“I really love Candy. I really do,” Maggie Gyllenhaal says, beaming from those ever-expressive saucer eyes, preaching the gospel that anyone who watched her introduction Sunday night as New York prostitute Eileen “Candy” Merrell in the premiere of David Simon’s new HBO porn drama The Deuce would certainly praise witness to.
It’s a few weeks ahead of the premiere of The Deuce, the new series from the famed creator of The Wire that focuses its lens on the sex workers and vagrants that, in 1971, frequented a specific cross-section of Times Square at a time when their transactions and indulgences were about to give birth to the adult film industry as we know it.
Speaking about the resonance of the series, which co-stars James Franco as twin characters, Simon told The Daily Beast, “I’m hoping people are watching with the consciousness that this is the origin of a multibillion-dollar industry that has transformed the economic landscape, not merely within the context of pornography, but also, we don’t sell a bottle of beer or a Lincoln Continental without using some of the tropes that pornography has delivered to us in the last 40 years.”
That impact was a major factor in Gyllenhaal’s infatuation with Candy after reading the scripts for The Deuce, inspiring the crackling, assured performance that melts the Midas cliché off the “hooker with a heart of gold” stereotype.
We meet Candy as she’s preening on the sidewalk: her frizzed, curly platinum blonde wig mostly straight; her beat, white faux fur coat aptly presenting dingy fabulousness; and the neon lights of Times Square reflecting off her excessively painted face, the car horns and cacophony of Motown blaring from the radio soundtracking the platonic ideal of what someone in 2017 might imagine 1971 New York to be.
Tellingly, Candy isn’t bent over a car window attracting a john when we meet her. She’s brushing off the advances of a pimp desperate for her to join his fleet. But Candy demurs. She only works for herself.
The last time Gyllenhaal was on television, she was starring in the eight-part miniseries The Honourable Woman as an Anglo-Israeli executive who inherits her Zionist father’s arms business and finds herself negotiating explosive Israeli-Palestinian tensions—a part that won her a Golden Globe and an Emmy nomination.
Of the myriad ways that project differed from The Deuce, chief among them was that all eight Honourable Women scripts had already been written when she was courted for the part. Despite an eagerness to work with David Simon and his creative partner George Pelecanos, the fact that there were only three scripts for her to peruse and no guarantee of where the character, a prostitute at that, would go worried her.
So she made a big ask. She wanted to become a producer.
“I had never been involved in something where I hadn’t read the complete script, let alone [one starring] a prostitute, which I think is a delicate thing to take on,” she says. “After meeting them, it seemed clear to me that they wanted to do something interesting. But I felt like it was fair to ask for a guarantee that I would be a part of the conversation about what story we were telling and who Candy was, particularly because I knew I’d have my clothes off all the time and I wanted to use my body but also my mind.”
Even her manager told her she’d never get it, to be producer on a major HBO series that she didn’t develop. But they gave it to her and, she says, actually collaborated with her, too—it wasn’t just a vanity title. She beams while telling the story.
When Maggie Gyllenhaal speaks, she speaks in a smile. Some people have resting bitch face. Gyllenhaal’s lips naturally curl up, almost as if into resting serenity face. The result is a higher-pitched—though soft—tone of voice, and a natural warmth that is intrinsically infused in her characters, especially Candy.
It isn’t some sort of insufferable relentless positivity, but a resilience. You see it in Jean, the weary, divorced single mom and journalist in Crazy Heart; Sherry, fresh from prison and recovering from a heroin addiction, struggling to reunite with her son in Sherrybaby; or even Lee, who’s in a BDSM relationship with her boss in Secretary.
It’s this thing that, even when her characters are beleaguered or defeated or broken, there’s a lilt of optimism, telegraphed through that voice and that countenance, hinting everything might be OK. That, hey, we’re just doing our best.
There’s something powerful about that when you watch Candy’s sweetness and toughness interplay with as much complexity and force as her sex positivity and feminist independence, all things that, to generalize about modern values, aren’t typically thought as complements.
The Deuce takes place in the ’70s, but we’re watching it in the present though the lens of our own ideas about sex work, sex, and nudity—ideas that encompass judgment, shame, and, more often, hypocrisy. As much as the show is a period piece, it holds a clear mirror through which to rethink our own social mores and values today.
“I think that it’s become clear in a way that wasn’t clear to me before the last election that we’re really living in a misogynist world,” Gyllenhaal says. “So to make a show that is about an industry that has a really noticeable imbalance of power, particularly with prostitution but also true with porn, I think is particularly interesting right now. And to think about being a woman in relation to sex, money, art, power, right now feels very current. It feels like what people are thinking about. All of a sudden I’m thinking about it in a way that I wasn’t last year.”
That’s not, of course, to diminish the delight of The Deuce as a time piece—albeit, refreshingly, one that doesn’t romanticize the ’70s or bathe it in nostalgia.
The cinematography, meant to resemble a film made in the ’70s, and the stagecraft present a New York City as authentically seedy as the time and place deserves. At a press conference, one reporter joked to the pilot’s director Michelle MacLaren that it looked like someone could contract an infection on set, to which she replied, “I love that you’re saying that because we all hoped you could smell the show.”
But blooming like a sweet rose in a junkyard is Candy, who demands dignity and eschews shame in her sex work—especially in tense encounters with her mother, who is raising her son while she hits the streets—and industriously discovers the potential for professional growth, determined to learn and eventually transform the craft of making adult films.
“I’m playing somebody that just didn’t moralize about it at all, so neither did I,” Gyllenhaal says, then starting to giggle. “A lot of people have been asking me about the porn in 2017, which to be honest I know a lot less about than I do about the 1970s porn, which I know quite a lot about.”
But Gyllenhaal also found something resonant in the entire experience of being a woman on Candy’s journey, something that struck a chord as precisely then as it does now: the idea that, in a society that serves women a morsel and expects them to be grateful as if for a feast, “you take what you can get and you use it to feed yourself.”
That’s what Candy’s doing with porn. She stars in one dirty picture and becomes fascinated by the filmmaking element of it, the lenses, the lights, and the craft. It’s the birth of an artist; the art just happens to be porn. “For her that’s the world she’s living in,” Gyllenhaal says. “She’s going to take whatever she has access to in order to feed herself, because she’s starving.”
Before we part ways, there’s one last imperative thing to discuss, something that could’ve taken up our entire interview if we didn’t have restraint: Candy’s wig and fur. (As Eileen, Gyllenhaal wears her natural hair.)
“If a character looks like me it’s sort of scarier to have an intense emotional journey in their body,” she says. “If there’s a little bit of fiction it really helps and I think it makes me braver.”
And that wig? Platinum blonde courage.
“With Candy I was like, I want to look like Candy. I want to be yummy. I want to be soft and seem like I smell good and would be soft to touch. I wanted to be Hanna Schygulla in the Fassbinder movie, The Marriage of Maria Braun, or I also wanted to look like Bernadette Peters. Those were my inspirations. I loved that wig. And I love that fur. I love that fiction. I loved that. I love Candy, too.”