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Pushing boundaries

With an unconventional movie career on the rise, actress Maggie Gyllenhaal turns to the stage.

October 22, 2003|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

As a high school theater student at the Harvard-Westlake School, actress Maggie Gyllenhaal was already making startling choices.

"She was playing, of all things, Ma Joad in 'The Grapes of Wrath,' " recalls Ted Walch, Gyllenhaal's drama teacher at the prestigious private school on Coldwater Canyon. "And she put weights on her ankles, and on her wrists, the kind that runners use, to help give her body some of that sluggish maturity that Maggie, as a young, lively woman, didn't have. She used those for weeks in rehearsal to give herself the kind of physicality she needed. It was very exciting, and that's how she works."

It is probably premature to offer a career retrospective of the gangly, soft-featured, Columbia University-educated Gyllenhaal, 25, whose latest startling choice is to take a break from an ascending movie career to play a sometimes unsympathetic role as the confused daughter of a proper Englishwoman who disappears in Kabul in Tony Kushner's dense 3 1/2-hour drama "Homebody/Kabul" at the Mark Taper Forum.

Still, it seems more than coincidental that Gyllenhaal already includes in her credits roles in John Waters' "Cecil B. Demented" and, with her brother, Jake, in the sci-fi film "Donnie Darko," along with more conventional supporting parts in "Riding in Cars With Boys" and the teen romance "40 Days and 40 Nights."

And her breakout role was hardly the girl next door: In 2002, Gyllenhaal won rave reviews and a flurry of movie industry awards for her performance in the film "Secretary." She stars opposite James Spader as Lee Holloway, a fragile young woman recovering from a mental breakdown who becomes involved in a sadomasochistic relationship with her obsessive lawyer boss.

Critics marveled that Gyllenhaal managed to lend her character a guileless enthusiasm that made her seem less an abused woman than one on a joyful journey of self-discovery, even while being spanked.

"I think I have been playing people who are broken in some way, but are becoming aware of it," says Gyllenhaal, who is part of a Hollywood mini-dynasty that includes her actor brother and her parents, director Stephen Gyllenhaal and screenwriter Naomi Foner. "And I think that is much more healthy than doing a romantic comedy about somebody who seems perfect."

Gyllenhaal (pronounced JILL-en hall) followed that performance with roles in the quirky "Adaptation" and the recently released "Casa de Los Babys," in which she plays one of six women who travel to Mexico to adopt babies.

And opening in mid-December is "Mona Lisa Smile," starring Julia Roberts as a Wellesley College instructor in the early 1950s who seeks to inspire her students to pursue their dreams despite societal pressure to marry, have children and wear pearls. Gyllenhaal plays Giselle -- the promiscuous one.

The actress says she was determined to make Giselle more than the bad girl in "a big Hollywood movie."

"I decided the character I was playing was doing everything she could to feel alive," she muses, carelessly shoving her chin-length, unevenly-cut brown hair behind her ears.

"All these women who were 19 or 20 were saying they were going to get married and be with one man for the rest of their lives. I sort of felt like, that's healthier than exploring a little?"

Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, producer of "Mona Lisa Smile," acknowledged that Gyllenhaal was concerned about it becoming a feel-good movie with a happy ending, no questions asked.

"I think she's an actress who sort of pushes the boundaries," Goldsmith-Thomas says. "She came to my house three or four times, [screenwriter] Lawrence Konner and [director] Mike Newell were there, and we talked about who Giselle was, and why she was acting this way. She talked to the writers a lot. We embraced her enthusiasm."

In her relatively short career, Gyllenhaal says that not every director has been as open to collaboration as Newell. "In the past couple of years, I've developed a certain mistrust," she observes, her wide eyes making her look about as mistrustful as a new puppy.

"I am not very trusting of directors. I go in with my fists up -- or at least my cards really close to my chest, because I have been burned before. I find that directors have a hard time believing that a young actress is going to have an artistic opinion that is worth something."

She admits that she came to her role as Priscilla Ceiling in "Homebody/Kabul" with her fists up higher than usual.

"I went into this with Frank with this idea that I'll fight you on everything, if you want to fight," she says of director Frank Galati. "But he didn't want to fight at all. I felt really respected and trusted in a way that I had never been trusted before."

Galati and playwright Kushner were more than willing to let Gyllenhaal and the other actors help shape their roles. The play, which opened Oct. 1, continues to undergo rewrites and changes.

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