Maggie Gyllenhaal: from ‘difficult’ roles to director – Wendy Ide reports

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With a string of plaudits for portraying complex characters, the actor is now focusing her ‘quiet fire’ behind the cameras with a stunning debut film.

From her breakthrough role in Secretary, wearing stilettos, a pencil skirt and manacles and attempting to operate a stapler with her chin, to her directorial debut which digs into the messy truths about motherhood, Maggie Gyllenhaal has always been attracted to what she has described as “troubled women. The ones that are a real challenge. They really need me.”

It’s a quote that really gets to the heart of what distinguishes Gyllenhaal. An Oscar-nominated actor, and now– with her Elena Ferrante adaptation The Lost Daughter – an award-winning screenwriter and director, she is drawn to the kind of women whose stories don’t usually get told. She delves into the uncomfortable angles and sharp edges of her characters and found her niche by not quite fitting into the mould.

The mould – that cookie-cutter starlet formula – was particularly entrenched when Gyllenhaal was starting out in the late 90s. And her beauty – the heart-shaped face dominated by huge ice-blue eyes, the slightly melancholy downward slant to the lips – has always felt as though it was transposed from another time. You could imagine her as a contemporary of Mary Pickford in the era of silent cinema.

The industry fretted that she was not conventionally “hot” enough, a criticism that Gyllenhaal brazened out at the time, but which she later conceded was “a hard thing to hear”. And when it wasn’t trying to manoeuvre her into a sexpot persona, Hollywood was instead dismissing her as “quirky” – a description she firmly rejected, stating that: “Describing someone as quirky is a way of erasing them.”

Perhaps the fact that Gyllenhaal’s first major role was as Lee, the submissive office worker in Steven Shainberg’s BDSM romance Secretary, added to the industry’s confusion as to where exactly she fitted into the somewhat homogenised mainstream movie landscape. She brought an apple-cheeked sweetness to the film’s transgressive themes, a forceful emotional intelligence which diffused any potential charges of prurience that the picture might have otherwise attracted. Consequently, she threatened to blow a gasket in the Hollywood production line. Continue reading.

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Wendy Ide

Wendy Ide is a London-based film critic for both the consumer press (The Observer and The Guardian) and the trade press (Screen International). She writes features and interviews and she regularly hosts panels and live events. Wendy is a regular on the film festival circuit and has previously consulted on festival programming for the London Film Festival and Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.