Ever since she broke out with her brazen turn as a kinky secretary in "Secretary," Maggie Gyllenhaal has kept delivering risky performances in a string of acclaimed indies, including "Sherrybaby," "Crazy Heart" (which netted her an Oscar nomination) and "Happy Endings." She also displayed her mainstream appeal as Bruce Wayne's feisty love interest in "The Dark Knight."
Her latest indie, "Hysteria," is a period romp, but don't let that fool you; this isn’t your typical corseted comedy. Directed by newcomer Tanya Wexler and costarring Hugh Dancy, Felicity Jones and Rupert Everett, "Hysteria" recounts the little-known story behind the invention of the vibrator in Victoria-era England. Gyllenhaal plays Charlotte Darlymple, a woman way ahead of her time who, against her better instincts, begins to fall for the man responsible for bringing pleasure to women the world over.
NextMovie caught up with the actress to talk about working in a corset, mastering a British accent, and the free goodies she got.
Call me out if I’m wrong, but I think this marks your first period film since that movie-within-a-movie you did for your segment in "Paris Je T’aime."
But "Paris" wasn’t period.
Well, the film you're character was shooting was ...
Oh, yeah. I guess you're right. I've done a lot of the same time period on stage. I did a bunch of Chekhov. What else? I’ve done '40s. I did '40s in "Nanny McPhee." I can't remember. [laughs] I mean, I wore a corset.
Did that little tease in "Paris" give you an urge to do it on a broader scale in a feature?
No, but I like acting in a corset. My husband and I did these two Chekhov plays two years apart in New York, and I got really good at acting in a corset. I got all the tricks down. Like, you don’t want to wear tights because there’s no room to pee. Things like that.
In this kind of movie, I was not particularly concerned with the historical accuracy of Charlotte. I think if we had been making a really realistic drama about suffragettes in 1880s, then obviously you have to take a different route. But because of the style of the movie and because the politics that she actually gets a chance to talk about are so simple -- women should vote, go to college -- I thought if that were really realistic or if that were a major concern, it would get dull. So I was more concerned with her being as wild as possible. She could be from another planet. She had to be full of life and all woman.
Were your costars jealous that you didn’t have to focus so much on historical research to nail down your character?
Well, no -- I mean you don’t have to. Everyone can decide what they want to do. Even with the wardrobe ... The fantastic costume designer had pulled some stuff for me, and I just thought, this does not feel right. So we just went into the huge English costume house and picked out things that felt right. And many times they were not accurate. Nobody would wear just their shirt sleeves rolled up without a jacket over it! Charlotte does all the time.
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About the wild nature of the character -- you were just so much fun to watch as Charlotte. Was it exhausting to play someone so active and unrelentingly driven?
The style of it … the way she talks; there'd be a chunk of dialogue on the page. You just have to fly through it. It's not the point of what she's saying that's so complicating and exciting. It’s the way she's saying it. She's saying things we all agree with. We know her point.
Because of the way it was written, it was the kind of writing where you can’t improvise. It’s kind of like singing. It’s like a '40s romantic comedy, it's all got a rhythm to it. Very different from "Sherrybaby" or "Crazy Heart" where a mistake is a gift. It’s the kind of thing where we would start a scene and if the rhythm got off, you’d have to start again.
They shot all my stuff at once, so I worked all the time. At the very end we went to Luxemburg, and I had sent my daughter and my husband home. I just found I was drinking so much espresso. I would have five or six cups of espresso and then go do the scene. She just had that kind of wild energy.
This isn't your first time mastering a great British accent, but you really barrel through most of your lines with ease. How did you conquer that?
I had done three plays with an English accent before I did "Nanny McPhee," so I had some experience with it. I had a great dialect coach on "Nanny McPhee" who was actually Peter’s [Sarsgaard, her husband] coach on "An Education." What he and I did, and the way I work on an accent always, is to talk in English all the time. Like I’d just get in the car to go to work and I’d just say, "I know this is stupid but I’m going to talk in my English accent." And all day long I’d do it, partially because it was a lot of fun. But it made me less self-conscious and people would help by correcting me.
"Hysteria" is pretty transgressive, despite its period setting -- a quality associated with a lot of your work. Is that something you seek out?
I usually try not to do things that don't make me curious in some way. I don't know, something will attract me, often because it's unusual or interesting to me. It has to be something I want to spend a couple months mulling over. I don’t know if it's necessarily transgressive things that attract me, so much as things that I haven't done a lot of thinking about, or feeling about.
This one surprised me. I just thought this would be fun. But then when I saw the movie, everybody including me was kind of flushed by the movie ... a little hysterical. It's funny to call it hysterical, but people, including me, were hysterically laughing out of being uncomfortable. I was a little shy watching these women have orgasms and talk about vibrators. I don’t think we're used to it.
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I tweeted after seeing "Hysteria" that I’ve never seen so many female orgasms in one movie.
You never get to see Charlotte have one. I’ve had them in other movies. [laughs]
You made quite a stir at the Toronto Film Festival press conference, when you talked about the free goodies you got while on set.
That was so funny because it was one of those cases where I don’t read any press anymore, because I just feel like it can be so unkind. Maybe I’m wrong about this, but somebody asked me at some event, what was the most wild thing you ever got? Well, while were doing this movie, Tanya and I would both walk into our trailers and there'd be these velvet wrapped-up boxes of vibrators. Sex shops around London would send them to us. It just got to a point where it was like, how many do you need?
My friend sent me a text saying the press had been saying that I've been giving away my vibrators, alluding that I'd be using them first. To make it seem like I'd used them first?! It just made me so mad!