Talking with Maggie Gyllenhaal about Won't Back Down

Interviews
by Melissa Silverstein
October 19, 2012 3:25 PM
6 Comments
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I'm a bit obsessed with this film.  My obsession stems from the fact that we have a film with two previous women with Oscar nominations in it (three if you count Holly Hunter in her supporting role) that has basically been dumped, and has allowed the teachers union to have the upper hand in creating the public and press narrative of the film. 

This film has ignited passion on both sides.  I have also had interactions with people who read the site who feel the film is anti-union and is being used as a tool to attempt to destroy the teachers union, and others who do not get the anti-union vibe from the film at all.   When I wrote about the film earlier, I felt it was anti-union but honestly, my feelings have softened. 

Another piece of the puzzle is that I unexpectedly got to meet the director Daniel Barnz when I was in LA and listened to him talk about the film which I found really interesting.

Last week I spoke with Maggie Gyllehaal on the phone and asked her some questions about the film and especially about the union controversy.

WaH:  Can you just talk about what drew you to this script?

MG: It was this idea of what activates somebody.  This woman who I play doesn’t think of herself as a political person. I don’t think she thinks of herself as a thinker at all. And not an intellectual. And something happens to her, that turns her into an activist.  I think that everybody has that in them. And I’m interested in what turns it on what ignites it. And I find with myself sometimes I’ll get ignited and then it will fizzle out and there are some things that it sort of stays lit for.  But this woman her whole self is on fire over this. It’s really bigger than her, and I just was interested in that kind of moment of ignition.

WaH: The click moment where you’re like, “Shit, things are not equal.”

MG: Right. Exactly, things are not right, you know?

WaH: Yeah.

MG: And there are so many things in this country and in this world that are not right. We just kind of walk by every day and even if they give us a little feeling of anxiety we don’t do anything about it. And that was one thing that drew me to this. And also I think I was interested in her as a mother, and somebody who was imperfect the way that every mother is, that I certainly am, but that she will do anything for her kid. And she does not do it perfectly. I kept thinking that—I don’t know if you saw The Lottery which is another movie about this issue were they had real documentary footage of people taking their kids to those lotteries - why are you bringing your kid? What are you doing? And at the same time I was playing someone who brought her kid. And you go, okay well she brought her kid because she absolutely totally believed that she was gonna get in that lottery and that was the last thing she would ever want her daughter to miss.  And plus she didn’t have a babysitter. 

WaH: You are drawn to playing gutsy women. I loved your character in Hysteria. Is that based on your background? What do you think draws you to these kinds of strong women?

MG:  I don’t think it’s so much that I’m drawn to strong women.  Yes, Charlotte in Hysteria is like the fantasy strong woman, she’s who we all think maybe we possibly could have been if we’d lived then, and yet at the same time there’s no way none of us would have ever survived if we’d behaved that way in Victorian England. I think that the woman who I played in Crazy Heart she wasn’t particularly strong, and yet she’s someone that could have been my friend.  She was much more like me probably than anyone in all the outward ways than anyone else I’ve played.  It’s just people who have something to do and who are fighting for something and who have a kind of hopefulness about them.

I mean, even in Sherrybaby the circumstances for that woman are incredibly grim and the only way that she could survive was with the most hopefulness, otherwise she’s drowning. So I think I’m more interested in spending time watching people or creating people who are fighting for something.

WaH: I track movies about women on my site, and there are so few movies that star women.  I was excited to see that your movie is two women doing something important. But the issue right now there is a controversy attached to the movie which has not allowed people to talk about these two strong women.  So what can you say about how people get past this issue the labeling of being anti-union and get them into the theaters?

MG: I mean, look, I spent a lot of time in New York when I was doing press for the movie before it came out, explaining in a very simple way how I think it’s a real misunderstanding in calling it anti-union. Basically, I think what we have to be able to do in order to understand the intention behind the movie is to to hold two opposing things in our minds at once. One is that you can be fundamentally as I am pro-union, it’s like the pillar of progressivism. I grew up with left of the left of the left parents and pretty much I’d say that those are my politics.

I think that in this situation, it is not an issue of right wing or left wing. You know, you had Rahm Emmanuel, who is a progressive, fighting the unions in Chicago. It’s a really complicated thing. And I think it’s a little bit lazy to say it’s anti-union, I think it’s a little bit lazy to say it’s right wing. I not only would not make a movie that I thought was right wing, I would not promote a movie that turned out right wing, even if I didn’t intend it that way when I made it. So you know, I think that’s inaccurate.

At the same time, I just wanna say, I’ve been saying that. For a long time. And it hasn’t been heard. And so at this point, I kind of feel like it takes a lot of work to understand how complicated this is. I hope and so far my hope was that the polarized adults in the situation would not let their problems with each other get in the way of making things better for the children in this country. And that has been my stance. And basically now I’m going to a day of press and I’m thinking, well let’s talk about it from an emotional viewpoint. Let’s talk about it in terms of two women who are fighting for what’s best for their kids and what’s best for the other kids in their community with them. And honestly, I’m always aware of the political implications of the movies that I make. I mean, I think basically everything I do I think of it as related to the community I live in. But I wasn’t playing a political person, like I said, I wasn’t playing someone who was thinking that way. I was playing somebody who was absolutely drawn and pushed and moved forward by her heart. And that’s all I was paying attention to.

WaH: I just have a couple more. How— what was it like working with Viola?

MG: Viola’s great. She’s just so powerful and unusual. Different from me in a lot of ways, and yet I felt like we had a really interesting chemistry. We’re so different but I think we had a lot of respect for each other.  One thing I knew was that the movie would be served best if we paid attention to the differences between Viola and I. Our characters should be as different as possible. So it was easy  because we are very different. Our spirits are very different, and at the same time I think we both have a lot of respect for each other. She’s a powerhouse. She’s like a deep, deep pool. And so that was exciting.

I also really liked working with Holly, who is kind of a hero of mine. And Daniel (Barnz the director) was saying at a Q & A together last night, and saying that somehow in rehearsal, that Holly and I had come to— that in some ways our relationship was like a love affair, and I didn’t say it in the Q & A but I was thinking, “Well, of course we did.” When I make a movie with Holly Hunter, there will be love there. And so I had to decide, well actually, look, here’s Holly Hunter coming in, which— or her character coming in and she’s an intellectual person who’s giving me respect. And that never happens in this woman’s life. And it’s been incredibly exciting and validating and was one of my favorite parts in the movie.  Even in that little scene we had in the car together like, there’s Holly and then all of a sudden 25 other things are being said under the lines that we were saying together, that just was written and that’s good acting, I think. That’s what I’m always hoping for. That’s what I admire in other people’s work.

WaH: Well, the movie’s also really about class.

MG: Yeah, it’s true.

WaH: What was the biggest challenge for you on the shoot?

MG: What was the biggest challenge for me? You know, I guess I thought that the movie was very, very clear in its narrative and what the conflicts were. They were very explicit in the script. There was no chance that anybody wasn’t going to get it, you know?  And when that is the case, it can be a fantastic thing to act in because you go, “Well I don’t have to explain anything to anyone.” I can play this scene like 180 degrees differently than you would have imagined, and I’m free to do that because what’s happening in the scene is like, absolutely clear.  So you’re not gonna say, “oh wait a minute you’re laughing but it’s really important that we understand that you’re angry." Everyone will understand that I’m angry. So sometimes I think I wanted to push it further in those wild directions than anybody was comfortable with.

WaH: I love that.

MG: And I have to say that is often my experience.  So you know, as I’ve gotten older I’ve gotten better at kind of going like— well, I dunno if I have.

WaH: I was gonna say, I’m angrier as I get older.

MG: I’m not, I’m not.  I was angrier when I was younger but I think I care less what people think and then I’m all, “thank God!” They told me that would happen.

WaH: Your mom writes and now she’s directing and your dad directs. Have you ever thought about getting into that area of the business? Writing or directing?

MG: I am developing a movie with my mom that she wrote.  We have two drafts now of a script that I would like to act in. But it’s really good, I think. We developed it together, really intimately although she wrote it, and so we’re working on that. In terms of directing, you know, I want to direct a short. And really, you’re the first person who asked me that and I’ve answered yes.

WaH: Yay!

MG: I usually say no, I want to be directed by someone who’s excellent. I do not wanna take on a feature, I don’t want to take on a feature in this climate where it’s all about massive, massive compromise.  Just a short though. That’s all I would like to take on right now. Just a little gem of something.

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6 Comments

  • Briguy | October 25, 2012 5:33 PMReply

    Charter schools don't make money for corporations or Wall Street. Not all charter schools are great, many are as poor as if not worse than traditional public schools. That said, charter schools have the freedom to innovate that public schools won't have unless laws change.

    If you care about the future of education in the United States (I think it is the most important issue), than I encourage you to open your mind. There is no singular once-size fits all solution. Every state, district, and school has different problems that require different solutions. If you blindly oppose alternatives, you are cutting out potential solutions.

    Also - gotsta love films that feature so many strong women... even if those movies mislead the public.

  • Jeff | October 20, 2012 8:40 PMReply

    Actually 5 Oscar nominated women - Rosie Perez and Marianne Jean Baptiste

  • Melissa Silverstein | October 21, 2012 9:34 PM

    Dang. Amazing.

  • Reed | October 20, 2012 3:52 PMReply

    Meant to type "Blaming teachers and their union for this propaganda film's failure."

  • Reed | October 20, 2012 3:50 PMReply

    Melissa, why don't you mention who financed this film? Interesting how you left that little tidbit out but wasted no time in the first paragraph blaming teachers and their union for this propaganda film. Does the name Phillip Anschutz ring a bell? He's the ring wing billionaire behind WAITING FOR SUPERMAN who wants to destroy the public school system in favor of charter schools that Wall Street can profit from. Don't believe me? Google his name. The truth is out there.

    Maggie was used to advance the anti-teachers union/anti-public school agenda. It's sad that they, as union members, felt the need to toss teachers under the bus for a role and money.

  • Melissa Silverstein | October 21, 2012 9:32 PM

    Reed- I am very aware of who financed the film. Also Fox released the film and that studio is owned my Rupert Murdoch. Here's the earlier piece I wrote where I went into the financing a bit. http://blogs.indiewire.com/womenandhollywood/viola-davis-and-maggie-gyllenhaal-court-controversy-with-wont-back-down

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