From the film “Secretary” through HBO’s “The Deuce,” Maggie Gyllenhaal has always been a subtle and dynamic actor willing to challenge herself and the audience’s preconceived notions about right and wrong and the moral codes society imposes upon people. Now Gyllenhaal brings those skills and that mindset to writing and directing with her adaption of Elena Ferrante’s novella, “The Lost Daughter,” which is in theaters and on Netflix on Friday.
In the film, Leda (Olivia Colman), a professor on vacation in Greece, becomes increasingly obsessed with a young mother, Nina (Dakota Johnson), her daughter and her daughter’s doll. Despite their differences, this family stirs up haunting memories of Leda’s time as a young mother (played by Jessie Buckley) struggling to balance her own life and identity with the emotional and practical responsibilities of parenting.
The cast also features Ed Harris and Gyllenhaal’s husband, Peter Sarsgaard, in supporting roles as Leda tries coming to terms with her desires and her decisions. Gyllenhaal’s directing brings an undercurrent of tension potent enough to power a small island to even the most banal of conversations.
Gyllenhaal spoke recently by video about directing, parenting and being honest about your true self. The interview was edited for length and clarity.
Q Were you looking to write and direct, or did this book compel you to write and direct?
A I was looking. I was getting in touch with how much I wanted to direct and probably how much I’ve always wanted to direct — I see that now that I’ve done it. I just didn’t allow myself to feel how much I wanted it because there weren’t a lot of models of female directors when I was growing up.
Q What drew you to this particular book?
A It’s so honest about things we’ve agreed not to talk about as a culture. Elena Ferrante breaks that agreement.
I like the idea of adapting something, of having something to bounce off; that’s a very similar muscle to what I do as an actress, taking a text and distilling it for what it’s really about and putting my own intention into it.
Q As a mother of two girls, what did you bring to the adaptation?
A Motherhood is a struggle, no way around that. Yes, it changed me and is a massive part of my identity and it brings heart-wrenching joy. Parenting brings you to your knees, and if it didn’t it wouldn’t grow you and your children so massively. There’s nothing like it.
There are moments that aren’t from the book, like where Leda says, “I hate talking to my kids on the phone” and when Leda is talking about this thing she did that was painful for her and caused great pain to people she loves and she says, “It felt amazing.”
But neither of those quotations are complete – it’s not really that she hates talking to her children on the phone nor did that thing really feel amazing. We’re watching her in nearly unbearable pain for nearly the whole film. It’s those statements vibrating against what we’re watching — the younger Leda clearly loves her children and is so consumed by them there’s no space left in her mind for anything else. I felt we were in dangerous territory, and that’s scary but it’s also invigorating to know you’re being honest.
It is scary to come out and say something you feel is true when no one else is saying it. It’s easier with Elena Ferrante as my north star, having already said it.
Q Is it important for women to see they’re not alone in these feelings and experiences?
A When you get into the darkness of anything, when there’s shame involved, it’s comforting to know that you’re not alone – that everyone, if they’re honest, has deeply dark parts of themselves.
We have been told, especially women, that if our experience of motherhood includes despair, terror, anxiety, or darkness that we’re ill. I think almost everyone has all those feelings in their experience of parenting. If that was considered normal and a part of being alive then we might digest them differently.
There has always been more space for men to direct films and so more space for men to explore the edges of their experience. There is something unusual and more dangerous, perhaps, about getting into the nooks and crannies of the feminine experience in the world.
Q It can be hard to like Leda much of the time. Do you want the audience to like her or just understand her?
A I hope you feel all sorts of things. I hope you sometimes like her, sometimes you don’t, sometimes you understand her, sometimes you can’t bear to. The challenge for the audience is: Can you be brave enough to acknowledge the ways you relate to her?
There are times when she’s cruel, even just in tiny ways. But right after she feels sorry, even if she doesn’t say it. If we’re honest, there are parts of us that are cruel sometimes, where you snap at someone, you act like [a jerk] for a second. Maybe you’re so ashamed that you can’t bear to acknowledge it. It’s human to watch someone feel embarrassed, sorry or ashamed about having been cruel.
Q I thought of the word “fraught” during almost every conversation. How much of that is from the novel and how much did you enhance that during shooting, editing and scoring scenes?
A What I like to watch as an audience member and what I like to act in are films where what the scene is actually about is never articulated in the scene and couldn’t possibly be. After Leda finds Nina’s daughter, Nina says, “I like your bathing suit.” We’ve watched them watching each other, being deeply interested and compelled by each other. Now they’re finally speaking to each other and it doesn’t mean “I like your bathing suit.” In every interaction, there are 400,000 other things going on between the people that are talking.
I used the form of a thriller and sometimes even the horror genre, to build that tension.
In many scenes, what we’re trying to articulate didn’t change very in the shooting and cutting, it just was honed and made sharper and tighter.
Q As an actor turned director, how much did you respond to what the actors brought to each scene?
A The actors I’ve always liked the most often have a directorial point of view. They say, this is two people talking at deli counter but it’s my job as an actor to decide it’s an apology or a seduction even if no one’s apologizing or overtly seducing. That same muscle is what I used in adaptation and directing and editing.
My actors surprised me the way they expressed themselves all the time. It wasn’t that I had in mind a certain expression, just a certain meaning or intention but the way they expressed it changed all the time. In the flea market scene with Nina, there’s a close-up of Leda with tears in her eyes. There were takes where Olivia was totally stoic, or where she was much warmer in the beginning of the scene or ones where she was emotional. All told the story I wanted to tell, so it was about which one clarified it most.
Q How did your past experience as an actor shape you as a director?
A There are directors who were brutal or who were not interested in me as a collaborator and some who were really loving, curious and respectful. The work that’s worth watching is from that second group. So I felt a huge part of my job was to hire people I respected and then to love them and to give them the space to express themselves.