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Maggie Gyllenhaal on ‘The Honorable Woman’ and Why ‘The Indie Film Community is Working in TV’

Maggie Gyllenhaal on 'The Honorable Woman' and Why 'The Indie Film Community is Working in TV'

[Editor’s Note: This interview originally ran in July 2014 when “The Honorable Woman” premiered on SundanceTV. Ms. Gyllenhaal is nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award, hence the article’s redistribution this week.]

You’ve never done a TV series before. So why now did you decide this is the time, this is the show?

I didn’t decide to do it because it was a television show. In fact, in some ways, I was really disassociating that it was a television show or that it would be different or require something different of me. I just read the script they sent. It wasn’t until — well, I just remember, three days in, all of a sudden realizing that it was eight hours of drama that I was responsible for holding up, as opposed to two, and having a little panic in a way that I had a little cry in my trailer thinking, “Can I handle this?” And I think after just watching two episodes, you can see that in some ways those feelings are useful feelings if you’re playing Nessa Stein. I think she’s feeling similarly and the idea of having to do something perfectly or excellently can be really oppressing. Whereas just going to something every day, exploring it, seeing how it feels, being a human being like we all are [can be freeing]. When I thought of it that way then all of a sudden it felt like something I could do.

To me, it felt very familiar in a lot of ways, but I really wasn’t looking to get involved in television. In some ways I was saying to the people who represent me, “I’d love to do a television show in Brooklyn, so I can have a life with my kids.” This is not that. This is a show in London and Morocco, and it was very disruptive. Not the kind of steady job I was hoping would fall in my lap. It was something very different.

You even had the same writer/director for the whole shoot, which is something we’re seeing more and more of these days. “True Detective” got a lot of publicity for it, and now Sundance TV is talking about “auteur-driven television”; it’s blending the line between the mediums. Did you notice any specific differences between this shoot and making movies? 

Yes. First of all, just to say of Hugo, this was without question the most exciting, inspiring collaboration of my career so far, and I’ve had wonderful collaborations with people. I think it had something to do with the scope, how it went so deep, but I think you’re right having one person — that did turn out to be someone I trusted, thank God — but one person I could look to and feel seen and supported made a big difference, especially on something as intense as this. Basically what I’ve found was — and this just emerged; it wasn’t something that I knew was going to happen at all — but what I see now is that, you know, we’re all used to watching two hour movies. I think there’s a kind of rhythm, from watching movies all our lives, that we’re used to. And I’m always trying to buck that rhythm and find something more human inside that form, but still it’s there.

What I mean is like, probably three quarters of the way through most movies, your protagonist and your antagonist will meet or your heroine will show you her heart finally and cry a little bit or whatever — those things we can rely on, that we count on, that make us feel comfortable inside the rhythm of the movie. In this place, because we were shooting it all at once, there was no way to hold onto that rhythm. I just couldn’t keep it in my head, which I think then lead to this much wilder, unconscious and maybe more human kind of rhythm because I couldn’t organize it. I guess maybe I could have. I don’t know. If I had sticky notes all over my trailer or like a white dry erase board thing, but that didn’t sound like any fun. So instead when I watch it, the rhythm is really unusual emotionally, even just in general, the rhythm of the piece. And I really like that.

It definitely comes across. Even for a TV mini-series, I felt it had its own unique rhythms to it, and the role is such a far cry from “Secretary” or “Stranger Than Fiction”: what drew you to play this character?

Some part of it is just like an instinct that you get. “Okay. This is the thing that I need to do next.” It doesn’t have to do so much with rational thinking as much as there’s something in this that I need to pay some attention to, inside my own heart, inside my own brain and body. I liked the idea. A lot of people have said to me, “Oh, she’s such a powerful woman.” It’s like, “Yes, she is a powerful woman. She’s very intelligent and she’s very grateful. She’s uncompromising in that intelligence and grace, but she’s also all these other things. She’s also terrified and shaky and a little girl and sometimes sexy, sometimes not sexy. It’s like all of the things that I relate to.

So it wasn’t just this kind of fantasy version of like, “Powerful woman. Oh, thank God. Now we’ve got parts for women that are powerful.” I’m not so interested in that, to be honest. I’m more interested in someone who feels like she can embody the whole spectrum of things, a whole spectrum of feelings and I did think that that was obvious from when I read it. I also feel like it’s always more interesting to watch someone actually learning something, to watch someone pretend to learn something, and I could tell, even though I wasn’t sure really exactly what I was going to have to learn, that in order to play her I would have to grow up a little. And so I was drawn to it for those reasons I think.

She goes through more than her fair share of trauma, both personally and professionally, with the former occurring at a very young age. She’s a powerful woman, but it’s not the only aspect to define her.

There are parts of all of us that are little kids, babies. There are even parts of us that are in some ways 90 years old. At least with Nessa, I remember one scene thinking, “It’s almost like she’s 90 years old.” That’s not until Episode 8, but inside all of us is the whole spectrum of things. So it’s not just that she had this horrible thing happen to her when she was a little girl. Even if you haven’t had something like that happen to you, there are parts of us that are still little kids inside us. And if that’s not allowed to be a part of a character then I think you’re missing an aspect of it.

Your director Hugo Blick told me you actually pulled off the British accent better than any native could. How scary was it to take that on, and what did you do to prepare?

I’d done an English accent in a couple of other things. I’d done “Closer,” the Patrick Marber play, and “Homebody/Kabul,” the Tony Kushner play, and then “Hysteria” and “Nannie McPhee” all in an English accent, so I had been practicing for many years. But I do feel like this is the first time that I really had it in my bones, and I don’t know why that is. I think I just relaxed. I think I just kind of took it easy and took a little pressure off myself to do it perfectly and just let it be the way someone talked. I don’t know. I do think relaxing had a lot to do with it.
That’s good. I remembered you’d done some plays with it before but I wasn’t sure if there were specifics for a different region you incorporated, or something else to make this one stand out so much, at least for your director.

I don’t know if those were great — at all. [laughs] It might have been really mediocre. I think they were passable, at least. [laughs] I don’t actually think — I was going to say Americans, but I can only really say this American — I’m not sure that I can hear the super subtle distinctions in region and class of English accents. I mean, we can all hear the big ones, but I think it’s more like, when you’re playing a character whether it’s speaking in your own accent or not, it affects the way you speak and Nessa is someone who is really educated, who’s obviously very wealthy, but she’s trying to appeal to many people. She’s trying to communicate with many people. I don’t think she wants to come off as an uptight rich girl and so I think her accent is modern and a little more relaxed than somebody who was trying to prove something about who they are and where they come from. You know, someone might say to me in England, “Oh, it’s a great North London accent,” and I kind of think, “Okay.” I don’t know the difference between a North London and Central London accent, really. It’s more just who this woman felt like to me.
You’ve just got to be happy that it sounds like someone from London.

[laughs] Exactly, I’m happy that they’re all ok with it. That’s how I feel.

I have no context to compare them with, but it sounded realistic to me. I feel like doing an accent lends the role to more awards attention, as well. The Emmys aren’t quite as egregious as the Oscars, where anyone with a disability or an accent or a Holocaust story gets a nomination, but is that recognition something you think about when selecting a role?

No, but what I did think was, “Okay. This project is this kind of amazing mixture of things. I do want people to see it. I don’t want to make a television show or movie and have nobody see it,” so this is a situation where it’s this thriller with motorcycles and hot-pink bras and guns and MI6 and CIA and kidnappings and murders and rapes and things that feel sensational on some level, right? But really expertly put together. So it’s got that draw on that level, and underneath it is this really complicated geopolitical story that’s taking on issues that are very active in the world right now and there’s this ocean of interactive between human beings. So this is — you asked me about awards — it’s not the awards as much as it’s about people seeing it. So the thriller aspect of it I think pulls people in, and then once they’re pulled in I think it asks them to actually think and actually feel about themselves as a human being, and their relationship to other human beings in the world. So that I did pay attention to. I did think, “Wow. This is something that people might really see.”
That seems to be one of the biggest draws for actors coming from independent films to television: So many more people will actually be watching. Sometimes that’s even the main draw. Is that a big part of it for you?

Yes. You were saying it’s their main draw. It’s absolutely not my main draw. My main draw is definitely to the experience of making [the show] and what it’s saying and what I’m learning as a person by doing it. But then again, I really don’t think there’s a system in place right now for independent films to get distribution. I mean, tiny, tiny distribution or maybe three of them will emerge and get a proper distribution, but most of them I don’t think — it’s such a gamble. Whereas with “The Honorable Woman,” […] I think a few million people see it when it plays. No matter how well “Frank” does, which is this independent film that I made, there’s no way that a few million people will see it in one night. That’s just not possible, right? That would mean it would make $30 million in a night. That absolutely will not happen.

So, I don’t want to be bleak about this, but — look, I’m making this because I want people to think and feel about the things that the show is about. I’m not making it by myself in my living room. And so it makes a huge difference to me that there’s a possibility that many people will see it and then that they can keep seeing it when Netflix picks it up and they can watch when they like in their house and there’s an accessibility to it that means that the subject matter doesn’t have to be so incredibly accessible. It can be more complicated. It can be more difficult to swallow because it’s easier to find and take in.

It’s a very valid point. I’ll be interested to see how the indie film community responds to the new distribution pathways available to them, with VOD and iTunes becoming popular options earlier and earlier for new movies.

The indie film community is working in TV. [laughs] I mean, right?
At the moment. At the moment. I hope that there’s still a possibility for all of us who like to make independent movies, so I can keep doing it.

“The Honorable Woman” premieres Thursday, July 31st at 10pm on SundanceTV.

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