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Maggie Gyllenhaal on abortion, the paparazzi and 'subtle' sexism

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Maggie Gyllenhaal is as sick as a dog. She has one of those head-thumping, eye-burning colds that make the world shudder when you move even an inch. Her naturally throaty voice is now a soft whisper which, every so often, cracks and becomes an astonishing baritone – something that takes her by surprise almost as much as me. But, armed with honeyed hot water and vitamins, she’s putting on a brave face to talk about her latest project, BBC2 drama The Honourable Woman.

From the same writer as 2012’s cult crime thriller The Shadow Line, Gyllenhaal plays Nessa Stein, an Israeli national in London who inherits her father’s business and announces plans to run communication cables between Israel and Palestine. Having watched the first episode, it is so much more than a political drama – spies, kidnapping, sexual ambiguity, murder… I have so many theories, I’m sorely tempted to spend the entire time interrogating her about what happens next.

"It’s an organic, amorphous, powerful thing,” is all she will tell me. “It’s about living with what you inherit from your parents. I think that’s something I can really relate to and, if we’re honest, we can all relate to."

(Left to right) Maggie Gyllenhaal, mother Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal, father Stephen Gyllenhaal and brother Jake Gyllenhaal

Ah yes, parents. Gyllenhaal is so low-key it’s easy to forget she is from a bona fide Hollywood dynasty: her father is Emmy-nominated director Stephen and her mother is Golden Globe-winning screenwriter Naomi. But the most famous family member is younger brother Jake, the Bafta-winning actor (for Brokeback Mountain) and paparazzi fodder thanks to his previous relationships with Reese Witherspoon and Taylor Swift. The relentless pursuit of her brother and her own experiences of tabloids (photographers reported a fake fire in her New York building so Maggie would emerge and give them a chance to picture her eldest daughter when she was five days old) has fuelled what comes naturally to Gyllenhaal: a predilection to stay out of the limelight.

Her 2009 wedding to fellow actor Peter Sarsgaard was a private ceremony in Italy devoid of any ‘official pictures’ – although that didn’t stop her recently tweeting her 24,500 Twitter followers, “Look how hot my husband is,” with an accompanying picture of said hot husband. They now live in a Brooklyn brownstone with their daughters Ramona, seven, and Gloria Ray, two.

The closest Gyllenhaal has come to the front page of a tabloid was when she took over the role of Rachel Dawes from Katie Holmes in the 2008 Batman reboot The Dark Knight.

But her work is another matter. Gyllenhaal made headlines following the critical acclaim she received for her breakout performance as the submissive typist to James Spader’s dominant boss in 2002’s Secretary, the psycho-sexual film which is now regarded as a modern cult classic.

Film still of Maggie Gyllenhaal and Aaron Eckhart in The Dark Knight

After shaking off her ‘indie queen’ label with The Dark Knight, the Columbia University graduate’s roles became bigger and bolder. She picked up an Oscar nomination for musical drama Crazy Heart in 2009, starred in the Channing Tatum shoot-’em-up White House Down and most recently stole every scene she appeared in in the weird and wonderful Frank, alongside a papier mâché head-wearing Michael Fassbender.

Intriguingly, while Gyllenhaal prefers to keep a low profile – unless you count working a few shifts at her local co-operative initiative as getting out and about – she is an outspoken and politically-minded activist. Whereas many actors refuse to be drawn on what they really think, she is a proud Democrat and participates in anti-war demonstrations while supporting anti-poverty, civil liberties and human rights campaigns. Which makes her the perfect choice for the politically charged TV thriller of the year. If only she had the voice to talk about it…

You sound dreadful – it’s not the best day to be expected to talk…

No, it’s OK. The project is worth talking about so it hasn’t been a total drag. If it were, I’m not sure how I would have got through today with this cold. [But] I’ve never been more proud of anything in my life.

Your character, Nessa, is an incredibly strong female lead. Was that something which drew you to the role?

Yes. She’s strong and has this incredible intellectual grace and thoughtfulness, but is also very weak and confused. She has a complicated relationship with sex. She’s very emotional, very guarded – all the things we women often are. I had to use every part of my actual self at this moment in my life – as a 36-year-old woman – to play her. In fact, I had to grow in order to play her.

The Israel-Palestine conflict is the backdrop to this thriller. What are your thoughts on the situation there?

I didn’t realise how much compassion and empathy is required to even begin to think about that part of the world. I want to stay pretty opaque about it. On either polarised side, there are people with such a vice grip on their point of view, and I know this might be really idealistic or naïve, but my hope is that this vice will loosen even the tiniest bit if they happen to be moved by this show.

Did you inherit your passion for politics from your parents?

Yes. My mother taught me that it was your responsibility, as part of a community, to fight for what you think is right and against what you think is wrong.

You talk very eloquently about issues that are important to you. What are you most concerned about right now?

I’m concerned about government surveillance – particularly, in my country, the NSA [National Security Agency], the lack of privacy and the rights of the First and Fourth Amendments [freedom of religion and expression; freedom from unreasonable searches or seizures]. I’m very concerned about dishonesty. Also, in the States, there’s a huge antiabortion movement that just shocks me. I believe a woman should have the right to choose whether or not she has a baby. I have two babies, it’s no f***ing joke! If you don’t want an abortion, fine, but if I want one, that’s my right. I’ve got some complicated feelings about feminism too.

In what way?

The way women are treated nowadays, the [sexism] is much more subtle. For me, I don’t care if someone calls me "darling". It doesn’t take any power away from me; I like to be called "darling". Or if someone opens the door for me – that does not bother me. But there are other things that do bother me. I’ve been in situations where I’ve said, "I don’t think this totally works," and had the feeling I was being perceived as difficult or too much to handle. But if I was a man, it would have been an "interesting collaboration".

Maggie Gyllenhaal with husband Peter Sarsgaard in September 2013

You’ve spoken about being anti-paparazzi, but do you read any of your own press?

I try not to but sometimes I fall into the black hole. That’s probably the truth. I try not to read anything but sometimes I just get pulled in. It’s always when I’m looking for love and that’s not where love comes from.

How do you feel about sharing your life on Twitter?

I like Twitter because I sometimes feel very misunderstood by the press. You give an interview and someone will write something and you think, “What? How did they take this away from what we spoke about?” So Twitter is the way to put things straight. I like how tiny tweets have to be. It’s clever; I like that form. Some of my tweets I feel proud of. Well, I think they’re funny! I’ve been told I’m out of date and should do Instagram but I don’t know how.

You brought your family to London while you were filming. Is there any part of the city you fell in love with?

Well, with kids it’s like, do they really want to stand in line for hours to see the Tower of London? No, they want to go to the park and hang out or get takeaway. My older daughter loved Portobello Road, so we went there a lot. I was thinking of getting both my girls some Doc Martens because it seems so English and my elder daughter has a lot of style. I was just talking to her on the phone and I said, "Remember those shoes? You didn’t want them then but do you want them now?" She was like, "No, I want something from Portobello Road."

Not much of a punk then?

She is a little punk. She hates pink and really likes black. I think it’s more that she doesn’t know the punk reference of Doc Martens yet.

What do you do when you are totally alone – no work, no kids?

Recently, I’ve started reading again because my youngest daughter is two, so I’m not up all night with her any more. I’ve just read George Saunders’ book of short stories, Tenth Of December, which I started last Christmas – it’s taken me a while! I read NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names and I’m in the middle of reading the book everyone in America is reading right now: [Donna Tartt’s] The Goldfinch. I’m feeling pretty impressed with myself. But when I’m shooting and learning lines for the next day, and bathing and feeding my kids and putting them to bed, reading is out of the question. Exercise goes out of the window as well. I can’t be a mother, work and exercise.

Do you have any secret vices?

I don’t smoke cigarettes officially but now and then I fall off the wagon. I can’t keep it up at home. I can’t smoke as a mother – it’s too much sneaking around. I’m buying cigarettes and I’m like, "What am I doing? Pull it together!"

The Honourable Woman airs on Thursdays at 9pm on BBC2

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