Maggie Gyllenhaal Talks Brooklyn vs. Manhattan
by Roland Emmerich
Roland Emmerich’s interview with Maggie Gyllenhaal took place almost a year to the day the noted director, and producer of The Day After Tomorrow and Independence Day first met the Oscar nominated actress to discuss her role in White House Down. “You came out to Brooklyn because my baby was four weeks old, and I had barely ever left her before,” recalls Gyllenhaal.
“It’s actually one of the fastest movies I’ve done,” says Emmerich of the 13-month turnaround from meeting Gyllenhaal to the film’s theater release on June 28. The movie costars Jamie Foxx as President James Sawyer, a tough-as-nails Obama-esque Commander in Chief, and Channing Tatum, as John Cale, a Secret Service agent hopeful.
For Gyllenhaal, a veteran of small-budget indie films like Secretary, Happy Endings, and Crazy Heart, shooting White House Down “was completely the opposite, one of the longest movies I’ve ever made,” she says with a laugh. But the film is hardly Gyllenhaal’s first experience with big-scale productions—in 2008, she shared the screen with the late Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, and Dame Maggie Smith in the Wonderland-like Nanny McPhee Returns in 2010. “In a lot of ways [blockbusters and independents] don’t feel that different to me,” says Gyllenhaal. “I really work in the same way.”
Here, the director talks to the actress about her new role, doing New York theater, husband Peter Sarsgaard, and why not getting into Yale was all for the best.
Roland Emmerich: How did you prep for your role as a Secret Service agent in White House Down?
Maggie Gyllenhaal: There was [a technical advisor] on set who set us straight. He would say, “No that would never happen,” or “You absolutely have to wear your plastic credentials over your suit.” I thought it was more important to focus on how a woman feels being in such a position—in the government, with the army. I think that’s what people watching the movie relate to.
RE: Have you been to the White House or met President Obama?
MG: I’ve never met him or been there, but we’re going for the press junket, so maybe.... If you go meet Obama, will you promise, on the record right now, to take me?
RE: I promise you will be there. I met Obama twice, but only because I gave him money for his re-election.
MG: I gave him money, too, but I didn’t meet him. I have to do more blockbusters.
RE: You’ve done independents as well as big budget films. Which do you prefer?
MG: I like to make both. Everybody working on a blockbuster is really at the top [of their game]. Sometimes on a tiny independent movie, nobody has any money, they’re hiring people who are learning, and lots of mistakes happen. It can lead to amazing things, but it can be hard. I also like to make movies that many people will see. I think White House Down says some interesting things about the world, and it’s fun and exciting. I know only a few people are going to be into the tinier movies I make, and I like that, too. There’s something nice and freeing about both.
RE: I would love to do teeny movies, not that they’d let me. I think they want only big movies from me because they’d probably make more money.
MG: You should make a small movie. It doesn’t have to do that well [at the box office], and there’s something really freeing about that. Sometimes it feels really amazing to be in a movie that touches the whole world.
RE: Which of your past costars did you most learn from?
MG: Secretary was one of the first times I expressed myself in my work. Before that I was just a jobbing actress—I was like whatever part you’ll let me have, however small, I’ll do it. I wasn’t really expressing anything about myself or how I felt about the world. But in that movie I did; it was partially because James Spader and the director [Steven Shainberg] made a space for me to do that. I watched the way James made a space for himself, and for me that was a really big lesson. I’ve taken that with me on everything I’ve worked on since. I’d also say Jeff Bridges [was an influence]. He’s so full of love, and he went into [Crazy Heart] thinking, “If I give this guy [director Scott Cooper], whose first movie this is, all of my love and all of my support, he will do the best work he can.” And I thought, That’s right. My whole thing of “Oh, I don’t need you; I’ve got what I need,” that’s not as good. So I really learned from him.
RE: You’re a lifetime New Yorker. How do you think that has shaped your work?
MG: That’s not exactly true. I was born in New York, but I grew up in LA, and then I came back here when I was 17 for college. But I never felt comfortable in LA, and I kind of pretended to myself that I always lived in New York.
RE: Why did you go to Columbia University?
MG: I wanted to go to Yale, but they didn’t accept me. Columbia didn’t accept me at first either—they put me on the wait list. Once I was there, I realized I wouldn’t have finished college if I weren’t in the city.
RE: How does living in Brooklyn compare to Manhattan?
MG: I lived in Brooklyn when I was in college, then moved into the city in 2000, and thought, I will never live in Brooklyn again. Now I really can’t imagine being back in Manhattan. Everyone I know lives in Brooklyn; I have a backyard; it’s much quieter and calmer. I love Prospect Park and the [Park Slope Food] co-op, where you have to work three and a half hours a month. It’s an amazing place. It has the best produce—even better than Union Square Greenmarket. At first, everyone forgets [to work their shift]. If you forget for the third time, you get fired and can’t shop there anymore. I signed up again because Peter is obsessed with the co-op—he loves it. I thought, “What is my problem? I can’t work for three and a half hours a month?” And now I’ve been doing it, and I kind of love it, too. I always feel really good after I work my shift.
RE: What are some of your favorite places in New York?
MG: I love Café Sabarsky, which is in the Neue Galerie; if it’s my birthday, I’ll go there and have coffee and cake—it’s almost like a trip to go uptown. And BKLYN Larder is one of my favorite places. They know us, they know my kids, and it’s fantastic food. I’m in there almost every day. I’m half Jewish, so Russ & Daughters is where I go for my comfort food. I am also a huge fan of black caviar, and they are the experts.
RE: When did you first become interested in acting?
MG: My dad is a film director; and my mom’s a screenwriter, so I would go to their sets sometimes. [Acting] was something I was good at. It’s hard for me not to be good at something, although there are many things I’m not good at. I’m just learning at 35 how to accept not being good at something, then learn about it—that’s how you start to get better. When I was younger, I thought, If I’m not good at this, forget it; I’m not doing it anymore. I’m not proud of that at all, but it’s just how I was. And I think because acting was something that came naturally to me, I just grabbed onto it.
RE: Your whole family is in the entertainment industry—parents, husband, brother [actor Jake Gyllenhaal]—how has that affected or shaped the roles you take?
MG: I remember telling my parents about Secretary, which was one of the first roles I got. For that movie, I was like, “Oh, I have to do this,” and I can’t tell you why—it’s not that I was into S&M, but something about that movie just called me. It’s not like my parents or my brother could have said yes or no. Peter, on the other hand, and I seem to have similar taste in movies. Jake, we’re very close, but our taste is different, and I think our style is different. If I’m really drawn to something and other people don’t see it the same way, I do trust myself. I just say, “I want to try it.”
RE: Any thoughts of going back to New York theater?
MG: I’m going to do a play next spring, which is more like Secretary than anything I’ve done since then. It’s called the Village Bike.
RE: Despite your schedule, you make time to support several charitable causes.
MG: I really love Partners in Health, which is a medical organization that builds hospitals around the world, especially in Haiti. Also, I like this organization Witness, which teaches grassroots activists to use video cameras to tape human rights abuses then use those videos to help change policies. Have you ever listened to Democracy Now!? It’s kind of radical I guess, but it’s really activated me and made me want to get way more involved than I am now.
photography by andrew eccles; Styling by Kate young at The Wall Group Makeup by Matin, color consultant for Laura Mercier; Manicure by Chanel celebrity manicurist Gina Viviano using Chanel Le Vernis; Hair by Miki for Tim Howard Management; Set Design by Robert Sumrell