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Interview: Maggie Gyllenhaal on ‘The Kindergarten Teacher,’ complex women and taking what she wants

Photo: Christian Hogstedt

Maggie Gyllenhaal is no stranger to playing complex women on the verge of a personal awakening or exerting strength and confidence in a male-dominated world. From her breakthrough in Secretary (for which she won the National Board of Review’s Breakthrough award and was nominated for a Golden Globe and Independent Spirit Award) to Sherrybaby (another Golden Globe nomination) and Crazy Heart (her first Academy Award nomination), Gyllenhaal excels at digging not just under the surface of a character but under that surface to reveal even more truth. 

In her new film, The Kindergarten Teacher, Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Lisa Spinelli, a woman who begins to live vicariously through the poetic genius of one of her young students – a child that that holds up a mirror to her own lost and uncompleted dreams and aspirations.

I caught up with Maggie at the Toronto International Film Festival last month to talk about the film, the journey of women in Hollywood in the #MeToo era and her own journey as producer to make the stories she wants to make.

AW: I was just thinking how cool it is that both you and Jake have movies here [at Toronto] right now.

MG: We haven’t seen each other! He flew in because he just finished shooting; I think the day before yesterday. I flew in and then I was working all day and I was going to go out last night to see him and I feel like I’m getting a cold so I just went back to the hotel.

AW: I think that’s the right idea; the weather’s going back and forth and you just don’t want to mess with that.

MG: I know, I know, but I really want to see his movie too. I love Audiard.

AW: He just won the best director at Venice.

MG: I mean, are you surprised? He’s amazing. I’m really, really excited for it. So I guess Jake and I will just see each other at home. I’m going to hop on a plane back to my kids after this today and then come back again for our premiere, which is on Thursday.

AW: So I just saw the film I think to two nights ago and I loved it. I loved it. I wasn’t sure what to expect and it was sort of like a thriller. It was so many things. I’m really curious to hear how you define your character Lisa Spinelli.

MG: Well, it’s interesting to hear you say that, that it was like a thriller, because it’s so difficult to define. I was on a television show [The Daily Show] with Trevor Noah and he had only seen the trailer, but he said “I saw the trailer and I thought ‘is this a horror movie? Is it a thriller? Is it like an intimate story about a woman?’” And I have to say I love that because I think it’s something new. I think it’s something new because I think it’s feminine in a way that we don’t often see and it’s not just because it’s written and directed by a woman. I think a woman can write something. I think a woman can direct something and it can still not be a real expression of something feminine. Fair enough, because we live in a masculine world and it’s hard to get to a place where you make enough space in your mind to tap into something that you in often seen expressed. But I do think Sarah wrote a script where I finished it and I went, ‘I don’t know what it is.’ And when you asked me how do I define Lisa, I mean I can’t define Lisa. I think she’s both somebody who I deeply relate to and understand and somebody who has been driven crazy by the culture that she finds herself in. I think I found a way to describe it. In one way I thought this movie is, and yes it is a wild kind of thriller, but it’s about the actual consequences from the point of view of a group of women, of what happens when you starve a woman’s mind. Not like it’s bad, but it’s all going to kind of be okay. It’s not going to be okay. Like the consequences are dire. Do you think that’s fair?

AW: Absolutely. We see stories like this from a male perspective all the time. This [The Kindergarten Teacher] is so utterly unique because it is working on so many levels. It has the thriller element, but for me it was just so much more about Lisa’s exploration of herself. The boy is a catalyst for that, but it’s her awakening.

MG: In a way, even though she thinks she’s having a relationship with him, she’s having a relationship with herself and using him, you know. Did you find it ever funny?

AW: Yes. I mean there are elements that are sort of uncomfortable funny. Which is good. I really, really liked that.

MG: Yeah. I thought that was like a strange spice that ended up being in there that I hadn’t even, I really hadn’t anticipated when I saw it, I was like, that’s another totally unusual new element. Just a little, like a tiny little bit of cardamom [laughs]. That’s Sara [Colangelo].

AW: Yes! That’s what I want to get to next. I’m dying to know the journey to bring this film to fruition, from script to you producing it, which I’m really excited about.

MG: It’s based on an Israeli film, which I haven’t seen and I chose not to see it. I felt like in a way I didn’t see how it couldn’t, how it wouldn’t limit me, you know, I just thought I just keep it totally open. I will see it one day, but I’m not ready yet, actually. So our really incredible producers, who are my age, they produced that piece and they wanted to remake it. So they approached Sara and she wrote the script and then they came to me with the script. So this wasn’t something that I developed. They came to me as an actress with the script. I think because it is this actual human feminine expression of something that it just went like right to the center of my heart. I love how complicated it is morally and how it twists and then at the very end twists again and I closed the script and I was like, yes, please, I want it.

AW: That ending was a shock, and in an actually surprising way.

MG: I know, I love the ending. It was interesting for me, the process in terms of producing because I’ve been naturally interested in producing, in terms of development. And also I’ve come to realize at that point that starring in a movie like this, a tiny movie, you take on so many producer responsibilities anyway, if you want to. You know, because I’m going to help fund the DP and help with the casting and then I’m gonna take it to all the festivals and try to get a distributor. So I said, look, if I’m going to do this, I want to produce and they agreed and then, to be honest, it was an amazing course for me in actual producing because I’d never been at a production meeting.

I’d never been a part of scheduling and thinking through why this and that and I learned so much from Talia [Kleinhendler] and Osnat [Handelsman-Keren] and Celine [Rattray], who were our hands on producers. I mean it was like as if I took a producing courses, really amazing. I’m so grateful to them. But really interesting thing is, you know, in terms of all this conversation about women in Hollywood and everything, I didn’t occur to me till later, but we did not have enough money. I mean we just didn’t. We had a non-DGA crew. We shot this movie in 22 days. I was changing my clothes and the Staten Island ferry bathroom. I mean, we were doing scenes where the little boy [Parker Sevak] of course had to go because he has short day, but we couldn’t afford to have a short day. So I would do my side of the scene with the gaffer. Like I’m not kidding, we didn’t have enough money, but we’re all women of a certain age and we were all like, well of course we won’t have enough money and of course we’ll have to compromise, and of course we’ll be ragged by the end. But it’s only afterward that I look back and say that’s not fair. We don’t need a lot of money. We don’t want to take it home in our pockets; we want to put it in our movie. None of us made any money, but that’s not right. And that’s not fair. But the process of making it in the way we made it fed us in a million ways too. But it would have been great just to have had a little more and you know, but with a movie like this and still at this point, it’s hard to get the money you need to make it. So that’s like the producing conversation and how it gets made. At the same time I’m really proud of us for taking what we had and making it happen.

AW: How instrumental has Netflix been in getting the film here?

MG: They have been amazing. I think they’re amazing. I, they honestly, like you say this movie does defy categorization. It doesn’t fit neatly into a box. It isn’t immediately identifiable as something that will sell or, you know, and it was Ted Sarandos himself, to be honest. He wrote to me, I know him because he did Sherrybaby and we have always looked for special things do together. They also ended up taking on The Honourable Woman and it wasn’t really until it was on Netflix that people started to see it. But he just saw the movie and you know, saw it, understood it, loved it, and took the risk on us and has supported us. And that…money always lags, right? Money always lags behind the cultural conversation. And when there is someone at the center of a company that has resources, who wants to support radical, interesting, unusual art, I mean, so I did gift from God. I just feel really grateful.

AW: You mentioned The Honourable Woman and that it finally got his legs on Netflix. I talked to Dee Rees last year and asked her about why she went with Netflix for Mudbound and she was like, Pariah played there, millions of people saw it that would never have had an opportunity to see it in the Midwest and in small towns where theaters would never play it and it, that was the thing that got her the next level.

MG: Look at how beautiful that is in terms of Ted, right? He has these relationships with filmmakers that have now gone on from Sherrybaby -I was 25 – to The Honourable Woman to The Kindergarten Teacher. And then with Dee Rees from Pariah to Mudbound like that is what a supporter of the arts is supposed to do and it almost never works out that way. I honestly, I’m so grateful for Netflix.

AW: I’m curious because I think that we’re just talking a little bit about what’s going on now in culturally with women in film and parity and Toronto just had the Share Her Journey rally and Cannes did as well.

MG: I didn’t even know about it! I came and then I heard about it but I wish I had known.

AW: You have the want and the push with the movements and the rallies, but then you actually need something to happen.

MG: You need the financial support

AW: You need the people in charge to actually do things.

MG: Yes.

AW: It seems like there are maybe some people that are there.

MG: There are, and you know, I have to say I feel the same way about HBO. Totally supporting; they’ve been wonderful and like I’m telling a feminist story on that network. They know that and they support me and, and that’s a difficult show. It’s very dark and very hard and it requires work to watch it, and of course you get pleasure, but they also have been supporters of something real and unusual and hard. I mean, it’s not everywhere, you know, it’s not. Of course there are still many, many places that are like ‘we need it to fit into a box and we needed to appeal to an audience that we can depend on,’ but that’s not how new exciting work happens.

AW: Not everything is opening weekend.

MG: Right, no it’s all changing.

AW: That was your first producing credit, on The Deuce, right?

MG: That was my first. Yes, I guess so. Yeah yeah.

AW: You got that, you took that.

MG: Yes, yes, I did. It’s so like Candy [Gyllenhaal’s character on HBO’s The Deuce] too. It’s so funny. I don’t know if you that show, but she’s the same. I asked George Pelecanos  [The Deuce creator] one day, “Are you taking lines directly from conversations and putting them in The Deuce?”

Actually, it’s interesting too because in the second season of The Deuce she’s the director and she’s trying to make her own film, porn film. She’s dealing with financing and how she’s going to do it and I was at the same time as we were shooting that in the middle of the producing elements of selling this movie and taking it to the festivals. It was so interesting to me to put my own experience into what Candy was doing. Of course Candy is making porn and she’s directing in 1977 so it’s, it’s exponentially more difficult, although maybe not all that different actually. Maybe not all that different.

AW: I wonder if people that really need to see that type of story to understand the dilemma of what it is like for women in Hollywood. It might seem very just in the ether for some people rather than the reality.

MG: Yes!  That’s why to tell any story. I mean, I read this thing, I think it was Wim Wenders, I hope I’m right. He said something like, there are some movies or television or whatever that are meant to comfort you, to make you feel okay about where you are in the world. And then there’s some that are meant to make you want to get up out of your seat and change the fucking world. And The Kindergarten Teacher is definitely the second kind.

AW: I would agree. I totally agree. So are you continuing to produce?

MG: Yeah, I find even the nitty gritty of the basic the little financial elements of things are interesting to me. Um, yes, I’m, I’m producing a, uh, a couple of projects that are not financed yet, one of which is a book that I am adapting that I’d like to direct.

AW: Yes! That was my next question. That’s great.

MG: I have to say at the moment that adaptation is where my heart is. It’s been such an amazing process because it’s just me alone with my mind in a room and usually my job is so collaborative and that’s such an incredible thing. Um, but it’s been nice to just be able to go and just at absolutely my own pace and figure out what my pace is and I’ve loved that. But there’s other projects too, interesting things that I’m really excited about, which will also be hard to finance. (laughs) They’ll all be hard to find them. I’ll have to. Yeah.

The Kindergarten Teacher debuts on Netflix Friday, October 12th. 

About Erik Anderson

Erik thanks his mother for his love of all things Oscar, having watched the Academy Awards together since he was in the single digits; making lists, rankings and predictions throughout the show. This led him down the path to obsessing about awards. Much later, he found himself at GoldDerby, led by Tom O’Neill and then migrated over to Oscarwatch (now AwardsDaily), headed up by Sasha Stone before breaking off to create AwardsWatch. He is a member of the International Cinephile Society, GALECA (The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics), the International Press Academy and is the founder/owner of AwardsWatch.

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