Maggie Gyllenhaal is a broad-in-waiting, the kinda-wanna-sorta brunette who cracked wise through Hollywood’s Golden Age. You could see as much four years ago when she made Vanity Fair’s Hollywood cover, slumped in a chair on the far right of the gatefold, separated from the gilded company she was keeping, wearier, worldlier. This summer, she’s bringing her New Age Rosalind Russell smarts to the role of lawyer/love interest Rachel Dawes in Christopher Nolan’s latest Batman vehicle The Dark Knight. Indie queen to multiplex goddess? If there’s any justice in Gotham City’s legal system . . .
TIM BLANKS: Did you have any doubts about saying yes to a part like Rachel Dawes?
MAGGIE GYLLENHAAL: Sure, I did. At the same time, I knew who was in the movie-Gary Oldman, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine, Heath [Ledger] and Christian [Bale], all these really great actors. I’d seen Chris Nolan’s movies, so it didn’t feel as though there was any chance it was going to be a compromise. I had a meeting with Chris, and my daughter Ramona was probably 3 months old. I had huge, milky boobs, and was still kind of in that hazy mom state. Chris asked me if I wanted to read the script, which was a big deal. And someone had to come and wait in my driveway while I read this huge script. I was mommying, so it took me 20 full hours to get through it, and this guy was sitting in my driveway. I liked it and I talked to Chris, and with every idea I had, he was either totally excited by it or had a great reason as to why it wouldn’t work. I thought, This will be collaborative. But I also thought, It’s a huge movie, it can’t be that collaborative. Chris probably will say, “Do your thing. I need to worry about the thousand extras.” I was totally prepared for that, but it wasn’t the case. I was shocked by Chris Nolan. There would be literally a thousand extras and he’d be working with the DP on complex shots; then he’d come to me and have really exciting ideas about my tiny little scene. And every place where I thought, Okay, I need to make sure Rachel is not just the damsel in distress, I’m going to push it a bit, he would push me even further. So it ended up being really fun.
TB: Is this your investment in mainstream Hollywood?
MG: When I decided to do the movie, it wasn’t. But now? Sure it is. Now I really feel I want to make movies that people see. I want to play strong, beautiful, powerful, elegant women. Now I really feel like there is something about mainstream Hollywood that I absolutely embrace. I’ve shed that adolescent part of myself that wasn’t interested in it before. When I took this movie, I was hesitant. My daughter had just been born, and we were living in New York. We had been accosted by paparazzi at every turn in the worst ways. I thought, “I don’t want that life. I’m only fueling that if I do Batman.” But then I also thought, “I can’t live my life afraid. If I believe in being an actress and I love it, then I should do it.” Now I’m really embracing that. Mainstream Hollywood makes a few good movies a year. And in order to be in one of those, you have to be one of five people. Hollywood makes many bad movies too, which I’m not interested in being a part of. But there are only a few good independent movies a year, and many, many bad ones. I want to be in good movies, and I want people to see them.TB: Was turning 30 a milestone moment for you?
MG: I didn’t expect it to be, but it ended up that way. Not the actual birthday, but some kind of general shift happened. I see women 35, 36, a little older than me . . . and they have something that I admire and aspire to, so I’m looking forward to the rest of the decade. I’m actually just 30 and a half now, so I don’t have a lot of hindsight on this yet.
TB: Does turning 30 make you ready for anything the world can throw at you?
MG: No, I don’t think it makes me ready for anything the world can throw at me. But it’s funny the way celebrity stuff has been a part of my life and how much I’ve learned already. I’m not very good at something unless I find some way to enjoy it. It’s like figuring out how to do press for a movie, how to talk about it, what about it I’m going to bring to light. I have to find things that are interesting to me. And I have to say that I have been enjoying this. When you have a baby, there’s a part of it where your body is your baby. I was nursing Ramona during all the Sherrybaby  stuff, going to the Golden Globes and Academy Awards, and my body was totally different. It was hers, you know? Now I feel like I’m mine again, and I feel inspired by that. I’m really looking for something interesting to work on. I haven’t found it. But I feel ready to be in my body and be a woman in a different way, and be an actress in a different way.
But I feel ready to be in my body and be a woman in a different way, and be an actress in a different way.Maggie Gyllenhall
TB: You said that every time you put on a new outfit, you’re thinking, Who am I?
MG: That’s very true. Shopping is that way. Hair and makeup are interesting for me because I never wore makeup growing up. My mother doesn’t wear makeup, she cuts her hair really short, never dyes it, doesn’t even shave her legs. I never learned any of that. I’ve had to find it as an adult. My late twenties were when I really started to think about the joys of being a woman.
TB: Have you learned from your characters? You’ve said that even though Sherry Swanson, your character in Sherrybaby, dressed inappropriately, it was appropriate for what she wanted to do. I loved that.
MG: Well, that’s true of any character. I remember going into the first costume fitting. They had these short little jean skirts and blue fingernails, and someone said, “I love that, it’s so awful!” But I thought that comment was so judgmental. I thought, “What would somebody who is basically 16 in her mind, who has been in prison for three years, imagine was both professional and sexy? Why shouldn’t a professional person be sexy?” Instead of, This girl’s a real tart! I couldn’t think like that. When I wore her clothes all the time, I felt comfortable in them. Like a low-cut yellow braless tank-top. I wouldn’t feel comfortable in that for me, but I did feel comfortable in that as her, because I understood where it came from.
TB: Does that liberate you in the way that you dress for yourself?
MG: I don’t think I’m particularly uptight about the way I dress. [laughs] So I don’t know that I need liberating in that way. But some of this actress stuff has informed my life. When I was pregnant, I grew my hair. I’d never had long hair before, but when I did the photo shoot for this magazine, I cut it off. The man doing my hair said, “As an actress, I just thought you might want your hair long until you have a part that requires you to cut it in a certain way.” I said, “Yeah, but I’m also a woman! Who wants to feel beautiful and sexy! And so I have the right to cut my hair the way I want to cut my hair!” So then that’s exactly what I did!
TB: Rachel’s got long, dark, girl-in-peril hair in The Dark Knight?
MG: I doubt she’s much of a girl in peril. She’s had a complicated set of circumstances to work herself through. She is “the girl in the Batman movie” on some level. Aaron Eckhart used to joke that any time I was supposed to be in peril, I had a real problem with it. I was trying to figure out a way that it wasn’t exactly what was happening.
TB: How different is your take on her from the way she’s played by Katie Holmes?
MG: I don’t think anyone had an investment in me imitating what she did. I just took the ball from her. I have no idea if people think it’s similar or not.
TB: Someone once wrote about your “screwball glamour” and there is something in you that reminds me of Jean Arthur and Carole Lombard and Claudette Colbert, the great funny ladies of the ’30s and ’40s. That would be a perfect note in a movie like The Dark Knight-
MG: It’s a pretty dark movie. But sometimes qualities come out despite what an actor is in.
TB: You’ve done parts that were very intense. Did you live them? Sherry Swanson, for instance. Did you find it hard to leave that woman behind you?
MG: When you’re the lead in a movie, when you’re in every moment of the movie, it’s hard not to live it. We shot Sherrybaby in 25 days. I was never in my own clothes. I would get into her clothes, be her all day, come home, fall asleep, wake up, go back to work. I do better in that kind of work. What I found with Sherry was that she was in such a rough place that she didn’t have the luxury to feel any kind of self-pity or to fall apart at all, or she would not have been able to survive. So I shot all these fucked-up scenes that were really horrible, but I didn’t experience them that way. Obviously, I understood that all the things that happened in the movie were painful for her, but I didn’t really let that into the work. Then all the terrible things I’ve had to go through surfaced after we’d finished filming. And I got over it. I don’t think I could play that part now. I don’t know that I could be okay with the things I had to be okay with in order to play her.
TB: Were you in therapy when you did that film?
TB: So was it exorcism? Catharsis?
MG: Well, that stuff is private, but every role –I choose-whether consciously or -unconsciously-there’s something in it that I have to think about and work through.
TB: How do actors do what they do? Is it something you’ve got that other people don’t, or is it something you lack that other people have?
MG: I’m sure both. [laughs] It’s a really weird job.
TB: You’re rolling around naked on a dirty floor in New Jersey, and that’s your job-
MG: Exactly! You can’t say to a baby, “I had a hard day playing a drug addict who just got out of prison. Sorry, honey.” A mom has to be available.
You can’t say to a baby, ‘I had a hard day playing a drug addict who just got out of prison. sorry, honey.Maggie Gyllenhall
TB: Is that a new sense of responsibility?
MG: I don’t know if it’s responsibility as much as a desire to express something different. For a while, I got into taking someone really fucked up and showing the audience how they were beautiful and lovable. That’s a way of practicing compassion. But now I want to play a queen! I want to play someone who’s thinking and powerful and elegant and not so wayward. I feel like a big change has happened.
TB: Here’s another observation from your press clippings: “Gyllenhaal clearly relishes taking a wrecking ball to anything perfect or beautiful in her own cinematic creations.” But I always suspected that you were happy to be beautiful in real life.
MG: That is not wrong about my work. It was also true in my life. What I thought was most beautiful was something a little fucked up, a little off. I think that’s a way of hiding. As an actress and as a person. I feel different now. I’m not as interested in finding what is unattractive as I am in finding what is attractive. It’s much riskier to say, “I’m going to try and express what’s beautiful in me.”
TB: What about this screwball glamour idea? Is there a market for that anymore?
MG: My mom left The Lady Eve , the Barbara Stanwyck movie, in my VCR, and it was so funny. I really do like comedy. I think it comes pretty easily to me and I enjoy it. But there are no scripts like that! None!
TB: I think people should use interviews like this to say, “What I really wanna do is-“
MG: You know what I keep saying in every interview? “I really want to make a movie with Pedro Almodóvar!” So you can write that in block letters if you want to. [laughs]. You know who else I love? P.T. Anderson. He’s not really funny-although, he is actually sometimes funny. I’m a huge fan of his. There Will Be Blood -
TB: Not funny!
MG: No women either.
TB: If you haven’t seen anything you like, would you develop your own things?
MG: There are a couple of things I’m developing. On one level, that’s exciting, but then there’s another part of me that feels like I just want to be an actress, and I don’t want to have to rewrite the scenes, and I don’t want to have to make sure the movie works-I want the director to do that. I want the writer to write the script, and I want the producer to sell the movie. I just want to act! So I feel conflicted. I want a real auteur right now.
TB: A Pedro Almodóvar.
MG: Yeah. Or P.T. Anderson. [laughs]
TB: Do you feel Hollywood is kind to people –like you?
MG: [laugh] When you ask if they’re kind to people like me, I don’t know exactly what you mean.
TB: Politically active, quirky . . . tall?
MG: Recently there was a part I wanted to do that maybe I didn’t get because I was tall. I think that’s possible. [laughs] Or maybe that’s just my way of making myself feel better. There are times I’ve had to not wear my shoes in a scene, but I’ve never had a tiny little co-star. I did a photo shoot the other day with Liv Tyler and Gwyneth Paltrow, and we are all tall women.
TB: Do you have a lot of actress friends?
MG: No, actually, and I didn’t really know either of those women very well before the shoot. I came away thinking they were great. My best girlfriends are both academics. But there are so many actresses I want to act with. Michelle Williams and Kate Winslet and Holly Hunter-
TB: That could be an Almodóvar movie. His specialty is ensemble female casts.
MG: You’re going to get me my next job!