Hungry Heart: Maggie Gyllenhaal

When the nominations for the 82nd annual Academy Awards were announced on February 2, there was one bonafide surprise acting nomination: Maggie Gyllenhaal in writer-director Scott Cooper’s Crazy Heart for Best Supporting Actress. In the tradition of Laura Linney in The Savages or Marcia Gay Harden in Mystic River, Gyllenhaal, with virtually no precursor support from critic’s organizations during awards season, landed an out of nowhere Oscar nom that left just about everybody buzzing. The Oscars being a kind of family tradition, Maggie joined brother Jake (Supporting Actor, Brokeback Mountain) and mom Naomi Foner (Best Original Screenplay, Running on Empty) in the nominees club against the odds, trumping such favorites as Samantha Morton (The Messenger), Julianne Moore (A Single Man) and Diane Kruger (Inglorious Basterds) for the coveted spot in the final five.

It was a foregone conclusion that star Jeff Bridges would land amongst the nominees for Best Actor, having justifiably received the lion’s share of critical praise has been heaped onto the veteran performer for his towering turn as grizzled country musician “Bad Blake” (he is the favorite to win on Oscar night), Gyllenhaal’s beleagured single mother journalist Jean Craddock has flown decidedly under the radar until now. It is the benchmark of any great character actress to be able to achieve this kind of subtlety and nuance opposite showier turns such as Bridges’. Jean is a bit of a mystery in Crazy Heart. We know she’s had bad luck with men. We know she has a young son. She has a fledgling career as a music journalist. Other than that, Gyllenhall wisely chooses to leave a few deliberate loose ends dangling in the wind, making Jean a little bit of a mystery, but also positing her directly in the moment. “Maggie kind of approaches it like I do,” said Bridges when I spoke with him this past December in New York. “Which is, getting to know the people you’re playing with as much as you can so you can bring some of that genuine friendship and caring you know, up to the screen.”

In addition to chatting up The Dude, I also had the chance to speak with the effortlessly striking Ms. Gyllenhaal during Crazy Heart‘s Midtown Manhattan press junket as she addressed throngs of reporters while the film bowed in select theaters for awards consideration in December. “I wanted to work,” emphasized Gyllenhaal. “I had so much built up, you know?” Jean is a carefree young woman ruled by romance and her emotions up to a point, but also one with a clear direction and one who knows when romance is not enough to sustain a life. “I think she doesn’t think, a lot,” said the actress. “She acts so recklessly throughout this movie and that’s how I was. I just went with what felt good and just didn’t think. And then she gets smacked across the face.” Who hasn’t been there? Unlucky in love, unlucky in her profession but eager to let these new experiences shape her without ripping her life apart. Jean is a universal character that audiences will easily empathize with. That Gyllenhaal’s everywoman single mom Jean doesn’t get completely swallowed up opposite such a rapacious, colorful character such as “Bad”, and that she grounds “Bad”‘s flights of alcoholic fancy in earthy realism are a testament to the actresses strength and skill.

For fans of the actress, these capabilities are far from new and it could be argued that her Oscar nomination has been a long-time coming when glancing at her accomplished resume that includes such scorching lead performances as 2003’s sweetly kinky Secretary and the John Cassavetes-esque Sherrybaby, as well as solid supporting turns for such iconic directors as Oliver Stone (World Trade Center, John Sayles (Casa de los Babys), and Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight). “The thing that was cool about Batman, really, really notable, was that everybody, in every department, was an expert,” said Gyllenhaal. “Which is not always the case on a tiny movie. Whether you like the style of the movie or not, the people who were working on sound [on a big-bugdget film] are probably not going to make a silly mistake. On a small movie, people sometimes do make silly mistakes. What’s funny about that is on small movie, a silly little mistake can set you back massively.”

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What did you think when you first read Jean?

I don’t think I can answer that any more clearly than when you saw it. The thing about the movie is that’s the way you feel when you meet anybody. What exactly would you make of them? It’s not the kind of movie that tells you ‘this is the relationship that’s the good relationship, this is the one that’s the bad relationship, this is the good guy, this is the bad guy.’ Its not even in that paradigm at all. Its just kind of about people. I knew somehow that it was something that I wanted to play, which is an instinct that’s served me pretty well. Usually, when I have that feeling, whether the movie is successful, financially or not, it’s usually a movie where I was right, I needed to do it. I definitely felt that about this. The thing I would say I think that some of the other people I’ve played that I’ve felt really proud of are fierce you know? Kind of powerhouses. I used to think in my life too that was the ideal, to be as strong as you could be and I don’t think I even cosciously knew this when I decideed to play this part, but I dont think that anymore. I think she’s much, much more vulbnerable and feeling and open than anyone I’ve ever played. Only in the last month in my life have I come to see the real value in that. I knew it in my work first, becasue it’s in this movie.

How does being a mother in real life influence your playing a single mother in the film?

Some of those really dramatic scenes, of him losing my boy, I think on some level those are things that anyone can imagine. I think it takes so much imagination as a mother to imagine that happening that it doesn’t actually… those aren’t the places that I felt the difference. My daughter was almost two when I made this movie and I got this kind of surge of feelign at that time. I had been focused on my daughter for two years and that had been everythign to me and I just got this surge of ‘I’m also an actress!’, ‘I’m also a woman!’, I want to do something for me. It came at that moment, and then Crazy Heart was the thing I got to do. Whereas for Jean, she’s got this four year old, who at least for some big chunk of time, she’s been raising by herself. She’s been trying to be a good mom, almost unrealistically. She puts so much pressure on herself, trying to function, trying to pull it together. Then I think she’s in an emergency state of what I was in, ‘I need something for me’, ‘I want something for me’, ‘I don’t care if it’s bad for me, it’s better if it’s bad for me’. So that feeling really resonated. One other example is that scene on the bed, where he’s writing that song and I get very upset. I think what that scene is really all about, for Jean, is, like, ‘I’m cooked’, ‘I’m done’, ‘I’m in love with you’. I think that there’s so much more at stake when there’s a four year old in that equation.

What were the challenges of working with a child actor?

I’ve worked with a lot of kids. On Sherrybaby I did the whole movie with a child and by the end, she could improvise with me and just really roll with me. I’ve worked with a lot of kids, in a lot of ways, but that girl, I wanted her to feel like I was special because that’s how she should feel in the movie. That I was like a candy bar. With Jack Nation (who plays her son in Crazy Heart) -– isn’t that a great name? — with him, I wanted him to sort of take me for granted, like I’d been around a lot. Jeff was kind of like the candy bar. He could not pay that much attention to me. That’s what it’s like with a kid when you’re their mom, in some ways. I loved acting with him. The thing is, Scott [Cooper] knew. And Jeff also thinks about it in the same way I do, that most kids that age will not be good if you say ‘stand on this mark and say this in this way.’ They’ll sound like little robots because its not what kids are meant to do. But if you want a kid to be free and exist in the moment you can do that pretty easily. That’s how I did it. I played with him. Jeff and I were kind of the same way. We worked similarly too in that we didn’t plan anything. I don’t work great either when someone says ‘stand on this mark and say it like that’! I’d buck for sure! [laughs] I would much rather be free and let everything happen and you can only do that with a really great script that will buoy you and a really good actor.

On the 30-plus-year age gap between the romantic leads in Crazy Heart:

It was on my mind, certainly, when I made the movie. They’re very unlikely lovers. They do love each other. People love each other for strange reasons. It’s not like the movie’s saying ‘this is bad’ or ‘this is good’. They’re not ageless, [laughs] I’m much younger. Aside from the fact that he’s Jeff Bridges… he’s very appealing. Like I said, I think Jean was starving for something for her. She’s just desperate for something that feels good to her and also I think then I think ‘why does anyone fall in love with anyone’? The circumstances of this movie are that unless these two people really fall in love and you believe the depth of their love for each other than who cares about the movie? I knew that and Jeff knew that and so the circumstances were that we had to play people who fell in love. I don’t know why exactly. I mean, I think he is Jeff Bridges and he is alive. I think she’s is willing to not look at all sorts of things, but God, haven’t you ever been in relationships like that? Where you’re just not willing to see things? That’s what this movie is all about. Its a love story about real people and it happens in the way that real love stories happen.

On playing a journalist:

I don’t think she’s manipulating “Bad”. I don’t think she’s sleeping with him to get the story or anything like that, either. She falls for him and she gets derailed, but I also think she writes great articles. There’s one scene we shot, one scene of mine that’s missing, where she goes to Houston and [“Bad”] says to me ‘I sent your article to the paper here and they really liked it and they want to meet you.’ I think she’s a good writer. She’s a green journalist. Instinctively, what she’s trying to do is see something true about him. I had lunch with a journalist the other day who was, like, so good at that, that I left thinking ‘I revealed so much more than I intended to’ [laughs]. She just got right inside me.

On aspirations:

I was a little afraid of all of the attention when it came with Secretary. It was very surprising to me me and I was a little unsure about it. I’m less afraid of it as I get older and I understand better how to manage it. If I think about what I aspire to and what I like in movies and what I want. To be in a movie like this, with Robert Duvall and Jeff Bridges, to be the woman in that movie… I mean… that is what I want! [laughs] You know? Sissy Spacek came to the premiere and I talked with her for like 20 minutes, and she got it and she loved it and I think ‘what else do I want?’ Scott will tell you that he did want to make a movie that felt like a ’70s movie and those are the movies I love because those actresses — Ellen Burstyn, Sissy Spacek, Gena Rowlands, Meryl Streep — I feel like being in the same movie as Robert Duvall is a little closer to that! [laughs]

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Maggie Gyllenhaal will next be seen in Emma Thompson’s sequel Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang opposite such luminaries as Maggie Smith and Ralph Fiennes and spoke about a desire to return to live theater to work with Tony Kushner, Austin Pendleton and her husband actor Peter Sarsgaard. “If we did that, we’d want to do it tiny, the same way we did Uncle Vanya,” said Gyllenhaal. “In a way, if it’s tiny enough, you don’t even need reviews. You just kind of open your door when you’re ready if it’s small enough theater and you’re not needing to fill seats. You do a tiny bit of advertising and you just do whatever you want!” Look for her to be more fashion-forward than the other Oscar nominees on Sunday, March 7th at Hollywood’s Kodak Theater.