Maggie Gyllenhaal (‘The Kindergarten Teacher’): It was ‘hard’ to play Lisa Spinelli [Complete Interview Transcript]

Maggie Gyllenhaal has earned particularly strong reviews for her audacious role as Lisa Spinelli in the recent Netflix film “The Kindergarten Teacher.” Gyllenhaal was nominated for Best Actress by the Women’s Film Critics, while the film itself won the Sundance Film Festival’s Dramatic Directing prize for Sara Colangelo. Gyllenhaal received her first Oscar nomination for 2009’s “Crazy Heart.”

Gyllenhaal recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing editor Matt Noble about what drew her to “The Kindergarten Teacher,” the difficulties of shooting on a shoestring budget and what it was like to work with a predominantly female team. Watch the exclusive web chat above and read the complete interview transcript below.

Gold Derby: Maggie Gyllenhaal, what connected you with the character of Lisa Spinelli when you were first reading the script?

Maggie Gyllenhaal: Well, when I was first reading the script I think it was more of a kind of visceral connection. The writing was so good and I just felt a magnetic pull toward doing it, but now that I’ve made it and I’ve thought about it and I’ve talked a lot about it, I think what connected me to it was the kind of feeling that a lot of women are having these days, of waking up to what it feels like to be starving and to have spent most of your life compromising in a culture that wasn’t really built for you, and what happens when you can’t handle it anymore, ‘cause “The Kindergarten Teacher” is about a woman who falls apart, which is something I think everyone does. It’s an extreme example and it’s kind of like a thriller, horror movie version of somebody who falls apart but at the same time I think it’s a really real depiction, like, “What does it look like when a woman falls apart?”

GD: What do you think is the biggest question that is asked by “The Kindergarten Teacher”?

MG: I think it’s really asking the audience whether they can be brave enough to relate to somebody who is so friendly and bright and curious and interesting and also so broken, which I think is most of us. I think it makes you have to look at the part of myself that is actually as broken as this woman is.

GD: This film deals with education and it deals with the arts and expression. As an artist, how did that sort of inform the way you approached the role?

MG: Well, I think it’s about the consequences of what happens when you starve a vibrant woman’s mind, and maybe, in particular, a vibrant female artist’s mind. I don’t think that Lisa Spinelli is a terrible poet, even though that’s what her random night school poetry professor thinks. I think she’s an unheard, misunderstood poet. Is she the biggest genius in the world? No. I mean, maybe, but I think it’s interesting to consider who gets to decide what’s worthwhile work. Who gets to decide what gets published and what’s lauded? I think in a lot of ways, the movie is much sadder and actually much more of a tragedy if you consider that her work, in reality, was written by a brilliant published poet. What is she supposed to do if nobody can hear it and nobody can hear her? I don’t really think that the little boy is like a super genius. I don’t think that’s the point of the movie at all. I think it’s more her need to interact artistically, to express herself artistically, and she puts it on this kid. That’s really what’s so disturbing about her is she’s hungry, she’s starving, but she goes down the wrong road to try to feed herself.

GD: And you being such a strong central character to the film and it being directed and written by Sara Colangelo, this is not a film which is starved for female expression and empowerment in filmmaking. How did that inform it, the strong women voices that came to this film?

MG: It’s interesting, we made this movie for nothing. I was literally changing my clothes in the bathroom on the Staten Island Ferry. We were running and gunning in New York in the straight-up classic tiny independent movie style that there really isn’t much room for anymore, and so on some level you say it’s made by a group of women and we’re not starving or whatever, but we didn’t have enough money to tell this story about this woman and her mind and the ways in which she isn’t fulfilled. We were like, “We’re a group of women, okay, this is how we do. We’re cool. We’ll make it for nothing. I’ll defer my whole salary. We’ll have Doritos for lunch or whatever,” but then I think that, in a way, is part of what the movie’s about. Why? But at the same time, I think working with women and almost entirely women, I mean, our DP was a man but he was a lover of women… First of all, I don’t think just because something is written or directed by a woman that it necessarily is an expression of something particularly female. I think we live in a world where we’re used to kind of a masculine storytelling. We’re used to the most interesting character being a man, since we were kids, and in order to make the space in your mind to do something different, to say something in a different way, it’s difficult.

I do think that what Sara, our writer-director, and me and our three amazing women producers, kind of did here is something new. I do think it’s a feminine expression in a way that I don’t think we’ve seen that much of. I remember Trevor Noah, he was actually interviewing about “The Deuce” and he’s seen “The Kindergarten Teacher” and he was like, “What is this movie? Is it a horror movie? Is it a thriller? Is it like a French film?” And I loved that so much. It’s really not any of them. I do think it’s something new, and I love the way that audiences respond to it when they watch it because it does in a way follow some classic elements of a thriller, and then it totally trips you up as you watch it, and I do think people are used to seeing movies where women fall apart, where it looks kind of more operatic. It looks like, “Oh, well she’s nuts. She’s losing it.” And there’s been so many incredible performances in that vein that I have absolutely loved growing up, blown my mind, Gena Rowlands-style. And yet, what about just someone who’s just like you, who could be your neighbor or your friend who falls apart? I think that’s a little bit more challenging in a way, to go like, “Well then, can you fall apart? Isn’t that really a possibility for all of us?” Not that we’re going to kidnap people. That’s a dramatic, great, extreme element to “The Kindergarten Teacher” but I think it is asking, “Couldn’t we all fall apart and what if we did?”

GD: Right. And how far would we go if we did? Maggie, you talked about how the film was shot on a shoestring budget. Can you think of a moment that was particularly exciting because of that or maybe even a strength to the film in a scene or a moment because you had those limitations on you?

MG: That’s every day. When you’re working in that way there are so many times where you’re like, “Pick up the camera! We have five minutes! Just get it! Just shoot it, however we can!” And then there also times where you’re working with a non-DGA crew and the matte box falls off the camera, and you’re like, “That was a great scene! Fuck!” It was always a combination of the two. That’s part of what gives it its life. To play someone as broken and shattered as Lisa is on a big-scale movie would mean I was feeling that way and doing those things for four months, not that anyone would do that, but in this case, it’s four weeks, and so you can go really deeply into something, but there’s so many examples. I don’t even know where to start. How about this. We have these kids in the movie and we have a little boy and he can’t work the same hours as we can, and yet, we have no time. So lots of times, we would shoot his side of the scene and then I would shoot my side with our 50-year-old bearded first AD on his knees beside the camera reading off-camera for me, which in some ways you’re like, “What? How am I gonna do this?” And in other ways, you’re like, “I mean, what else are you gonna do?” You’re just gonna go for it, and for me, I would just be like, “Okay, that’s something interesting about this because I’m wanting to relate to him as if he’s a grown man.” I don’t know, we somehow got the MOMA to let us shoot there which was amazing, which just took so much and then we have no time and we’re running around the MOMA trying to get these shots. That was an amazing day. I told you, changing my clothes in the disgusting bathroom on the Staten Island Ferry, which nobody should ever have to be naked in there. Every day was like that, and right, that gives it some of its energy. I feel so proud of having made a movie like this in that way, and yet, to be totally honest I’d like to have had a little more money, not to put in my pocket, but to put on the screen, even though I love it. I love it even just as it is.

GD: Biggest challenge for you as an actress in the film?

MG: I think sometimes when there’s more fiction, like, say, for example, Candy in “The Deuce” and I’ve got a big, crazy wig and I got an accent and I’ve got six-inch heels on and I’m playing a sex worker on the street, the fiction gives you freedom, and the fiction keeps it a little bit protected from your own heart, even though your own heart’s always in it. There’s an ease and a tiny bit more of a remove. Here, obviously I’m so different from Lisa Spinelli in so many ways, but the way she looks the way she talks, I mean, I never wanna see the sandals she wears ever again, but I dressed like that in college and I think so did she, and I think that’s why she still does and there’s so many things. There’s not that comfort of that remove, and I found that hard. I was not happy when I was making this movie. I was happy artistically, and I loved our set and I loved the women I was working with and I loved the ideas, but they’re painful ideas and I didn’t have a big, curly wig I could put on. So I found that hard, and, of course, it’s hard to work with kids. It’s a whole other level of responsibility. It’s like a whole other thing. It was such a nice ease on our set, and I’ve certainly had a wonderful ease with men and working with men, but there was something about the way we interacted with each other as women that made the pain and the way in which we didn’t have all the things we needed, we took care of each other.

GD: I was going to say, with the kids I’m assuming all the parents knew that they were where they were meant to be at the right times and things like that.

MG: What we did with the kids was because I was a producer on this, I was in the production meetings and they had originally planned to shoot the kids’ stuff very conventionally in the way you would shoot any scenes, and I said, “As an actress, I know. There’s no way we’re going to get what we wanna get out of these kids and line them up.” So we shot it almost as if we made it kindergarten. They called me Mrs. Spinelli. When we’re painting pictures, we were really painting pictures. When we’re doing the letters, we’re really doing letters. We’re really singing the songs. You can’t get the kids to pretend that they’re singing that song or even to it more than once in a reliable way. So there was a lot of stuff with the kids where they would be calling me Lisa Spinelli and asking me if they could go to the bathroom and then they’d come up to me and go like, (whispers) “I know you’re in Batman.” (Laughs.)

GD: You have had such a varied career in so many different roles, from Batman to “The Kindergarten Teacher.” Is there one that sticks in your mind as a role that you just keep on going back to?

MG: I would say that there are a few that stick in my mind. I think it is interesting, when I read “The Kindergarten Teacher,” I went, “Oh. Okay, this is the next step.” I think of “Secretary.” I think of “Sherrybaby.” I think of “Crazy Heart.” I think of “The Honourable Woman.” I think Candy in “The Deuce” and then I think of this. They’re all women dealing with their thing and when I read this, I was like “Oh, this is mine. This is my thing. This is the next one. This is the one for when I’m 39.” And it was. I think, in a way, I know what I like, and there are other things in between that I also loved. Doing “The Dark Knight” was amazing, but it’s a different kind of expression. I’m a piece of a bigger whole, as opposed to in this. It’s like what’s on my mind is gonna be a really big part of what the movie’s exploring. So there’s, like, touchstones.

GD: To finish up what is the one thing you’d want audiences to take away from this film, if they took away one thing?

MG: Can I say two?

GD: I’ll allow it (laughs).

MG: Thanks. I think one of them is what I said before, which is really what happens when you starve a woman, a great woman. It’s not okay. The consequences are dire but I would also say, maybe the really number one, is compassion, to look at someone who’s really having a hard time and really does cross lines that are unacceptable and see if you can understand them and have actual compassion instead of judgment.

GD: I think in the times we live today, that is particularly challenging for a lot of people.

MG: It’s always challenging. The times, in general, are challenging.

GD: Well congratulations, Maggie, so much for your work on the film and thank you so much for talking to us about it today. All the best of luck for the awards that are coming along the line and for nominations in those areas. You got an Oscar nomination for “Crazy Heart” so it’ll be nice to see how things go for “The Kindergarten Teacher.”

MG: Thank you.

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