“I love the fact that people wanna talk about sex,” says Maggie Gyllenhaal, the pixie-ish star of Secretary. “I mean, I wanna talk about sex, too.” Which is a good thing, since it’s a subject on many people’s minds ever since the film—in which she plays a masochistic typist in the service of a domineering lawyer played by James Spader—exploded onto screens at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival.
Speaking to Gay City News by cell phone on her way to the Deauville and Toronto Film Festivals, her voice raspy with fatigue or cigarettes, the 24-year-old actress does admit to being a little weary of answering questions about being spanked by her co-star. “It’s such a very small, specific part of the movie,” she says. “Sometimes I sort of feel like, you know, we can talk about that if you want to, but we can also talk about what the film says about sexuality and gender and relationships and feminism and desire—all that stuff.”
That other “stuff” is what drew Gyllenhaal to Secretary in the first place. Based on Bad Behavior, a novella by Mary Gaitskill, the story depicts the burgeoning romance between two emotionally crippled characters: Lee (Gyllenhaal), a habitual self-mutilator recently released from a mental institution, and her boss, Mr. Grey (Spader), an icy attorney with serious control issues. A match made in S&M heaven, the two fall into a decidedly subversive routine of domination and discipline. With Mr. Grey quenching a desire previously unknown to her, Lee blossoms from a repressed, naive child into a fully aware, sexual woman. Ultimately, the balance of power shifts as Lee discovers the influence she has over her employer.
Gyllenhaal compares Secretary to last season’s arthouse hit The Piano Teacher. Both films center around vulnerable, masochistic women and the men they choose to be dominated by. “It’s basically the same plot,” says Lee, “But it has a completely different message.”
Although intrigued by Piano Teacher’s suggestion that all relationships—sexual and otherwise—are formed on the basis of power and submission, Gyllenhaal doesn’t necessarily agree with its depiction of its kinky heroine as sick. “In my film, the unusual relationship is simply a necessary thing for its two lovers,” she says. “The only way they can feel is by hurting each other.”
In addition to the spankings, Gyllenhaal’s role called for several scenes of masturbation and nudity, a fact that gave her pause initially. “I was really worried it might end up saying something that wasn’t politically interesting or acceptable to me,” she says. This resulted in a lot of back and forth between Gyllenhaal and director Steve Shainberg. Though she won’t elaborate, she admits there were a few instances where her boundaries were crossed, albeit unintentionally. Nevertheless, she remains largely satisfied with the end result.
“I felt like, you know what—certain things didn’t need to be in the movie. It’s no big deal, but it’s too bad because why not have it be perfect.” Still, she’s proud of her first starring role in a “transgressive film that’s a little hard to take” because, she says, “I really believe in what it’s saying.”
This ever-present intellectualism imbues Gyllenhaal with a maturity that belies her age. A graduate of Columbia University, Gyllenhaal studied Eastern Religion in addition to her major in Literature. She’s fascinated with Eastern philosophies and has incorporated them into her life. She gives a lot of thought to her work, her life, everything. It’s hard not to get swept away by her enthusiasm as she talks about what excites her. “I love philosophy,” she gushes. “And literature, I read all the time. The things I like to read are books about ideas, and the movies I like to make are movies about ideas. Alive ideas. People going through ideas and discovering them.” The daughter of director Steven Gyllenhaal and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Naomi Foner (for Running on Empty, starring River Phoenix), and sister to indie-hearthrob Jake, you’ve probably seen Gyllenhaal before. It’s just that you wouldn’t have noticed her in the small roles she played in Donnie Darko, Cecil B. Demented and Riding in Cars With Boys.With Secretary, she’s poised to emerge as Hollywood’s next big thing, an It-girl with a capital I.
In the coming months, she’ll be gracing the screen in Spike Jonze’s Adaptation and George Clooney’s directorial debut, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Additionally, she just wrapped Lodge Kerrigan’s In God’s Hands and John Sayles’ Casa de Los Babys. Upon her return from Toronto, she begins work on a new comedy called Mona Lisa Smiling, in which she’ll be working alongside Julia Roberts. It’s in this regard that her life has most changed in the wake of Secretary. “It would probably have been more difficult to get a role alongside Julia if people hadn’t seen Secretary,” she admits.
As she moves on to other projects, Gyllenhaal carries with her a few valuable lessons gleaned from making Secretary. “I learned that it’s perfectly okay to ask for what you need in order to do the best work you can.” More importantly, she says she discovered that only she can determine what her boundaries are. “Everybody said ‘don’t get naked,’ but I thought a lot about it and decided in this case, it’s an important, necessary thing.
Ultimately, it’s my decision,” she says.
But for now, at least, promoting Secretary continues in full force. She laughs when asked if she thinks gay audiences will like the film. “If not, a lot of my friends are going to have a problem.” Then she thinks a moment. “That’s like saying that straight people only like movies about straight sex and gay people only like movies about gay sex. That would be, like, so sad!”
Michael Rucker writes about film for
HX and Empire magazines. He is a regular contributor to Gay City News. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.