appropriate and inappropriate and had the buffer of the people who represent them to help make their case. I know that David and George and Nina, if you meet them, they just wanted everyone to feel comfortable and respected.
There seems to be just as much full-frontal male nudity as female nudity, something we’re seeing more of on TV. Was that intentional?
I don’t think it’s an algorithm. We’re trying to tell a story, and we’re using our minds and our bodies and our hearts to do it. (Laughs.) I didn’t count one for one, or anything.
A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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