Mag­gie Gyl­len­haal takes her ca­reer in a cu­ri­ous di­rec­tion on The Deuce, writes Alex Mor­ris

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Mag­gie Gyl­len­haal and David Si­mon were hav­ing a civilised lunch one day when she men­tioned, ever so calmly, that she wanted to mas­tur­bate on tele­vi­sion. “I told him, and he sort of pre­tended to spit his water out,” she says.

Gyl­len­haal and Si­mon were dis­cussing her role in The Deuce, the new HBO se­ries from Si­mon, the cre­ator of The Wire, and Ge­orge Pele­canos. The show, screen­ing on Fox­tel, is about the birth of the 42nd Street porn scene.

Gyl­len­haal had re­ceived the first three scripts as well as an of­fer to play Candy, a 1970s pros­ti­tute, which she thought would be “a very del­i­cate thing to do in 2017”. The scripts were com­pelling, but Gyl­len­haal didn’t know where her char­ac­ter’s story would go or what she, as an ac­tress, would ul­ti­mately be asked to do.

“When David called me, I said to him, ‘ Ob­vi­ously my body is go­ing to be re­quired, but I also want to know that you’re in­ter­ested in my mind. And that’s go­ing to be part of what comes with hav­ing me in this process’,” she re­calls. “He was like, ‘I need you to trust me.’ And I was like, ‘I want to, but …’ ” For starters, Gyl­len­haal had never seen The Wire (“though I knew it was uni­ver­sally con­sid­ered to be ex­cel­lent”). Nor is she ac­cus­tomed to ac­cept­ing parts with­out a com­pleted char­ac­ter arc in hand.

Yet ever since her out­ra­geously-sexy-if-you’re-into-that-sort-of-thing break­out role as the ob­ject of James Spader’s sado­masochis­tic af­fec­tions in 2002’s Sec­re­tary, Gyl­len­haal has proved her abil­ity to bring un­ex­pected depth to char­ac­ters who might other­wise be writ­ten off sim­plis­ti­cally as way­ward or frag­ile or dam­aged — so much so that she takes is­sue with those de­scrip­tions.

“Dam­aged? Re­ally? What does that mean?” she says. “Not a fantasy of a per­fectly put­to­gether woman? I mean, I think we’re all dam­aged, you know?”

Gyl­len­haal hardly seems dam­aged as she sips her al­mond latte, hav­ing re­turned to Brook­lyn just this morn­ing from a cou­ple of days at her fam­ily’s coun­try house, where she had “wo­ken up early with my lit­tle one and gone swim­ming in a lake”.

She’s 39, wears pink Birken­stocks and, more of­ten than not in our con­ver­sa­tion, an ex­pres­sion that comes across as sort of amused, as if she’s pleas­antly tak­ing stock of a sit­u­a­tion from afar.

“I haven’t ever been some­one who wants any­one to tell me, ‘Stand over there and be more an­gry’ or some­thing,” she says of her act­ing ca­reer. “I’ve al­ways had a real point of view.” And she’s al­ways grav­i­tated to­wards projects that were col­lab­o­ra­tive enough that her point of view would be val­ued.

To make sure The Deuce fell into this cat­e­gory, she did some­thing she isn’t ac­cus­tomed to do­ing: “I said that I wanted to be a pro­ducer, to have a guar­an­tee of con­trol.” Never mind that she had never pro­duced any­thing be­fore; had not de­vel­oped this par­tic­u­lar project; was com­ing into it fairly late in the game, and was told, as she says, “This is HBO. This is a huge net­work. No­body is go­ing to give you that.” When HBO did agree to give her a pro­ducer credit, “I felt like it was a non-ex­plicit way of say­ing, ‘This is a fem­i­nist project.’ ”

At which point, the ques­tion of how to make a “fem­i­nist” show about pros­ti­tutes, pimps and porn films be­came, in part, Gyl­len­haal’s to grap­ple with. And sud­denly, the fact the com­plete sea­son wasn’t al­ready writ­ten was a fea­ture, not a bug, be­cause it meant that Gyl­len­haal could re­lay ideas about her char­ac­ter to Si­mon and they would mag­i­cally ap­pear in the scripts “in much more in­ter­est­ing and com­pli­cated ways than I had imag­ined”, she says. “And then I would act them in my own way. They started writ­ing for me: ‘I see how you’re in­ter­pret­ing what we’re do­ing.’ I had never ex­pe­ri­enced that be­fore.”

To be clear: the show in­cludes all the sala­cious­ness and seed­i­ness that the terms “1970s”, “Times Square” and “porn” im­ply, as well as a good amount of nu­dity, in­clud­ing for Gyl­len­haal. But, Gyl­len­hall says, the nu­dity is re­fresh­ingly equal op­por­tu­nity. (“There are a lot of penises,” she an­nounces.) And the con­trol that women can or do ex­ert over their bod­ies re­mains an overt theme.

“There’s this fake power struc­ture for pros­ti­tutes where you go, ‘I’m in charge, I’m go­ing to set the price, I’m go­ing to set the bound­aries’, and yet you’re alone in a room with some­one that could rape you if they wanted to,” says Gyl­len­haal, who in­ter­viewed sex work­ers from that era as re­search.

“I think that’s trou­bling, and I think that re­quires an amount of dis­so­ci­a­tion that makes it im­pos­si­ble to keep your mind in­tact.”

She was also af­fected by the fact the show was film­ing dur­ing the 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. “We would be watch­ing the de­bates at lunch,” she says. “I feel like my sense of sex­ism in re­la­tion to my own life got much clearer. So to be play­ing a pros­ti­tute who is deal­ing with her­self in re­la­tion to her sex­u­al­ity, her money, her art, her in­tel­lect, was pretty fas­ci­nat­ing.”

Gyl­len­haal has two young daugh­ters, and she hasn’t talked to them about her role in The Deuce, but she has thought about them in re­la­tion to the work she is cre­at­ing. “Some­times I do feel a lit­tle bit wor­ried about the nu­dity be­ing out there, but at the same time, I think that I’m us­ing my body to make some­thing re­ally in­ter­est­ing, and I like the mes­sage that that sends my daugh­ters.”

You also, yes, see her mas­tur­bate. “I thought here’s all this per­for­ma­tive sex, all this trans­ac­tional sex,” Gyl­len­haal ex­plains. “I wanted to know what her de­sire looks like.”

She asked; Si­mon obliged. “And af­ter we filmed it, he was like: ‘ OK. OK. We’re OK. We have made some­thing fem­i­nist. We have.’ ”

The Deuce airs on Mon­days at 11am and 8.35pm on Fox­tel’s Show­case.


Mag­gie Gyl­len­haal as Candy in HBO’s The Deuce

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