Maggie Gyllenhaal would like you to know that she is no longer interested in playing “the quirky girlfriend” in movies. “I’m exhausted with that!” she says, driving in London to the set of the upcoming Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang, where she will be directed by fellow actress Emma Thompson. “I’m 31 now, and I’m so glad to be a woman now, to be a mother, to finally be old enough to play some of the really interesting parts that are out there. I’m really looking forward to the rest of the nine years of this decade, you know? I would like to keep doing it for my whole life—this job is a great match for me. So I am growing right along with it.”
“When Ramona was an infant, we thought, ‘Oh, we’re going to do everything perfectly, and the most naturally,’ and that’s not possible.”
Though some actresses growing out of their ingénue years insist on their own longevity but don’t have the chops to back it up, the words tumbling out of Gyllenhaal’s mouth make perfect sense: She is ideally suited to acting, and we have no desire to see her fade away. In fact, she seems to gain steam and credibility every year, hurtling toward that small constellation of untouchables—the matriarchs of which include Emma Thompson, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett and younger inductees like Kate Winslet—that are simply good in every role they take on. And though Gyllenhaal is still in the early stages of becoming a full-fledged star (her unconventional beauty and intensity on screen are the types of advantages that will only help her with age), she has that sort of Hollywood buzz around her name that makes a film release more exciting just by her participation in it.
Her latest film, Away We Go, is gathering buzz for a bevy of reasons—a screenplay by Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, direction by Sam Mendes, the leads: The Office’s John Krasinski and SNL’s Maya Rudolph as a pregnant couple in search of a new home, the twee soundtrack by folk singer Alexi Murdoch—but Gyllenhaal’s small part manages to stand out amidst these elements. She plays a hippie-dippy, trust-funded college professor who refuses to put her babies in strollers (“I love my babies,” she says in the film. “Why would I want to push them away from me?”) and embodies the most frightening of progressive parental clichés: breastfeeding other women’s children, a communal bed that houses her husband and toddlers, and the cultural insensitivity that can only come from being white, privileged, and faux-progressive. Gyllenhaal thrives in the role—though she took it on as a favor to Mendes after another actress dropped out, it’s hard to imagine another actress having the same droll timing and dreamy nonchalance in the part.
“Honestly, I thought that the role was so funny because it’s not completely dissimilar from me,” she says of her own motherdom (her daughter, Ramona, with now-husband Peter Sarsgaard, is now two years old). “But…I’m less of a hippie mom than I thought I might be. When Ramona was an infant, we thought, ‘Oh, we’re going to do everything perfectly, and the most naturally,’ and that’s not possible. I also thought, ‘I’ll just throw her in a sling and take her out to dinner and our lives won’t change very much, and she’ll roll with it,’ but of course when you actually have a child, it doesn’t actually work that way. You really do have to bend to them.”
“I’m glad we [got married]. I’m happy to have a partner. I think the idea that women can do everything and do it well, that was more prevalent maybe 15 years ago.”
She goes on, explaining how having Ramona has changed her perceptions of what it means to be a good mom: “Since I’ve been a mother, I really find it difficult to judge anybody. I used to look at moms walking down the street talking on their cellphones with a baby in their strollers and think, 'You have to put all of your energy toward your child at every moment!' But now I think, when else are you going to return a phone call? What if you just have your child for three days in a row without any help, what if your husband’s away? When are you going to get an opportunity to call someone back? When is a good time? Those standards you have of how you’re going to be as a mother just get thrown out the window when you have a child.”
Gyllenhaal also explains that motherhood allowed her to slow down and think about what she really wanted to do next—though she filmed The Dark Knight when Ramona was seven months old, she says the workload was “very, very light,” and convinced her to “take some time off for mommying. I just spent time with her; I went to London with her while Peter worked. It was only when she was 15 or 16 months old that I really wanted to sink my teeth into something again. And so Sam [Mendes] called me at the perfect time—but the funny part is, Away We Go was supposed to be this foray into being myself as a professional artistic person again without my daughter on my hip, and the first day on set, there I was, dealing with these two twins who are screaming and crying the entire time and I was mothering them like crazy. If I hadn’t been a mom, there was no way I could have gotten through that day. “
Mothering babies on set and playing a bohemian professor is a far cry from Gyllenhaal’s earlier body of work, which reads like the ideal résumé of a twenty-something indie actress—full of risks and turns. Though Gyllenhaal was brought up in a Hollywood family with plenty of connections (her brother, Jake, is a bonafide movie star, and she is the daughter of a producer and a screenwriter), she took a thoughtful and chancy path in her early work. Her breakout role, in 2002’s black farce Secretary, had Gyllenhaal playing a masochistic typist to James Spader’s sadistic lawyer, and the actress self-mutilated, masturbated, and wet herself on screen—not a typical entrée to the big time. She went on to appear in other subversive films like Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation, and the dark Chuck Barris biopic, Confessions of Dangerous Mind. In 2006, she played ex-prisoner Sherry Swanson in the independent drama, Sherrybaby, a story about a heroin addict trying to piece her life together after incarceration, which led to a Golden Globe nomination. For Gyllenhaal, taking unconventional (and often unflattering) roles has become her trademark.
This is not to say that Gyllenhaal hasn’t taken the glittery box-office route—she was in big-budget World Trade Center, The Dark Knight, and the panned Julia Roberts vehicle Mona Lisa Smile—and yet, she has no qualms about taking bigger (and more visible) roles over time. “Now, I make movies because I want people to see them and be moved by them,” she explains. “That mattered less to me when I was younger. But there are very few movies that I love enough these days to go through the whole roller coaster of promoting an independent film—the festivals, the critics, etc. I certainly will sometimes say, ‘I like this, and if this were a studio movie that had money I’d do it, but I don’t like it enough to take this on.’ Because you have to fight so hard for the smaller films.”
Though she may not be too keen to continue making the small films that launched her career, Gyllenhaal manages to maintain the aura of a smart, fully invested creative spirit, rather than a sellout—a difficult feat in a system that makes it very easy to lose credibility as one gains notoriety. It could be the fact that she and Sarsgaard decided to raise Ramona in low-profile Brooklyn, or that she always wears one-off outfits to events ( a blue animal print Zac Posen; a neon orange lace Gaultier mini), or that Gyllenhaal continues to return to the New York stage to challenge herself beyond her film roles. Just this year, Gyllenhaal and Saarsgard appeared in a sold-out run of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya off-Broadway, and she hopes to do more stage acting alongside her husband.
“I’d like to do Three Sisters now,” she says. “And I’d like to do it with Peter. I love acting with him. We really work well together because we both just sort of fundamentally knew that we really respect each other’s work. If I was struggling, I was able to kind of express it to him without feeling like he wouldn’t think I was any good.”
The pair’s partnership was cemented on May 2, when they married in a small chapel in Brandisi, Italy. Though the press noted the wedding as a surprise, Gyllenhaal admits it was in the works for some time. “We planned it and then we did it. It’s a little different now, I mean, it is different being married than not being married. But I’m glad we did it. I’m happy to have a partner. I think the idea that women can do everything and do it well, that was more prevalent maybe 15 years ago. I think it’s really shifted. I think everybody knows it’s really hard, you need help, and it’s very difficult.”
Again, the conversation turns to Ramona—as Gyllenhaal plays an earth mother in Away We Go (and shoots Nanny McPhee, a story about a magical nanny that teaches children lessons through mischief and whimsy), it’s no wonder she has babies on the brain. “Every single day, things come up that I want to teach my daughter,” she says. “I believe in Ramona, that she can do what she puts her mind to, and I’m sure that will be communicated to her as one of the most important things. You have to communicate to your child if you want them to feel strong in the world.”
Gyllenhaal sounds so solid in her assertions about motherhood, that it would be impossible to cast her transition into playing matriarchs and older characters as going soft. Instead, Gyllenhaal is moving toward playing the real heroines in life, the strong—and gracefully mature—women that ultimately lead by example.
Rachel Syme is culture editor of The Daily Beast.