Body and mind engaged

Mag­gie Gyl­len­haal tells why she signed up to play a pros­ti­tute on The Deuce.

The Press - The Box - - COVER STORY -

Mag­gie Gyl­len­haal put her body on the line for The Deuce, SoHo’s gritty new drama about the le­gal­i­sa­tion of pornog­ra­phy in 1970s New York – but only on the con­di­tion that she got to use her brain as well.

The 39-year-old ac­tor, who plays pros­ti­tute Candy Mer­rell in the eight-part se­ries, is­sued an ul­ti­ma­tum to ex­ec­u­tive pro­duc­ers David Si­mon and Ge­orge Pele­canos, the team be­hind The Wire, when they met to dis­cuss the project. ‘‘I said I want to do this, but I want to be a pro­ducer be­cause I want to have some kind of guar­an­tee that my mind will be in­cluded in this as well as my body,’’ she re­calls. ‘‘That was a re­ally big ask to be hon­est.’’

But it was one the showrun­ners hap­pily agreed to. The re­sult saw Gyl­len­haal given an in­creas­ing in­flu­ence over her char­ac­ter as the role de­vel­oped.

‘‘I loved be­ing Candy,’’ she says.

‘‘I’m in­ter­ested in the dark side, and she lives there, but also I think when you are play­ing some­one who is just keep­ing their head above water, which is true for Candy all the way through, you don’t have the lux­ury to like feel sad and sorry for your­self. Those are mid­dle-class prob­lems, but when you are just sur­viv­ing you have to be an op­ti­mist and so there is a right­ness about her and a just like reach­ing-for-the -nex­trung that was nice to play.’’

The se­ries is set against the dark and dirty un­der­belly of 1970s Time Square – a lo­ca­tion far re­moved from the tourist mecca it is to­day. Back then, it was the wrong side of the tracks – peep shows and pros­ti­tu­tion ruled in what be­came know as the sleazi­est block in Amer­ica.

‘‘We’re ar­riv­ing in the story in 1971, which is the point at which it [porn] went from be­ing an un­der­the-counter, pa­per bag prod­uct to be­ing street le­gal and, at that point, it was funded largely by the Cosa Nos­tra in New York,’’ says Si­mon.

‘‘It was be­gin­ning, as all vices be­gin, as some­thing which or­gan­ised crime was fund­ing on a sort of cash-and-carry ba­sis.’’

Rep­re­sent­ing the face of the Mafia in The Deuce is James Franco in the role of twin broth­ers Vin­cent and Frankie Martino, real-life front­men for The Mob, and The Wire star Lawrence Gil­liard Jr as po­lice of­fice Chris Al­ston.

Gyl­len­haal’s char­ac­ter is a mix of two peo­ple – the real life Candy, who worked as a part-time bar­keeper at Vin­cent’s bar, and Can­dida Roy­alle, a for­mer porn in­dus­try worker who pi­o­neered the con­cept of fe­male-cen­tric erotic cin­ema.

The ac­tor, who vis­ited an adult movie set and met with for­mer pros­ti­tute and adult movie star An­nie Sprin­kle as part of her re­search for the role, was at pains to break away from Hol­ly­wood’s stereo­typ­i­cal im­age of a sex worker and present a more fem­i­nist take.

‘‘I think play­ing a pros­ti­tute who ul­ti­mately gets in­volved in pornog­ra­phy is a very in­ter­est­ing per­spec­tive from which to ex­plore women and our re­la­tion­ship to power, to art, to money, to sex,’’ she says.

‘‘In a lot of film and TV you only get to see a pros­ti­tute as a pros­ti­tute – she’s noth­ing else, she’s only some­body who sells sex, but here that’s her job and she’s very con­sid­er­ate of her job. She’s very smart, she knows how to take care of her money, she’s good at do­ing what it is she needs to do, which is sell sex, but she is so many things. She’s a mum, she’s a daugh­ter, she’s a lover later, she’s an artist, she’s a thinker.’’

And she is also some­one who made Gyl­len­haal adopt a dif­fer­ent ap­proach to her work – es­pe­cially when it came to the scenes where Candy is sell­ing sex.

‘‘It’s to­tally dif­fer­ent to do a sex scene with an­other ac­tor that you have cre­ated a re­la­tion­ship with where the sex is as con­ver­sa­tion,’’ she says.

‘‘There’s a good sex scene in Crazy Heart for ex­am­ple, with me and Jeff Bridges where we have a con­ver­sa­tion with our bod­ies. That’s very dif­fer­ent than the sex, the trans­ac­tional sex, that I’m hav­ing with all these dif­fer­ent men [in The Deuce].

‘‘Usu­ally when an ac­tor comes on set, I make an ef­fort, or it al­most hap­pens nat­u­rally, to be par­tic­u­larly open with some­body that I am go­ing to have to cre­ate some kind of re­la­tion­ship with im­me­di­ately. With the peo­ple that I would have these trans­ac­tional sex­ual re­la­tion­ships with, I barely... I mean, I would shake their hand, I was to­tally nice, but I felt it would [be] too vul­ner­a­ble to make a re­la­tion­ship with these peo­ple I was gonna ac­tu­ally not speak to.’’

Si­mon, for his part, stresses that it’s peo­ple and not the rights and wrongs of pornog­ra­phy that were top of mind when it came to mak­ing the show.

‘‘I’m much less in­ter­ested in whether porn is good or bad in a moral sense,’’ he says. ‘‘I was never in­ter­ested as much in the moral­ity of whether drugs are good or bad in The Wire as I was in how power and money ar­ray them­selves and how so­ci­ety ar­ranges it­self so that some peo­ple are vic­tims and some peo­ple are vic­timis­ers.

‘‘We live in a mo­ment right now where a very strong ar­gu­ment could be made that we’ve mis­taken mar­ket cap­i­tal­ism for how to build a just so­ci­ety. While it’s an in­cred­i­ble tool for gen­er­at­ing wealth, it’s not a recipe for how to dis­trib­ute wealth, or how to ar­range a so­ci­ety so that it func­tions to the bet­ter­ment of all or most.

‘‘So I’m not in­ter­ested in mak­ing a piece about 1970s porn, just to make a piece on 1970s porn if it doesn’t in some way ar­gue to us right now. And I think this is a mo­ment that if you look how it ar­rayed it­self and what hap­pened, where the money went, who got paid and who didn’t and who paid the cost. If you watch the show in the con­text of what we know the world to be, I think that in­ter­ests me a lot more than whether or not it’s good or bad to look at dirty pic­tures.’’

It’s a view echoed by Gyl­len­haal who says, ‘‘If the show turns you on a lit­tle and then makes you con­sider what’s ac­tu­ally turn­ing you on and the con­se­quences for the peo­ple, for the char­ac­ters that are turn­ing you on, of what’s get­ting you hot, I think it’s a bet­ter show’’.

The Deuce be­gins screen­ing on SoHo (1pm and 8.30pm) and stream­ing on Neon on Mon­day, Septem­ber 11.

The Deuce is set in and around New York’s Times Square in the 1970s.

Mag­gie Gyl­len­haal not only stars in The Deuce - she’s also a pro­ducer.

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