IN "Sherrybaby," actress Maggie Gyllenhaal is stripped to the bone -- emotionally and literally. It is a raw and vulnerable performance, the kind of role that works only when the actress in question is able to lose herself inside the character.
She plays a recovering heroin addict who is, in a sense, looking for salvation. The film opens as Sherry, after a three-year prison term, sets out on a journey to stay off drugs and reclaim the love and trust of her young daughter, whom she missed desperately. Gyllenhaal makes Sherry's pain so palpable that at times it's hard to watch her on screen.
Some critics believe her performance in "Sherrybaby," which opens in theaters on Friday, is the strongest example to date of why Gyllenhaal, 28, has become one of the most important actresses of her generation.
This would seem to be her moment: She has four films out this summer and fall -- two comedies and two dramas -- showing her multicolored versatility. She plays a pastry chef in "Stranger Than Fiction," a worried wife in "World Trade Center" and a children's book author in "Trust the Man."
"She has a sparkling mind, a wealth of emotion, and miles and miles of charisma," said Laurie Collyer, who wrote and directed "Sherrybaby." "She has the ability to turn the darkest, most difficult characters into someone you would want to know."
The actress -- pregnant (due any minute now) and engaged to actor Peter Sarsgaard -- is taking it in with a Zen-like calm. In person, she exudes a radiant sensuality, looking a bit disheveled in a gray T-shirt, a baby-blue top and a skirt. Her face is bare (just a bit of maroon lip gloss).
"Most of the projects that I've ended up being very proud of involved a certain amount of intuition, like there was something in the character that I had to work through," Gyllenhaal said, resting on a couch at the Chateau Marmont on a recent humid afternoon. "At the time, it's not particularly an intellectual or rational choice. It comes from somewhere else, maybe something more unconscious. That's true of all of these movies that are coming out."
She grew up understanding the power of acting. Her father is director Stephen Gyllenhaal ("Losing Isaiah"). Her mother is screenwriter Naomi Foner ("Running on Empty" and last year's "Bee Season"). Her brother, Jake, commanded the spotlight last year after "Brokeback Mountain."
Acting always felt like stepping into a "deep daydream," she said. "It was always a pleasure. It was fun for me."
After graduating from Columbia University in 1998, Gyllenhaal started auditioning, earning small parts in a few films. Then, in 2002, she scored a lead role in the indie movie "Secretary," earning her dizzying critical acclaim including a Golden Globe nomination for her portrayal of a quirky young woman who embarks on an obsessive sadomasochistic relationship with her older boss (played by James Spader). More than a dozen films have followed.
In "Sherrybaby," Gyllenhaal uses her body and her sexuality to navigate a world in which she finds herself without money or credibility. The role, she said, was soul-wrenching.
"I really got sucked into Sherry in every way," she said. "Sherry has this kind of naivete, this fierce hopefulness. Every time an obstacle comes at her, it's doubly sad. She can't afford even a second of acknowledging how lost and painful her life is."
Gyllenhaal said it took her weeks after the film was completed to let go of the part. "I really had a hard time," she said. "There was all this stored pain, Sherry's pain, in my body. It started coming out in all sorts of ways, in my skin, I was smoking. I remember going to a beautiful wedding in Spain afterward and I was just a mess. I wasn't myself."
Although she has since moved on (she forced herself to stop smoking -- "I knew it was part of making the separation" from the role, she said), watching the film is still not easy for her. "I feel so much more exposed watching it than I did making it," Gyllenhaal said.
In the movie, she gives an honest portrayal of an addict who struggles to be a good mother while dealing with her own childhood pain. She is both sexually exploited by men and exploitive of them.
When the movie premiered at Sundance this year, she considered walking out of the theater. "That's never happened to me before." She felt naked -- in every sense of the word.
"In retrospect, I'm proud of having made the movie," Gyllenhaal said. "It's a compassionate movie about someone who is so easy to dismiss, so easy to judge. We tried with everything we had not to judge her. That's how I would like to be in the world."
After the heaviness of "Sherrybaby," Gyllenhaal said, she found it refreshing to make romantic comedies "Trust the Man," which opened in August, and "Stranger Than Fiction," which opens Nov. 10. "It ended up being a total pleasure."