Owner of a Crazy Heart
by Jay S. Jacobs
It isn’t easy to just step away when a career that you have been working towards for years has built up serious momentum. Yet that is exactly what Maggie Gyllenhaal did.
Soon after appearing in the blockbuster Batman sequel The Dark Knight, Gyllenhaal essentially took a couple of years on sabbatical to care for her new baby with her husband, actor Peter Sarsgaard. She also did take a small role in Sam Mendes’ comedy Away We Go.
In over a decade of film work, Gyllenhaal had put together a fascinating body of work – shifting between quirky indie projects like Secretary, SherryBaby and Donnie Darko and big-name Hollywood films like Mona Lisa Smile, Stranger than Fiction and World Trade Center.
Still, The Dark Knight was the film poised to shift her career into hyperdrive – instead, Gyllenhaal’s priorities changed, and she decided that she needed to spend time as a mother rather than rush off to the next role.
The wait is over as Gyllenhaal returns to the screen in Crazy Heart – playing a music journalist who falls into a probably unwise relationship with an aging country singer. That singer, played by Jeff Bridges, has been garnering Oscar buzz since the first previews of the film. However, Gyllenhaal’s work, while perhaps not as dramatic, has also been receiving acclaim and has a chance at a dark-horse nomination.
A little under a week before Crazy Heart was set to be put on limited release so it would be eligible for Oscar consideration, Gyllenhaal sat down for a roundtable with us and some other websites to discuss her career, the movie, the role, being a mother and her return to work on this film and the upcoming Nanny McPhee sequel.
I wonder what you thought when you first read your character.
I don’t know that I can answer that maybe any more clearly than the way you felt when you saw it. I think one of the things 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 a relationship that’s a good relationship; this is a relationship that’s a bad relationship. This is the good guy; this is the bad guy. It’s not even in that paradigm at all. It’s just about people. When I read it, I knew somehow that it was something that I wanted to play, which is an instinct I have that’s served me pretty well. Usually, when I have that feeling, whether the movie is successful ultimately or not – I don’t just mean financially, but just in general successfully – it’s usually a movie that I was right, I needed to do. I definitely felt that about this. The thing I would say, I think some of the other people I’ve played that I’ve felt really proud of are fierce, are kind of powerhouses. I used to think in my life too that that was kind of the ideal. That was the idea – to be as strong as you could be. I don’t think I consciously knew this when I decided to play this part, I don’t think that anymore. She’s much, much more vulnerable and feeling than anyone I’ve ever played. Probably in the past month in my life have I come to see the real value in that. I knew it in my work first because it’s in this movie. So that’s some of the things I think about her.
Is this the first movie that you have done since the movie came along?
No. It isn’t. I’ve been correcting people on this every day. I made Batman starting when my daughter was seven months old. I worked about fifteen days over eight months in that movie. It’s just very different from the way I’m used to working. I also did Away We Go, but that was three days. So it’s not entirely wrong like in the sense that this is the first thing I did that felt like the kind of work that I’m used to and the kind of work that I know.
The question I was going to ask was how that informed your performance as basically a single mom? It must have brought an awful lot to that character.
I would say that actually in some ways, some of those really dramatic scenes – him losing my boy – I think on some level, those are things that anyone can imagine. It takes so much imagination as a mother to imagine that happening that it doesn’t actually. Those aren’t the places where I felt the difference. I felt the difference more when my daughter was almost two when I made this movie, and I got this kind of surge of feeling that time, I’ve been focused on my daughter, on my child for two years. That’s been everything 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 Crazy Heart was the thing that I got to do, whereas for Jean [her character], I think she’s had this four-year-old who at least for some big chunk of that time, she’s been raising by herself. She’s been trying to be a good mom. I mean, almost unrealistically. I think so much pressure on her trying to function, trying to pull together. She’s in an emergency state of what I was in – of “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 of that is the scene on the bed where he’s writing that song and I am really upset. I mean, I think what that scene is really about for Jean is like: I’m cooked. I’m done. I’m in love with you. There’s nothing I can do and I’m sliding 100 miles an hour down this hill. It’s over for me. I think that there’s a different level, there’s so much more at stake when there’s a four-year-old involved in that equation. That’s the thing. I understood the different way.
Being a mother, do you think you would have had the same reaction, not forgiving him for what he did?
God, I look at the movie and I think. I had a friend who came to the premiere, a good friend, said he watched it and when I walk into the room, you think, okay this is going to be a love story. This is never going to work. If they make this work, they’re cheating. There’s no way. Then all of a sudden, it does. I think it really does. Then you’re through this whole movie with these unlikely people. By the end, you wish that they could be together, and they just can’t be. So, would I have done the same thing? I mean, God, I don’t know. But when I watch it, I think, God, can they make out for even one minute? Is there a way they could get back together? No. I mean, how could they? It’s not: oh, you make one mistake. It’s over. In the deepest way, the way they reveal their love for each other, is both by not being together.
Usually, when I see a woman who’s 30 years younger, it’s distracting me. There’s something about her that really works. Do you think these characters are in a way ageless?
Well, I think even though we don’t talk about it, sometimes we go see a movie and it’s a much younger woman and it seems like it is appropriate. It doesn’t seem like it’s appropriate, I don’t think. There’s something perverse about it. There’s something strange about it. I mean, it’s not like this is the appropriate age for a 60-year-old man. There’s something funny and something that we have to… it’s on my mind certainly when I made the movie. What was the rest of the question? If they’re ageless? No. They’re not. They’re funny. They’re very unlikely lovers. They do love each other. It’s this complicating thing where people love each other for strange reasons. It’s not like the movie is saying this is bad or this is good. But they’re not ageless. I’m much younger.
Is she that much younger? Isn’t she 45?
Yeah, I think she’s like 45.
You’ve done so many indie films over the years and now you did the Batman film [The Dark Knight]. Did that make you run back to indie films, or did you appreciate the big film for what it was?
I am more comfortable in the indie films. I feel like it is how I learned how to work. It’s how I learned best. Shooting quickly, at least a scene in the day, I mean, I’m better with two scenes a day. I mean, sure, maybe we shot five scenes a day. That is a little bit too fast. But I like that. I like having to incorporate all the things that get thrown at you, which you have to do less of when you work on a big movie. I do better work; I think so far anyway in this kind of intense fast way. I’ve done a lot of studio movies though. Stranger than Fiction was pretty big. Mona Lisa Smile was pretty big. I mean, well this is the second biggest one I guess, but you know something on that scale, that’s totally on the other side of the spectrum. The thing that was cool about Batman is really, really notable, was that everybody in every department was an expert, which is not usually the case in a tiny movie. I mean, whether you like the style of the movie or not, the people who are doing sound have done a million movies. They’re probably not going to make a silly mistake. Down to, every single department. Where it’s you work on this small movie, people sometimes do make silly mistakes. You have to be forgiving, and you have to kind of go, “Right, you’re learning. Me too. We all are. It’s okay.” What’s funny about that is that usually in a small movie, a little silly mistake can set you back massively.
Could you maybe talk a little bit about the challenges of working with a child actor?
I’ve worked with a lot of kids. Have you seen SherryBaby?
That movie I did the whole movie with the child and acted with her. By the end, she could improvise with me and just roll with me. I’ve worked a lot with kids in different ways, but with that girl, I wanted her to feel like I was special. That’s how she should feel in the movie – that I was like candy bar. Then there are times where she would be more afraid with them. With Jack Nation [who plays her son] – isn’t that a great name? Jack Nation – with him, I wanted him to sort of take me for granted, like I had been around a lot. Like Jeff was kind of like a candy bar. He could not pay that much attention to me. I mean, that’s what it’s like when you’re with kids, when you’re their mom in some ways. I loved acting with him. The thing is, Scott [Cooper, the writer/director] knew, and Jeff also thinks about it in the same way I do. Most kids of that age will not be good if you say, “Stand on this mark and say this and this way.” They’ll sound like little robots because it’s not what kids are meant to do. If you want a kid to be free and exist in a moment, you can get them to do that pretty easily. You play with them. That’s how I did it. I played with them. Jeff and I were kind of in the same way. We worked similarly too, like we never planned anything. I don’t work great either if someone says, “Step on this mark and say it like that.” I’d buck for sure. I would much rather be free and let anything happen. You can only do that if you’re working with a really good script that won’t boo you and a really good actor. Jeff and I too, it’s like different every time and sometimes it took too far in one direction. Everyone would know it. Scenes would end in all different ways, all different kinds of notes.
When you’re doing this film as opposed to Away We Go, your characters are two different kinds of mothers. Was that ever in the back of your mind of how much is too much?
I just really wanted to work, and I hadn’t wanted to and when Away We Go came. I read it and I thought: yeah, I can do that. I don’t know how exactly, but I can try. [I] just went for three days and did that. Then this… I just had so much built up. I don’t want to play a mother next time. I want to play, actually I really don’t. I think so much about being a mother, it’s so present in my mind and in my work. In this movie, so much in Away We Go obviously. Everyone talks to me about it because it’s such a huge part of this movie. This woman is a mother. Actually, I watched the premiere the other night, and he says, “What’s the most important thing about you?” She says, “I have a little boy.” That is the most important thing about me, but I’m interested to play someone who’s not a mother now. I really am.
What are you in Nanny McPhee 2?
I’m a mother. [laughs] I’m a mother of three who has two cousins visiting who’s doing it all alone and working.
You really need a break.
Yeah, I don’t know.
So when you say you’re the mom who’s doing the actress and works so you have something for you, and the character is in a way saying she wants something for her, that for her could be interpreted as she wants this guy but it’s also the job that she’s pursuing being a journalist.
And I was wondering, what she does in the form of getting her story is kind of something I don’t think any of us are about to do.
I don’t think she’s manipulating him. I don’t think she’s sleeping with him to get a story. I don’t think it plays like that, either. I mean, she falls for him and she gets sort of derailed, but I also think she writes great articles. There’s one scene we shot, there’s a couple of scenes missing in the movie, there’s one scene of mine missing where we go down to Houston, and he says to me, “I sent your article to the paper here, and they really liked it, and they want to meet you.” And that’s actually in the original script where I was when he loses Buddy. I’m at that interview. What that scene is about is a couple of things. One of them was just me going, I’m going to live in Houston. But also, I think she’s a good writer. She’s a green journalist, but I think she’s a good writer and I think she wrote a good article.
So do you think she approaches it more like that’s a rookie mistake?
I think she doesn’t think a lot. I remember doing Q&As for SherryBaby and people saying she’s this terrible mother, and I was like, she’s not. I so believed in her. I didn’t see it that way at all. For this, the other day, someone asked me, “What thing from rehearsal did you take?” I mean, we didn’t really rehearse. “To grab on to, what sort of anchored you through the shooting?” They asked Jeff first, they asked us all and I was last, and I was like, “Oh fuck. What am I going to say?” I couldn’t think of anything that I used like that. Then I thought, I didn’t work that way. I didn’t think. I didn’t decide I wasn’t going to think, I just didn’t. She acts so recklessly throughout this movie and that’s how I was. I just went with what felt good, and I just didn’t think. Then she gets smacked across the face with that’s not free.
Could you take a step back though because what is it about Bad that actually, that your character is attracted to? I’m interested in the character’s point-of-view. Is this just another bad decision or were there qualities in him that she actually saw?
Aside from that he’s Jeff Bridges? [laughs]
Exactly. Put that aside.
Well, I know, but you can’t. He’s very appealing. Like I said, I think she was starving for something for her. I don’t think it could have been anybody, but she’s open when she goes in. Not she’s open to sleeping with him but I she’s just desperate for something that feels good to her. Also, 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, then who cares about the movie? I knew that and Jeff knew that, and so the circumstances are we had to play people who fell in love. I don’t know why exactly. I mean, he is Jeff Bridges. He is alive. And she’s willing to not look at all sorts of things. But God, haven’t you been in relationships like that where you were just like, not willing to see things? That’s what this movie is about.
He is Jeff Bridges, but yet I found him disappearing into the role of a musician well. What did you think of the way he performed and the music that he did?
Well, music was… the thing about the movie and you guys aren’t seeing us altogether. We all really like each other, and we all really got to know each other, and music was definitely a part of that. Steve Bruton, who was T-Bone’s partner and who passed away and to whom the movie is dedicated, he wrote a bunch of the songs and was there on set all of the time. He and Jeff sang “Falling and Flying” to me on set for fun. That’s how I met Jeff. I had met him before once. It’s a good story, actually. But after that, I met him and without saying it, we knew okay, we have so many days. No time. I’m kind of up for anything. Are you up for anything? We didn’t say that, but it just felt like that happened. Yes, I’m up for anything. Then we got into the car and drove to the production office, and he played me “The Weary Kind,” and I was like crying in the car with him. That’s how it started. That’s what the movie was like. The music was a part of that, and the performing was a part of that. I knew he was a musician on some level. I’d heard that. I didn’t know with what ease he could do it, but I got used to it.
I wonder how important was it for you to find a humanizing aspect to your characters or do you have to find a good quality in them? Because I’m thinking of your character in Away We Go, and she’s horrible. She’s just obnoxious.
She’s not horrible.
She’s pretty bad.
Well, you know, it’s funny. In a comedy, I think there is a viciousness about comedy that is fine. It’s a part of it. I mean, I have some of that in me like that lady in Away We Go. I know tons of people who are still nursing their three-year-olds. I mean, it’s not me, but I know them and they’re still alright people. The question about finding someone good, I usually find… okay, in this movie, it’s really interesting in how it works. I don’t know, it probably sounds like an irresponsible student. Like I will find things with each character, okay, okay. I know that’s the trap. With SherryBaby, for example, I know if I get teary and too down on myself, that’s the trap because the thing with her is that she can’t afford to be sad. She doesn’t have that luxury. So anytime I felt that way, I just thought, wrong track. Wrong track. In this one, I was like, how does this smart, thoughtful woman end up with a real drunk? How does that happen? Then I just stopped thinking about it. I think I thought about it twice, and that’s what she did. She just didn’t think about it. About the scenes where I talk about it with him, one of them I straddle him and the camera literally shoots like my ass and I say, “Do one thing for me? Don’t drink in front of Buddy.” Then the only other time I bring it up is when he’s leaving, going back to Houston. Think about all the feelings you have, especially as a woman, the way you fight, what you fight about. It’s really more about him leaving than anything else. I end up kissing him and taking his hat off – that scene in the driveway. It’s not until he loses my son that I just really look at him and say, “Were you drinking?”
But there are also a lot of scenes where you have a drink in your own hand.
Lots of scenes.
Were you sharing the drinks with him?
Totally, but that is something I did think about. I thought, okay, if you’re dating a drunk… and I’ve dated people who have drank too much totally… you drink too much. Maybe you go to dinner. That dinner scene, I was playing, I was wasted. That dinner scene where he tells me he has a son. Maybe he’s not drinking whiskey, but you go out to dinner at a fancy restaurant, and you get drunk, and you have three bottles of wine. Then if you’re not really totally a drinker, and I think she can drink too, then you’re drunk. Or the second interview, I feel when I watch that and pick up that glass and he offers me another one, that’s like my third or fourth glass. He’s not just refilling it for the first time.
What is next? Do you have anything other than Nanny McPhee?
No, just Nanny McPhee 2, I just finished in September, which is great. Do you know who’s in that movie? It’s amazing – Maggie Smith and Ralph Fiennes and Ewan McGregor.
Is it a remake by Emma Thompson?
It’s a sequel with Emma, and she wrote it.
And a female directed it, right?
Yes. Susanna White directed it. And Emma is like the most brilliant genius. It’s so different from this. It’s like animals and kids. You can hear it in Emma’s writing, and this is different. Different in a sense, there’s this quality in this movie where you don’t know exactly what to make about everybody. They really are real people and they’re partially good and partially bad. Really, you can play the scenes any number of ways and they’ll work. Emma’s writing, it’s more like you can hear the rhythm and you’ve got to hit the beats and stick your landing, as [husband] Peter [Sarsgaard] says. My husband says, “That’s sort of different kind of acting, to stick your landing acting where you really have to hit the beats.” This movie would have failed that way. The only way this movie works is if it’s absolutely anything is okay. In Nanny McPhee, it’s different.
I just wanted to bring it back to the theater. Do you have any plans to do more theater?
Yeah. I’ve just been talking. I’ve done a lot of theater with Tony Kushner, and we were just talking about a play of his that we never did but we were trying to get together with each other for a while – maybe trying to get that going. I’d love to do something else with Austin Pendleton, who’s directed, and Peter. We talked about a couple of things. That’s real easy to put together because I think if we did that, we would do it sort of tiny in the same way we did Uncle Vanya. Just tiny so that in a way, maybe it’s tiny enough that you don’t even need reviews. You just open your door when you’re ready. If it’s a small enough theater and you’re not needing to fill seats, you do a tiny bit of advertising and you just do it whenever you want, which is nice.
You really exploded after Secretary, and your career could have gone in a number of directions. How pleased are you with the direction it has gone in?
God, I was a little afraid of all of the attention when it came with Secretary. It was very surprising to me, and I was a little unsure about it. I’m less afraid of it as I get older and I understand it better, how to manage it. At the same time, I was thinking, 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 – that is what I want. Sissy Spacek came into the premiere. I sat and talked with her for twenty minutes. She got it and she loved it and I think, what else do I want? These movies, have you talked to Scott yet?
Scott will tell you he did want to make a movie that felt like a ‘70s movie. Those are the movies I love. Partially they’re the movies I love because those actresses – Ellen Burstyn and Sissy Spacek and Gena Rowlands and Meryl Streep – all those people there. That’s what I love, and I felt like in a way, just being in the same movie as Robert Duvall, I feel a little bit closer to that.
What do you think audiences will take away from Crazy Heart?
I don’t know. I guess it’s a love story about real people. It happens in the way real love stories happen. Someone said to me, “Oh, it’s so fast the way they get together.” Well, that’s the fantasy – that it’s not like that. I think – and especially when it’s sort of maybe a little bit of a mistake or you’re not sure and was that okay and was that not okay – it happens like that. Also how many people have you been with in your life where it’s a little bit right and a little bit not right? That’s every relationship. I feel like that’s very true in this and compassionate because they are people who are not doing so well. The movie is very compassionate toward them, and I love that about movies – where they can find some compassion for people who are struggling. Because then if you watch a movie about that, you can practice having compassion for people who are much more closely connected to you where it could be a little more difficult to have compassion for them strictly.
Can you talk about the power of Jeff Bridges’ presence on the screen?
Well, I’m probably not the most objective person to ask because I have a very subjective experience of him in the movie. I mean, I don’t know exactly what you want me to say about it. I think he’s just great to act with.
How do you feel his performance ranks with his other ones?
God. I don’t know. I don’t know if I’d really rank it. I think he’s totally honest, free, and powerful and you see him move and grow just a little the way that people actually move and grow and sing.
Was he on set taking loads of photos and doing one of his photo books, as usual?
Yes, he did. He did do a photo book. I don’t think he did it as much as he sometimes does. I don’t know why, but he told me he didn’t do it as much as he sometimes does. But he did a book, which he just gave me yesterday.
I was wondering if you could circle back and talk about how a project like SherryBaby. That’s really wonderful, but if a lot of people haven’t seen it, how do you know that you’ve made the right choice?
I don’t know. I don’t know how I know. I just do. I do usually feel by not knowing exactly why at the time, I usually can sort of figure it out later. I talked about this a little bit – in this movie, I didn’t know. I only learned recently, in the past couple of months, that… I used to think in my life, in my work, that the most, that the idea was to be extremely powerful and strong. When I watched this movie on screen, I watched it with a girlfriend of mine sitting next to me, my husband was away, and I needed someone to go with me because I felt very vulnerable about it. I watched it and I thought, God there are times when she’s so weak, which I had not seen revealed in other works of mine. I mean, I’ve played people who were a mess, but they were like powerhouses. There are times when she’s weak, and I felt ashamed watching it on screen. I thought about my girlfriend sitting next to me and she’s a professor and she’s great and she’s strong, but I think she’s also weak and so am I. I just turned 32. A lot of my life, I thought that was something to be ashamed of and I didn’t put it much in my work. Along with acknowledging that comes a kind of emotionality in my work that I don’t think had been there before. So in a way, I watch me playing in this movie: who is this woman who’s a feeler who’s got a really open heart who lets things really wash over her and is not kind of a bulldozer? There are moments when she comes out with that will, but not all the way through. That’s what I was learning.
Do you look back at that and other performances that you’ve given and see things you didn’t see before? Maybe the character in SherryBaby who is so fierce has those moments of weakness that you really weren’t trying to play.
Oh no, she does and of course, even I did. It’s not like I wasn’t weak when I wasn’t valuing that quality. But I just think, in my work, I see it as kind of more grown up in this. That this woman allows the value of feeling in her life, and I’ve just only recently been learning that in my own life.
You had mentioned before about the career direction after The Dark Knight. Is that sort of an ongoing problem for you in the sense of in one hand, you want to maintain your indie street cred in these sort of films that you really kind of like to do but on the other hand, you probably have representation that’s saying, “Maggie, baby, you’ve got to do one of these big ones again.”
It’s not so much like that. It really isn’t in my life. It hasn’t been like that. Most of the movies I’d done, I did for the reasons that I was saying, because they appeal to me, mostly. Even if they’re strange, like Mona Lisa Smile is a big Hollywood movie but the character I played in that movie totally appealed to me and was absolutely right for me at the time. [It] was great for me also in the process of learning about making movies, because I was playing this wild girl and I sort of just did whatever I wanted in the scene and that was it and it was great. It is not meant to be a meek, young… not that I was ever that way really. As I was learning to give myself the freedom to be playing someone who was like, if I want to add this line in or not do, I’m just not going to do it. Mike Newell was a good enough director to embrace that and to let me be free in that way.
How is it different from working with a predominantly female cast as opposed to an all-guy cast, like in this film?
It’s interesting. Nanny McPhee was predominantly female. I do definitely feel like the woman in this movie. I’m treated that way and I like it. And I needed it, at the time. You know, I had been a mommy for a while, and I got to really be the woman in here. There is something different about it. I love Emma Thompson. I love working with Emma, and Lindsay Doran is the producer in that, Susanna White directed it, so it was all women, really, mostly. How is it different? Oh my God. It’s difficult to describe but certainly different.
Does Nanny McPhee kind of help you with all your children? Is that the plot?
Yup. Yeah, I need a nanny. Where can anybody, ever? What’s great about that movie is that – and this is what I think is really modern and awesome about it – maybe, when I was a kid… I was born in ’77 so I was a child in the ‘80s… so my mom, she was screenwriter and a mother, and even in the ‘90s. Even until really recently, there was a kind of possibility that women were really not allowed to do both, until really, really pretty recently now. I feel like women didn’t really want to talk about or express how it’s impossible to really actually juggle everything and do everything well. It is not possible to do it perfectly. I believe that. And so, Nanny McPhee is kind of about a mother, who’s the heroine. She’s the good heroine, in the movie. I am not functioning very well. That happens, and I love that that’s expressed in the movie that it’s about somebody who is still a good mother and she’s still a good person and she’s still the good one. And she’s really, really having a hard time. I love that that’s being expressed. I think it’s only because women are much more solid in being able to absolutely work and be mothers. No one is going to say at this point that we can’t do that. We can, and it’s fine. So now we can start to say, “It’s so hard. So hard.”
With you playing a journalist, do you get a sort of understanding of what we have to do with dealing with talent?
Yeah. I mean, I think she’s a very green journalist. I don’t think that she’s interviewed very many people, and I think that she’s a fan of his. Also immediately there’s an electricity between them. But I think that she is very smart and a very good writer and that just instinctively, what she’s trying to do is get to see something true about him. She’s not savvy though. 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. She just got right inside of me. Jean, she has some sort of facility with that. At the same time, she’s really unsure in many ways.
Do you think that he warms to her because she knows mostly who Lefty Frizzell is?
You have to ask him. I don’t know why he warms up to me.
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