Don't Call Maggie Gyllenhaal's Latest Character 'Unlikable'

The formidable talent discusses her new film 'The Kindergarten Teacher' and getting behind the camera more.
January 24, 2018, 10:30pm

Since her breakthrough performance in the 2002 Sundance Film Festival prize winner Secretary, Maggie Gyllenhaal has been one of the most reliably engaging actors in all of independent cinema, crafting raw, eccentric, and often electrifying performances in films like Sherrybaby, Away We Go, Crazy Heart, and Frank. (She also occasionally crosses over to more mainstream ventures, with memorable supporting turns in The Dark Knight, Stranger Than Fiction, and Nanny McPhee Returns.)


This year, she’s back at Sundance with a leading role in Sara Colangelo’s remake of the 2014 Israeli film The Kindergarten Teacher. She stars as Lisa Spinelli, a career teacher and would-be poet who discovers that one of her five-year-old students (played by young Parker Stevak) is something of a poetry prodigy—a young Mozart, she insists. Her enthusiastic nurturing of his talent, coupled with her own artistic frustrations, takes the story in unexpected, unpredictable, and somewhat unnerving directions.

The Kindergarten Teacher is also the first feature film on which Gyllenhaal is credited as a producer, so VICE sat down to talk with her about wearing that particular hat while creating this complex, challenging character.

VICE: This character has this intensity and ends up making some poor choices, yet you render her with such sympathy. What did you see in her that you initially identified with, and did that change through the process of making the movie?
Maggie Gyllenhaal: I think women have gotten used to seeing, like, 30 percent of our feminine experience represented realistically in a movie or television show—and we're like, Cool, that's awesome, I'll use my imagination for the other 70 percent. When I read a script that demands 100 percent of my own feminine expression, that's very exciting.

As I started to think about [the character], I realized she's an artist. The script originally framed her as an "OK" poet, which… I think it's a more interesting story if she's a good poet, if there's a possibility that someone sees her work as compelling and excellent—I mean, I do. A really phenomenal poet wrote my poems. I was working with them, saying, "Maybe there's a way that you can tone this poem down, make it more predictable." My husband said to me, "Why? It's a better movie if the poetry's great."


This is a woman with an exciting mind who's not getting the artistic and human connections she needs. Ultimately, she's driven crazy by the insanity of the culture and the time that she lives in—and she lives in the same culture and time that we do! She crosses way more lines than most of us can imagine crossing, but she's also us. Somebody said to me outside on the street, "I loved your movie, how were you able to live with such an unlikable person? Why do you have to push her so far away from yourself? Isn't it a more interesting movie if she feels like you?

Branding a character as unlikable shuts off so much interesting conversation, and it gets applied to women way more than men.
And this was a woman who said it to me! There's times I'm real unlikable. [Laughs] And there's times where people like me a lot. Isn't that true of every human being?

I have a four-year-old daughter, and there's a very specific way her teachers interact with her. I noticed that you have that very specific communication you have to have with kids around that age. How did you develop that?
My daughter is in kindergarten now, and [co-star Parker Sevak] is the same exact age as my daughter, which was very helpful. I didn't want to observe my children at either of their schools—I felt that that was too intrusive. So I asked my daughter's pre-K teacher to recommend a teacher, and I ended up observing this wonderful kindergarten teacher's class. Then we had the kids come in, and I taught them a class. And they all went, "I know your name isn't Mrs. Spinelli. You're in Batman!"


I keep thinking about the opening shot where you see the ritual of starting the day. We know so much about that character before she's even said a word.
We shot that scene a few times. I remember advocating for a take where I was doing a little breathing exercise. That tells you so much about this person—preparing for the day is a performance. Imagine just taking care of 25 five-year-olds. It's not that different from getting ready to do a play.

This is your second credit as a producer—the first one was The Deuce, in which you're playing a character who decides that maybe that the real power lies in being a filmmaker. Did you have that same kind of moment where you decided to make the move into producing?
I was inspired by [The Deuce character] Candy to move into directing. She was originally conceived as more of an entrepreneur—a producer—and I was really pushing for her to be a filmmaker, an artist. She goes to make that first porn, and she's like, Holy shit. She's a storyteller.

I don't want to make a movie that nobody sees, but I also don't want to make movies only so a lot of people will see it—I can't. It drives me crazy! The only thing I can do well are things I am deeply compelled by. That's the truth.

We've heard for a while now that there needs to be more representation on both sides of the camera. Do you think this moment we're having culturally is going to translate into anything that's going to move that needle?
I really hope so—and I'm actually hopeful. I'm adapting a book that I would like to direct, and I feel like it's a great time to be doing that—a hopeful time, a supportive time, particularly for women. I'm compelled by the question of, "What is feminine filmmaking?" It's different than just movies made by women, right?

I remember being 16 and seeing The Piano, seeing that image of Holly Hunter with her ankle tied to the rope, to the piano. I can't tell you why that was something I understood, but it stayed with me for 20 years. There was something fundamentally feminine about it, and I think the same is true for our movie. That's what I'm interested in exploring as a director, and I do believe that there's room for it.

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