Maggie Gyllenhaal Q&A

Sunday, December 20, 2009 at 11:17 am
By Shane Rivers

Maggie Gyllenhaal’s (The Dark Knight, Secretary, Sherrybaby) most recent film is Crazy Heart, the poignant tale of aging country musician Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) and his redemptive relationship with single-mother journalist Jean Craddock (Gyllenhaal). Colin Farrell and Robert Duvall co-star, and Bridges’ performance has already generated a generous helping of Oscar buzz.

Crazy Heart opened at the Angelika Theatre in New York City on December 18th, and those who braved the cold were rewarded with a special Q&A session with Maggie Gyllenhaal immediately following the movie. Roxanne Downer, the intrepid movie critic for A1 Movie Reviews, was in attendance, and she both participated in and recorded the session.

We now proudly present a Q&A with actress Maggie Gyllenhaal.


Question: You’re sort of an indie poster girl, but you’ve also done some more mainstream stuff. I’m curious about how you navigate your career.

Maggie Gyllenhaal: I think I’ve been lucky enough to mostly choose things based on what moves me. I realize now that it’s a different kind of commitment to take on a tiny movie that doesn’t have a distributor than to take on a huge movie. If you do a huge movie that’s being made in a studio that has money behind it and a distribution date, all you do is go in and out. So you can read the script and go “sure, I can do that for six weeks.”

A tiny movie is going to get its money off your back. First, you have to help raise the money once you sign on, then you have to shoot it, then you have to help with the cut, then you have to take it to festivals and help get it into festivals, then you have to go and have dinner with all the distributors and get them to buy it. It’s basically like producing it, even though I haven’t ever officially produced. On Sherrybaby, for example, I felt like a producer. And I have to love a movie to take it on for two years like that. It’s a different kind of commitment.

Question: I was very impressed with Jeff Bridges’ musical ability. I just wanted to know how that all came about, because we’ve never seen this side of him.

MG: I think it’s an integral part of him. Part of the reason my voice sounds so scratchy is that we were all up until 2 AM playing music in a hotel room after the screening we did last night, and I had to do The Today Show at 4:45. But it’s how it is. It’s how he is. It’s what he’s like.

I remember the makeup artist in Santa Fe, who was so lovely, who gave me the lipstick out of her purse, she threw this party one weekend. Stephen Bruton, who passed away and to whom the movie is dedicated, and Jeff would sit and play love songs to me. That’s what Jeff’s like. He really does play and he’s also not shy about it.

When we first started doing press for this movie it wasn’t supposed to come out now, and it was put out as a surprise to all of us. We flew to L.A. to do this press junket. One of the things we did was this big Hollywood party that was supposed to be for Jeff’s 60th birthday. And half an hour into the party, Jeff is playing guitar and Ryan Bingham is playing the songs from the movie, and everyone is having a good time.

Question: I was curious about the role music played on the set. Did the director give you anything to listen to?

MG: I was born here [in New York] and grew up in California and have lived here for almost 15 years. So there’s no reason I should like country music, but I do. I like a weird mix of people, because it just came out of me. But I didn’t know who Lefty Frizell was. Stephen Bruton, who was T-Bone’s [T-Bone Burnett] partner, he was on the set all the time, and I ended up getting into some interesting conversations with Stephen, because I think Jean does know who Lefty Frizell is and is really a fan of Bad’s music when she goes to meet him and really does know about country in a way I didn’t. So it was great to know someone who can give you playlists, but I know that Jeff had a different relationship with the music than I did.

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Question: How do you think Jean is different from other characters you’ve played?

MG: Jean is so soft and vulnerable. Some of the movies I made when I was younger, that I am really proud of, I thought the idea was just to be as strong as possible. I thought that was the idea of my life. I thought that was the most interesting thing to watch onscreen, just to be fierce and a powerhouse. I don’t think that anymore [laughs]. I think, somehow, I knew that in making the movie before I knew it in my life. I keep bursting into tears all the time on this press junket. I think Jean is gentle and braver than me in a way, in that she is so feeling.

Question: How did you prepare for the scene where you reject Bad? What were you thinking of?

maggie-gyllenhaalMG: We shot the movie so fast, which, for me, is much better. I think it was about five weeks, maybe slightly more. All the stuff in my house was the first couple of days, so that scene on the bed when he’s writing the song, that was the first day, and that scene we shot on the third day. I mean, it was crazy. We had no time to warm up at all. Although, I find when I have time to warm up, it doesn’t help me.

I think when you have Jeff Bridges, who is brilliant, genius, and you have a script that’s really good, especially in the sense that most of the scenes could be about many things. It could be played many ways, could meander through many feelings. If you have that luxury of working with someone who’s up for anything, and a script that can be about many things, you don’t have to make choices, really. You have to know about what you’re coming in with and the basic actor sort of things, but that’s all you really have to know.

It’s funny. I watch that scene, and I think, “Oh, I wish I hadn’t opened the door.” But I think that’s what Jean wishes, too. I also remember that every time we did a scene, every take was drastically different. And I remember one take Jeff improvised and asked me if he could touch me, and I didn’t say anything and I just kind of looked down, and he didn’t touch me.

So how did I prepare? I just tried to go in with very little expectation of what the outcome of the scene would be.

Question: How do you approach dealing with a first-time director who is so young? And how long did it take you to trust him?

MG: I think everybody’s different. I know Jeff went into it wanting to really make a connection and open his heart to Scott. Jeff was our king, he was our leader, and he tried to encourage that kind of relationship with Scott.

To be honest with you, when I read the script and saw who was in it, I felt some kind of pull towards playing her really strongly. I would do anything with Robert Duvall and Jeff Bridges in it. And Scott was really the only wild card. I think what I wanted to be sure of when I first met him was that he wouldn’t get in my way. That’s not ideal – I don’t want that to be the way that I work with a director. But that’s how I went into it. I was like, “I don’t need you. I think I can do this without you.” I had Jeff, and I knew immediately that he was going to be my mirror, and he would see if things were working or not. I didn’t need two people to do that.

Look, I’ve worked with first-time directors where I was so proud of the movie, but we fought all the time. And I’ve also worked with people who have made brilliant movies over and over again. What happens with new directors, sometimes, is that they get so scared they decide before they get there what the scenes are supposed to be about, how they’re supposed to play, how you’re supposed to respond, and that’s the death of it. In my experience, so far, people who have more experience don’t do that as much. But Scott – and I was pretty hardened and didn’t think I would be opened – he peeled me open like an onion. And that’s what I always want.

I remember when we were doing the first interview scene, and it was very sexy. We had already shot a week of really intimate stuff and we were letting all that intimacy into that first scene. It was really working, and I really felt it. But in one take, Bad started hitting Jean too hard and it was like, if that had happened it would have been over. I felt disrespected, like he wasn’t paying attention to me, and the scene just died. It was really super-subtle, but Scott came in and he knew exactly what happened and knew why, and then I just loved him.