Maggie Gyllenhaal hasn't let the quarantine slow her down. The Oscar nominee was gearing up to start production on her first film as director, The Lost Daughter, before the world abruptly changed in mid-March. Still, she's remained in full prep mode: Each day brings long phone calls with her cinematographer breaking down the script — which she adapted herself from best-selling author Elena Ferrante’s 2006 novel — and Zoom meetings spanning everything from production design to the budget to casting.

It's a novel experience for an actress stepping behind the camera for the first time, made all the more so by the unusual circumstances. "I did an audition over Zoom, which I think was a first for both me and the actor," Gyllenhaal tells EW.

And in the midst of this frenzy, she found a way to make her directorial debut ahead of schedule. On June 30, Netflix dropped Homemade, a collection of short films created in self-isolation. Among them was the sci-fi-inflected "Penelope," helmed by Gyllenhaal and starring her husband Peter Sarsgaard as a lonely man processing his grief while (what else?) a deadly pandemic spreads across the outside world.

“I don't know why they asked me,” Gyllenhaal says with a laugh. “I was so impressed with the people who were involved…If you're [The Young Pope director] Paolo Sorrentino, maybe you're like, ‘Cool, yeah, I'll throw something together.’ But to me, it was a big deal. I thought, 'I can't agree to do this unless I have a really good idea, because there's too much at stake for me. It's the first thing anyone's seen of me as a director.'"

Maggie Gyllenhaal
Credit: Larry Busacca/Getty Images

Gyllenhaal ultimately wrote the short in an afternoon, and shot it over two days on the couple’s Vermont property, with help from their daughters and a family-friend cinematographer.

"I thought, 'What do I have to work with? I have this incredible woods around me in Vermont, and I have a great actor in my house. So what do I do with all of this?'" Gyllenhaal says. "Something about the speed and all of the limitations of working in quarantine actually felt kind of amazing. It just had this joy about it. And it was such a pleasure to put the camera on my husband in the way that I want to see it on him. I'm a real fan of his work, and it was so nice to be able to create that the way I wanted to see it."

Though “partially terrifying,” she adds, the experience bolstered her confidence and her love of directing, after spending most of her life in front of the camera.

“As an actress, you can't ask for everything you need artistically,” she muses. “At least that's been my experience. Whereas if you're a director, you can create what it is you need and want.” But, she adds, “I really, really have learned it is a deeply collaborative process. Any fantasy that this comes alone from the director is insane.”

Yes, even in self-isolation.

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