Maggie Gyllenhaal Takes On The Power Imbalance Of Sex Work In 'The Deuce'

Sep 20, 2018

When the creators of the HBO series The Deuce first approached Maggie Gyllenhaal about starring in the show as a sex worker, she didn't immediately say yes.

Set in New York City in the 1970s, The Deuce centers on the intersection of sex work, pornography, organized crime, the police, politicians and feminists. Gyllenhaal didn't have a problem with the role, but she did have strong feelings about how the power dynamics of sex should be portrayed.

Reading the first three scripts of The Deuce, Gyllenhaal says, she was struck by the writer's depiction of the "imbalance of power between men and women — in terms of sex, in terms of art, in terms of business."

Because Gyllenhaal was wary of the show's potential to be exploitative of her or other actresses, she insisted on being one of its producers before she would agreed be its star.

"What I wanted was to be a part of the conversation, to be in the room," she says. "I knew they needed my body, and I wanted to make sure that they also wanted my mind, because I thought, I'm an asset here, not just as an actress."

Show creators David Simon and George Pelecanos, who also collaborated on The Wire, agreed. Now Gyllenhaal wears two hats for The Deuce. She says that being a producer has given her a "guarantee in terms of storytelling" that she wouldn't otherwise have as an actress. It's also allowed her to make tweaks to the set — including hiring an "intimacy coordinator" — that help the actors feel comfortable during the show's many sex scenes.


Interview Highlights

On hiring an "intimacy coordinator" on The Deuce

I had been to some meetings of actresses talking about things, simple things, that we could change on sets, and someone suggested at one of them that, you know, when you do a fight scene in a movie or a play there is always a stunt guy there, always, to make sure you're physically and emotionally protected if something doesn't feel comfortable to you. You can go to the stunt guy. In fact, they even look and see if after the stunt you might be sort of unconsciously rubbing a part of your arm or something and they'll come and say, "Are you all right? Did that hurt?" And an actress at one of these meetings suggested, "Why don't we have that for sex, for sex scenes?"

And so on The Deuce, in the second season, we did. We had this woman who was "the intimacy coordinator," we called her. And she would call the actors the night before she'd say, "I'm here to make you comfortable, and this is what your contract says. Do you still feel comfortable with that? Because you don't have to do it." And then she would be there, she would help with the choreography of the sex scenes and she will check in with people.

The truth is, for me ... I feel like I can say, "This doesn't feel right. Hold on. Something's off." I do know how to protect myself at this point. But I felt for people who were coming in for one day, who were so happy to have the gig ... [who] might not feel as comfortable as I do saying, "No, I actually don't feel OK with this anymore." That's what she was there for. And I read this piece actually that one actress wrote in The New York Times about coming on our set and how great she felt with Alicia [the intimacy coordinator].

On the allegations of sexual misconduct against James Franco, who is also in The Deuce, and how she handled it as a producer

We had to do the most careful, nuanced, intelligent clear thinking, all of us, and assess the situation. And for me, and I think this was true for everybody involved, I felt that continuing to tell our feminist story was the most important thing, and made the most sense, even in light of those allegations. ...

I felt as a producer it was my job to confront that and talk with him, and also to talk with the women on our show, both in the cast and on the crew, and make sure that everyone felt that they had been treated with absolutely nothing but respect in the work place.

Terry Gross: So you're saying you wanted to make sure that there were no women in the production of The Deuce who had anything negative to say about his behavior. That there was no misconduct found on the set.

Gyllenhaal: Exactly. That's right. That's what I'm saying. I thought that was part of my job.

Gross: How do you find out? You asked each of the women?

Gyllenhaal: Yeah.

Gross: Did you do the asking yourself or did you have like an outside person come in and ask?

Gyllenhaal: Both.

Gross: And you're satisfied with the results?

Gyllenhaal: Yeah, yeah, I was. I was. I mean, in terms of making a show, which is about all of these things that we're talking about, I think it would be a terrible shame not to be able to continue the conversation, which is, I think, a deeply nuanced conversation about exactly what's happening culturally right now, in terms of misogyny, in terms of an imbalance of power, in terms of sex as commodification, in terms of all the subtleties of that.

On the connection she sees between her character on The Deuce and her character in The Kindergarten Teacher (Netflix Oct. 12)

Basically, I made season one of The Deuce then I made The Kindergarten Teacher and then they made season two, and I think both women, both characters, like many women right now, are waking up to the fact that they've been accepting a way of living that they're not OK with, and not only not OK with, but is keeping them from living, is keeping them from being who they are. I think that's dramatically interesting.

We were talking about about #MeToo and Time's Up, this cultural moment where women are saying "I don't know how I lived like this for so long. I don't know how I accept that. It's unacceptable." ... And personally I love the idea that it's the pornographer who is thinking clearly and knows what she wants and knows how to get it, and it's the kindergarten teacher who doesn't. ... And I love that they're coming out at the same time, you know, and what it means when you think about them together.

On why the 2002 film Secretary, about a woman in a dominant-submissive relationship with her boss, was an exciting role for her when she was 22

The things that excite me the most about the roles that come into my life is there something in this script, in this story, that will allow me to explore something that's on the kind of the edge of what I know about myself? But with the protection of fiction.

So Secretary was the first time I ever got to do that. I never could have articulated that that's what I wanted at the time, I just was like, "Oh, there's something in here that's for me." I think it was kind of an amazing experience, because the director was interested in me as an artist, was interested in what I was offering, and the way that that shifted the story, as opposed to whatever he'd imagined before I got there. And so it became a real self-expression about someone becoming a woman, somebody having a sense of what they want — even if it isn't what everyone tells you you're supposed to want.

Lauren Krenzel and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Maggie Gyllenhaal, stars in the HBO series "The Deuce," about the intersection of sex workers, pornography, organized crime, the police, politicians and feminists in the Times Square area of Manhattan in the 1970s. It's also about changing attitudes toward sex in that period and how pornography became more mainstream. The series was co-created by David Simon, who also created "The Wire" and co-created "Treme."

Gyllenhaal plays Eileen, who uses the working name Candy. In Season 1, which was set in the early '70s, Candy was a sex worker who found her customers on the street but prided herself on never having worked for a pimp. After she was beaten up by a john, she tried to find a safer alternative. She started acting in cheap porn films, became fascinated by how films are made and decided she wanted to direct.

Season 2 skips ahead to 1977 when porn has become more mainstream. Candy has been acting in and directing porn films, but she wants more control over the stories and wants them to reflect a woman's point of view. In this scene from last Sunday's episode, she's on set and unhappy about the latest film scrip and the fantasies they're creating. She tells that to her boss, the porn's film producer Harvey, played by David Krumholtz.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DEUCE")

MAGGIE GYLLENHAAL: (As Candy) I'm not doing this anymore.

DAVID KRUMHOLTZ: (As Harvey) Doing what?

GYLLENHAAL: (As Candy) Doing this - priests, nuns, rabbis.

KRUMHOLTZ: (As Harvey) You're religious now.

GYLLENHAAL: (As Candy) No, it just offends me.

KRUMHOLTZ: (As Harvey) I stayed up all night writing this scene. Ask Joce.

GYLLENHAAL: (As Candy) Come on, Harvey. This whole script is [expletive].

KRUMHOLTZ: (As Harvey) Hey, hey, I'm trying to say something about organized religion in this movie. It's a statement piece.

GYLLENHAAL: (As Candy) Yeah, saying what exactly?

KRUMHOLTZ: (As Harvey) Anything else?

GYLLENHAAL: (As Candy) Yeah, I'm not doing anymore daddy-knows-best scenes.

KRUMHOLTZ: (As Harvey) That's a fantasy.

GYLLENHAAL: (As Candy) That's not my fantasy.

KRUMHOLTZ: (As Harvey) Oh, that's someone's fantasy.

GYLLENHAAL: (As Candy) Hey, Harvey, you want me to keep banging out films for you, you've got to give me some better [expletive] to work with, and you have got to let me start drawing some lines for myself. Otherwise...

KRUMHOLTZ: (As Harvey) All right, absolutely.

GYLLENHAAL: (As Candy) I've also been thinking about something else.

GROSS: A note to parents - we'll be talking about sex work and the porn industry, and you may not find it appropriate for young children. A little later, we'll talk about Maggie Gyllenhaal's starring role in the new film "The Kindergarten Teacher," which opens in theaters and starts streaming on Netflix October 12. Gyllenhaal started acting as a teenager. Her mother is a screenwriter and producer, her father a director. Her brother is actor Jake Gyllenhaal.

Maggie Gyllenhaal, welcome to FRESH AIR. Welcome back.

GYLLENHAAL: Thank you.

GROSS: (Laughter) I think you're so terrific in this series. Was it difficult for you to decide whether to take the role? On the one hand, you have, like, David Simon, co-creator of "The Wire" and "Treme," and two great writers, Richard Price and George Pelecanos, who among their other credits wrote for "The Wire." On the other hand, it's about the sex industry, and you play a sex worker who enters the porn biz first as an actress, then as a director.

The subject matter gives it the potential of being exploitive of women. So what did you need to know before accepting the part and before feeling confident that you had a read on how the women characters and how you as an actress were going to be treated?

GYLLENHAAL: Yeah, I think the thing that was unusual about this project for me was that when they asked me to do it, they only had three scripts written. And, you know, I'm interested in the themes that this project is dealing in. You know, I didn't have a problem with playing a sex worker full stop, you know? But yeah, I felt nervous with only three scripts and, already in the first three episodes, like, my clothes off most of the time and yet very, very drawn to it, very drawn to working with David and George and Richard and also drawn to the things that were clearly on the table.

You know, I mean, it was about, even from the very beginning, an imbalance of power between men and women in terms of sex, in terms of art, in terms of business. It was about desire. It was about transactional sex and the way that's kind of a part of almost every bit of our culture at this point. But, you know, I - basically I met with them, and I really wanted to do it after talking to them. I mean, David and George are so smart and interesting. But I guess I'm old enough, and I've been through enough that I knew I didn't quite have enough of a guarantee that I could trust it.

GROSS: So what did you ask for so that you could find out more and figure out if you could trust the material?

GYLLENHAAL: I asked to be a producer.

GROSS: How was that going to help?

GYLLENHAAL: Well, basically what I wanted was to be a part of the conversation, to be in the room. You know, I've said this before, but I think it's a good way of putting it. Like, I knew they needed my body, and I wanted to make sure that they also wanted my mind because I thought, I'm an asset here, you know, not just as an actress, I guess. And I wanted to use that part of myself, and I thought it could be helpful to the story that they told me they were trying to tell.

I really wanted to do it, you know, (laughter) which was - so, you know, my bargaining power wasn't, like, all that strong. But I had to say to myself, I'm not going to do it unless I can be a producer because I think that will give me this other kind of guarantee in terms of storytelling. And they gave it to me. And so I did it.

GROSS: So you wanted to be in on the conversation of how your character was going to be depicted, how sex was going to be depicted. Can you give us an example of one of those kind of complicated conversations and what your point of view was, what you wanted to add to the conversation?

GYLLENHAAL: Yeah. Even before we started, I think looking at the first three scripts, I was - I guess I was interested in the difference between the performative sex that there was a lot of in the first three episodes, you know, 'cause you're watching sex workers with their johns. And so I thought it was important to find some place to show a real, not performative, female climax because I felt that that would then put into relief all the other stuff we've been seeing, you know, 'cause, like, on TV, you see a lot of pretend sex, and it's sold to you as what it really looks like, and I don't think that's what anyone was meaning to do on this show. So I had put that into David's ear, like, in a really early lunch between us, one of the first times we'd ever really talked honestly. And he, like, pretended to spit his water into his glass.

GROSS: (Laughter).

GYLLENHAAL: So anyway, you know, he's very funny and great at kind of deflecting and yet totally taking in ideas that are worthwhile. I mean, it's been such an interesting collaboration between us. So I said that to him. I didn't see anything about it. Then in Episode 5, there's a scene, you know, which is months after we had this discussion, where Candy's dating a straight guy, somebody who is not paying her. And it's never going to work out between them, and that's part of what the scene is about.

But inside that scene, David had written that they're making love. He climaxes, and she doesn't, and she turns over and makes herself climax. And it was very important to me that it be as real and as not performed as possible. And so, I mean, I have to tell you. It was like, without a doubt, the most vulnerable thing I have ever done onscreen. Obviously I'm pretending, but I felt so vulnerable. I'd never seen anything like that in a movie or on TV before.

And we all were so happy at the end of the scene. It was almost like a one-act play, this scene. And we were - so we were like, we did it. We did what - David said to me - he said, we did what we said we wanted to do (laughter). And I felt so good. And then as a producer, I'm given early cuts of the episodes. And I see an early cut, and it's a great scene. And they cut out Candy's climax (laughter).

And I was like - I was so upset. I was so confused. I was, like, up all night. I was literally up all night. And I wrote this, you know, many-paragraph-long dissertation as to why they had to put it back in and stopped David and George and Nina, the other producer on set and found them and, you know, explained to them again what I'd said in my email. And they put it back in.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Maggie Gyllenhaal. She stars in the HBO series "The Deuce," and she stars in the new movie "The Kindergarten Teacher," which will open in theaters and start streaming on Netflix October 12. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Maggie Gyllenhaal, who stars in the HBO series "The Deuce." And she plays a sex worker who has become a porn film actress and director and is trying to show things more from a woman's point of view in her porn films. She also stars in the new movie "The Kindergarten Teacher," which opens in theaters and becomes available streaming on Netflix starting October 12.

One of the issues in "The Deuce" is how, on the porn sets, to treat women respectfully while having them perform sex. And that's something that I imagine applies also to filming "The Deuce" because the actors like you have to perform sex scenes. And I'm sure you insisted on treating - being treated respectfully, though maybe you didn't need to insist. Maybe that was just a kind of given on set. But were there conversations you had around that as, like, how should the actors and actresses be treated so as not to violate them in any way while shooting these scenes and ditto for the scenes when you were a sex worker working the streets?

GYLLENHAAL: You know, we as a crew and as actors learned a lot about this as we went the first season. And of course in between the first season and the second season, there was the Time's Up movement which brought to light a lot of things that I think people didn't want to see before that. It made it impossible not to see and made a lot of things explicit. So the intention was always from everybody to be as respectful as possible.

Season 1, I was one of the people who was always - you know, I had my clothes off all the time. I was doing these simulated sex scenes. And I realized, for me, the most important thing was to have a physical barrier between me and the day player who I'd never met before who I was doing this scene with. So we sort of fashioned - and there was nothing like this before. I mean, like, I was like, what do they use on "Girls"? You know, can someone - can we call them?

GROSS: On the TV series "Girls."

GYLLENHAAL: Yeah. It was like, they must know.

GROSS: (Laughter).

GYLLENHAAL: What do you - what protection do you use? How do you do this? I mean, I'd done a lot of sex scenes in my career but, I mean, not quite like these with strangers, you know? And that was something that was hard - to do it with strangers. It's very intimate. So we fashioned this kind of thing that would keep - you know, protect us physically from actually being - even in contact through thin layers of clothes feels like too much, you know? You need something real to protect you. So we figured that out, and we shared it with everybody. But really the second season, I think we made a really big change, which was amazing, which was that I had been to some meetings of actresses talking about things - simple things that we could change on sets.

And someone suggested at one of them that - you know, when you do a fight scene in a movie or a play, there is always a stunt guy there - always - to make sure you're physically and emotionally protected. If something doesn't feel comfortable to you, you can go to the stunt guy. In fact, they even look and see if after the stunt, you might be sort of unconsciously rubbing a part of your arm or something. And they'll come and say, are you all right? Did that hurt? And an actress at one of these meetings suggested, why don't we have that for sex scenes? And so on "The Deuce," in the second season, we did. We had this woman who was the intimacy coordinator, we called her.

GROSS: (Laughter).

GYLLENHAAL: And she was - she would call the actors the night before. She'd say, I'm here to make you comfortable. And this is what your contract says. Do you still feel comfortable with that 'cause you don't have to do it. And then she would be there. She would help with the choreography of the sex scenes. And she would check in with people. And the truth is, for me, like you said, I feel like I can say, oh, this doesn't feel right. Hold on. Something's off.

I do know how to protect myself at this point. But I felt for people who were coming in for one day who were so happy to have the gig and, you know, don't feel comfortable saying - who might not feel as comfortable as I do saying, no, I actually don't feel OK with this anymore. That's what she was there for. And I read this piece actually that one actress wrote in The New York Times about coming on our set and how great she felt with Alicia. (Laughter) You know, I was like, that's what Alicia's there for.

GROSS: Is there anything from the physical barrier that you came up with that is describable on radio with radio standards?

GYLLENHAAL: Well, basically it was a piece of a yoga mat put inside a pillow case. And we would just play the pillow case as if it were part of the sheets and then push it out of the way in order to continue on with the scene because, like I said, for me, it wasn't nudity so much. I like the idea of what a human body brings with it artistically to a worthwhile story. And my body - I mean, I'm 40. I like that - I don't know. I really didn't mind including my body in the storytelling I was doing, but I wanted protection from, like, you know, people I barely met physically, you know? So that was a good solution for me.

GROSS: Yeah. And there you mentioned day players. There's a lot of day players because all of the johns, some of the characters in the porn films - they don't figure into other episodes, so they are the day players who the women characters are having sex with.

GYLLENHAAL: Right. And the idea is - I mean, if you want to make it not "Pretty Woman"...

GROSS: Right.

GYLLENHAAL: ...Well, then in a way, you have to show, OK, there's this guy. And then two hours later, there's this guy. And then there's this guy, and then there's this guy. And that was a part of it, and it wasn't easy.

GROSS: And in fact, there's one scene I want to ask you about where she's with, you know, a john, a customer, in a cheap hotel room. And he starts to, like, slap her and hit her, and she takes out - you - takes out some mace from in her purse and sprays him. And he's, like, shocked and temporarily blinded. She uses that as an opportunity to run to the door to get out of this hotel room, but the door is locked. And by the time she unlocks it, he's, like, dragging her back in by the hair. And then the door closes. The camera stays on the outside of the room. You and the john are on the inside of the room, so we don't see what's happening. But we hear how your character is being really badly beaten up. And I'm wondering what that scene was like for you and how it was filmed so that you didn't get hurt.

GYLLENHAAL: Yeah. Well, that scene for me I would say is like - I know it was affecting to watch because Uta Briesewitz, who directed it, is a beautiful director. And yet for me, it was very clinical. I was like, OK, we choreographed it. We did it. Of course I was protected. Everyone made sure that my body was protected. And I OK'd everything we did. And that scene felt like a dance. And we did the dance. Actually, there did come a time when we were shooting that where I was like, OK, we need to stop now because I can feel that my neck is starting to get sore, and if we do this too many times, I'm going to end up with an injury. And...

GROSS: This was when he's pulling you by the hair? Was that the problem?

GYLLENHAAL: Yeah. Or something. I don't know. Thrashing around on the bed, or whatever. But I'm much more interested in scenes that require something difficult or complicated or a difficult map to have to walk emotionally. You know? So the scenes that follow it, where I put the makeup on and I go out on the street and - I loved the scene with Method Man, who played one of the pimps who's trying to get me in a stable. And he's like, you know - basically, that is a scene where I went, this scene is life or death. Either I die and I agree - I just give up. I give up my autonomy. I give up my sense of power. I give up my sense of self, and I join up with him and I just slowly die - or I get off the street. And I don't know. I think that, isn't that, like, the way - doesn't that happen in some way, even though most people aren't doing sex work on the street in New York in '71? Isn't that sort of the question that many people have to ask themselves at some point? Like, wait, am I going to, like - am I going to live now, or am I going to slowly die?

GROSS: It's an interesting scene, too, 'cause you're talking about the emotional complexity. Like, you're feeling very vulnerable at that point because you've been really badly beaten up, and now you're back on the street again. And so when the pimp, like, tells you, like, you need someone. This would never happen. I'd protect you. Like, you are definitely pushing him away. At the same time, you're in tears and you weep in his arms, temporarily. And you can tell...

GYLLENHAAL: Yeah. And she doesn't have a dad.

GROSS: Yeah.

GYLLENHAAL: You know? That's the whole thing that's set up in the whole first season. Like, she has no dad. And the whole pimp thing, like, they're always calling them Daddy. You know, I do feel like she just wants a little support. She just wants someone to take care of her, and she never asks for that. It's too much. And so he knows just what to do to try to get her, and...

GROSS: And he doesn't.

GYLLENHAAL: I think - he doesn't. No. She walks out the street.

GROSS: My guest is Maggie Gyllenhaal. She stars in the HBO series "The Deuce." She also stars in the new movie, "The Kindergarten Teacher," which opens in theaters and starts streaming on Netflix October 12. After a break, we'll talk about the Time's Up, #MeToo movement. And David Bianculli will review the new Netflix series, "Maniac," starring Jonah Hill and Emma Stone. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS' "'ROUND MIDNIGHT")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Maggie Gyllenhaal. She stars in the HBO series, "The Deuce," about the intersection of sex workers, pornography, organized crime, the police, politicians and feminists in the Times Square area of Manhattan in the 1970s. It's also about changing attitudes towards sex in that period and how pornography became more mainstream. The third episode of season 2 of "The Deuce" will be shown on HBO Sunday night. Gyllenhaal also stars in the new movie, "The Kindergarten Teacher," which opens in theaters and starts streaming on Netflix October 12. We'll talk about that a little later.

I want to talk with you about the Time's Up, the #MeToo movement, which started in a big way a little less than a year ago after the allegations against Harvey Weinstein, which means that the first season of "The Deuce" was written before that. The second season, I assume, was written after that. So how did all the women coming forward in the industry, in the Hollywood industry and in other fields, change the conversations that you were having with the people you work, with including the writers and producers?

GYLLENHAAL: Personally, I think one of the things that really spurred on the birth of the Time's Up movement was not just Harvey Weinstein but was Trump being elected and saying everywhere - on national television, everywhere - you can grab women by the [expletive] if you have enough power, and they let you do it and there being no consequence.

GROSS: This was on the "Access Hollywood" tape that was...

GYLLENHAAL: Exactly - and it being played everywhere. Everyone knows about that, you know? And there's no consequence for it. So what I mean to say is, like, even though "The Deuce" was written before he was elected, before Time's Up really happened, I think we were living in a culture that was misogynist. And this was on everyone's minds. I mean, we were watching the first season, and we would often watch the debates in our lunch break. It was a part of our cultural conversation even before maybe it was a part of everyone's conversation because that is what "The Deuce" is about.

And how did it change? I feel like everything's changed. I see the Time's Up movement is - and also just sort of everything in reaction to these - you know, the allegations against Harvey Weinstein - I see it as like this kind of door got pushed open - like, this old, stone door that had been closed for thousands of years and, like, light streaming through it. And I think, how do we keep that door open? And I think it involves having the most interesting, subtle, nuanced conversations, continuing to think all the time. And I mean, I guess to me, I think "The Deuce" and "The Kindergarten Teacher" - and we could talk about that - are both opportunities to do that.

GROSS: One of the complications for "The Deuce" is that James Franco is one of the men alleged by several women to have behaved in a sexually inappropriate or sexually exploitive way. Once those allegations - once the women making those allegations came forward, my understanding - and you can correct me if I'm wrong - is that the producers had to figure out how and even if to proceed after that.

GYLLENHAAL: Yeah. I think we all had to do exactly what I'm - what I was just describing, which is, we had to do the most careful, nuanced, intelligent, clear thinking - all of us - and assess the situation. And for me - and I think this was true for everybody involved. I felt that continuing to tell our feminist story was the most important thing and made the most sense even in light of those allegations.

GROSS: Did it affect your relationship with James Franco? I mean, I know you're not in many scenes together, and I know you can't speak on his behalf about what he did or didn't do. But still, you're very sensitive to allegations like this. And here you are working on a series with someone who's starring in it with you and who's - you know, there's allegations that have been made about him. Do you confront that and talk with him or just - I mean, how do you deal with it?

GYLLENHAAL: Yeah. I felt as a producer, it was my job to confront that and talk with him and also to talk with the women on our show both in the cast and on the crew and make sure that everyone felt that they had been treated with absolutely nothing but respect in the work place. And that's what I got back.

GROSS: Are you saying you wanted to make sure there were no women in the production of "The Deuce" who had anything negative to say about his behavior, like...

GYLLENHAAL: Yeah.

GROSS: ...That there was no misconduct found on the set.

GYLLENHAAL: Exactly.

GROSS: Right.

GYLLENHAAL: That's right. That's what I'm saying. I thought that was part of my job, you know? And I think...

GROSS: How do you find out? Do you ask each of the women or...

GYLLENHAAL: Yeah, yeah, yeah, that's right.

GROSS: Did you do the asking yourself, or did you have, like, an outside person come in and ask?

GYLLENHAAL: Both, yeah.

GROSS: And you're satisfied with the result.

GYLLENHAAL: Yeah, yeah, I was. I was. I mean, in terms of making a show, which is about all of these things that we're talking about, I think it would be a terrible shame not to be able to continue the conversation, which is I think a deeply nuanced conversation about exactly what's happening culturally right now in terms of misogyny, in terms of an imbalance of power, in terms of sex as commodification, in terms of all the subtleties of that.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Maggie Gyllenhaal. She stars in the HBO series "The Deuce." She also has a new movie coming out that will be on Netflix beginning October 12, and it's called "The Kindergarten Teacher." We'll talk about that a little bit later. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF NAOMI MOON SIEGEL'S "IT'S NOT SAFE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Maggie Gyllenhaal. She stars in the HBO series "The Deuce" as a sex worker who has become a porn actress and porn director. And she stars in the new movie "The Kindergarten Teacher," which opens in theaters and begins streaming on Netflix October 12.

Early in your career when you were I think 23, you starred in a movie called "Secretary." That's...

GYLLENHAAL: Younger - 22.

GROSS: 22, OK.

GYLLENHAAL: I think so, yeah.

GROSS: And you played a young woman who's gotten out of a mental health institution - you're a cutter, you cut yourself - and get a job as a secretary although you have no secretarial skill. And you ended up - you end up being in an S&M relationship with your boss played by James Spader. And you both realize that there's something really truly fulfilling you find about that relationship. And in a way, it's become a healthier outlet for your character than cutting herself has been. And you had to really expose yourself physically for that role as well. Did that lead you to any thinking that was good preparation for what you have to do on "The Deuce"?

GYLLENHAAL: That's interesting. I mean, "Secretary" was the first time that I was given a role where I could express something about myself, which, of course - you know, it has nothing to do with S&M. It has nothing to do with spanking. And, you know, that's the fiction, right? The idea, I think, or the things that excite me the most about the roles that come into my life - are, like, is there something in this script, in this story that will allow me to explore something that's on the kind of the edge of what I know about myself but with the protection of fiction?

And so "Secretary" was the first time I ever got to do that. I never could have articulated that that's what I wanted at the time. I just was like, oh, there's something in here that's for me. And it was kind of an amazing experience because the director was interested in me as an artist, was interested in what I was offering and the way that that shifted the story as opposed to, you know, whatever he'd imagined before I got there. And so it became a real self-expression, you know, about a woman - well, really about someone becoming a woman, somebody having a sense of what they want even if it isn't what everyone tells you you're supposed to want.

And, you know, at the time, like, I had gone to college. So I was a little bit young. I graduated when I was 21, so this was right out of college, you know? And I went to Columbia, and I studied feminist theory and, you know, all that stuff. And I was like, intellectually, I understand what this is. I mean, I don't think I did. I still don't know that I do (laughter), you know? In reality, I was growing up. And, you know, that's captured inside of that movie.

And I fought for things. Like, I actually just saw the scene where James Spader's character spanks me. And in the scene, they cut to my pinky - his hand kind of coming right next to mine on the desk, falling right next to mine. And my pinky kind of reaches over and wraps around his finger, and he gives my hand a little squeeze. And when we were shooting the scene, that was happening almost every take, and I knew that they weren't filming it. And at the time, I was shy, and I was young. And James was my ally, and I went to James and said, can you tell them to film that? And he did. And I look at it now, and I think, in a way, that's consent. In a way, that's her saying, I want you even though it's a very unusual way that they're expressing their desire for each other. And it was really important that we have that shot in that movie of the hands, you know?

So, like, even then, I was thinking and protecting my characters, but I - and the story we were telling. But then it was bigger than that. And so is Candy, I think. I think, like, there are unconscious things I don't know about that are being expressed. I don't know what they are in Season 2 at all because we finished shooting three weeks ago. So I'll be able to tell you in, like, six months.

GROSS: (Laughter) Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Maggie Gyllenhaal. And she stars in the HBO series "The Deuce." She also stars in a new movie called "The Kindergarten Teacher" that opens in theaters and starts streaming on Netflix on October 12. Let's talk about that film a little bit. It might seem like, oh, night and day. She's a sex worker and porn director in "The Deuce" and a kindergarten teacher in (laughter) "The Kindergarten Teacher."

GYLLENHAAL: Although I do love that very odd-job trajectory (laughter).

GROSS: Yes, except that you have some serious problems in "The Kindergarten Teacher" and - 'cause the character you play is somebody who writes poetry. And that's really what she wants to do, but no one takes any notice of her poems. And she finds a strange outlet for her poetic creativity and impulses. Do you want to explain what it is you'd want audiences to know without giving too much away?

GYLLENHAAL: Yeah, I mean, I think "The Kindergarten Teacher" is a movie about, you know, what are the consequences - the real consequences of starving a vibrant woman's mind. And it's told by a group of women filmmakers. And so in our opinion, the consequences are really dire. And it is kind of an allegory. It's a thriller. It's almost like a horror movie in some ways. So it's - you know, what she does and the lines she crosses and what ends up happening to her are - you know, are - in a way, they're an exaggeration.

But I think what's important in the story is that she's somebody just like us, you know? She could certainly be a friend of mine, and yet she gets very confused because her mind is starving. And she starts to think that a child in her kindergarten class is a poetic genius, and she gets obsessed with him.

GROSS: And it's not like he's writing poetry. He's just, like, walking back and forth, saying things that she thinks really are poems. And she writes them down.

GYLLENHAAL: Right. And you think about - like, I mean, well, I have a child that's exactly the same age as the boy who plays Jimmy. And children that age say incredible things. And how you frame them is - you know, that's another story. I think - you know, I read an article or two that said, oh, you know, Lisa's poetry is mediocre. And I think that's really not true. I think that's the wish.

I think if she's a mediocre poet, the movie's way easier to watch. Her poetry is in fact written by a brilliant published poet. If her poetry is really compelling and it is still not heard, then what? Then you're watching a woman - like, what do you do with your mind? And is it too much of a coincidence in my mind to then all of a sudden have a brilliant poet in her class? No, she's desperate. She's starving. And she ends up sucking off of this child as opposed to the other way around, which is how it's supposed to work, where child is being fed from the grownup.

GROSS: You had said that you thought the character - your character on "The Deuce" and your character on "The Kindergarten Teacher" had a connection. Do you want to explain now the connection that you see between the two of them?

GYLLENHAAL: Well, yeah. I mean, basically, I made season one of "The Deuce," then I made "The Kindergarten Teacher," and then I made Season 2. And I think both women, both characters, like many women right now, are waking up to the fact that they've been accepting a way of living that they're not OK with, and not only not OK with, but is keeping them from living, is keeping them from being who they are, you know? And I think that's dramatically interesting.

I think a lot of characters you meet when they come to a point where they're like, I can't go on like this anymore. But I think it's related to, you know, what we were talking about, about Me Too and Time's Up, you know, this cultural moment where women are saying, I don't know how I lived like this for so long. I don't know how I accepted that. It's unacceptable.

And the interesting thing is, I think, Candy - she's really thinking clearly. She knows what she wants and - even though it's very difficult for her to get it. I mean, she's a porn director in 1977. Before that, she was a sex worker in '71. It's not an easy path for her, and the show certainly doesn't make it easy for her. But she's on a path. It makes sense that inch by inch, setback you know, like, be damned.

She's on her way, clearly, toward feeding herself emotionally, intellectually, artistically, even financially, whereas Lisa in "The Kindergarten Teacher" has very similar needs, very similar hunger and is not thinking clearly and is confused. And the way in which she goes about getting the things that she knows she needs is really deeply problematic. And personally, I love the idea that it's the pornographer who's thinking clearly and knows what she wants and knows how to get it, and it's the kindergarten teacher who doesn't.

GROSS: (Laughter).

GYLLENHAAL: I mean, that's sort of more of a challenging situation, I think. And I love that they're coming out at the same time, you know, and what it means when you think about them together. I mean, I'd love them to be in a room together some time. That'd be so interesting, you know? (Laughter) But anyway, that's how - yes, that's how I think they're related because those are the things that are on my mind.

GROSS: Maggie Gyllenhaal, it's just been such a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.

GYLLENHAAL: Thank you.

GROSS: Maggie Gyllenhaal stars in the HBO series "The Deuce." The third episode of Season 2 will be shown Sunday night. She also stars in the film "The Kindergarten Teacher," which opens in theaters and begins streaming on Netflix October 12. After a break, our TV critic David Bianculli will review the new Netflix series "Maniac" starring Jonah Hill and Emma Stone. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALABAMA SHAKES SONG, "GIMME ALL YOUR LOVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.