Maggie Gyllenhaal on playing "starving" women: "The way many women are feeling right now"

The star of HBO's "The Deuce" and Netflix's "The Kindergarten Teacher" on acting, adapting Elena Ferrante and more

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published October 12, 2018 7:00PM (EDT)

Maggie Gyllenhaal (AP/Taylor Jewell)
Maggie Gyllenhaal (AP/Taylor Jewell)

Remember that ten-year-old kid, the one who walked around with a journal, heavy framed glasses and a rare sense of urgency for a minor? The kid who always got As on her essays, and when career conversations came up she couldn’t wait to tell the world that she’s going to be a writer, because she loves writing and has been documenting her journey since she was two? That kid wasn’t me. However, I have always admired people like that — the ones who understood their passions early on and had the right people around to nurture them.

The nature-versus-nurture argument is an old one, but a combination of both helps a young artist thrive: the right environment in which to create and a family that can push their creations in the right direction. I probably would’ve loved writing as a child; however, that reality didn’t exist in my world. Talk of books and articles was dismissed, unless the stories were connected to people we knew, and those were few and far between. Now that I’m in the publishing world, I look back at the skills some of my friends had and wonder how far they could’ve gone if someone had noticed their talent or paid attention to them when we were kids.

Golden Globe-winning actress Maggie Gyllenhaal wrestles with a similar idea of missed opportunity in her new film, “The Kindergarten Teacher,” which debuts on Netflix Friday October 12 and in limited theatrical release. Directed by Sara Colangelo, "The Kindergarten Teacher" stars Gyllenhaal as Lisa, an educator who develops an obsession with one of her students, five-year-old Jimmy. She believes he's a poetry prodigy, and takes extreme, desperate attempts to nurture his talent, regardless of the wild consequences at stake. Does she go too far?

Gyllenhaal sat down in Salon's studio this week to answer that question and talk about Brett Kavanaugh, the power of women in art and her HBO drama "The Deuce."

Tell us about Lisa.

It's about a kindergarten teacher who gets obsessed with this child in her class who she thinks is a genius poet. But she's a poet herself and nobody cares at all about her work. And in some ways I kind of  —

Tough times for poets.

I mean, always, I think, probably. But I think really, it's about the consequences of what happens when you starve a vibrant woman's mind.

I mean, the movie is funny. It's like short, but it's like this kind of rollercoaster.

How did you prep to play Lisa?

I don't know. It's funny. Well, I started reading poetry. Even though the poetry, in some ways, it could have been anything. She could have been a painter and found a painter prodigy. She could have been a musician. Well, no, it wouldn't really work with a musician. Because it had to be some kind of innate talent.


But I did start reading poetry. I started following poets on Twitter.


When I wake up in the morning I check my phone, I do my couple of checks, and I would start going on Twitter and seeing what poems they posted. So, the first thing in the morning when you're still kind of half-asleep, I'd get some poems.

I hung out with a kindergarten teacher a lot. I went to her classroom, this woman that I had heard was amazing. I think it was really important because my character does these really deeply problematic things as the story goes along.

You're like a natural. It seems you have the temperament, like you —

I was just acting. I think being a kindergarten teacher's really hard.

Those kids have so many germs.

That's one of the 1,000 reasons why it would be really super hard to be a kindergarten teacher. But I did think it was really important that she be an amazing teacher.

Because she takes such a crazy trip down, and does some really horrible things. And I think part of the way the movie is designed is that you have to be rooting for her. And you are rooting for her for so much of the time. You know, she's just got to be a great teacher.

I was rooting for her all the way up. Until I wasn't.


But even then — we won't give anything away, but aren't you near heartbroken for her at the end? In a way, it's hard to let her go.

She was special. What makes a great teacher?

Huh. I don't know. Maybe somebody who makes the space to actually see you, who you actually are. The ways in which you're struggling and the ways in which you're doing great. You know?

Yeah. And that could be difficult with the schedule and dealing with a bunch of different students.

Yeah. I know you said you're a teacher, but don't you find sometimes you're particularly interested in someone. Like, oh wow, they're really interesting in this way.

Graduate students tend to be more focused. So, when I'm teaching undergraduate students sometimes there's a student who's like a criminal justice major without focus, but I can see they have a talent for writing, a talent for communicating. So I say, why do you want to go work in criminal justice? Why don't you just, you know, come be an artist and struggle like the rest of us? And sometimes they do it. So yeah, no, you recognize that, and you try to nurture those talents.

I had a teacher who died recently. She was almost 80. She was an acting teacher. She became one of my closest friends and taught me, really, everything that's valuable that I know about acting. And she was wild. She crossed all sorts of boundaries.

I'm a grown-up, so I could choose to cross them with her or not, but it's different in the movie where she's a teacher of a five-year-old.

There's so much talent that goes unrecognized for a number of reasons. Maybe this person's living in poverty. Maybe this person has parents who are busy or who just don't understand how brilliant their children are. What is the danger of that, or what do you think happens to that untapped potential?

Well, I think it's an interesting thing. In some ways this movie is about a woman who sees this incredible, talented child. In another way, this woman is a poet herself, and I think five-year-olds say incredible poetic things all the time.

And so, who is it to say, oh, that's a poem? I think she puts her own stamp on it. She makes these things this child is saying what she needs them to be. So yes, I do think there's a lot to be said about whose work gets heard, how do you nurture talent, but in this case I feel like it's less about her nurturing the talents of this little boy than it is about her struggling with and dealing with the fact that nobody gives a f**k about her own work. And that sounds sort of like she's self-consumed. I think it's more, it's bigger than that.

We'll say this. Her life got better once this little guy came into it.

Well, yes, but also I think it's in a lot of ways it's more about what happens to a female artist. Why is it that her work isn't heard? I mean, I read a couple of articles after Sundance that said her poetry is mediocre. And the truth is, her poetry is written by a brilliant published poet. All the poets whose work is in the movie are these stars. It turns out the poets don't get asked very much to have their work in movies, and we just went to the people we wanted most, and we just said, can we have your poems? And they were like, 'Yeah.'

I remember back in the day when I was watching "Poetic Justice," they were Maya Angelou poems, but since they were being read by Janet Jackson in this film they didn't have the same effect. And so people were like, no. It's not the same.

That's interesting. That's right. But so, I think that if she is actually a mediocre poet that's not that good, the movie's way easier to watch. If she's a really compelling poet but it's just not seen that way because of who she is, because of how it's framed, well, then it's a much more heartbreaking movie.


She doesn't have to be a brilliant genius, but I think she is an artist.

Can I ask you a question about Lisa? Honest question.


Is Lisa crazy? From your perspective.

I definitely don't think she's crazy. Well, I don't think she's fundamentally, like, mentally ill.

I think she's driven crazy by the culture that she finds herself in. And the culture that she finds herself in is the same one that we're in.

Would you let Lisa babysit your kids?

Oh, no, oh, no, no, no. She goes, like, off the rails, for sure. For sure. No, she does, I mean, she's ... as a matter of fact, at one point ... how do I tell the story without giving anything away? You get to a certain point in the movie, and my husband, who knows the story of the movie but just saw the movie for the first time a couple of days ago, he was like, "I was wondering if there were people in the movie theater that thought, 'Oh, no, it's gonna sort of gently end.'" And instead it goes down like three years. You know what I mean?

So no, she's totally confused. She can't think clearly. But then think about ... I think she does have some little sense of understanding herself at the end. And I think, you know, the movie takes place in just a couple weeks, and it's like watching somebody lose their mind for a few weeks. But I don't think she's fundamentally crazy, no.

I also like what you guys did with gender roles. I felt like Lisa's husband was a guy who was there to, you know, she could vent to him, and do other things and then just, like, leave him. Like drive him off.

Right, right. He's very peripheral in the story. You're in her mind.

Was that intentional, or?

Well, I think what was intentional was that the story be hers. Fully hers.

Which is really powerful.

Well, right. Right, right. Because you're so myopically in her mind. If she's on a trip you're on a trip, you know? Right, so, I think we're more used to seeing the women in that character, in that situation, right, where like the guy goes home to the wife and he has like a little scene with her and then she gets pushed aside.

Exactly. And in Lisa's need for an artistic outlet or her development as an artist and what she goes through in a way reminds me of Candy from "The Deuce" and the struggles she goes through t rying to make art in the porn world where people, you know, aren't really responding the way they should.

Yes. Yes. So I made the first season of "The Deuce" then I made "The Kindergarten Teacher," and then I made the second season of "The Deuce." So in some ways they are all of a piece and I think they are both women that are like, I'm starving, I can't take this anymore.

Which is the way many women are feeling right now. Like, what the f**k? How have we been living like this? I told myself this was OK, and this was OK, and this was OK, and now I, now I — look where I'm at. There's consequences to that. You know, so I think both characters are waking up to how starving they are for something else.

But the difference I think, one big difference, well, aside from one being a porn director and the other being a kindergarten teacher . . .  the difference is Candy, even though she goes through all sorts of hard things, which is in the show's design that way, and she's a porn director in the '70s, she's got a clear mind. She knows what she wants. She can think clearly, but it's hard for her to get it. But inch by inch by inch she moves her way closer to what she needs. And Lisa in "The Kindergarten Teacher" is really confused. And I relate to both. I mean, there's parts of my mind that are really clear. And there are parts of my mind that are really confused.

Candy's character has been remarkable. I think it's going to open a lot of doors for a lot of different types of stories.

What type of feedback do you get?  Do women feel like, are they feeling empowered or are they feeling like it's changing the narrative?

I think so. I mean, I love Candy, you know. And, I don't know. I don't know what to say. I guess in a way she's something that's been created by a group of people, right? I get to be her, but it's this . . .  yeah, I know, I don't know, I love her too. I love playing her. I love being her. Yeah, I've gotten amazing feedback.

Did your perspective on sex work change after working on "The Deuce"?

Yeah. It did. I mean, I think in some ways, even though I don't — I'm not proud of this, I think I was somewhere judgmental in some ways. I think our culture really marginalizes sex workers.

It does.

Even though, I mean, let's just be honest. Women didn't have any other way of making money for thousands of years. Right? And then for, until very recently, the door was closed almost everywhere. Like after the Civil War, when so many men died. Husbands and fathers and brothers, there was a big boom in sex work. Because how else were women going to support themselves? Very few other ways. And yet, there's this hatred and stigma, and I think some of that, a little bit, may have been in me.

It's not your fault, it's just, you become a product of the society that we live in.

Still my fault though. But yeah, I think that's true. Spending time with so many women who do that work. Hearing from them on Twitter or on the internet, playing, really giving respect to Candy and to the other women in the show who are imaginary but do that work. It really did change my perspective, for sure.

Do you think society is ever going to catch up and give all these different industries the respect they deserve?

I don't know. I feel really hopeful, even though Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed, I still feel —

Jesus Christ.

Yeah, I know, let's just call it what it is. I still feel hopeful because things are changing a huge amount. I think even Dr. Ford standing up there and saying, this happened and it was assault and it was not OK, is a huge step forward.

Yeah. I saw you post that about that on your Instagram.

Did I? Probably.

Yeah, which leads me to my next question. As a popular artist, do you think that artists have a responsibility to address these issues in the public?

I think a democracy works only if people are engaged politically and if they know what's going on. I think everybody has a responsibility to pay attention and have an opinion, You don't have to talk about it publicly. I don't think that's your responsibility. But, sometimes people say, like, "you're an actor, you should shut up," and I think that, no, no, no, a democracy is like a bus driver and a school teacher and a porn director and an actor and a writer —

Like actors don't pay taxes?

I feel like it's part of the reason it hasn't been working, if people aren't engaged. I saw some crazy number. I wish I had it in my head, of the people who didn't vote and I think, like, we can truly change things if we want to.

Yeah, we just have to get young people excited. Because seeing Kavanaugh confirmed is another blow. Like, this is what we get ... I mean, I remember after he gave his first testimony and seeing stills of his face —

I know.

And then he gets caught in lie after lie after lie. As if lying is part of his breathing mechanism. 

Well, I think it's the same thing we were talking about before. It's a systemic problem. I don't think, somewhere, I don't think he thinks he did anything wrong. Because somewhere, weirdly, we all were like, I don't know, you're allowed to do that if you look a certain way and you have a certain amount of money. I mean, of course you're not, but when it's under the table, and it was kind of amazing to hear her stand up and say this is actually what happened to me.

Are you interested in creating art that challenges ideas like that?

Yeah, I like it when the art I make just in general challenges things. I like playing a kindergarten teacher who's all f**ked up. I like playing a porn director who's totally got her eye on the prize and is clear and amazing. I love that those two things are out at the same time. I love that some people, if they don't listen to, like, this, that they'll go in to see "The Kindergarten Teacher" thinking it's one thing and come out with, like, their minds blown because it's something else. I love that. I do.

So I heard you are directing something. Are you allowed to talk about that yet?

Yeah. Yeah.

What's that project?

It's based on a book that I love, written by Elena Ferrante, who, it's actually a pen name for an anonymous writer, Italian writer, and it's called "The Lost Daughter" and I'm adapting it now. I'm about two-thirds of the way through the adaptation.


Thank you. I feel like, at least right now, so much of my work as an actor, it's so collaborative. You're acting with other people, you're negotiating, can we change this line or that, oh, you imagine the scene this way, but I imagine the scene this way. How do we come together and say what we need to say? Whereas writing is like, just me. And I can go as slow as I want. Actually, really go slow. And it's been such a pleasure.



By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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