Maggie Gyllenhaal has a strong will: As an actor, she often winds up trading notes with directors, suggesting wardrobe choices, and analyzing films and their messages more than many of her peers. A cursory glance at The Dark Knight makes it seem like the Hollywood summer blockbuster has bent to that will: The new film, the second since director Christopher Nolan rebooted the Batman franchise with Christian Bale as the lead, gets darker and bleaker as it proceeds, and Gyllenhaal plays a character for whom tragedy seems just around the corner. It falls right in line with Gyllenhaal's repertoire of dark films with tormented characters, but with a few key differences: This one cost $150 million and is this summer's all-consuming juggernaut.
That last part is new to Gyllenhaal, who took over the role of Rachel Dawes from Katie Holmes, who debuted it in 2005's Batman Begins. Since the world noticed Gyllenhaal after 2002's Secretary, she's typically favored small-scale indies and supporting roles in bigger films. But nothing is bigger than The Dark Knight, a film whose overwhelming hype only grew more pitched with the unexpected death of co-star Heath Ledger in January of this year. While Ledger leaves a long shadow, Bale, Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Gyllenhaal turn the film into an ensemble drama—albeit one with lots of explosions. Gyllenhaal recently spoke with The A.V. Club about underestimating those explosions, working with Ledger, and her career so far.
The A.V. Club: You've said you did everything you could to decline this part, and you've expressed disinterest in action films in the past. Why the change of heart?
Maggie Gyllenhaal: I think it's sort of clear if you've seen it. It's not a stupid summer movie, you know what I mean? It's not like a big compromise. I guess really what I meant by that, that I did everything I could to say no… [Laughs.] I had a 3-month-old. I really was not in the frame of mind of wanting to work. I wasn't reading scripts at all; I was just on another planet, the planet of being a mom. When the script came to me, I sort of thought, "I'm not even in the world of movies right now, let alone the hugest movie ever." Also, to be totally honest, before I'd read it and thought "Oh God do I want to do this?", it was the first time in my life the paparazzi—to whom nothing is sacred—had been so horrible and awful and invasive to us, that I just thought, "Why would I want to go do this huge, huge movie that everyone will see, and it will only feed that?" But meeting with Chris, reading the script, and also the cast, just kind of knowing who they were, did make it impossible for me not to do it. If someone asks me if I want to be in a movie Gary Oldman is in, even if I only get to say one line to him, which is the case here, it's hard to say no. I think he's an unbelievable actor. Also, I did say to Chris, "I really want her to be smart." And he'd say "Okay." "And I really want her to be a great woman, and actually have a point of view about things." "Great, yes, that's what I want too." Every turn, he was like, "Yes, help me. Let's make her better."
AVC: In every role you choose, you say you need something to think about and work through. What did you have to work through for this role?
MG: Well, you know, the process of working on this movie was very tied up with having a baby. My daughter was 7 months old when we started shooting, and 14 months old when we finished. I was really just beginning to step out and think about what it meant to be an actress and what it meant to be a woman, which is in some ways a question you always have to ask yourself if you're going to do a movie like this. What does it mean to be the woman in this movie, in this big Hollywood action movie? And is there a way to do it that's cool, that's awesome? Is there a way to do it that you actually believe that these incredible guys actually like her this much? Is there a way to do it where she actually also has a point of view about the state of the world, the moral state of the universe, like these guys do? I tried to make that true; it's not up to me to say whether it worked. But that definitely was what I tried and wanted to do. And those were all things that I was thinking about.
AVC: Aaron Eckhart joked that if the script called for you to be in peril, you had a problem with it. Are there any types of roles you wouldn't take outright?
MG: No, I mean, he was just kidding. The truth is, what I didn't want to be was just the sort of empty lady who gets thrown around by different guys and doesn't have anything to do but look scared. I just wanted her to be a real person. There are times when she's scared and she's in peril for sure, but it's true, I would always sort of try to figure out another way to play it. [Laughs.] But it's important that that happens to her—and that happens to us women. We do get scared sometimes and feel vulnerable and all sorts of things. I just wanted her to be a real person. I don't want to play the happy hooker, you know? [Laughs.] There are some things I don't want to do. Then again, if you're going to play a hooker in a movie, the movie has to have the perspective, of course, that it isn't such a great thing. Probably the only way to really play a hooker well is to believe you're doing something that's good. But at the same time, the movie can't have that point of view, so… [Laughs.] There are lots of things I wouldn't do.
AVC: Like what, besides the happy hooker?
MG: Well, I don't think there are that many I could say unequivocally "I would not play that," but there's lots of parts I read and I think, "I don't really want to do that. I don't really think that's how women act."
AVC: Is the lack of believability the common denominator?
MG: Well, sometimes I'll read things and think, "That's not how humans behave," or "I don't understand how to do that and make it seem like I'm not some kind of strange alien or on a sitcom." I don't get it, and when I feel that way, I have to listen to my instinct. There was one time recently, of course I can't say what the movie is, but I had a lot of problems with it. I thought it wasn't the way humans really behave. I had a meeting with the director, who then decided he didn't want me anymore. [Laughs.] And after that, I thought, "You know what? I think I didn't give that a fair chance. I think maybe I was too quick to judge that." But often my initial instinct does lead me in a direction that I can trust.
AVC: When does being opinionated and having ideas become being high-maintenance?
MG: [Laughs.] Yeah, that's interesting. Well, I think it depends on what you're defending. If you're defending something artistic and something that you believe is really important to the work that you're doing, and you're able to listen and you're able to be wrong, then I don't really see how that can be a problem. But if you're defending your right to have an assistant and a big trailer, then of course that's a problem right away. Some people would probably disagree with that and say you need what you need to work, but I need very little to work, because I learned how to make movies on tiny movies. It's all kind of easy for me.
AVC: Was there culture shock in being on this giant blockbuster set?
MG: It didn't feel really like culture shock, partially because most of the work I did were just little scenes. A couple of things I did on the huge Batman sets, and that did feel like, "Oh my God, wow." I'd never seen anything like it before, the sets they'd built for the previous Batman films, in these huge hangars. That stuff felt astonishing.
AVC: What scenes were those?
MG: The stuff where we fall through the air, when we land, some of the stunt stuff before that. But mostly we did shoot on location, little scenes between me and one to two other people. We shot very quickly, because Chris had worked with Wally Pfister, his DP [director of photography], so many times, they have such a shorthand. It wasn't that thing you hear about where you shoot half a scene in one day, and the rest of the time, everybody sits around. It was really hard work and felt very much like making a smaller movie.
AVC: You performed the stunt where you slide from the building. What was involved with that?
MG: It looks like it would have taken a lot more bravery than it actually did. [Laughs.] I thought, "Oh, no problem. I'm so excited that I'm going to do a stunt at some point!" It was actually the very last thing I shot in the movie. I thought, "Cool, let's see what it's like." Then we got closer and closer to it, and I got really scared that day. I was in this really tight harness, and I just got scared. I was shaky. I'm pretty athletic, I'm pretty strong, I don't know why I got so scared—not that much was being asked of me physically, so it must have been just in my mind. I did it once, and it was so fun, and that's one thing working on a big, huge movie—well, on this big, huge movie, on a movie this huge—is that they just have access to whoever they want. So the crew is unbelievable, and they can pay them. They want this person, they pay them what they ask, and they can get them. So the people who were doing the stunts with me were obviously really good at their job. I looked at this sweet guy who was holding my hand, because he had to hold onto me before I fell, and I thought, "This guy, I have to trust him. He knows what he's doing." This is not a movie with a budget of $1.5 million, and they're just sort of cobbling it together as best they can, which is a situation I've certainly been in.
AVC: This was seven months after you'd had your child. Did you have to do much physical prep work for it?
MG: Mostly I didn't think at all about my body until after I stopped nursing. When I was nursing, my body was my daughter's, I didn't even think about it. Then I finished nursing, and I was kind of like "Oh, huh, wow, my body's so different." [Laughs.] That whole process, though, happened during the filming of this movie, which is kind of intense. The woman who was the wardrobe designer on the movie was so awesome with me. I watched the movie, I can't really tell, but my body changed so much during the course of filming this movie. She was just pulling up bra straps and tucking this in the whole time, changing everything to make it fit me. She really took care of me on the movie, and she let me play a big part in designing part of it. I'm always really into what my characters wear, and it was really a lot of fun in this case.
AVC: Is there anything in the final cut or missing from it that surprised you?
MG: Everything that I did in the movie was in the final cut. And the rest of the movie, to be honest… [Laughs.] I read the script, [but] I'm so unused to reading explosions and the long descriptions of fight scenes. I sort of thought, "Right, right, they fight, something explodes, then okay, they both talk again." [Laughs.] So all the major plot points were there; I'm not sure how much the explosions and fights shifted and changed.
AVC: Christian Bale has a reputation as a particularly intense actor, as did Heath Ledger. Gary Oldman is also no slouch. How was the mood on the set, with so many Method types around?
MG: Well, it didn't feel that way; it just felt like everyone came however they were gonna work. There was no time for anything else. You work this way, I work that way, but everyone is really good at what they do, obviously, so there's no judgments to be made. Everyone just came and worked. That was what the set was like. That's how Chris worked, so there's no drama.
AVC: Heath Ledger's death increased the attention on the film. When someone goes so unexpectedly like that, it gives everything they've done a gravitas. Is it hard to get past that when you reflect on the film itself?
MG: Yeah, it is. Watching the movie, though, when I first saw Heath, it was really upsetting. I felt upset like that for a couple minutes. I think it was a mixture of me wanting to protect myself, and also just how incredible Heath is in the movie, that I just started watching him as The Joker. I feel like that's what a lot of people have said to me.
AVC: What will you take away from the experience, working with him on what's probably his final film?
MG: I knew Heath, but I didn't know him that well. I think it's so shocking what happened, and so upsetting and sad, that of course there's no way to separate that from what this movie is for me. I didn't work with him very much in the movie. I think the scene we had together is pretty intense, and it was so much fun to shoot with him. I think it's unusual, even for the greatest actors, to hit on the place that he hit, which was this total freedom where you get lifted up and inspired by something. That is what was happening with him. I could feel that, and that's so fun to be around, and it was such a blast doing even that little scene with him. I mean, I don't know. In a way, I can't even really believe that he's dead, you know? It's hard for me. I think probably in a year, I'll be able to answer that question better. It's funny, you sit in a room and do a junket and 300 people ask you about him, and you start to not feel anything. But at the same time, it's very sad.
AVC: At the same time, though, there's a place the repetition of doing press for this film will never get to, because you had that experience.
MG: Well, just sort of temporarily, it makes you protect yourself a little. At the same time, I also see that even before this performance, which I think everyone feels is pretty incredible, I think he really had an effect on many, many people. I completely understand them wanting to talk about it, so I have total compassion, even for the strangest questions I was asked. I get it, I know. He was a force of nature and incredibly inspiring, and I understand that people want to talk about him, I really do. It's part of my job right now to do that. But it is difficult for me.
AVC: To shift gears a bit, your next film, Farlanders, is by Sam Mendes, who did Jarhead with your husband, Peter Sarsgaard, and your brother, Jake Gyllenhaal. How much do you compare notes with experiences on projects?
MG: We do somewhat. I asked both my brother and Peter about Sam because it's more important with a director to know, "Okay, is he for real, is he really good?" I think with other actors, as an actor, you have a sense of how they work. I watch them in something, and I can point out "Oh, that person. I think I'd like working with them." With the directors, sometimes it's more difficult to tell. I think mostly actors and people I know will—if someone is really not good and they want to protect you, that's when they'll say, "Just so you know, be careful around this one." [Laughs.]
AVC: You once said in reference to SherryBaby that with small indies, you almost have to become a producer in addition to acting in them. Are you less inclined to do those now?
MG: It's not that; it's that nobody is making them. They were asking me during the Batman junket in L.A., "Does this mean you're not going to make independent movies anymore?" I was joking, but I said, "Nobody makes them anymore." They will finance an independent horror movie, an independent broad comedy, but just a simple, good movie that should be made for like $3 to $5 million is not financeable right now. And you can fight, fight, fight. What I meant when I was talking about SherryBaby… The fight is so big, and it's bigger now than it was when I made SherryBaby. You have to love it, because it's not only a fight to get the financing, it's also a fight to get it distributed. Then in many situations, it's going to be one or two people who have the entire weight of selling the movie on them. And if you love your movie, then of course you do it. Then, yeah, you're acting like a producer in some ways. I've gotten really interested in producing, in some ways. I don't know enough about it, but I'm interested in it.
AVC: What would that entail?
MG: I'm not sure. [Laughs.] But basically, the way I think of it is, if you're an artistic producer, then you're putting people together that you think would work well together, and setting projects up, and then also having a real sense and savvy about how you get the money for them. I've always sort of resisted paying attention to the money side of it, but I now am finding it really interesting, because I noticed, for example, Secretary, the first movie I did, would never be financed now, never in a million years. It was made for very little money, but we would never have even gotten that. We would never be able to get that now, with an unknown lead and just James [Spader, her co-star]. There's just no way. So I've been noticing that and thinking, "Something needs to change. All these people that basically started the independent film movement are cut out of it." I think so many of those people are such fine artists that obviously, they won't just stop working. [Laughs.] So I'm just interested in what's going to happen. I'm interested in how things are going to shift.
AVC: What accounts for the sea change?
MG: I don't know. I'm not an expert, but I guess I think it has something to do with the state of the economy. Secretary was made in the first part of 2001; it got the money in the first part of 2000. There were a lot of very, very rich people who had a couple million dollars to throw around. That's not the case in the same way now. The economy is struggling; everybody feels that. Also, I think the whole studios having independent divisions and them getting so powerful and making movies for much more money than the tiny movies were made for has made a big difference. If you're going to make a movie for $30 million, that's really risky. Yeah, maybe you have to have three huge movie stars in it to make sure anybody's going to see it. If you're going to make it for $3 million, maybe you don't need to have three huge movie stars in it. [Laughs.]
AVC: Secretary and SherryBaby had heavily sexualized content. Have you always felt comfortable with such revealing scenes?
MG: I think I'm really interested in sexuality, like most people are. I think it's a very interesting way to articulate something about who you're playing. I do see sex scenes a lot where people stop acting and start pretending they're in a softcore porn movie or something, which I'm not into.
AVC: How do you notice the difference?
MG: Well the difference is, is something being expressed or not? Often if you think about it, things can be expressed in bed that can only be expressed there, so that's the only reason to put a scene like that in a movie. If you can say it another way, say it another way.
AVC: You grew up with parents who worked in the industry. What did you learn from their experiences?
MG: I would say the thing I learned the most was that sometimes things go really well, and sometimes they don't, and it's not ultimately the most important thing. Because I really did watch that firsthand with my parents. I watched both of them be the coolest person in the room and then make a couple movies that didn't work and be totally ignored, then back up again, then back down again. So I don't care as much as I might have if I hadn't seen that. Of course, I care some—everybody does.
AVC: Especially with The Dark Knight, which is going to take you up to some crazy level. Is it more grounding to have that perspective?
MG: Yeah, to be a part of this huge movie—I imagine everyone's gonna see it, I think most people will like it. Yes. Having seen my parents go through some version of both the ups and the downs, I think makes me feel like it isn't what's most important.
AVC: If you were back to SherryBaby or Secretary levels in a couple of years, you'd be at peace with that too?
MG: Well, I hope I do those kinds of movies.
AVC: But there is something to be said about rebelling against the Maggie Gyllenhaal mystique—the quirky, dark indie-film girl.
MG: Yeah, and also as I've grown up, I mean, I feel differently than I did when I first started making movies, and that will reflect in the choices that I'm making. When I first started, I thought, "Who gives a fuck? I don't care if anyone sees these movies. I don't care. I'm expressing myself. I'm doing things that I feel are important." And I don't feel that way now. I don't want to make movies for the 10 people who feel exactly the same way about the world that I do. I want to make movies that many, many people see, and I want to say something that I believe is important in a way that people who don't agree with me can hear. And that involves making different kinds of choices, but it's not like a compromise that I'm making. It's that something else interests me, something else is appealing to me.