Maggie Gyllenhaal (‘The Deuce’): A ‘magnetic pull’ towards playing prostitute Candy [Complete Interview Transcript]

Maggie Gyllenhaal has been nominated at the Emmy Awards before, but HBO’s “The Deuce” will be her first attempt for a regular series. Her previous nomination was in 2015 for the limited series “The Honourable Woman,” for which she won a Golden Globe. The Oscar-nominated actress (“Crazy Heart,” 2009) is more known for her film career, including “Secretary,” “Sherrybaby” and “The Dark Knight.”

She recently joined Gold Derby senior editor Daniel Montgomery for a webchat discussing her starring role opposite James Franco as Candy, a prostitute in 1970s New York City struggling to get by. The character already put her in contention at the Golden Globes a few months ago. Watch our exclusive video with Gyllenhaal above and read the complete interview transcript below.

Gold Derby: Maggie Gyllenhaal, you star in the series “The Deuce” as Candy, who is a prostitute working in New York City in the 1970s. What attracted you to this character when you first read the script?

Maggie Gyllenhaal: Well, the script was so good. I mean, it was David Simon and George Pelecanos, who are really excellent writers so I guess the quality of the writing got my attention. It’s hard to say what makes me want to play a character. It’s like I just get this magnetic pull toward something and I felt that way about Candy and I think also I was interested in thinking about sexuality and power and femininity and what transactional sex is. I think it’s interesting because, of course, we made this show before everyone in the world seems to be thinking about all of those things right now, and in particular in Hollywood maybe. But of course, we’re thinking about them now because they’ve been on our minds for a long time so I guess all of those things were interesting to me. It’s part of what pulled me to it.

GD: You’re also a producer of this series. Did that make this a different creative experience for you?

MG: In general I’ve gotten interested in producing and I’ve produced a couple of projects since then and had been developing projects as a producer before that, but in this case it wasn’t something I developed. It was something that they came to me with and I had read three scripts out of eight and they were asking me to play a sex worker and I guess I just felt like I needed some kind of guarantee that I was gonna be a part of the conversation. So much of my body was gonna be required in order to play this part in a realistic way and I also wanted to be sure that they were interested in my mind. I’d never signed up for anything before without having read the whole script. For me it was like a weird ask, and in particular playing a sex worker I felt like, “I have to know what story we’re telling and I have to be a part of helping to figure that out.” I was told by everybody, by my agents and my managers and even my friends, “You’re never gonna get that. This is a huge HBO series. You didn’t develop it. They’re never gonna give that to you.” And it was hard because I was like, “I want to do this role. I want to play this part but I can’t do it unless I have some protection,” ’cause I didn’t know them, you know what I mean? We’d never worked together. I liked their work. I had a feeling it was gonna be a good relationship but I needed some kind of guarantee, and when they gave it to me it was kind of amazing because it was like the beginning of this collaboration. It was like they went, “Yeah, we do. We want all of you.” And then it just continued from there. It was a really exciting collaboration in terms of storytelling, in terms of what the politics of the piece are, and artistically, too. They wanted to share. They wanted to collaborate.

GD: And it’s interesting in a way that is parallel to Candy’s story in the show how she wants a say in how her body is being used and how her life is being run and she doesn’t trust pimps or anything like that. Did that help you relate to her more, that sense of wanting to have that greater say?

MG: Yeah, it’s always like that for me. Ideas and things that are happening in my life are related to what I’m doing in my work, not always as literally as here where Candy, porn for her is really mixed up with her desire to direct and her desire to produce. Even though there are a lot of characters for whom porn is really painful and exploitative, for Candy it’s like the birth of an artist. And I relate to that, and I did relate to that in terms of the process of becoming a producer, too. I think it’s true. It’s really interesting how much it’s like what was happening on set.

GD: And since Candy has developed that interest in directing, have you yourself ever had that interest or developed that interest in directing in addition to producing now that you’ve done?

MG: Yes, I have.

GD: Do you think you might ever have that opportunity on “The Deuce” or maybe a feature film you might work on?

MG: Yeah, I’m adapting a screenplay now to direct it. It’s very far from being a real project but it’s something that I’m working on. “Real” meaning having the money to be made (laughs). But yes, that is something that has been woken up in me in the past few years and yeah I would like to direct on “The Deuce” and I think that would be interesting also in terms of Candy’s story. I don’t know how much I’m allowed to talk about, Season 1 at this point, we’re shooting Season 2, but she becomes a filmmaker and that has been inspiring for me.

GD: Another thing that’s interesting about “The Deuce,” which you’re starting to see more and more in TV is gender parity among the directors. Half of the directors in Season 1 at least, half the episodes were directed by women. Do you think that was especially important for the show given that it focuses so much on the experiences of and often the exploitation of women?

MG: Yeah, I do, and I think for instance, look, I have had really incredible working relationships with male directors who are interested in women, who are respectful of women, who are curious about a realistic feminine experience, for sure. But it is different working with women. Definitely when we’re talking about sex and we’re talking about really specific portrayals of sexual interaction. The transactional sex in the show, guys are paying us and we’re giving them 20 minutes or whatever, I think that’s less what I’m talking about than some of the sex scenes… Candy has a really interesting scene with a lover of hers which was in Episode 5, which was directed by Uta Briesewitz, with whom I really felt I could explore some elements of sexuality that I haven’t seen on film and TV before, and part of it I think did have to do with the fact that she was a woman directing and had an understanding of sexuality from a female point of view. But David wrote it! I mean, you know.

GD: The show also doesn’t shy away from the darker aspects of Candy’s life, the violence and indignities that are sometimes involved in her work. Were there any scenes or episodes that you found especially difficult to shoot or to come out of?

MG: I felt some at the beginning. I haven’t said this before, but I felt that… Look, I think feeling sad or self-pity is something that I think people who are really on the edge don’t have the luxury to feel. And if you’re really on the edge and you’re really just surviving, I think mostly you have to have a positive outlook and you have to sort of go, like, “I’m good, I’m good. Okay, next thing. Okay, that was hard, next thing. That was hard, next thing.” And so I think I came off in the first few episodes when they were just first getting to know me, I think Candy was coming off as pretty powerful, because she was like, “I’m good. I’m fine. Nope, I don’t need you. I don’t need you. Actually that didn’t upset me, I’m fine.” And so I feel like the writers started to just give her more awful things, then another awful thing, like, “Let’s see if we can bring this woman down!” And I was like, “Nope, you’re not gonna bring her down. Huh-uh. Rat crawling up my arm, I’m good. This guy dying after a blowjob, I’m fine. I’m just good. Nothing’s gonna get me down.” And I felt like they just kept trying and then finally in Episode 5, which is my favorite episode, I think because it’s an episode of change and change is always the most interesting thing to watch, she gets to a breaking point and she’s like, “I can’t go on like this anymore,” which is the most interesting place to watch anyone be, I think. Like, what’s gonna happen? Are they gonna slowly die now or are they gonna live? She, of course, decides to live (laughs). And that’s always good storytelling, so was I upset by all the horrible things, like the real rat crawling up my arm or all those guys? I mean, I just don’t think Candy had the luxury to be upset by it. She’s a survivor.

GD: And the show is also extremely detailed in how it depicts New York City in the 1970s. Did you do much of any research into the period to better inhabit the character in that setting?

MG: I mean, I watched some movies. That was a pleasure. I like the movies from that time. In a way I did. I got to know some sex workers who were working in the ‘70s, who are now in their 60s and spent some time talking to them and also right after the pilot for “The Deuce” my acting teacher passed away, who was my teacher for many years and she was in her late 70s and she was saying to me, and also the women, the sex workers were saying to me, “Being a sex worker or sex in general in 1971, it was different than now.” You’re coming off the late ‘60s, a kind of exploration, a kind of freedom, a kind of breaking-everything-down vibe was everywhere. So that was interesting to me. But I guess I kind of think people are the same if it’s 1890 or 1970. People are people. I was more interested in researching, really, “What would it be like to be a prostitute in 1971? How many men would you be with at night? What would you do if it was really freezing cold?” Things like that. I was more interested in that than the details of the reality of the time. But there were a lot of people on my show that were interested in the details of the reality of the time, so they kind of took care of that for me (laughs).

GD: Prostitution, the old saying is that it’s the oldest profession, but there’s still so much controversy and debate about it, the legality of it, whether it would be safer or more dangerous if it were decriminalized. Did you have any opinion on those sorts of issues going into the show and did the show have an effect on your positions on those sorts of issues?

MG: I don’t think I really knew all that much about it going into the show. I’ve become more aware of the debates that are going on now, about decriminalization vs. this linking together of prostitution with human trafficking. My sense is that what most sex workers want is decriminalization and I… I stand with them.

GD: The series was renewed, as you mentioned, for a second season. You’re working on it now. Not to give too much away but are there any aspects of Candy’s life and experiences in particular that you’re really eager to explore that maybe we haven’t seen as much of?

MG: Well, I mean, I know I’m not allowed to say anything about it. You can see she looks different, she’s blonde and I think if you watched all of Season 1 I don’t think you’ll be very surprised about where she starts. Candy has a triumphant move through Season 1. It’s not without its trials and tribulations but she’s an artist and she’s hungry to make work and she loves film and for her it’s like, “Okay, it’s porn but it’s movies. It’s film.” And that continues in Season 2. I’m not allowed to say anything about it (laughs). But we shot the first two episodes. They’ve been really exciting. I’m in L.A. now just for stuff like this and I’m going back to New York on Monday to start Episode 3.

GD: And what do you most hope viewers when they watch this series will take away from the show as a whole and from Candy in particular?

MG: Well, I think it’s complicated. I think it makes you ask questions about power and sex and commerce, right? Which is really what all of us have been talking about in terms of Hollywood right now. How have people exploited sexuality? How have they used their own sexuality to get the things that we need, to get the things we feel we need? How have women been undermined and how has this fundamental inequality in terms of men and women created a situation where sexuality is being disrespected and more women in general are being disrespected, right? So that’s very interesting and that’s really on the table in our show, 100% all the time. And then there’s all these subtle other sides of it, like Candy, you see how she’s living what I just said. You see how she’s got no resources and so she’s using sex because it’s what’s in her toolbox. Look, let’s be honest. Until 100 years ago women couldn’t have credit cards! They couldn’t have a bank account! The only way that women could get what they fundamentally needed financially was by marrying somebody. So to say prostitution is the oldest profession, women didn’t have access to very much else. At the same time, and this is where it starts to get complicated, like I said, for Candy, making pornography is what wakes her mind up. Not because it’s pornography, but because it’s film and because it’s all she has access to. So it’s not like “Pornography bad, and you’re in trouble if you’re interested in it.” Everybody’s interested in it! Even if you’re really, really against it, it’s still something worth thinking about. So all of this, which is on the table for everybody I think is really at play in our show. And I think the point is that the system is fundamentally broken. The system is fundamentally misogynistic and so the way that all of us, men and women, exist inside of this sexist system, I think is what’s interesting, and what we’re exploring.

GD: Well I wanna congratulate you on the show, on your recent Golden Globe nomination for the show earlier this year, and best of luck in Season 2.

MG: Thank you.

GD: It was a pleasure talking to you.

MG: You too.

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