This story was updated October 10, 2018.
When Jessica Chastain condemned cinematic portrayals of women after spending 10 days as a Cannes Film Festival juror, Maggie Gyllenhaal had deja vu: She had a similar experience as a member of the Berlin International Film Festival’s jury in early 2017. After watching 25 movies in two weeks, the actress grew frustrated.
“There were some amazing performances by women, but one of them was about this woman obsessed with her lover, and in two others, the women were mentally ill,” she said. “So I really related to what Jessica Chastain said. In my life, I think there have been very few representations of women that feel like something I can actually recognize as relating to my experience.”
Gyllenhaal was speaking from the set of “The Kindergarten Teacher,” the second film from writer-director Sara Colangelo, whose feature debut “Little Accidents” premiered at Sundance in 2014. Adapted from Israeli filmmaker Nadav Lapid’s drama, Gyllenhaal plays Lisa Spinelli, a restless Staten Island teacher who takes special interest a five-year-old student’s poetry. Gyllenhaal never bothered to watch the original version. “My interpretation would have been limited, even if I didn’t want that,” she said.
That may have been for the best: The movie, which later premiered in the U.S. Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival and was acquired by Netflix, derived much of its power from Gyllenhaal’s hypnotic gaze, a mesmerizing screen presence that has cultivated across two decades of performances. Despite a crowded best actress field, respect for Gyllenhaal and the formidable platform that Netflix will provide for the movie could make her a dark horse during this year’s awards season — while she remains a serious contender for the Gothams and Independent Spirit Awards.
Gyllenhaal has developed a knack for recognizing the potential that certain roles have for her abilities. “It wasn’t a rational way, but here was a story of a very complicated woman that I felt I can tell,” she said. “It’s tapping into the edge of my understanding of myself and the world that I know.”
The project was developed almost entirely by women, including Pie Films’ Talia Kleinhendler and Osnat Keren (who produced the original) and Maven Pictures co-founders Trudie Styler and Celine Rattray, who financed it. Gyllenhaal said she took on producer responsibilities as she became more invested in the project’s success. “I want to be a part of making all the decisions that make this movie sing, not just the acting,” she said. “The film is really centered on a woman’s mind. It really is a very feminine kind of experience.”
She also has a producing credit on HBO’s “The Deuce,” David Simon’s series — currently in its second season — about the ’70s-era legalization of the porn industry, in which she plays prostitute Eileen “Candy ” Merrell, who eventually became a porn actress and director. When HBO first offered the role to Gyllenhaal, Simon had written only three of the first season’s eight episodes. While his reputation spoke for itself, she was concerned about jumping what could be a simplistic role. “Often, women have to take what we can get and say, ‘That looks sort of what I can recognize,'” she said.
She came up with a proposal to combat that fear. “I felt like, I can’t actually take on playing a prostitute without knowing the story we’re telling,” she said. “I wanted to have some guarantee that I would be a part of the storytelling process, so I asked for a producing credit.”
Her management team was skeptical. “Everybody said, ‘You’re never gonna get that in this case, with this huge, developed project at HBO,'” she said. “But they did give it to me, and I think they did it to say that they wanted me to be a part of the storytelling process, that they respect my mind as well as my body. In the end, it was not just a credit, but a real collaboration.”
Gyllenhaal is keen on learning more about the producing process. “On some level, if you’re working on a tiny independent movie, you are often taking on some responsibilities as a producer,” she said. “‘You know a DP? Can you write them an email?’ You have a relationship with these people. Can you go to lunch with them and see if they’ll give them money? Later, I’m having dinner with potential buyers at festivals. So there’s a lot of producing that happens by default.”
She wants to learn more about the current demands of the marketplace. “It’s really different from when I made ‘Secretary’ in 2001,” she said. “I was the center of that movie, and I’d never made anything before. You could easily get $2 million to make it. It was a very different world.”
She was still getting up to speed on the process. “I’ve gone from being a total beginner to maybe just below intermediate level,” she said. “I’m actually, literally interested in the development of tiny indie movies. It’s shifted and changed so much.”
Gyllenhaal first took note of Colangelo’s “The Kindergarten Teacher” script when two acquaintances mentioned it to her at Christmas party. Her agents were unaware of the project until she tracked it down. Once she read it, she said she felt echoes of the enthusiasm she experienced when she first read the scripts for “Secretary” and “Sherrybaby,” two roles considered to be among her best. “These are stories totally based around the perspective of the woman that feel real to me, right to me, somehow accurate in the way they depict women,” she said.
Gyllenhaal was attached to the project for over a year before she took on the producing credit. “She has the intensity and the ability to go into dark and bizarre places as an actresses,” Colangelo said in between takes. “I knew that’s what I needed.” Later, Gyllenhaal provided screenplay notes and helped nail down investment so it could shoot on location in New York, rather than heading to Canada. “With her investment in the writing and conception of this character, it just made sense for her to produce,” Colangelo said.
On the set of “The Kindergarten Teacher,” Gyllenhaal was visibly invested in maintaining control of the nimble 23-day production. Two days before wrap, she was holed up in a cramped Chinatown restaurant, shooting a scene with five-year-old costar Parker Sevak and putting a lot of energy into helping the much-younger actor maintain focus. The scene found her character asking the child about the poets that inspired his classroom work, but it also involved the challenging task of eating noodles in between lines. In take after take, Gyllenhaal developed a rhythmic approach to bring Sevak into the scene.
“How are the noodles?” she asked him each time the camera started to roll. Then her voice dropped to a whisper. “Ready?” she asked, then locked eyes with him, and slipped into character.
Netflix releases “The Kindergarten Teacher” on October 12, 2018.