Thursday, October 10, 2002

S&M role not THAT scary

'Secretary' actress sees metaphor for relationships in movie

By Margaret A. McGurk
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Maggie Gyllenhaal wants to set the record straight.

“I'm scared of a lot of things,” she says.

She is reacting to Steven Shainberg, director of Secretary, who publicly described her as “fearless” for her performance as Lee, a troubled young woman who finds happiness in a sado-masochistic relationship with her boss, Mr. Grey (James Spader).

[photo] Maggie Gyllenhaal has been praised for her poise in her difficult role in Secretary.
(Lions Gate films)
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“Of course, I'm not fearless,” said Ms. Gyllenhaal (pronounced JILL-en-hall) during the Toronto International Film Festival, where the wildly non-mainstream love story drew rabid attention (Secretary opens at the Esquire Friday). While some viewers recoiled at Lee's ritualized humiliation, the 24-year-old star won virtually unanimous praise for her poise and confidence in a complicated role.

Though she admits she thought long about accepting a role that required her to, for instance, crawl across the floor with an envelope between her teeth, Ms. Gyllenhaal insists she has more to learn about artistic courage.

“I hope to be braver and braver and braver, because I think that is one of the fundamental things that makes someone a good actor,” she said. “It's funny, because I get to do all these flashy things in this movie that seem really scary. But actually, the scariest thing is just being present and allowing anything to happen. It's much more difficult than taking your clothes off.”

Ms. Gyllenhaal was a movie-business fledgling with few credits. Then she saw the screenplay by Mr. Shainberg and Erin Cressida Wilson, based on an acclaimed short story by Mary Gaitskill.

“I read about three-fourths of the script at first, and the script was incredible, I mean really, really incredible,” Ms. Gyllenhaal said. “Then I sat down and read the last quarter of it, and I got really nervous.”

Her anxiety, she said, was “less about the sex than about politically what it might be saying. I thought in the wrong hands a movie about a woman who plays the submissive in an S&M relationship and is empowered and emboldened by it could be an anti-feminist, reactionary movie.”

Eventually, she said, the director “did definitely convince me that he wanted to make this movie that was questioning things that seemed set and immovable about what we're supposed to desire and what we do desire and what's OK to make a movie about and what isn't. I think in the end . . . it does walk a fine line and say things that are compassionate and new.”

Dark and light

Now Ms. Gyllenhaal has had time to work out her own interpretation of how the characters' bond resonates with people.

“In order for them to be involved in a real love relationship, they have to acknowledge the complicated and painful things that exist in everyone,” she said. “I think in a lot of ways the S&M in the movie is a metaphor for that.

“So often we see movies, love stories, where, yeah, people go through problems, they have some turmoil. But in order for them to live happily ever after, at the end they get through their problems, they get through the dark stuff.

“I think what's more accurate and more honest is that a real relationship has to constantly include both the dark and the light, and the hard things and the simple and easy things.”

Nudity was "worthwhile'

Making the movie also meant coming to terms with appearing on screen completely naked.

“I decided — despite everyone who represented me and my family's urging — to get naked at the end of the movie. . . . I thought "Here's this girl who in the beginning of the movie I don't even think could be naked alone. I think she wears two pairs of underwear to bed and is terrified of herself as a sexual person and does not find herself attractive.

“And to find herself at the end of the movie lying naked with someone she loves covered in scars, and she says, "I felt beautiful for the first time in my life,' I felt that was a worthwhile reason to show my body.”

Her brother Jake is a fast-rising movie star in Moonlight Mile. “It skews my perspective sometimes, I think "Oh, wow, this is so great, I'm having all this stuff happening, I'm at this festival.' I think if Jake weren't an actor, that would seem like the top of the mountain. Then I go to the hugest theater, and that's where his movie is playing. . . . The only way we've remained friends . . . is to acknowledge that we get really competitive.”


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