Maggie Gyllenhaal needs no introduction. An Academy Award-nominated actress who has been tackling complex roles with gusto for decades in films and television series ranging from Secretary and Crazy Heart to The Honorable Woman and The Deuce, her presence on a project’s cast list provides an air of gravitas — a sophistication that lets you know there’s something worth seeing here simply due to the fact that she was interested in being part of it.
That notion follows through with The Lost Daughter, which Gyllenhaal doesn’t star in, but goes a few steps further by making her feature writing and directing debut. Adapting the novel by Elena Ferrante, The Lost Daughter tells the story of college professor Leda (Olivia Colman), whose seaside vacation in Greece takes a dark turn when she starts to become fixated on Nina (Dakota Johnson), a young mother there with her three-year-old daughter. Through repeated flashbacks of Leda’s earlier years (where she’s played by Jessie Buckley), we start to get an understanding of how she has come to be the way she is now, and why this mother and daughter are such a point of obsession for her.
The film has been racking up nominations and wins all over this awards season, including a dominating performance at the Gothams, where it won Best Feature, Best Screenplay, Best Lead Performance, and the Bingham Ray Breakthrough Director Award, as well as a slew of nominations from the Independent Spirit Awards.
With more love surely to come, I had the privilege of sitting down over Zoom with Gyllenhaal for an extensive chat about her transition into directing, and why it felt like this was always a destined path for her to take. We also discussed the internet’s collective thirst over her husband, Peter Sarsgaard, and after she noticed my Drive My Car poster hanging behind me, we chatted a bit about some of her favorite films of the year — many of which she saw during her stint as part of the Cannes Film Festival jury.
The Film Stage: What about Ferrante’s novel connected so much for you and made you want to bring this from the page to the screen?
Maggie Gyllenhaal: When I read the book, and also a lot of Ferrante’s writing, she expresses things, articulates things that I had never heard said out-loud before. Some things that I relate to—and not just about mothering, but about being a woman in the world in general. There were some things that I think were so buried and hidden and taboo that I didn’t even know I felt and thought them, but once they were articulated I was like, “Oh, I think that. I feel that.”
That experience of reading those things written down was really exhilarating, and also disturbing because a lot of the things she’s writing about are painful. They’re the edges of the spectrum of things that we feel. It was comforting to know that I wasn’t alone in feeling those things. With the movie, communicating and carrying these truthful ideas was really delicate. They’re so difficult to express, and if you’re careless you might express something else. So I really wanted to offer a sort of depiction of things that I think are true that might shake up people, or open people up by seeing them.
You’re a producer on the film as well, which you’ve been elsewhere. You could have taken on that role and passed this along for someone else to write and direct. What made you feel like this specific project was the one you wanted to make your debut on as a writer and director?
I think that I’ve probably always been a director. I love acting and I guess I miss it—I think I do. [Laughs] But I was also always hitting up against some wall as an actress. And I just thought that’s how it is, that’s how life is. There are disappointments, and you’re never fully satisfied as an artist. You could only get a percentage of what it is you want to articulate into the final product. That’s what I thought, but now I don’t think that anymore. I was never fully satisfied as an actress, and now I do feel fully satisfied.
[Laughs] I mean, not satisfied as in like, “I’m done” or anything, but I love my film and it is what I meant it to be. I’m responsible if there are things that you don’t understand, and I’m responsible if there are things that you do. Not just me, of course. There were so many incredible collaborators—like, really, the best of my life. But I was able to put everything I had into it, and so that’s why I think I just woke up to the fact that I really wasn’t satisfied, and why I took the risk of taking it on myself.
It must be quite the experience to put all of yourself into something and then release it into the world where you no longer have any control over it. What’s been the most rewarding thing for you in seeing the rapturous response this film’s received?
It’s been such a crazy trip, to be honest. We made the film in the pandemic, like really early. We shot it in October 2020, pre-vaccine, really just at the moment that SAG protocols were coming out. We were figuring out all sorts of things ourselves. We had 14-day quarantine periods. It was intense. Then we also cut it pre-vaccine, so it was just me and my editor in a room for two months. We couldn’t have a screening. I was doing a roundtable thing with Adam McKay, where he said that he was shooting just a bit after me and they had screenings, so we just missed it. We couldn’t even have like five people in a room together at the editing space.
So anyway: the point is that I showed it to some people when we were cutting, but they were all people who already loved me and were hoping it would be good. People who spoke my language, you know? The first time I ever saw my film with an audience was at Venice. I had never even seen my final color correct with the final mix together until we were in Venice. Olivia and Dakota had never seen any cut of the film. It was all extremely vulnerable. Then that night I went to Telluride, where we showed it the next day. There was an element of it kind of being born then, and it was all very intense. We showed it around other festivals too, but even all of that was with people who are involved in film. Those are people who think about film and have a particular relationship to it, and who also chose to go see my film at this festival.
Really, the film was actually just born in the world a couple of weeks ago, when it came out on Netflix on New Year’s Eve. Three weeks ago? My God, that’s nothing. [Laughs] That’s a whole other trip, because all of a sudden that’s just completely out of my control. So whereas I was saying before what a pleasure it was to have it in my control in some ways, to have my hands all over it, now all of a sudden it’s just its own thing. It’s like a child, you know? [laughs] It’s been amazing to see the different ways that people respond to it. I’ve been reading the pieces that people write about it, thinking about it and all the different ways it relates—real essays that people have been writing. Then at the same time [Laughs] I’ve been seeing people saying like, “I don’t know what the fuck that was.” [Laughs] So I think it’s its own thing now, and it’s gonna be digested by everyone however they wanna digest it.
One of my favorite pieces out there is one in Bustle, specifically about how you make love to your husband with the camera —
Oh, I think I read that maybe! What was it? Like, he’s super sexy?
Yes, exactly! There’s a lot of talk online about how sexy your husband is in the film, which is a very well-deserved discussion that must be had. What inspired you to cast him in the film as, essentially, the other man?
It’s funny, a lot of people have asked me if I wrote the film with Olivia in mind. In fact, I really didn’t. One of the things I think is so interesting about getting to hire actors is that they bring so much. There are directors I’ve worked with who imagine the scene before you ever get there, and they try to stuff you into their imaginary version of it. They aren’t interested in you. Obviously that’s not me. I’m so interested in my actors. I imagined Leda as someone completely different. Not any particular person—no particular actress or anything—but just some fancy imaginary person. Then I bring in Olivia, and she comes with all of the brilliance that is Olivia and I bring my fantasy of who she is and they explode into each other and create something exponentially more interesting.
With Peter, I kind of wrote all of the male parts for him. Of course, he could never play Ed’s part or Paul’s part—he’s totally the wrong age—but in a way he is my biggest door into the male experience. I don’t know what to say about Peter. I think he’s such a good actor. He’s just fantastic. He works with directors who are like, “Great, we got it. Let’s move on.” [Laughs] I’ve worked with him on stage; we did two plays together. I know how brilliant he can be, and it was such a pleasure to push him further. Yeah, he’s great on the first take, but what else is under there?
I really do think that he is very sexy, and part of the reason he’s so sexy is that his mind is very interesting and also very curious. Part of what I think is hot about the relationship between those characters is that it is a meeting of the minds. When I think about who knows how to do that in a film, I couldn’t think of all that many people—well, no, that’s not true. There are brilliant actors who know how to do it, but nobody I thought could do it in a more compelling way than my husband.
It speaks to one of the things that works so well in the film, which is that obviously Leda is such an interesting character and the film could have been successful through narrowly focusing on her and making everyone around her one-dimensional. It’s so much better, though, because every character has so much dimensionality. How did you want to work to bring that richness out of each character, even the ones who weren’t the biggest parts?
I was just thinking about this. You can have an antagonist who’s just an antagonist, or you can have someone like Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive or Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner or Harvey Keitel—he’s only got like ten lines in Thelma & Louise, but you care about him and you can see that he’s not just an antagonist. He’s a human. Even Rutger Hauer, who’s not a human. [Laughs] You still care about him.
I think with me being an actor making a film, it’s going to mean that there’s value in every character, and making sure that there’s space for every character’s needs, their obstacles to their needs, and their point of view. A movie is better when every single person has a beating heart and a life. I’m interested in actors who are storytellers. I’ve worked with actors, even really good actors, who want to be told to stand right here, do it like this. Then there are actors who are more directorial in the way that they think and what they need in order to articulate what’s important to them about the story. That’s the kind of actor I like to watch. That’s the kind of actor I am. That’s the kind of actor I appreciate. And those are the kinds of actors I hired. So of course it could have been possible that Paul played some random guy on the beach that you couldn’t relate to. Instead he’s a brilliant actor. I think there’s opportunity all over the script for space and expression for everyone.
Even the guy who plays the other professor who takes her to the conference. He’s a Greek actor who came in for a day, but I think there was space in the script for him to not just be one-dimensional. He’s myopic and he’s self-consumed and he says something that offends her, but people do that. So who is that guy? He’s not a bad guy. He didn’t mean to hurt her feelings. You know what I mean?
I love him, by the way. I love that little dynamic between the two of them. You don’t get to see a lot of it, but you really feel the depth of what that relationship is for those characters in such a short period of time.
Or how about Alba Rohrwacher? I mean, she’s a serious, formidable actress, and she came and did us a favor. You could have a movie where we’re asking you to pretend that these women made a serious connection. Or you can have a movie where they actually do. When you only have two scenes, the only way you can accomplish that is with really excellent actors.
What I think the film does better than maybe any other film I’ve seen is the way it almost spiritually connects the performances of Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley. They’re playing the same character at two different points in her life, and obviously they don’t look like the same person or anything, but they still feel so much in essence like this is the same woman at different stages. Really impressive. You’ve described wanting to find “women whose souls vibrated together,” and I was wondering if you could tell me more about that?
Well, I would actually say the approach was the opposite of that. That was the scariest thing about the adaptation, was the age difference. How do you make that cinematic in a movie whose value comes from telling us the truth? Telling the truth about difficult things, too. If even for a minute the audience feels like we’re faking them out, they’re going to leave. Why go to difficult places if you’re not with someone who you can trust guiding you? So then, for me, it’s like how do you deal with something here that isn’t real? The same woman cannot, in a movie, go from being 28 to 48. Well, I guess you could put makeup on her as she ages, but that feels false to me. I have rarely seen that work. I can’t even really think of an example, though I’m sure there is.
Alternately, you have two different women do it, and then you have the issue where unless you’re four years old nobody is actually going to believe that Jessie Buckley and Olivia Colman are the same person. We have to acknowledge the adult intelligence of the audience and say: look, we’re not going to try and fake you out. We’re not going to make their hair look the same. We’re not going to make them have an eye twitch or a neck tattoo. [Laughs] We’re going to make a poetic agreement with the audience and say that we know you know these people are different. We’re not going to fuck around with you for the purpose of our story. Can we agree to let these two women tell this story? And we’re not going to pretend that they’re not different.
What’s interesting about that, then, is you don’t cut off the expressions of either actress. I’m not telling Jessie that she needs to imitate Olivia, and I’m not telling Olivia that she needs to be Jessie. They never saw anything that the other one was doing. We shot Jessie’s stuff first, and then Olivia came and Jessie left. In terms of having said that I wanted their souls to vibrate off each other: it wasn’t by being similar, but just by expressing themselves as honestly as they could. By hiring people who are interested in honesty. I didn’t really care about them seeming the same. I was like: people are gonna think they’re the same or not. I can’t control that. But the cool thing that happened is the ways in which they’re different actually really serves us, because then you’re asking what happened in these twenty years that turned Jessie Buckley into Olivia Colman. What a life, you know? What was that like?
Do you think not focusing on trying to make them seem the same is what maybe helps it feel more realistic than other films doing a similar thing? Like, I’m 31 right now, and I was a completely different person than I was at 21. Even my mannerisms are totally different.
Yeah, I think just not trying to pretend that these people are ever going to be the same person. It’s like, this person is going to play her at 28 and this person’s going to play her at 48. Let’s get on with telling the story. You start to try to fool people or trick people and go “don’t look over here,” then people are going to ask, “Oh, what’s over there?” Especially when you’re in a movie that’s all about, “Hey, let’s look over there!” [Laughs] It’s just so interesting that it works because you believe them in their own circumstances, so totally, and that’s because they’re both such brilliant actresses.
One more question about the actors specifically. Ed Harris is someone who over the years has built up an onscreen persona of being a pretty tough, intimidating guy. He’s so gentle in your film, though—so intimate. Tell me about the inspiration for casting him there and about creating that dynamic with him and Olivia Colman.
Well, Ed says that he read the script and at first he was like “no no no.” Then he asked his wife, Amy Madigan, to read it, and she said “What, are you kidding? You gotta do this movie!” [Laughs] And thank god for Amy Madigan. Like with Olivia and Leda, I had imagined some fantasy version of who Lyle was in order to write the script, and Ed is so different than what I imagined—and again, it was like my fantasy and the reality of who he is got to vibrate off each other. The dynamic with him and Olivia is so fascinating, right? Because you’re like, is he hitting on her? Yes and no. Does she like it? Yes and no. You really become intrigued trying to understand how they feel. The truth is, haven’t you often had that experience in real life, where you’re like, is he hitting on me? [Laughs] Yes and no. Do I like it? I don’t know. [Laughs] I’m trying to navigate the interior of someone else’s mind and how it vibrates off mine. That’s what the scenes between them are about.
Also, those scenes were hard. They were very difficult. The whole script is this way, but particularly in those scenes so much of the event of the scene and the purpose of the scene is not articulated. They have a toast to cruelty. So much of that scene is about them recognizing something in each other. He left his children and it’s not the subject of a movie. That kind of thing happens all the time, yet there’s a real pain in him. I think it is sort of about recognizing a cruelty and a regret in both of them. None of that is explicit. It’s articulated in other ways, and they’re both very intelligent actors. I took a lot of the scaffolding out of the script, and I thought the scene works without it—without that step-by-step—because they were good enough actors to understand it.
Looking at your career, it makes sense that this would be a film you would make a writing-directing debut on because you have a history of tackling difficult subject matter that other people could be resistant to. Films like Secretary, Sherrybaby, The Kindergarten Teacher. Do you feel compelled to tackle projects that explore these complicated, even at times taboo, themes?
I think there’s something inherently dramatic in telling the truth about something taboo. Something hidden. People are always compelled by that, even in the simplest form of asking someone if you can tell them a secret and they lean in. So yeah, I think in particular with the experience of being a woman so little of it is up on screen. As an actress, too, I was always like, let’s show the real version of this, or let’s show the outlier version. Let’s challenge and push the edges of what we’re allowed to talk about and show.
Secretary is one of my favorite films, and it’s celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. When you look back on that film now, what are some of your reflections on it?
I haven’t seen the film in a long time, although there was a sort of retrospective thing we did and we showed a scene from it. It was the spanking scene, and there’s this story about that scene where every time we shot it, James [Spader] put his hand on the table next to mine and every time I would wrap my finger around his finger. I realized they weren’t shooting that, and I told Steve Shainberg, the director, to get it. [Laughs] Look, even at like 22 years old, I was kind of directing a little bit, or at least having a director way of thinking about acting.
What’s so important about it when I was watching it was that this is an act of consent. Obviously a movie about a sadomasochistic relationship with your boss is probably not easily financeable now. But I think it’s really compelling, and one of the reasons why it’s compelling and why it offers something really emotional and intellectual, especially right now, is that she is consenting over and over again. So you have a movie about a woman who is made alive, not just sexually—she is turned on intellectually, artistically, emotionally, and sexually by this relationship that culturally we are told is wrong. So then how do you organize that? What do you do with that? Can a film about something like that grow your mind?
Like, this movie is not in praise of walking away from your family. [Laughs] And yet it opens up a conversation and a dialogue and a space to consider all sorts of things. One thing that’s really important about all the incredible shifts and changes that are happening in the world right now for women is that we can’t let it limit our thinking. We can’t let any of these things stop us from considering and thinking about everything.
It seems pretty clear that you’ve taken to directing in a major way. Do you already have plans set for your next feature?
I’m thinking about some new projects.
Anything you could tease?
I’ve got a few things, but I’m not ready to talk about them yet.
Totally understand. Definitely looking forward to seeing whatever you’re going to come up with.
I’ve actually got a question for you. [Points at Drive My Car poster on my wall behind me] Did you love Drive My Car? You’ve got the poster there behind you.
Oh yeah, so much. I really loved a lot of films this past year; I think it’s the best year for cinema we’ve had in a long time. Do you have any particular favorites from the year?
Definitely yeah. Let’s see. I’ve seen almost everything because I was on the jury at Cannes this year, so I saw all those films, and then I got so interested in everybody’s movies. What did I love? Well, I loved Titane. The more I think about it, too, the more I like it. It’s really stayed with me, that movie. I loved Compartment No. 6. Did you see that?
Yeah, I saw that at TIFF. Really phenomenal film. I wish it was getting more attention.
I thought that was excellent. What else did I love? Let me think. Oh, I thought Jessica Chastain was brilliant in The Eyes of Tammy Faye. I thought she was out of this world. She was amazing. What else do I love? Now I’m blanking on everything because I’m put on the spot. I liked A Hero, Asghar Farhadi’s movie. I liked this other movie I saw at Cannes, Ahed’s Knee, that Nadav Lapid directed. I really liked that. I liked C’mon C’mon a lot as well.
Since you mentioned being on the jury at Cannes this year, I’ve got to ask: what was the energy in the room when Spike announced the winner before he was supposed to?
[Laughs] Oh, it was so lovely and human. The whole event is of course very French and very formal, and then all of a sudden Spike just says the winner and everyone’s blood started getting hot. You could see Julia Ducournau in the audience like, “Is this real? Did this happen?” I think she didn’t believe it. It wasn’t really clear what had happened. To me, I thought it was beautiful. It was so human and infused with a jolt of humanity. And so many movies this year were about that—about humanity. Or even a similar thing happened with Compartment No. 6, which you know I loved, and they won the Grand Prix, and they shared it with A Hero, but at first there was another mistake there. I think it was Mylène [Farmer] who got up and said the Grand Prix is for A Hero, and then I had to be like “excuse me, um, and also Compartment No. 6,” and you saw them explode into happiness. The whole thing was just lovely. It was such a nice thing to be able to give people prizes, and for so many great movies.
The Lost Daughter is streaming now on Netflix.