Maggie Gyllenhaal is over the 'spoonful of sugar BS,' and 'The Lost Daughter' is proof

·24 min read

Maggie Gyllenhaal discusses the “electrifying” experience that led to her adaptation of “The Lost Daughter.” Plus, she details her correspondence with anonymous author Elena Ferrante, her attempts to truthfully portray motherhood on screen and her hopes for future collaborations with her brother, Jake Gyllenhaal.

Mark Olsen: Hello. I’m Mark Olsen.

Yvonne Villarreal: And I’m Yvonne Villarreal. You’re listening to “The Envelope,” the L.A. Times podcast where we go behind the scenes with your favorite stars from TV and film.

Olsen: You may know today’s guest as an actress, but she actually joins us on the show as first-time film director: Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Villarreal: I have to say, obviously Maggie is incredibly dynamic onscreen as an actor, but I’m always so mesmerized by the way she talks about her process. It’s always felt like she thinks like a director, and I think “The Lost Daughter” really reflects that. It’s such a stunning debut. And I feel like I’ll definitely never look at an orange the same, but I’ll let you tell our listeners about the premise.

Olsen: Well, I’ll leave the oranges for people to discover in the movie themselves. But in “The Lost Daughter,” Olivia Colman plays a middle-aged professor named Leda. While on vacation by herself in Greece, she becomes entangled with this other family that causes her to reflect back on her own past.

[Archival clip from “The Lost Daughter”: Leda: Children are a crushing responsibility. Happy birthday.]

Olsen: In interspersed flashbacks, a younger Leda — played by Jessie Buckley — struggles to adapt to the overwhelming demands of motherhood:

[Archival clip from “The Lost Daughter”: Leda: I’ve called you so many times for dinner. Bianca, what are you sitting on? Bianca!]

Olsen: Eventually, it all becomes too much, and Leda makes a drastic decision that fractures her family.

The film is an adaptation of an Elena Ferrante novel — and though there are differences between the two, Maggie’s goal was to replicate the powerful reaction she had when she first read Ferrante’s book.

Gyllenhaal: I had never heard a lot of the things that she was talking about talked about before. I mean, all sorts of things about the experience of being a woman in the world that I think we've made an agreement culturally not to talk about and really not even to think about. All sorts of things about, say, desire, dissatisfaction, certainly the ambivalence and real complicated feelings about mothering, but also just being a thinking woman in the world, an artist as a woman in the world. And when I saw some of these things written down, it was really kind of shocking and intense for me. These were things in some ways I didn't even know I felt.

I felt both disturbed and also kind of electrified by the truth of them and comforted, ultimately, by the fact that I wasn't the only person in the world having some of these feelings, which is how it feels if your experience isn't reflected back to you. And so at first, I was just struck by the books as a reader, but pretty quickly I thought, “Wouldn’t it be interesting, instead of all of these people alone in their room with these books having this kind of electrifying hot experience, what if these things could actually be said out loud?” And in fact, in a communal way, like a movie theater — you might be sitting next to your mother or your husband or your daughter, and then the cat is really out of the bag. That, to me, seemed like a really radical thing to try to do.

Olsen: I know to acquire the rights to the story you had to write a letter to Ferrante. I'm so curious, what did you put in that letter? What did you say to her?

Gyllenhaal: Well, she's anonymous. We should say that because I don't know who I'm writing to. And her publisher, who we got in touch with in Italy, said, “You've just got to write to her. It’s going to be up to her.” And so, I said I didn't know exactly how I would adapt it but I told her why, which is what I said to you. I also said in the letter that I wanted to direct it. And she said, “Yes, you can have the rights, but the contract that we're making is void unless you direct it.” which at the time, and still, felt like a really important and needed, to be honest, vote of confidence.

Olsen: I've heard you say that this letter, that you showed it to some friends and you sort of really agonized over it.

Gyllenhaal: Yeah.

Olsen: Was there anything specific that you were afraid to ask or that you didn't want to put the wrong way? Like, what was it in the letter that maybe had you most afraid?

Gyllenhaal: I mean, she was just this woman who I really admired. The things that she has written about had a huge impact on me. It was like writing to like your most revered celebrity or something. I don't know. I felt, I feel a lot of pressure writing to her. I wish we could speak. If we could speak, I would have talked to her a lot more. But I think writing to her — it’s not that it scared me. It's just, I need the space. I need the time. I want to do it right. She's so uncompromisingly honest. I don't want any bullshit in my letters to Ferrante. And that takes a little bit of work and focus. And yes, I showed it to, you know, I have a couple of girlfriends who are really great and really smart, and I ran it by them, for sure. And my husband, you know, like, “Am I being really honest?” That was my challenge in writing to her, and obviously in the movie. The movie isn't going to be a sister to the book, in conversation with the book, if it's anything but totally uncompromisingly honest.

[Archival clip from “The Lost Daughter”: Leda: When the oldest was 7 and the youngest was 5. I left. I abandoned them and I didn't see them for three years. Nina: You didn't see your children for three years? Leda: No.]

Olsen: As you mentioned, “The Lost Daughter” really lives in the complicated emotions of motherhood, the things that people don't talk about: wanting to leave your family, wanting a freedom or career outside of just this family unit.

[Archival clip from “The Lost Daughter”: Nina: What did it feel like without them? Leda: It felt amazing. I felt like I'd been trying not to explode, and then I exploded.]

Olsen: Were those things that you related to? I mean, those kind of feelings, what did it mean for you to be bringing them out in the movie?

Gyllenhaal: Well, look, I think parenting is designed to bring us to our knees. You know, somebody said that to me actually before my daughter was born and I was like, “Fuck you.” I was like, “I’m going to take my daughter everywhere.” And of course, she was totally right. It brings you to your knees because it's a job that you cannot start as anything but a beginner, and then you're handed a human life. The responsibility is massive. And yet even if you’ve babysat all your life or whatever, you cannot be prepared for what is required of you as a parent. And maybe in particular as a mother, you're also feeding someone, you've carried them in your body.

But I think when we're young, very young, our survival literally depends on our parents wanting nothing more than to take care of us. And so this very childish part of ourselves has to fantasize our mother as a good mother who's bountiful and generous with her bounty and loving. And when our mother is anything other than that — which inevitably she will be because she's a human being — that’s almost separated off onto like "bad mother," almost like they are two different things.

And in fact, a few people have said to me, you know, did you feel nervous making a film about an unlikable woman? I'm like, one, you're not even allowed to say that, but OK, I'm glad you did, because it's so interesting, you know? And I don't believe in "not allowed to say that," really. I liked hearing the truth. But I think about myself. Yes, there are elements of myself that are totally likable, and there are elements that are not. And I think that's true for everybody. So can I relate to the things in the movie? Yes. At the same time, I'm going for the hardest thing. She's a woman who does something very aberrant, very transgressive. I'm not suggesting that every woman wants to or does the things that she does. In fact, the things that she does cause both herself and people who she loves very much almost unbearable pain, but I’m still asking you to see if you can relate to her.

[Archival clip from “The Lost Daughter”: Nina: If it felt amazing, then why did you go back to your daughters? Leda: I'm their mother. I went back because I missed them. I’m a very selfish person.]

Olsen: One of the challenges of the story, and of that main character of Leda in particular, is that I think it's easy to just sort of push yourself away from her because what she does feels so out of bounds. But then are you still looking for things that, you know, whether it's a behavioral thing that she does or a moment that she has of there's still things that feel like, “Oh, I would have done that"?

Gyllenhaal: I mean, I certainly hope so. That's the point. I think if she's just, bad mommy or unlikable person and “she's nothing like me,” then the experience of the movie is you get to pat yourself on the back and say, “I'm so likable and I'm such a good momma, and I would never do anything like that.” That's not what I'm after. And I think Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley, who both jointly play Leda, are both so winning, so human, so even funny, loving, so wise also in their understanding of the world and that comes through in their work. So, for example, I mean I don't want to give too much away, but there's a little scene I think about sometimes where Ed Harris comes up to Olivia Colman at this bar and she's having dinner by herself.

[Archival clip from “The Lost Daughter”: Leda: Hi, hello. Lyle: Lyle, from upstairs. Leda: Yeah, of course. Lyle: I’m glad you made it down here. It’s not so bad.]

Gyllenhaal: He's very sweet.

[Archival clip from “The Lost Daughter”: Lyle: Just let me know if I can do anything for you. Leda: I will. Thank you.]

Gyllenhaal: I don't know. He's coming on to her. What is he doing? It's sort of hard to tell. He’s a little bit annoying, but also lovely and wonderful. And she's nice enough and she puts up with it. Then at a certain point, she says…

[Archival clip from “The Lost Daughter”: Leda: Do you mind if I finish my dinner now, Lyle? Lyle: Oh, sure.]

Gyllenhaal: She’s really mean, and it's brutal. And you see him feel it, and then you see her feel it. And you see that she’s ashamed and sorry that she was an asshole for a minute. And that is the thing that I hope lets you in, because if we're honest, we all sometimes have said something where we're like, “Oh God, that was awful.” And if you're a human being with blood in your veins and your heart is open, you feel guilty, you feel sorry, and that's likable to me. That I relate to.

[Archival clip from “The Lost Daughter”: Callie: This lady also has to move. You don’t mind moving, right? Leda: No, I’m fine here. Callie: No, it’s just about switching umbrellas so that my family can be together. Leda: No, I understand that, but I have no desire to move. Vasili: Hi. What’s the big deal?]

Olsen: As you mentioned, the main character of the film is played by both Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley as the older and younger version of Leda. Then there's two other main female characters. There's a struggling young mother named Nina, played by Dakota Johnson, and a soon-to-be mother named Callie, played by c. Those four characters, what do they represent to you?

Gyllenhaal: They don't really represent something. They’re hopefully full, complicated human beings who are bouncing off of each other and creating meaning in the storytelling by the way they reverberate off of each other. For example, Jessie Buckley and Olivia Colman play the same woman in a way, but the danger in this adaptation and in choosing to take it on was this less-than-20-year age gap, about 20 years between these women. So how do we express that cinematically? If one of the major things that we can stand on in the filmmaking is honesty, we can't then try to trick an audience ever, or we're going to lose them. And so when I was adapting, I thought, “Could I use one actress and age her?” And I thought, “No, no, no, that's goofy. I've almost never seen that work.” And so I thought, “Nope, I don't think I can do that. I think it would feel like pulling the wool over the audience's eyes." Then I thought, “You know, unless you're 4 years old — and this is a movie for grownups — no one's ever going to believe that the brilliant, formidable Jessie Buckley and the also brilliant and formidable Olivia Colman are actually the same person.” And so, the idea became trying to make like a poetic agreement with the audience. Look, we know, you know, they're not the same person. So can we agree as adults for the purposes of our storytelling that they are going to help us tell the story by acting like they're the same person? And by doing that, it just basically cracked all the doors open. They don't have to be the same at all. They don't have to look the same. You know, even I told Jessie, like, “You can dye your hair blond if you want. I don't care. This is a spiritual connection that we're trying to make.”

[Archival clip from “The Lost Daughter”: Leda: I also left a humidifier beside a bed so you could just plug that in at night. And she loves Cheetah. So if she's upset and nighttime, you can give her Cheetah. Oh yeah, I left Joe’s mom’s number…]

Gyllenhaal: And in fact, what happens in the movie, I think, is the differences between them — how they look, how they move, how they express themselves — really helps us because it makes this imagined life that we don't get to see, from when she's 28 to when she's 48, something very intense and strange, to have made Jessie Buckley into Olivia Colman.

[Archival clip from “The Lost Daughter”: Callie: What were your daughters like when they were little? Were they like this willful little creature? Leda: I honestly can’t remember much actually. Callie: Oh no, you can't forget anything about your own children. Leda: Is that your experience? Callie: I just meant did your daughters give you a hard time when they were little?]

Olsen: Did making the film illuminate anything for you about your own relationship to motherhood, whether with regards to your daughters or maybe even with your relationship with your own mother?

Gyllenhaal: Yeah. I mean, I hope the movie is compassionate about how complicated being alive is. I was really trying to open the spectrum of acceptable feelings, and that has been really helpful to me, to allow myself to see in myself all sorts of complicated feelings and not indict myself for them.

Olsen: Like what? Is there anything specific?

Gyllenhaal: I mean, that's not art anymore. That's therapy.

Olsen: And you see those as distinct?

Gyllenhaal: I do. Yes, I do. I think that fiction is incredibly valuable in terms of self-expression. I think fiction — and I feel this as an actress, and I feel this as a director — allows freedom, allows you to go and explore really dangerous nooks and crannies of your own mind and heart and share them with the world. But again, I do think art and therapy are different, although certainly one is informed by the other, at least in my experience, 100%. But they ought to remain distinct.

Olsen: But do any personal experiences of yours, whether it was like a mother or a daughter, make their way into the movie?

Gyllenhaal: Yes, all over the place. My understanding of mothering, of daughtering, of the experience of being alive in general — also, as a lover, as a wife, as a thinker, as an artist — all of it informs the movie, every moment. But then again, so does Olivia's experience, and so does Jessie's experience. And in fact, I did this Q&A on Zoom with my DP. I was talking about this thing that we do early on where we kind of use very classic cinematic language, and you see Dakota, say, 30 feet away, and we're watching her. Then we jump into a super closeup on pieces of Dakota's body, where you see the water dripping on her skin. You see the smudged eyeliner. You see things that you would never be able to see from 30 feet away. And that says, we are in this character's mind. She's imagining this. But Hélène [Louvart] said to me, my DP, she said, “No, no.” She's French. Sometimes I imitate her. I'll try not to do that. She says, “No, no, Maggie. It is your mind. We spoke about this. It is you.” You know, she’s like, it's the POV of the story. And I realized that, yes, we had intellectually considered it that way, the super closeups, but that in practice, what those super closeups had become was a real mix of Leda’s mind and my mind.

Then Olivia Colman comes with all of her own experience, the way she looks, the way she moves, the way she thinks, her relationship to all of these ideas. And then the reverberation of her experience, Jessie's and mine, becomes something exponentially bigger. And that's art too. That's where it isn’t therapy. That's where me telling you, “Oh, I had this experience when my kids were 3” or whatever doesn't really matter, because that's mundane compared to this kind of magical mix of all sorts of women's experience.

Maggie Gyllenhaal
Maggie Gyllenhaal

Olsen: As you mentioned, this is your directorial debut, and I've heard you say that you’d long felt a little bit like a director, that you'd kind of wanted to be a director, but you, in some ways, didn't feel empowered to speak up as an actress on set. And I'm curious, was there like a first time, whether it was a director or a moment, when you finally got to take charge of a character in the way that you wanted to?

Gyllenhaal: It's not that I didn't feel entitled to speak up. I always spoke up. In fact, when I was younger, I spoke up all the time. And I got to see pretty quickly that most people aren't that interested in actresses with ideas. So I learned to hold my cards close to my vest. But so much of my energy was spent trying to carve out the space to get what I needed artistically in order to express what I felt was important artistically. It's not that I didn't feel I could speak up and I was just sort of standing where someone said to stand. It's like this thing that I read that Meryl Streep said, early on in my career. She said if you need something artistically as an actress, ask for it with a spoonful of sugar. So fine, great. That's great advice. I took the advice for such a long time, but it's a lot of work. And I would do that, and then I would end up with only a piece of what it was that I was trying to articulate in the ultimate film.

And then when I started producing, like on “The Deuce,” I would see early drafts of the script. I would see early cuts, and have an artistic input beyond being an actress. And for example, I mean, there was this amazing scene that David and I had crafted — David Simon and I — from early on in episode one where you’re seeing this prostitute — I was playing this prostitute who was also a filmmaker.

[Archival clip from “The Deuce”: Candy: All right. First up is Lori and Andy.]

Gyllenhaal: She makes porn because she has access to nothing else, but she's a filmmaker.

[Archival clip from “The Deuce”: Candy: Let’s make a movie!]

Gyllenhaal: And so we see all these sort of, you know, sleeping with this john and this john and this john and this john and this john and all these orgasms. And I said it really would be interesting to see a real orgasm and the difference between something performative and something not, and we had all these interesting conversations. We shot it and it was a great scene. And they cut the orgasm. And I remember writing, like, a four-paragraph essay as to why you can't cut the orgasm. This perfectly crafted, expertly written, a little bit funny, not too pushy, not too many ideas essay. And we got it back in.

But the thing is, it's not just that time. I did that a lot, and I'm sure it was kind of annoying. And I just got tired. And I thought, “I’d love to take the middleman out here and be able to express myself freely.” And not only that, offer, really, to the people who are on my set, freedom. Like, don't worry about the sugar. I don't need it. It's fine. We respect each other. You don't have to offer me sugar. I want your ideas.

Olsen: And so after all that, tell me about your first day on set on "The Last Daughter." What was it like to at last be directing yourself?

Gyllenhaal: So the first day was Jessie and the girls. The first eight days was all the memory stuff. I remember texting [husband] Peter [Sarsgaard] and saying, “This is hard work heaven.” It felt really natural, to be honest. I loved it. And then the editing room, man, I loved it. I loved the editing room. It was like I had been dying to get into the editing room my whole life. I loved my editor. I loved not having to write these stupid essays and just having freedom to try things, to see how we were going to make these scenes lift off.

Olsen: I've heard you say a couple of times that you believe there is such a thing as female filmmaking, that women make movies differently than men. On the one hand, that seems like a kind of innocuous and obvious thing to say, but I know that you feel like you get a lot of pushback when you say that. And I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit more about that. Like, what do you think is the difference?

Gyllenhaal: I mean, I do think there are women who make movies that stay totally inside of what Ferrante calls “the male cage,” who are not listening to the way their heart beats but making movies like movies they've seen before. Then I think there are women who are really listening to themselves, and I just think it comes out differently. When I saw “The Piano,” for instance, when I was 15 years old, I'd never seen anything like it. Yes, she's using a vocabulary, a cinematic vocabulary that's made by men, but it's put together in a way that was entirely new. Someone asked me recently about the genre of the movie. “Is it a thriller?” And I was saying, I think, yes, in some ways I'm pulling from movies I love that are thrillers. I'm pulling from movies I love in general, a lot of them made by men, but I don't know what genre my film is. Maybe it's new because we haven't, as women, had much of a chance to get in there. We didn't create the genres, so there might be some new things coming around. I think “Fleabag” is like that. What is that? What does that fit into, you know? But I can't say women's movies look like this and this and this. I don't think so. I just do think we express ourselves differently.

Olsen: You come from a family of filmmakers. In hindsight, do you think that any of your storytelling instincts come from your parents?

Gyllenhaal: I think an interest in stories comes from my parents, but my style, like what’s me, what's my voice. … I remember my mom saying she was really surprised by the movie. She said she thinks of me as a very verbal person and that large sections of the movie are so quiet. And she was very surprised by that, and I was like, “No, that's totally me.”

Olsen: You and your brother, Jake, have had very different careers, but do the two of you still talk about the nuts and bolts of just the process of acting or help each other navigate the business?

Gyllenhaal: We do talk to each other a lot, actually more now than ever. We're really closer now than we've ever been and really coming to want to work together. And I'm so, so grateful for my brother and the support and the love and the ability to see me and my work. And he saw an early cut of the movie before I done any sound design, and he was like, “This is a sound movie.” And I hadn't thought of it that way at all. My brother has really bad vision — he wears contact lenses but he's legally blind without them — and he said, “I think because my vision is so bad that sound has been really important to me.” But it it made me look at the sound design as a whole other massively important element, which of course it was. But that was amazing. And you know, my brother is such a brilliant thinker about producing. He's also a brilliant actor, but he's often very helpful to me in terms of thinking clearly about the kind of logistics, artistic logistics. I often go to him for help with that.

Olsen: Do you want to direct Jake?

Gyllenhaal: Yeah, I do. I don't know what and I don't know how, but I really do. Yes. I don't even think he knows that. That'll be hot news. I do want to direct Jake. Yes. Partially because it is really one of the most pleasurable things there is for me to offer freedom to an actor and love and then watch them. I would love to do that with my brother because you know, the way life is, there's kids and there's work and there's travel, and there’s not often a lot of space. I would love to create that space and offer the love. I got to do it with Peter. It was so cool.

Olsen: Now that you've directed, what is your kind of relationship to acting like? Do you think that you'll direct yourself? Do you kind of want to go back to acting as like a day job? Has this changed your relationship to acting?

Gyllenhaal: Oh man, I miss acting. I do really miss it. It's been since the third season of “The Deuce” that I've acted in anything. I know that I would never have been able to make the movie that I love if I had also been acting in it. Maybe one day. I do have a kind of fantasy of being offered a job that's hard and interesting with a great director and just being able to fall into their arms. But I don't want to get back into the spoonful-of-sugar bullshit. I want just the free, loving kind of exciting experience. Yes, I do miss it, and yes, I would like that. But right now, to be honest with you, all of my artistic attention is on what I want to write and direct next.

Olsen: That’s a wrap on this episode of "The Envelope"! I’m your host, Mark Olsen.

Villarreal: And I’m Yvonne Villarreal. If you haven’t already, please make sure to follow “The Envelope" wherever you get your podcasts! And don’t forget to leave us a review, and recommend "The Envelope" to a friend. We’ll be back next week with a brand-new episode.

Olsen: This episode was produced by Heba Elorbany and edited by Jazmín Aguilera, with production help from Asal Ehsanipour and engineering by Alex Higgins. Our theme music was composed by Mike Heflin. Special thanks to Shani Hilton, Clint Schaff, Tova Weinstock, Amy Wong, Chris Price, Ross May, Patricia Gardiner, Geoff Berkshire, Elena Howe and Matt Brennan.

Villarreal: Thanks for listening! We’ll see you next week.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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