Maggie Gyllenhaal is being very careful with her words.
We’re talking about her role in the eight-part miniseries The Honorable Woman, which begins airing Thursday night on SundanceTV. Gyllenhaal delivers what might be the most towering, complex, best performance of her career in the miniseries—a title not given freely to an actress who has been so stunning in projects like Sherrybaby, Secretary, and Crazy Heart, for which she received an Oscar nomination—and is outspokenly proud of her work in it.
Yet her free-wheeling eloquence, as much of the actress’s trademark as those emotive, saucer-sized eyes, is more measured than usual. And understandably so.
Gyllenhaal plays Baroness Nessa Stein in The Honorable Woman, the Anglo-Israeli executive in charge of the multinational firm, the Stein Group. When Nessa was a girl, she watched her father, a Zionist arms dealer, be assassinated in front of her. Decades later, she’s attempting reparations by steering the Stein Group toward philanthropy. A plan to install a high-speed data service between Israel and the West Bank is spearheaded, the complications that arise threaten her and her family’s safety—proving that even the most altruistic-seeming acts spark explosive reactions when it comes to the Middle East conflict.
As the backlash, both personal and professional, that accompanies running a foundation that attempts to forge a relationship between Israel and Palestine builds, The Honorable Woman becomes part thriller and part character study, as we watch Nessa nearly drown under the weight of it all. And with current headlines surrounding the conflict in Israel and Gaza mirroring some of the external conflicts portrayed in the series, the series could not be more timely.
Gyllenhaal has never shied away from political issues—read her comments on Pussy Riot or Chelsea Manning for proof of that—and better yet has always spoken with supreme intelligence on them. Still, she stutters a bit as she gathers the correct words when it comes time to discuss the ripped-from-the-headlines aspects of The Honorable Woman.
“I’ve been compulsively reading the news about what’s happening in Gaza,” she tells me. “Not just because obviously I’m being asked about it all the time and it’s my responsibility to know what’s going on, but also because in doing this show I learned so much about that region and now I have an emotional connection to it.”
Ahead of The Honorable Woman’s U.S. premiere Thursday, we talked with Gyllenhaal about that emotional connection, her hopes for reconciliation in the Middle East, and the daunting task of taking on a leading role in an eight-hour miniseries—and one with the potential for being so controversial, to boot.
To believe the British press, it sounds like you were pursued pretty aggressively by writer-director Hugo Blick for this role. (According to The Guardian, Blick invited himself to Gyllenhaal’s house for dinner in order to woo her—and then insulted her cooking.)
It’s funny. The British press I think picked up that story in a sort of strange way. Obviously I did press in London before this—they’re four or five episodes ahead of us. And I was trying to make the point that he was the one thing that was a question mark for me when I was thinking about getting involved with this, because the script is so excellent and I thought the part was so incredible—I never read a character where I thought the possibility was there for so much expression, expression of so many different aspects of being a woman and a woman of my age. But the one thing I didn’t know about was Hugo.
But he eventually won you over?
But I sort of thought it was funny that, at first, I was like, “I don’t know about you…” [Laughs] Every time I say this it keeps getting printed in a way that doesn’t include my deep love for him, but he is an unusual person! His energy is unlike anything I’ve ever come into contact before. And he’s actually, I think, a genius. In some ways it was a little alienating at first and I didn’t know exactly how to process it. Now I know him and now I love him. Now I know how to hear him and I know how to make sure he hears me, but when we first met it was a little off. And I think that is so strange since it turned into this incredibly loving thing. Look, I want to take every project to Hugo. I love him. He said this is a complete miniseries, and I’m like, “We’ll see.”
I’m a sucker for a good opening line, and the first line of this is great. This whole eight hours starts with the line, “Who do you trust?,” which leads into that awesome monologue that plays at the start of each episode.
There’s actually a great story about that monologue! Basically, we shot all my stuff and I was talking in my English accent. My English accent now sucks! I haven’t been practicing it. So I said to Hugo, “Let’s do that monologue now before I leave.” Because I’d had this experience before you leave set and then you have to do a voiceover and can’t remember how you were talking. So I said, “Let’s do it on set.” We had shot so many months, we were in Morocco, we had all lost 10 pounds. We were at the end of the road, and we shot my last day and then Hugo said, “Remember, we have to do this voiceover.” I had completely forgotten. So I went into this other room to look at it for a second—I was like, “Fuck, I hadn’t really looked at it yet.”
But I looked at it and I was like, “I know. I have to say this to Hugo.” I told him that and he said, “Well, don’t look me in the eye because I’ll laugh.” I said, “No you won’t.” I basically said to Hugo that I trust him. That’s in some way the subtext to what I was saying. I mean I was Nessa and I was acting. But on another level, I was saying it’s very hard for me, but I do trust you. It came at a high cost. So I’m very proud of that voiceover. Whether or not people like it or not, to me it has meaning beyond what it is in the piece.
There are elements in Nessa’s arc about what being a public stage does to a person’s inner psyche and personal wellbeing that I’m sure you must be able to relate to as an actor and public figure.
That’s true. And I could definitely call on that kind of difference between the public and the private and the pressure that I also sometimes feel to do something perfectly. To go on a talk show and do it remarkably. I think it’s deadening, that kind of pressure. But I think what I was more interested in that particular dichotomy—though it’s one that I understand and is definitely in the piece—is in general, whether you’re a public figure or not, the way that we all as human beings in some ways perform ourselves opposed to just being ourselves in the midst of our lives. That element of performance and that element of trying to be a fantasy of who you think you’re supposed to be opposed to just living and breathing and feeling can be the death of us. I think what you’re watching when you watch Nessa is somebody who, just as the series starts, is unable to keep that up anymore. And it just starts to explode all around her.
Were you always gung-ho about charging into an eight-hour miniseries, or was there ever a moment of panic about what you were undertaking?
There was one moment in particular about three days into shooting that I went, “Oh my god! This is a totally different scope than anything I’ve ever taken on before.” The speed with which we’re shooting. It’s not two hours, it’s eight hours. I never held up something that long before, and I really had this moment of questioning whether or not I could do it. And I cried for a second alone in my trailer.
But then I realized a couple of things. One is that it is so helpful in playing Nessa, and probably part of the reason why in that moment I let myself be in touch with those terrifying feelings, because it was serving the work that I was doing. But also I realized it really wasn’t just “Could I do it?” because yes I could do it—why couldn’t I?—it was the pressure on myself of “Could I do it remarkably.” That’s what kills you. That’s the death of anything human. It’s overwhelming. So I kind of went, well, yes I can do it. I can come to work and do my job, and mostly what I need to do is take it day by day and have an experience.
Is it a different beast promoting a project like this that tackles so directly such sensitive and politically charged—not to mention polarizing—issues?
Yeah. I mean, in particular, this issue at this moment. [Stutters a bit] I’ve been compulsively reading the news about what’s happening in Gaza, not just because obviously I’m being asked about it all the time and it’s my responsibility to know what’s going on, but also because in doing this show I learned so much about that region and now I have an emotional connection to it. But I also think that it’s so easy in terms of this conflict, in particular—I actually don’t see another conflict that is quite like this. It alienates so many people and makes them stop listening. And what I hope this show will do is allow people to listen, not just with their brains but also with their hearts, and the difference between reading an article and watching a piece of fiction.
Is it daunting?
I’ve had to be very thoughtful about the way that I talk about it now, with the hope that people will watch it and that that will be what might maybe shifts their feeling slightly one way or another. This show doesn’t have a point of view it’s trying to drive home. It doesn’t have a position on the issue that it’s trying to convince you of. It’s just laying out aspects of the conflict and really then asking the viewer to think and to feel about it.
One of the things it does so well early on is show how something as seemingly benevolent as trying to create a high-speed data service between Israel and the West Bank can be more explosive and contentious than one might imagine. There’s a great line: “In the history of the Middle East, it never ends well for idealism, does it?”
Right, that’s what the journalist says to me on the radio. It’s funny because on some level she’s an idealist and on some level there’s a naïve aspect to her. And on another level she’s incredibly savvy and so good, I thought, at helping people to listen.
It’s an illuminating point, though, about how even the best intentions when it comes to this issue sometimes just can’t be seen that way.
Absolutely. And it’s amazing, I think, how scared people are to talk about it directly at all. I understand that. I think it happens to be this issue that, at least in this country, people feel ashamed that they don’t know enough to understand the bulk of it. Because the geopolitics, even in the past six months of what’s happening over there, is so hard to follow. It’s so complicated. There are so many shifts and turns, and I really relate to that and understand that. But also people get angry—so incredibly angry, so quickly. I do think, though, that there is space to listen inside this show.
It’s pretty rare, I imagine, as an actor to be in something so timely and so right on the news—and such polarizing, important, controversial news, at that—so that the project you’re promoting actually has the opportunity to say something meaningful and maybe even change someone’s mind in real time.
It’s more complicated when we’re talking about hundreds and hundreds, and now I think over a thousand, people being killed and we’re making a piece of fiction. At the same time, I sometimes look at the situation and think it looks impossible. Which is not to say that I don’t believe in reconciliation, because I do. And so does the piece [The Honorable Woman]. But there is this feeling that it’s impossible right now. And that is when art can be so helpful. Because, basically, I was trying to create a character who could speak to both sides. And that is a fantasy! But I think it’s a fantasy that’s worth having, or considering.