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Just before Maggie Gyllenhaal told her husband to get into bed with a beautiful and talented woman 13 years her junior, she found herself wondering if it was such a good idea.
Gyllenhaal had spent the past two years writing and preparing to direct The Lost Daughter, an adaptation of a novel by Elena Ferrante, the pseudonymous Italian author whose true identity is a closely guarded secret. Now the all-important casting process had begun: to play Leda, the film’s heroine of sorts, she had secured Olivia Colman and the striking young Irish actress Jessie Buckley, who would split the role between present-day and flashback scenes.
Meanwhile, for the raffishly handsome Professor Hardy, she fancied her husband, the actor Peter Sarsgaard. But she was less keen on the thought of directing him in the love scenes she’d just written between Hardy and the younger, married Leda – the intensity of which had to totally convince if the audience were to buy into Leda’s later choices and regrets.
“I thought to myself, ‘Do I really want to create that situation?’” Gyllenhaal, the 44-year-old star of Secretary and Crazy Heart, recalls with a grimace. “Where my husband is playing the object of desire for this brilliant, beautiful young actress?”
She got as far as drawing up a list of alternative candidates, then relented. “We’d been together 20 years, through all sorts of joys and difficulties, and I knew that there was no one who could begin to do this role like he could. I mean, he is irresistible, which is exactly what the character needs to be. So I told myself” – she raises her hands in submission – “‘it’s going to be fine.’”
For his part, Sarsgaard, 50, committed heroically to the canoodling. And her decision certainly paid off: The Lost Daughter’s love scenes are indisputably, well…
“Hot?” Gyllenhaal suggests. “The sex just feels unavoidable, right?” She ascribes the chemistry in part to the fact that Buckley and Sarsgaard’s characters represent a meeting of minds: both work in the rarefied field of poetry translation; he reckons her Italian Auden is gorgeous.
“Maybe this is a female thing,” Gyllenhaal suggests, “but if someone really gets how your brain works, right down to the molecule, there’s nothing sexier than that.”
During lockdown last year, Gyllenhaal made a short film called Penelope, also featuring Sarsgaard: the couple shot it around their home in Vermont as part of a mid-pandemic Netflix wheeze called Homemade. But The Lost Daughter – also a Netflix production, though it opens first in cinemas next month – marks her feature-length directorial debut.
It was a personal project long before she roped in her spouse. For years, Gyllenhaal had been a fan of Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, guzzling each instalment as it was published. Those led her to the author’s 2002 book The Days of Abandonment, which she found herself itching to help turn into a film. She wrote to Ferrante’s publisher to ask about the rights, which happened to be tied up elsewhere. But they suggested she consider The Lost Daughter, its slender, prickly follow-up, about a middle-aged academic whose surreally tense encounter with an unpleasant family on holiday forces her to reflect on her own flaws as a mother and wife.
In its pages, Gyllenhaal found everything she’d loved about Ferrante in concentrated form: “This truth-telling about the female experience of the world, and all the things we’ve collectively agreed to remain silent about.” When working on the screenplay, she found herself guiltily looking over her shoulder – particularly when writing scenes in which the younger Leda neglects or openly snaps at her young daughters. (Gyllenhaal and Sarsgaard also have two daughters, Ramona and Gloria Ray.) “Even just acknowledging those feelings, you feel so exposed,” she says.
True to form, Ferrante herself remained out of sight, and communicated with Gyllenhaal only occasionally, and always by email. Yet it was the author who insisted the actress not only direct, but also put her own slant on the material: an invitation Ferrante later wrote that she would never have extended to a man. “In fact, she said the contract would be void unless I directed,” Gyllenhaal says, obviously touched. “So I wrote back and said, ‘Well, let me write the script first and then we’ll see.’ But she refused to budge.”
Ferrante did read over the script, but gave only limited feedback. She gave her blessing for Gyllenhaal to change the story’s ending, though – albeit in ways which still chime with the novel’s intent. Did she glean any sense of the real Ferrante from her dealings with this literary enigma?
“Honestly, I have no more information than you do,” she insists. “But in my imagination she’s this very wise 70-year-old woman. The good thing about her anonymity is that she could be whatever I needed her to be.”
Born in New York in 1977, Gyllenhaal grew up in Los Angeles in a family of creative types: both of her parents were filmmakers, and her younger brother Jake went into acting before she did. How long had she harboured ambitions of directing?
That’s a tricky question, she says, “because I don’t think I felt entitled to want it. If you were a woman who loved movies, the much clearer path was just to become an actress with ideas.” Over the next three decades, she worked out ways to get those ideas on screen: sometimes by subterfuge – “I’d just privately take a scene in a certain direction and hope that 30 per cent of what I was doing would end up in the film” – and sometimes by talking her directors round.
On The Deuce, a recent HBO drama, set in the New York pornography business in the 1970s and 1980s, Gyllenhaal had been cast as Candy, a prostitute whose business acumen sees her ascend in the business to fully-fledged adult movie mogul. “But I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be a more interesting story if she was a director, rather than a producer? So I kept talking to [series creators] David Simon and George Pelecanos, dropping the idea in ever so delicately, with a bit of sugar – you know, however you manage as an actress to get what you need.
“And then,” she adds with satisfaction, “Candy became a director.” Only while playing her character’s own move behind the camera did Gyllenhaal begin to realise it struck a chord with her own desires.
“It wasn’t so much that it gave me the idea, but that it allowed me to have the fancy of doing it myself,” she says. “I’m far braver on screen than in reality. I often learn things in my work before I learn them in life.”
Bravery was not in short supply in Gyllenhaal’s breakout performance. That came in Steven Shainberg’s Secretary, a 2002 erotic black comedy about a sadomasochistic fling between a lawyer (James Spader)and his submissive assistant (Gyllenhaal). During its notorious spanking scene, her hand brushes against Spader’s, and she locks her little finger around his thumb: in the thick of the role-play, a jolt of emotional truth. This subtle but vital gesture wasn’t on the shot list; nor was it initially picked up by Shainberg’s camera. But after conferring with Spader, Gyllenhaal casually suggested to her director that, hey, she was just a 23-year-old newcomer and all, but perhaps it might be a nice idea to capture it?
“You know, I’ve done so many sex scenes, it’s something I’m now kind of an expert in,” she says drily. But during the making of Secretary, she was out on a limb. The film was made long before #MeToo inspired the rise of the intimacy coordinator – the dedicated on-set consultant who ensures all scenes of a sexual nature are played in a spirit of professionalism and mutual respect.
When Gyllenhaal was younger, she explains, this role was often informally taken by other women on set, looking out for one another: “Maybe the make-up artist, or someone in wardrobe, or a more experienced actress who just keeps an eye out. And as I became more experienced, I became that person. Olivia Colman also did that job. Just keeping an eye on the people who are younger than you and don’t always feel like they can say no.”
She believes real change has been prompted by the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, which shone a torch on the culture of sexual harassment inside Hollywood. “I think there’s an exciting sea change happening right now,” she says. “It’s not that all of a sudden we’re all good, but something is definitely shifting.”
She didn’t enlist an intimacy coordinator for The Lost Daughter, “because having done so many sex scenes in my own life, I think I’m sensitive to what my cast needed”. She gave each actress a veto on any shot containing nudity, “and additionally I had absolutely no intention of asking anyone to do anything they didn’t want to on camera, sexual or otherwise. I remember Olivia didn’t want to wear a certain hat I had imagined her wearing, so we just got rid of the hat.”
In the intimate scenes and elsewhere, she found Buckley responded best to the kind of direction she herself would appreciate. Colman, on the other hand, was “totally different. When I was talking to her I quickly realised, ‘Oh no, no, no, this is not the way to wake this woman’s heart up.’”
The film was originally going to be shot in New Jersey in the spring of 2020, but Covid put paid to that. Gyllenhaal’s producers scoured the globe for an alternative location, and by August they had found the small Greek island of Spetses, which was amenable to hosting a “commando unit-sized” production. Within 10 days of the forms being signed, Gyllenhaal had reworked the script to account for the new setting, and she and the cast had begun their quarantine in the southern Aegean: not a disaster, all told. They were there for 28 days, and shot every scene on the island’s 9.8 sq miles – including those set in the United States.
From a crisis, a movie, and a terrific one at that: now that takes some real directorial acumen.
“I’ve worked with some directors who were full of love and offered freedom, but some who were brutal, and others who were scared and closed-minded,” Gyllenhaal says. “So often, I felt like the wronged kid who says to themselves, ‘When I grow up, no one’s going to feel like that on my set.’”
The Lost Daughter is in cinemas on Dec 17 and on Netflix from Dec 31