Tanya Wexler’s Hysterical Realism


Tanya Wexler is exactly like you’d hope the director of a romantic comedy about the invention of the vibrator—Hysteria, out today—to be: outspoken, funny, a generous conversationalist, and quick to laugh. She dresses and behaves like your childhood friend’s cool feminist mom—which is, in fact, exactly what she is (she has four kids).

Hysteria, which concerns the true-life story of how Dr. Mortimer Glanville (Hugh Dancy) accidentally invented the vibrator as a treatment for hysteria in Victorian-era England, in many ways reflects its maker: it is sharp and witty, too, a surprisingly sweet and modern love story between Glanville and the headstrong suffragette Charlotte Dalrymple (Maggie Gyllenhaal). At the Peggy Siegal Company screening earlier this week, we caught up with Wexler to ask some pressing questions.

ALEXANDRIA SYMONDS: What attracted you to this story?

TANYA WEXLER: It made me laugh. Right? That’s it. I heard “romantic comedy about the invention of the vibrator in Victorian England,” and I was like, “You have got to be kidding me. Yes, I want to do that.” And I had a bunch of small kids, and I didn’t want something that was so impossibly difficult, a “broccoli movie.” But I wanted something that meant something to me, so I just kind of said, “Let’s go, jump in!” It took a long time to get it made, but it was really fun.

SYMONDS: How old do you think your kids will have to be, before they can see the film?

WEXLER: My two oldest ones have seen it; they’re 12 and 11. I figure if they see a movie about 12-year-olds chopping each other up, they can probably see a movie where everyone keeps their clothes on and doesn’t use foul language.

SYMONDS: Absolutely.

WEXLER: And my little ones—they just wouldn’t get it.

SYMONDS: There’s too much missing baseline knowledge.

WEXLER: Yeah, exactly. So probably around the same age: 11, 12.

SYMONDS: Maggie’s character is something of a modern woman—is there anyone she took inspiration from, or you guys talked about, as having been a model for that character?

WEXLER: Well, I think she really tried to play that character. She kind of saw who she was in the script, found the heart of it, and played that true. But we looked at Katharine Hepburn, from an acting standpoint. But also Jane Addams of Hull House, in Chicago. And then there’s a place called Toynbee House in London, which is the sister house to Hull House.

[Something causes a loud thump in the next room]

WEXLER: That was a big vibrator! [laughs] So for us, for me, I always say Charlotte is who I would’ve wanted to have been, if I had lived back then. I think I wouldn’t have been brave enough, but I would have wanted to. I think Maggie, in a way, has created this new kind of female icon, and she’s really great at that. We’ll see how it goes, but I think she’s pretty amazing.

SYMONDS: Is it safe to assume that you identify as a feminist?

WEXLER: Absolutely!

SYMONDS: Can I get a little political, and ask you to speak on the election season and the so-called “war on women”?

WEXLER: Sure! I just thought it was funny, because when we set out to make the film, I remember Hugh and Maggie discussing how Charlotte’s politics had kind of settled—like, they were important for those characters at the time, they needed to learn, but you know, women should vote, women should have rights over their own bodies, we all kind of agree on that in the Western world. Well, cut forward a couple of years, not so much! I thought it was going to be this feeling like—when I saw it in Toronto in September, I thought it was going to be this, “Oh my God, it’s so great how far we’ve come,” and whatever, like, six, seven months later, I’m like, “Oh my gosh, actually it’s ironic—we haven’t come that far at all in certain aspects.” Which is weird to me, because it’s not how it read or how we filmed it. We really thought it was supposed to resonate with this idea of, “Look, we’ve kind of moved on, these are our roots.” Instead of, you know, the weird Groundhog Day that the story didn’t do.

SYMONDS: Do you think that Charlotte would be an Obama voter if she were alive today?

WEXLER: [laughs] She wasn’t a voter, so…! It’s a romantic comedy, babe, I’m gonna steer clear of that one.