Body and mind engaged
Maggie Gyllenhaal tells why she signed up to play a prostitute on The Deuce.
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.