Summer is over, and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s getting into the back-to-school spirit this Friday on Netflix, wrangling five-year-olds as the title character in Sara Colangelo’s The Kindergarten Teacher.
The drama, a remake of the 2014 Israeli film of the same name, doesn’t occupy the pleasantly sing-song, primary-colored world its title might suggest, however. Gyllenhaal plays Lisa, a wife, mother, and kindergarten teacher who has become frustrated and uninspired in her life. She tries to wring some beauty out of her banal existence by taking poetry classes (where her writing fails to impress her charismatic instructor, played by Gael García Bernal), until she finds art in an unexpected place — coming from one of her students, Jimmy (Parker Sevak), who occasionally, spontaneously spouts lines of arresting original verse. Once Lisa begins to fixate on Jimmy, determined to nurture his talent and protect him from the world’s indifference to true art, her obsession leads her down a twisty, increasingly morally questionable path.
For (soon-to-be first-time filmmaker) Gyllenhaal, the choice to take part in The Kindergarten Teacher was as easy as A-B-C. “It was just that instinctive thing, like, I know I need to do this now. I know I need to do this next,” she says. “I’ve got to work out something about myself by doing this movie.”
The actress went all-in, producing as well as starring in the indie, which debuted at Sundance in January (where Colangelo won the U.S. Dramatic Directing Award) and is available to stream on Netflix starting Oct. 12. “The script was a feminine expression of something that appealed to me as a woman,” Gyllenhaal says, and presumably that goes for the rest of the all-female creative team as well. “It was speaking our language,” she explains. “I think it does say something that’s very honest about a feminine experience, about an experience as an artist, as a woman right now in the world.”
Gyllenhaal read Colangelo’s screenplay before the 2016 election, but the shoot took place a few months into Trump’s presidency, and the fraught political climate in which the film was made and is now being released has thrown Lisa’s distinctly female brand of suffering into sharper focus.
“Him being elected president has really shifted the way we see ourselves, and how dire some of the misogyny in our culture seems, all of a sudden, when you hear it said out loud,” Gyllenhaal says, citing “grab ‘em by the p—y” as a particular example of that out-loud misogyny. “This woman is a consequence of the broken culture that she lives in. I don’t think she’s naturally mentally ill. I don’t think she’s crazy. I just think, here’s what happens when a bright, interesting woman gets stifled for too long. Here’s what can happen. The consequences can be this dire.”
Colangelo’s film pushes Lisa to the brink, but Gyllenhaal connected to the profoundly dissatisfied kindergarten teacher regardless. “I think she’s starving, you know? She’s an artist, and she’s awake in the world, and I think she’s not being fed what she needs in order to live the way she wants to live, so she has to twist herself into strange shapes in order to survive,” the actress says. “And even though she’s a real extreme version, I relate in my own way to that feeling, to being starving, to not being fed what I need.”
Tapping into the deepest darkness of the feminine experience wasn’t the only challenge that the film presented — there were also much more practical ones, like acting opposite a five-year-old half the time. “I have a child exactly the same age as Parker, and so I was really clued in to what it was to be five. But yeah, honestly, there were a lot of times where Sara and I really directed him,” Gyllenhaal says. “‘Pick up the pencil with your left hand. Now put it back down again and turn your head to the right.’ I think that’s a better way of dealing with a five-year-old than, ‘We really need you to get in touch with how angry you are right now.’”
And then, sometimes, after the young actor had to leave set due to child labor laws, Gyllenhaal and Colangelo couldn’t even direct him, and a movie of The Kindergarten Teacher’s scope didn’t have the time or money to wait for him. “There were times when I acted scenes, literally, with our gaffer. Our gaffer loved poetry!” Gyllenhaal says. “It was hard. It wasn’t Parker. But in a way, I was acting the scene with a grown-up, and it was an interesting thing to just let that reality be the reality of the scene. Because I think Lisa often expects things of Jimmy that are things you would expect from an adult, so there was something interesting about that.”
As with so many of the scrappy little indies that hit Park City every January, “it was just running and gunning. It was a tiny movie shot in Manhattan — that’s not easy. That’s like, old school,” Gyllenhaal says. But she, like her character, was willing to sacrifice in the name of art.
“I literally changed my clothes in the bathroom of the Staten Island Ferry,” the star remembers. “Nobody wants to be naked in the bathroom of the Staten Island Ferry. Let me just tell you, if you haven’t done it.”
The Kindergarten Teacher will be available on Friday, Oct. 12 on Netflix.