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Maggie Gyllenhaal talks on-screen sexuality and movies that change the world

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Maggie Gyllenhaal was once in a comic-book movie. The biggest comic-book movie of its time—The Dark Knight. And the film killed her character off in dramatic, heart-in-your-throat fashion. That’s Maggie Gyllenhaal. Even in the grandest Hollywood spectacle, she grounded her comic-book character in reality and made sure viewers felt the real emotion and consequences of superhero storytelling. 

Gyllenhaal cares a lot. About being an artist, about making movies that challenge herself and the audience. About being a mother (of two daughters), a wife (to actor Peter Sarsgaard), and a daughter (to directors Naomi Foner and Stephen Gyllenhaal). About what’s going on in the world—politically, socially, and culturally. Recently, she teamed up with other celebs, including Rob Lowe, Zachary Quinto, and Angela Bassett, on an educational video about long-term care planning for Genworth Insurance. (Watch it below.) 

EW spoke with Gyllenhaal, who recently completed three months on Broadway opposite Ewan McGregor in a revival of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing. The Golden Globe Award winner—for last year’s miniseries The Honourable Woman—likes to have a conversation. So of course we asked about Fifty Shades of Grey and cinematic sexuality. You’re welcome.  

EW: I feel there are some successful and talented actors out there, who audiences love, but whose roles tell us absolutely nothing about who they really are. And I’m sure there’s an art to that approach. With your choices though, I feel like I have a slice of a glimpse of the real you in the characters you play. Would you agree, and if so, do you typically make character choices that amplify your priorities and personality? 

MAGGIE GYLLENHAAL: Yes, I do feel like there is so much of me and my heart and my mind in the characters that I play. But I also think that the fiction and the differences between me and the people I play actually makes it easier to express more of myself. So the circumstances of the people I’m playing or the particulars of personality are actually quite different than me—well, that’s clear—but deep inside them, I think I am often expressing or learning about things that have a lot to do with me and who I actually am. 

You may or may not have said this, because I found it on the Internet. But there’s a quote credited to you: “I find myself more and more interested only in roles which move the world forward.” Does that reflect your feelings?

You know, that is something that’s been quoted back to me for a long time. I think I probably did say that, but I bet I said it 10 years ago. So in a way that does come from the mouth of somebody who’s in their 20s and feels like … 

That you can change the world… 

Yeah, that you can have a major impact. And I believe in that, and I believe that that’s part of our responsibility as people in the world, but I’m not sure I would put it that way now. Not quite like that. I think the things that really attract me in terms of what roles I want to play are just where I feel like I know I will have to learn something about myself and myself in the world in order to do them properly. What’s so interesting is that often you’ll play a certain kind of character and then you’ll get offered a lot of things that are just like that for awhile. I can’t tell you after Crazy Heart how many single-mother love stories I was offered. We used to joke that it was the sexy-single-mother. After Secretary, you can imagine the kinds of things that I got offered. But it’s the people who sort of see beyond that, who have some kind of almost telepathic or spiritual sense of you, people who might not ever have even met you, who say, “You know what? I actually want to see that actress do THIS.” And it happens to be actually something that speaks to me. For Hugo Blick to come and say, “Come play this part in The Honourable Woman.” It was exactly right for me. It was exactly what I needed to do. But how would he possibly have known that? 

You often project a fierce sexuality in your roles, and you’ve never flinched from being provocative on screen. I’d really be interested in what you thought about Fifty Shades of Grey, either the movie or the novels, that have so many fans. 

I haven’t read the book and I haven’t seen the movie. But somebody really smart said to me recently, “Whenever there’s a phenomenon, I always want to go and check it out.” I used to have a stupid and young idea that, “Oh, if everyone else is watching something, I don’t want to go and watch it.” But I was so inspired by what this guy said, I just went, “What is wrong with me?—that I would avoid it, as opposed to wanting to go see it.” So actually, just like the posters say, yes, I am curious, and I think I will go and check it out.

In terms of sexuality in film, I’m really interested in that. I think it’s a really interesting element to storytelling. I think nudity is interesting, and I know that there are many actors and actresses who feel that it’s just a part of their work. But I’m kind of compelled by it—when it’s done well. So often, it’s done in a way that’s maybe not all that sexy or maybe trying to sort of fit into a fantasy of what people look like, and I’m not as interested in that. But nudity and sexuality that express something about the story you’re telling, you just can’t take your eyes off if it. The scene that comes to mind is in Rust and Bone. Remember that scene where you can see Marion Cotillard’s breast and [Matthias Schoenaerts] is kind of like staring at her? And it’s so gorgeous. And you can’t take your eyes off it. I don’t have a problem with it at all. I know that there are also people who are asked to just get naked and there’s not much else to do in the scene, and I think I might have a problem with that. But I think it can be a very interesting element to tell a story, especially on film.   

I remember seeing your mother’s movie Very Good Girls at Sundance two years ago and then interviewing her about it, and walking away after speaking with her just feeling better about the world. She was very kind, confident, and wise. This is my segue into the video you’re a part of, about the complicated conversations about long-term care planning. How did you get involved and how has it sparked a conversation with you and your parents?

People ask me to do a lot of videos like that, and I don’t do them unless they resonate with me in some way, because I don’t have a lot of time. Look, you met my mom. I’ve been joking with her for awhile that I think she might be the first woman to direct her debut film as a grandmother, so that is just to say, she’s very vibrant, she’s very healthy, she’s full of life. I didn’t make this video because my parents seem like they’re starting to turn a corner into sickness or aging in a way that is incapacitating at all. My dad actually just had a baby. So my parents actually, in the third act of their life, feel more full of life to me than they did maybe in their 40s, and I think they would agree with that. But maybe because of that, I thought, “Wait— actually this is the time that we all need to discuss this.” And aging, and being incapacitated, and money, and all of that stuff is hard to talk about in any family. It’s much easier to think about putting away money for the college fund than it is to think about money that you have to put aside for aging and dying. It hadn’t occurred to me because it’s isn’t something that’s fun to daydream about. So when they came to me and asked me about this, when I took a second and thought about it, I thought, “That is actually something worth talking about.” It’s really simple, and it’s true, and I think it will be helpful to lots of people. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about the British and American approaches to acting, and why we have so many Brits thriving in Hollywood today, playing American roles in Selma and 12 Years a Slave. You studied a bit at the Royal Academy in London, right? Any theories on why there seems to be this influx of British actors right now. 

That’s interesting, because I’m the opposite right? I just did this British television show, played a British woman. I did spend a summer at RADA, but I would say I have a lot more insight into that question based on having worked over there, and actually many times, doing Nanny McPhee and Hysteria. We shot Batman over there. Peter [Sarsgaard] made An Education over there. But really An Honourable Woman, I would say, that was the one where I got to really get a taste of the London acting community. And I was totally blown away. I think there is a sense that English actors are more cerebral, are more about looking for an intellectual way in. And I think that’s probably true. But that’s not my way. I found that whatever your way in is, if it’s intellectual, if it’s all about a physical technique, ultimately everybody’s basically after the same thing, which is a connection with another person and an expression of something that’s real. And however you get there, you get there. I listened to this podcast that Ellen Burstyn gave a couple of days ago and she said something like, “A lot of people have a misconception that acting is about lying or making things up or make-believe, but acting actually is about telling the absolute truth.” And that is, I think, a kind of American way of expressing it, and I don’t know if my British friends would agree on the surface, but my impression having worked with so many incredible British actors is everybody’s after that same truthfulness.