Maggie Gyllenhaal is a grounding presence in movies, whether she’s playing a small-town reporter (an Oscar-nominated turn in Crazy Heart), a struggling addict and ex-con (SherryBaby) or a personal assistant who makes S&M at the office seem oddly normal (Secretary). Luckily for New York theatergoers, Gyllenhaal and her real-life husband, Peter Sarsgaard, have developed a serious taste for Chekhov. The couple first played lovers in Classic Stage Company’s 2009 production of Uncle Vanya, and now they’re back at CSC’s small off-Broadway theater having an affair as Masha and Vershinin in Three Sisters. A vibrant presence onstage, the smoky-voiced Gyllenhaal recently chatted with Broadway.com about why actors adore Chekhov and what’s fun about pretending to cheat with your spouse.
So, you’re having an affair with your husband [Peter Sarsgaard] onstage. That must add an extra layer to your performance as Masha in Three Sisters!
I know, I know! [Laughs.] A friend of mine was joking that it’s like those kooky couples who have been together for 10 years but go out to a bar and pretend they’ve never met, just to keep things spicy. This is the second time we’ve done that; Uncle Vanya was basically the same set-up. But that’s where a lot of the romantic connections are in Chekhov plays—people having affairs. With this play, I have spent less time thinking about the fact that we are having an affair and more about what it means to use your heart and really love someone. That is a very interesting thing to explore with your own husband.
During the run of Uncle Vanya, Peter told Broadway.com that he finds it easier to act with you than with a stranger. Do you agree?
Yes. Peter and I work really, really well together. That is not a requirement for a married couple at all; my parents [Oscar-nominated screenwriter Naomi Foner and director Stephen Gyllenhaal] couldn’t work together. Peter and I happen to think in very similar ways about acting. The beginning of the process this time was a little fraught for us, because when you don’t know where you’re going in the play or what you need, it can be hard when it’s your real husband out there. Once we got a sense of what we were doing, it was fine. I trust him so much and the amount of love we have for each other is so strong.
Even though you both have high-profile movie careers, you’ve avoided being competitive.
Yeah, we have. Obviously, as in any marriage, there are things that we fight about and things that are difficult between us, but competition in our work is not one of them. We really root for each other and support each other.
Should we be surprised that you and Peter have done two small-scale off-Broadway productions rather than aiming for Broadway? [Sarsgaard co-starred with Kristin Scott Thomas in a 2008 Broadway revival of The Seagull .]
That would be a different experience. What’s nice about a place like [Classic Stage] is that we don’t have to worry about appealing to a mass audience. It’s a particular way that we’re doing this play—the staging is fluid, and it shifts. The actors respond to what the other actors onstage are doing, so if somebody decides not to take a drink of water, we respond to that. Not everybody likes this way of doing Chekhov, but we do, and we don’t have to compromise to fill a Broadway house every night. Also, I love the space at CSC. You walk into the theater and you’re in the room with [the audience]. Their feet are in our living room. Literally! You can feel them breathing and following the play.
Why is Chekhov so hard to do well?
Partially it’s because so much is left open. You can pull out Measure for Measure and read the play aloud, and it will basically work. You read Thee Sisters aloud, and so many things don’t seem to connect or make sense. It’s like looking at a map and none of the countries are listed. You say, “OK, I’m in Asia, but I’m not sure exactly where.” [Laughs.] Then you start to dig into it, and all of a sudden, the meaning is illuminated. In order to do Chekhov well, you have to bring your own mind and heart into it.
Chekhov wrote such fantastic female roles, including four in this play alone.
And we have such incredible actresses! The only way you can work this way—where you say, “Here we go into the river of this play, and we’re going to see where it takes us”—is if everybody is open and sensitive and interested and interesting. Jessica Hecht [Olga] has so much experience, and she’s incredible to be onstage with. I didn’t know Juliet Rylance [Irina] at all; I had never seen her work, and I think she’s brilliant. Marin Ireland [Natasha, the sister-in-law], of course, I had seen in a million things. I just feel so lucky.
When you graduated from Columbia, did you envision a career onstage or in film?
I always wanted to do both. I did a lot of theater in high school [at L.A.’s Harvard-Westlake School] and took it very seriously, and in college, too. When I got out of Columbia, I did [Patrick Marber’s] Closer at Berkeley Rep and spent four years of my life working on [Tony Kushner’s] Homebody. That was a really intense experience.
Your film career has been almost unclassifiable, in the variety of parts you’ve done.
I’ve been lucky enough that, for the most part, I’ve been able to choose films that were interesting to me as opposed to doing too many things for money or career stuff. When I try to fit myself into something that isn’t quite right for me, it usually ends up not working out.
Did you expect Crazy Heart to be such a big hit?
You know, I didn’t expect it to be a hit, really, but I knew when we were making it that it was good. It felt like a special experience, where the stars were aligned. I sort of thought, “I hope this turns out well, but if it doesn’t, it’s fine, because the process of making it was so special.”
You’ve become a fashion icon at the Oscars and other events. Peter told us that he hates the red carpet. Do you enjoy it?
I do enjoy it; I’ve always liked all of that stuff. I think it’s okay to think about clothes as long as you also think about other things [laughs].
What did you learn about the business from watching your parents when you were growing up? Were you aware of what they did for a living?
I was, yeah. My parents weren’t movie stars, so there wasn’t hype around what they were doing, but I watched them be more or less successful at different times in their life, and weather that. My parents’ production company was called Rollercoaster—partially, I think, to say that [a career] will go up and it will go down. I try to keep that in mind.
You and your brother [actor Jake Gyllenhaal] seem down-to-earth. What’s been the key to that?
Part of it is that I don’t think movies are the most important thing in the world. Good movies and good plays can make you think about life and love and the world you live in, but, ultimately, that’s not the most important thing. I have a little girl [four-year-old Ramona], which really helps with that. It doesn’t matter what project you’re working on or who’s coming over for dinner and how fancy they are if your child is sick or your child doesn’t want you to drop them off at school. There’s nothing you can do except be there for your child.
Did you make a conscious decision to live in New York, away from the Hollywood spotlight?
Yes. My parents are from New York and I was born here, even though I grew up in L.A. I came back when I was 17 to go to Columbia, and I always thought I would raise my family in New York. I’ve been here for half my life now, almost. I really like Brooklyn, where we live; I love our house and our wonderful friends, and I love being able to hop on a train and come to work. But it’s a harder place to raise a kid than I thought when I was 17. Sometimes I dream about being in the countryside.
Do you have any dream roles?
Masha was a dream role for me, something I wanted to do for a long time. And I think we’re a good fit. Chekhov's wife, Olga Knipper, played the role at Moscow Art Theatre, and she said, “I delight in playing Masha.” I know what she means.
See Maggie Gyllenhaal in Three Sisters at Classic Stage Company.