Maggie May . . .

The Many Sides of Indie Film's Newest Siren

Ever since word got out about Maggie Gyllenhaal's performance as a wide-eyed masochist in Secretary (opening September 20), she's been pegged as indie film's latest offbeat sexy starlet. The 24-year-old has completed two features in the meantime, both scripted by Being John Malkovich's Charlie Kaufman and coming out this December: Adaptation ("as this odd girl," she says) and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind ("as another goofy girl"). But the label has grown old. "I did everything I could to make those parts as interesting and real and as human as possible, but it's still a trope," she says of the small follow-up roles. "It's still the young girl who has sex with the main guy and doesn't do much else."

In Secretary, though, Gyllenhaal tweaks stereotypes as Lee Holloway, a self-destructive ugly duckling who finds her inner swan through a relationship with, of all people, her sadistic boss (James Spader). Gyllenhaal is first glimpsed crawling across an office floor, handcuffed and carrying a letter in her mouth; with apple cheeks and a mischievous grin, the actress conveys not simple subservience but a state of bound bliss.

"I go from somebody who has no sense of their body or sexuality to somebody who is lying naked and feels beautiful," Gyllenhaal says of the part that helped earn Secretary a Special Jury Prize for originality at the 2002 Sundance festival and effectively launched her career. This fall, the recent Columbia grad will receive the Independent Feature Project's Gotham Breakthrough Actor Award (previous recipients include Michelle Rodriguez and Janet McTeer) and will set out for her first major studio assignment in Mike Newell's Mona Lisa Smile.

Working girl: James Spader sweeps Gyllenhaal off her feet in Secretary.
photo: Bruce Birmelin
Working girl: James Spader sweeps Gyllenhaal off her feet in Secretary.

Prior to Secretary, Gyllenhaal's most noteworthy credit was for John Waters's Cecil B. Demented as Raven, "the Satan-worshiper with a heart of gold," she fondly recalls. She showed up briefly in a few films directed by her father, Stephen Gyllenhaal (Waterland), and written by her mother, Naomi Foner (A Dangerous Woman, also helmed by Dad), and she acted in Donnie Darko, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, her younger brother and fellow thespian-of-the-moment.

Though she's shied away from Hollywood in the past, Gyllenhaal gravitated to the Newell project, set at a college campus in the 1950s: "The girl I'm playing is an intellectual and she's sexy and has to find a way to balance those two things," she says. "And those are contemporary issues that myself and a lot of my friends struggle with. How do I feel about being sexy? Where does it come from? What's put on and what's real?"

In Secretary, Gyllenhaal confronted many of those concerns. "I went through a similar transformation to the character," she explains. "When I had to do the scenes where I was confident and graceful and attractive, I was terrified. I felt much more comfortable playing somebody who was not so happy with the way she looked."

The film also called for spankings ("It did hurt," she confesses) and total nudity. Though she was scared at first, "I made a point of getting involved in how it was shot so we'd all be on the same page, so it just wouldn't be, 'Oh, look at the naked girl.'

"A lot of people want to fantasize actresses as just visceral, very sexy, not-thinking things," she continues, "and it's much more difficult to add into the equation someone who is visceral, but who also works from an emotional place and an intellectual place and can be a collaborator in the making of the movie.

"It took me so long to convince Steve Shainberg, the director of Secretary, that I was not just something to mold," she adds. "That I wasn't just this doe-eyed little actress that he could push in one direction and, magically, I would do exactly what he wanted." (In a phone call, Shainberg acknowledged, "It took a while for her to teach me that her intelligence had to be paid attention to.")

Gyllenhaal just traveled to Acapulco for John Sayles's next film, Casa de los Babys, in which she plays one of six women who journey to an unnamed Latin American town to adopt a child. "I'm just a regular girl," she says of the part, a welcome shift in her career. "For a long time, I've been playing characters who are sweet on the outside and dark on the inside, but now I'm more interested in bridging the two, like a real person who is a little bit sweet, a little bit dark, a little bit scared, and a little bit courageous."

A selective preview by Michael Atkinson, Dennis Lim, and Jessica Winter

September 13
Adapting a darkling Ruth Rendell novel, Gallic mezzobrow Claude Miller bakes up a nutcake in Chabrol country, wherein a Gorgon-like mother kidnaps an abused child as a gift to her estranged novelist daughter.

September 13
Tarantino crony Burr Steers makes his directorial debut with this middle-road non-indie, in which misanthropic blue-blood teen Kieran Culkin escapes from a military school and hightails it to New York, where he meets ditsy debutante Claire Danes. Bill Pullman, Susan Sarandon, and Jeff Goldblum pull up the rear.

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