Maggie Gyllenhaal Photograph By Ondrea Barbe
August 01, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

Maggie Gyllenhaal has never courted the type of fame that would make her a paparazzi target. Since her breakout role as James Spader’s willing spankee in 2002’s S&M dramedy Secretary, the willowy actress with big blue eyes has stayed largely in indieville, far from intrusive telephoto lenses. But last spring, she and her fiancé, actor Peter Sarsgaard (Jarhead), announced they were expecting their first child. Suddenly, camera hounds were everywhere.

”They print the pictures and circle my belly,” Gyllenhaal explains, lunching on the shady terrace of a Manhattan restaurant a few blocks from her home. Sure enough, a moment later, she spies a paparazzo lurking across the street. ”That guy is particularly unctuous,” she says, wrinkling her nose. ”I’m just trying to let it roll off. I guess it’s practice for being a mother and protecting my baby.”

The media’s newfound interest in Gyllenhaal — and especially her tummy, now six months swollen — comes at a pivotal time in her career. She is no longer the indie ingenue. (”I don’t think the It Girl is ever 28,” she laughs.) And with six movies out this year — four of which are studio pictures — the Not It Girl is on the brink of mainstream stardom more on par with that guy Jake, her younger brother.

Following The Great New Wonderful, a post-9/11-themed drama, and the animated flick Monster House, both in theaters, come two more projects in August: Oliver Stone’s much-scrutinized World Trade Center, in which she plays Allison Jimeno, the pregnant wife of one of two Port Authority police officers rescued from Ground Zero, and Trust the Man, a romantic comedy with Julianne Moore and David Duchovny. In September, she returns to more familiar territory in the gritty Sundance hit Sherrybaby as a recovering-junkie ex-con who’s desperate to regain custody of her daughter, only to bounce into a Will Ferrell comedy called Stranger Than Fiction that hits screens in November.

”It is funny to have so many at once, but it almost makes it easier: Do that press junket, that photo shoot, that premiere,” she laughs. ”It’s easier not to get swept up — just one step at a time.”

Gyllenhaal’s Zen attitude has worked so far. Though she grew up in Hollywood — her parents are director Stephen Gyllenhaal (Losing Isaiah) and screenwriter Naomi Foner (Running on Empty) — she put off a serious acting career until she graduated from Columbia University in 1999. Postcollege, she started off small, popping up alongside her brother in 2001’s Donnie Darko. Auditioning back then, she says, was often humiliating.

”For so long I was told I wasn’t sexy enough or beautiful enough,” Gyllenhaal recalls. ”It felt confusing and painful.” But then she landed the lead in Secretary, an odd little film about a mousy depressive who finds bliss in bondage with her boss. And like that, she was in demand. Even as a sex symbol.

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