If you look at Maggie Gyllenhaal's resume, you'll find plenty of iconic roles, an Oscar nomination, and co-stars that've included everyone from Jeff Bridges to Julia Roberts — not exactly the sign of someone not getting her due. But in reality, Gyllenhaal faces the same issue that so many other women do, of being overlooked and undervalued by an industry — and a culture at large — that prioritizes the male experience over anything else.
"We, as women, have gotten used to seeing movies or seeing a television show and maybe there’s 30 percent in there, if you’re lucky, that feels really, truly like a representation of our feminine experience," says Gyllenhaal, sitting next to me on the couch during the Sundance Film Festival press day for her new movie, Kindergarten Teacher. "And we’ve just been like cool, 30 percent, I’m good with that. But I’ve learned... to imagine the other 70 percent, to turn it into what we need it to be in order to be fed."
The Kindergarten Teacher, a drama by writer/director Sara Colangelo, stars Gyllenhaal as the titular instructor, who becomes dangerously obsessed with a talented student. Featuring one of the strongest, most committed performances in years from the actor — who produced, as well — the film was the rare project to have a worthy representation of a female lead character, in Gyllenhaal's eyes.
"When you find something where it’s 100 percent there, where the possibility of expressing what you need to express, where the movie is demanding 100 percent of yourself as a woman, as a person, of your heart, of your mind, in order to tell the story right — that is very compelling," says the 40-year-old.
In The Kindergarten Teacher, Gyllenhaal's Lisa is frustrated: with her boring home life, with her stalled writing career, with her talent not being honored and respected when she knows it's deserved. Lisa is starving for recognition, and when she discovers prodigious poetic talent in her six-year-old student, she clings to it like his skills are her own.
"I relate so deeply to her in many ways — in her hunger and her pain, in the ways she isn’t fed," says Gyllenhaal. Occasionally, she explains, she's taken on projects that were just "halfway there," or has found herself hesitant to ask for what she thinks she's worth when talking to executives. "I’ve cut off parts of myself that should be alive in order to make it work. And I’m tired of it," the actor says.
But ever since the 2016 election, an event that's affected the actions and thoughts of millions of women across the globe, Gyllenhaal has felt a change stirring within her. "When Trump was elected, I think a lot of people, a lot of women, went, I’ve been compromising — I thought we were somewhere different," the actor says. "I think we were wishful thinking that we were somewhere different than we are. And here we are. And this is not enough."
Now, she's fed up, and feeling that effect. "When something starts to come alive that’s been asleep, it hurts. Like a hand that’s asleep or something," Gyllenhaal says.
In the past few years, Gyllenhaal has become more selective about the project she chooses, refusing to settle for half-baked scripts or unfulfilling work. In 2014, she led the BBC miniseries The Honourable Woman, for which she won a Golden Globe, and as of 2017, she's both starred on and produced HBO's The Deuce, earning a second Globe nomination for her work. With The Kindergarten Teacher, she gladly took on another producing role in order to have more say in the final product. "This is, I think, a shift in my thinking in terms of what I feel entitled to ask for as a woman in the world. I was like, I want the credit," Gyllenhaal recalls.
So she got it — and the result has already proven to be excellent, with the film earning rave reviews out of Sundance and becoming one of the festival's most talked about titles. So if you're ever hesitant to speak up and claim your value, take a lesson from Gyllenhaal — all women deserve to know their worth and make sure others do too.