Maggie Gyllenhaal is standing behind the camera monitor, her gray eyes wide and focused. “This one is so cinematic!” she says of a photo of herself styled like Sean Young in Blade Runner. Gyllenhaal is wearing a sharp-cornered black and red Saint Laurent dress, standing beside the large freight elevator at the Highline Stages in New York, which is doubling as a set backdrop for the final look of the day for her W cover shoot. Two weeks earlier, Gyllenhaal and her elder daughter had watched Blade Runner for the first time. “I liked the idea of a dystopian noir,” says Gyllenhaal, noting the strangeness of starring in the shoot as well as directing it. “I thought, Maybe it’s all kind of a character, different characters.”
The smell of hairspray, used with abandon to keep Gyllenhaal’s sleek sci-fi updo in place, wafts through the studio. Gyllenhaal’s husband, Peter Sarsgaard, has just driven through an ice storm from the family’s house in Vermont with their wirehaired pointing griffon, Babette (named for the Danish film Babette’s Feast). Sarsgaard has swiftly changed out of hiking boots and into a cashmere Emporio Armani coat. He joins Gyllenhaal in the elevator, his back turned toward the camera, echoing an image of Anna Karina from Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie, another source of inspiration for Gyllenhaal. Babette stands patiently with the crew, watching her parents. Soon, Gyllenhaal is back at the monitor. “It really looks like film stills,” she says, satisfied.
Behind the camera is a place where Gyllenhaal has become more comfortable as of late. Her feature directorial debut, The Lost Daughter, premiered on Netflix at the end of December, and has since been nominated for three Oscars. The film follows Leda, a 48-year-old academic (Olivia Colman), whose solitary beach vacation in Greece is interrupted by the invasion of a sprawling family from Queens. The languid frustration of a young mother in the group, Nina (Dakota Johnson), piques Leda’s attention. Watching Nina interact with her ever-demanding toddler daughter surfaces memories of Leda’s own maternal struggles some 20 years prior. We learn that Leda is still grappling with her choice to leave her young daughters for three years to pursue her academic career and an affair with a roguish Auden scholar, played by Sarsgaard. “Children are a crushing responsibility,” Leda tells the overbearing matriarch of the encroaching family.
“I think people respond to being told the truth, especially about something taboo,” Gyllenhaal tells me over lunch a few days before the shoot, referring to the fervent reaction to the film. This was what the 44-year-old mother of two felt when she read the short novel by Elena Ferrante from which the film was adapted. “I had never seen so many of these feelings, not just about mothering, but about being a woman, expressed before, and I found that really exciting—and disturbing,” Gyllenhaal says, slicing through the soft heart of a grilled artichoke. She took great care in crafting a letter to Ferrante, requesting the rights to the novel, focusing not on how she would adapt the film but on why she wanted to. “It’s one thing to read these things that we’ve agreed not to talk about in a book,” she says. “It’s disturbing and comforting at the same time, but we’re still alone in our rooms with this secret knowledge. I thought it would be a really radical proposition to put it up on a screen in a communal space, where you might be sitting next to your mother or daughter, and actually hear these things spoken out loud. Then something’s really being shattered. That’s what I had proposed to her in the letter.”
Fendi belted coat; Nili Lotan slipdress; Gucci stockings; Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello shoes.
Celine by Hedi Slimane dress and shoes; Falke tights.
Ferrante replied that she would grant Gyllenhaal the rights on one condition: that it be Gyllenhaal herself who directed the film adaptation. This show of confidence empowered Gyllenhaal to take that leap. “The challenge of the book was very much like breaking a scene down as an actor. You have a text and you’re like, Okay, these are the words, but what is the underlying, more interesting event of the scene, and how can you articulate that cinematically without ever saying it out loud?” She wasn’t starting from scratch—as an actor, Gyllenhaal has explored complicated female characters for more than two decades, from her breakout role as an assistant dabbling in S&M in Secretary, to the conflicted daughter of an arms dealer in The Honorable Woman, to a sex worker turned director in The Deuce.
“Her experience as an actress allows her to interact with her actors in a way that is extraordinarily safe and freeing,” Johnson told me. Jessie Buckley, who plays the younger Leda, felt that Gyllenhaal empowered her to “embrace all the chaos and the thrill and the terror that is embodied in a woman, to sit in those feelings and explore them and own them.” Colman, for her part, thought at first that she had little in common with Leda—until she invited all of her “mum mates” to the London premiere of the film and was surprised by their reactions. “I thought, Oh fuck, we do have this shared experience,” she says. “There have definitely been moments when we’ve done things like Leda does. We can all share that.”
The movie’s unflinching honesty has unleashed countless think pieces—most of them written by women, many with a mention of a toddler yanking at their arm as they attempt to make their deadlines—on the dearth of material about the ambiguities of motherhood. I unwillingly join their ranks. As I write this, at 5:30 a.m., seven months pregnant, I hear my 2-year-old moaning through the wall of his bedroom. I have one eye on Google Docs and the other on the baby monitor screen as I watch him sit up and jettison his beloved stegosaurus overboard. I know it is only a matter of seconds before the scream of “Dino, dino!” erupts and my quiet work time is stalled. It will simply be the latest example of the daily relinquishing of my own priorities in favor of his.
Gyllenhaal examines, with spare grace and elegant impartiality, these sacrifices that parents are expected to make without complaint. Being unwilling or unable to do so is one of society’s last taboos: the woman for whom the innate maternal instincts of selflessness and caretaking are wanting; the mother who does not take naturally to the role. One of the most trenchant lines in the film (and novel) is Leda’s unapologetic admission: “I’m an unnatural mother.” Gyllenhaal says many suggested cutting the line, “and I said, ‘Well, why?’ It’s actually this incredible line; it’s almost a vibrating thing. What is an unnatural mother, and what is a natural mother? I don’t think there’s really an answer to that.”
There is a rich history of psychotic mothers on film (Carrie, Hereditary), and plenty of all-sacrificing mothers (Bambi, Dumbo), but rarely is there an ambivalent depiction of motherhood. “I think it’s because when we’re little, our survival depends on our mothers being good and loving and caring for us,” Gyllenhaal says. “It’s a sophisticated, grown-up thing to ask people to reconcile being a good mother and a bad mother. I really do believe that women make work, art, film that looks different than men’s—in particular, in the way that we articulate feminine experiences. And if there aren’t very many films being made by women, that’s a whole section of our experience that doesn’t get reflected back at us. I don’t see how I could have made this movie accurately and with compassion without being a mother myself.” Gyllenhaal says she felt the challenge of juggling motherhood even while making the film. Her two daughters, Ramona, 15, and Gloria, 9, accompanied their parents to Greece for the six-week shoot, and Gyllenhaal and Sarsgaard had to balance filming with overseeing their children’s remote schooling.
Back at the W set, Gyllenhaal is proving her deftness as both actor and director. “I’m having fun doing it,” she says, “because I have a seat at the table. I’m part of the conversation of what I’m doing.” Looking back, Gyllenhaal says she was never totally satisfied as an actor. “I was always pitting up against something, and I thought that’s just how it is being an artist, and that obstacles helped you create work,” she says. “Now I don’t think that anymore.” Once she became a producer, on The Deuce and The Kindergarten Teacher, she started seeing early drafts and cuts, and would send long, expertly crafted notes that no one really wanted unless it was about her character. “And even then, I had to be very careful not to piss people off,” she says.
She is standing in front of an oversize poster board studded with inspiration images of beloved film heroines like Nastassja Kinski in Paris, Texas, and Jeanne Moreau in Elevator to the Gallows. “I was a little shy about directing this, but also about being in the pictures, especially in the fashion model context,” she says. “So when it started, I thought, I’m going to protect myself by creating these distinct, far-out characters. In fact, just like with everything I do, they ended up being me, all of them.” She pauses. “You always need fiction, but it’s always going to be more interesting when there’s some of yourself in what you’re working on.”
Hair by Serge Normant for Serge Normant HairCare at Statement Artists; makeup by Francelle Daly for Love+Craft+Beauty at Home Agency; manicure by Eri Handa for Chanel Beauté at Home Agency. Set design by Griffin Stoddard at MHS Artists. Produced by Simon Malivindi and May Lin Le Goff at 138 Productions; production manager: Francis McKenzie at 138 Productions; production coordinator: Henna McCafferty at 138 Productions; lighting director: Romain Dubus; photo assistants: John Temones, Shen Williams-Cohen; digital technician: Taewan Kim; retouching: Stéphane Virlogeux; senior style editor: Allia Alliata Di Montereale; senior fashion market editor: Jenna Wojciechowski; fashion assistants: Julia McClatchy, Tyler VanVranken; makeup assistant: Sam Kettell; production assistant: Auguste Taylor-Young at 138 Productions; set coordinator: Grace Beck; set assistants: Shaun Martinez, Jakob Lewis; tailor: Lindsay Wright.