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Actress Maggie Gyllenhaal on feminism, the value of shock, and ditching stereotypes in favor of the real thing.


Maggie Gyllenhaal is best known for playing strong female characters; often flawed, broken, and unsure, but also heroic and empowered. We sat down with Maggie to hear about her upcoming HBO series, The Deuce, feminism without pedantics, and why a little provocation might be the key to moving beyond stereotypes.

PHOEBE DE CROISSET Your new HBO series, The Deuce, takes a look at the pornography industry in the 70s and 80s and you play the part of Candy, a prostitute. Did you have reservations about taking on this particular role?

MAGGIE GYLLENHAAL When they asked me to do the project and told me I would be playing a prostitute, they showed me three episodes (out of eight). It’s television, so they don’t have the whole series written, which is new for me. The Honorable Woman, which is the only other television series I was in, was all written beforehand and we shot it like a long movie. I had never worked with this group of people, although I had tremendous respect for them. So I wanted some kind of guarantee that I would have a part in the artistic conversation about who Candy becomes.

PC So what happened?

MG Well, I asked to be a producer on it, and they were incredible, and made me a producer. That’s very unusual on a television project if you haven’t built it from the beginning. I think they were acknowledging that I was doing something that is politically complicated. I wanted to be sure they understood that they were hiring my mind as well as my body. And I felt confident about asking for that. Very unsure that I would get it, and then beyond moved when I did, you know?

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PC It’s interesting that you seemed so unsure.

MG Yes! Even after I became a producer, and even though I’d been told with every action they’d taken that they were interested in my ideas, I still hesitated. I would spend hours writing my emails – perfectly constructed emails – careful not to push too hard or be too demanding, pop some sugar in there, with the ultimate goal of being heard. And not being dismissed. But I was going in with such a feeling that I might be dismissed! And I think if you are a man, you don’t have to begin there.

PC I think a lot of women struggle with this; striving to be perfect for fear of being misunderstood or overlooked…

MG I think it was my own self and my gender (although I know not every woman is that way) that made me think the paragraph had to be perfect, every word had to be just right for me to be heard. Finally, by epidose 7, I realized I could just take it easy! I’ve learned to express myself a little more freely – I am now more conscious of who I’m talking to and how they respond to me.

I am interested in talking about feminism, sexuality, and power, without being pedantic.

PC Do you think some of this struggle stems from the negative feedback women often receive for wanting things and going after them?

MG I think that was really clear with Hillary. Whatever your feelings are about her, there was definitely an element of vitriol and hatred for her desire for power. Or the way in which she was able to achieve power. I do not have the same politics as her – my politics are much more progressive – but I was fascinated by her ability, her power, and her intelligence and the way that she could hold all of those things despite the vitriol that was being flung at her. I was so inspired by that.

When I hear an actress is “difficult” I often wonder whether people are listening to her.  I wonder if people are expecting her to be a certain way and when she’s not behaving in that way they are calling her difficult. Or too demanding, or having too much desire.

I feel instinctively that there is a possibility that I, and other women, will be met with disdain for wanting power of their own, power over their own artistic lives even. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to approach those kinds of things very carefully, consciously and thoughtfully and know who my audience is.

PC What do you hope your audience takes away from The Deuce?

MG I have been thinking a lot about the value of shock. I am incredibly exposed all the way through this film, talking about, not explicitly talking, but using my body and my work to talk about the real subtleties of sexuality and power. The real subtleties of a woman’s mind and body. How does a prostitute’s own desire fit into the currency of her work? Things like that. And I have been thinking, how is this going to be received? I think shock is a part of it. I hope I can provoke someone to think of something that they would not have otherwise thought about. Not the stereotypes, but the real thing.

PC You have been fortunate to play very complex female characters; Nessa, for example, the heroine of The Honorable Woman.

MG I do feel like I have had the opportunity to play so many interesting women. I think in an artistic world, there is a real interest into looking deeply into a woman’s mind and heart and when you really do it, people respond.

The Honorable Women was very interesting, because it was written and directed by a lover of women, Hugo Blick. There are some men who really love women, and who are interested in femininity and curious about what a woman’s power looks like and how they can struggle with it – all of the things we’re talking about. And there are men who are less interested in that. And I have worked with both. And it doesn’t necessarily mean I won’t have interesting relationships with men who have more difficulty seeing women.  But Hugo Blick is a lover of women, and his wonderful wife is a partner and collaborator of his, and he wrote a script that is about all of these things. And when I read that script, I wasn’t at all concerned that I wouldn’t be able to be a part of the conversation, because the conversation was in every scene.

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PC Your latest project features another bold, complicated woman, Victoria Woodhull, who in 1872, became the first woman to run for president. How did you come across Victoria?

MG What’s really strange is that when I was in high school, my mother, who is a screenwriter, was working on an adaptation of a biography that was written about Victoria. And so I used to hear about her a lot, and my mom used to say to me, “you would be amazing as Tennesee,” who was Victoria’s sister. They were an incredible pair; they always dressed exactly the same, in identical outfits.

I hope I can provoke someone to think of something that they would not have otherwise thought about. Not the stereotypes, but the real thing.

PC What drew you to her character?

MG I love how imperfect she was. She was a con artist, likely a prostitute, and she spoke to the dead! Although at the time, after the civil war, that wasn’t as strange as it sounds. With so many women losing children during childbirth, speaking to the dead was like analysis. Lincoln actually had a medium in the White House. So it was a part of the culture at the time. I do think she believed she could speak to the dead and have a connection to the supernatural, but she also used it to get what she needed.

So what I like about her is the same thing I like about who I play in The Deuce. I am interested in talking about feminism, sexuality, and power without being pedantic. Using a very flawed point of view. I like that Victoria was broken in all the ways she was broken, and confused in all the ways she was confused. Because that makes her relatable. Because we are all broken and confused too. In a lot of ways, she was like the Kardashians – she really courted the press. She used sex and the press to get power. And that’s so much more interesting to me that somebody who fits neatly into our fantasy of what we want our feminist to be.

And it’s the same with everybody that I play. Same thing with Nessa. She is doing all these heroic things but she is also really messed up and confused. And she lets us imagine that in some strange other universe, we could be that person. Can you imagine that? It’s hard to imagine. And that’s what’s exciting about my job.

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