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Independent Spirit

With two major projects out this month—the indie film Frank and SundanceTV’s dramatic miniseries, The Honorable Woman—fearlessly earnest actress Maggie Gyllenhaal establishes herself as a master storyteller.

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Maggie Gyllenhaal has emerged as one of the most successful actresses of her generation while managing to remain remarkably under the radar. This paradox was on full display when I arrived at the Greenwich Hotel, a chic and unassuming hideaway in lower Manhattan, to meet Gyllenhaal for this interview. A throng of screaming teenage girls was waiting outside the front door and promptly broke out in hysteria as a bodyguard hustled a young woman—singer Demi Lovato—into a waiting SUV. Gyllenhaal, noble and understated, may not inspire teenage girls to weep. She is, in many ways, the anti-star: an actress whom people take seriously and respect for her craft. This, despite the fact that she is also a bona fide movie star: Her role in the Batman flick The Dark Knight earned her a bragging right few people can match, as it is one of the largest-grossing movies of all time.

But Gyllenhaal is far more impassioned about the quality and impact of her films than box-office receipts. In her new film, Frank, out this month, she stars opposite Michael Fassbender in the decidedly off-kilter story of an experimental rock band whose leader never removes a large papier-mache mask. Gyllenhaal’s character, Clara, is a keyboardist who takes the band very seriously. She seethes and explodes, but also embodies stubbornness in the best sense of the word. Menacing in a funny way, she refuses to compromise her ideals.

“I was interested in Frank because of the music,” Gyllenhaal says, picking at a small purple glazed doughnut (ordered with a quick “Screw it,” after learning that the hotel’s kitchen was closed and there were no other options). Frank is not the first film that features her in the role of a musician. In the 2005 comedy Happy Endings, she recorded songs for the soundtrack, and ever since, there’s been a question of whether Gyllenhaal would one day make the triumphant leap into music. “Only in my fantasy am I a rock star-in-waiting,” she says with a laugh. “But I do like to sing. My husband [actor Peter Sarsgaard] and I were going to do a movie about bluegrass, and we started to learn these really complicated bluegrass harmonies. We are not great at all, and we will never sing them in front of anybody, except our really close friends when we’re drunk. …It’s like a secret pleasure.”

For a while, Gyllenhaal herself seemed like she would remain a secret pleasure. Her sensibility—smart, dark, layered—suits indie films like Frank perfectly. It’s a strange, surreal and wry movie, with a sense of humor so subtle that at times it’s hard to tell if the film is mocking the self-seriousness of indie rock, or celebrating its integrity. “The movie is poking fun at that naive teenager attitude about the purity of art, and what’s good and bad,” explains Gyllenhaal. “But the truth of what’s underneath [the attitude]—the real, open valuing of your own self-expression—can be amazing.”

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Born in New York City, Gyllenhaal moved to Los Angeles at age 1 with her father, Stephen, a director; and her mother, Naomi, a screenwriter. She was raised near Silver Lake and Hancock Park, but always wished she lived by the ocean. When she returns to L.A. these days, she always tries to stay in Venice.

“I always felt like a New Yorker, though I am not [one]. I moved to New York for college, but I never wanted to say I was from L.A.,” she confesses, an attitude that later changed. “Recently, I went to see these photographs by Philip-Lorca diCorcia of male hustlers in L.A., in Hollywood in the ’80s. I grew up near Hollywood. Of course, I wasn’t hanging out with male hustlers, but something about the light in those photographs made me feel like, ‘This is where I’m from,’” she says.

Although Gyllenhaal appeared in a few walk-on roles in some of her father’s movies, her real debut was opposite her brother, Jake, in the indie cult film Donnie Darko in 2001.

Next came the sadomasochistic romance with co-star James Spader, Secretary (2002), for which she earned a Golden Globe nomination. The movie announced Gyllenhaal as a singular and self-assured actress with an attitude fiercely her own. “Yes, that movie is about S&M,” she says. “But it’s also about love and human beings, and the very different, often odd ways we like to love each other. I think sex and sexuality can be an incredible way of communicating with another actor and telling a story.”

Over the course of the last decade, Gyllenhaal has established herself as an actor directors can rely on to imbue films with an added degree of emotional depth: When she appears in big-budget Hollywood studio movies like The Dark Knight, or opposite Will Ferrell in Stranger Than Fiction, she brings a theatrical purity and masterful craftsmanship to the screen. But no matter how much her movies gross, her heart remains set in smaller-budget indie films. She likes stories that zig when you expect them to zag, and that keep audiences on the edge of their seats—not with special effects, but by asking important questions about what it means to be human, to be alive, to give a damn about the truth.

“The movies that I’ve made that have made the most impact on people are the indie ones,” says Gyllenhaal earnestly. “Lots of people saw The Dark Knight, but I feel like my work made much more impact in Sherrybaby. My favorite movies are these tiny ones.”

Her next big project isn’t a movie at all, but is sure to make a big impact. In her largest television commitment to date, Gyllenhaal will star in The Honorable Woman, an eight-part series for SundanceTV that explores the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The subject matter is inescapably contentious, but the series avoids drawing obvious conclusions, with a thrillingly multi-layered plot and characters that are complex, unpredictable and deeply human.

“I am very aware that there are people on both sides of the issue with a vice grip on their position,” she says of the Arab-Israeli conflict, “but if by watching the series that grip is loosened even a tiny bit, I think we have done something.”

If the notion that a cable television series could even slightly help bring peace to the Middle East sounds a tad idealistic, Gyllenhaal can be forgiven. Her heart is in the right place—choosing art before commerce, authenticity before gratuitous thrills. “That’s the only way I know how to work,” she says, of her emphasis on human-size storytelling. “I’m always just trying to be truthful. I can’t think: I’m going to try to do a blockbuster. I’m always just after having an honest experience. But at this point, you just can’t make little movies unless you are bankable, so I understand that sometimes I have to work on things that aren’t exactly my taste,” she admits, though she’s nothing but passionate about her new television project. “I made The Honorable Woman, and I expressed so much in it that matters to me, and I’m more proud of it than anything I have ever done. Now I need to be OK if not everyone feels that way, [but] what really matters is that I made something I truly believe in.”

Gyllenhaal and her husband have two daughters, ages 2 and 7 1/2. Since both parents are in-demand actors, they have devised a system whereby one works on a film while the other parents full time—a plan that often bumps up against the chaos of real life. “Being a parent, you have to sacrifice things, and you have to ask your kids to sacrifice things. If you are Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie, you can have that power to say, ‘Yes, I want to do that movie, but I need to wait until July,’ but we don’t. So both of us have had to sacrifice things we wanted to do many times. But that’s what it means to be in a family and be in a relationship.”

Gyllenhaal and Sarsgaard have co-starred in two off-Broadway Chekhov adaptations, and their personal bond supports their professional relationship. “We just happen to enjoy working together, but I also think our similar artistic sensibility is part of what excites us romantically.”

Sometimes her movie life and real life seem to overlap, as in 2006, when she starred in Away We Go as a crazy, new-age mother. “There are lots of ways I’m similar to that character,” Gyllenhaal admits. “What’s funny about her is that she is totally earnest and has no sense of humor about what’s going on. Like, if you say you’re only gonna feed your kid organic food. But having one school of thought about being a parent has only gotten me in trouble,” she says of her more open-minded child-rearing beliefs.

While the public has spotlighted Gyllenhaal for her sex appeal (she was ranked in the Hot 100 List by Maxim magazine twice, and has modeled for Agent Provocateur), she doesn’t always see herself as sexy or beautiful. “When I was doing the photo shoot for this article, it reminded me of a Miu Miu shoot I did with Terry Richardson, who is a very sexualized photographer. [The photo shoot] was about 10 years ago, and I was thinking about what it means to be a sexual, sexy woman… what it means to be beautiful. Sometimes I feel beautiful and sexy, and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I can have a pretty drastic shift inside myself, even within one day.”

These days, though, more often than not, Gyllenhaal is feeling pretty comfortable in her own skin. “I’m 36, and there’s an amazing thing that can happen in your 30s, when the fantasy about what you expect your life to be runs into the reality of who you actually are, and what the world really is—the darkness, the strangeness—and it ends up being sexy and alive,” she says. And that’s her honest truth.

Styling by Erin Walsh
Hair by Matthew Monzon for Phyto Paris at Tracey Mattingly
Makeup by Matin for Orlane at Tracey Mattingly
Location courtesy of LDV Hospitality - No.8 Lounge, NYC