Maggie Gyllenhaal stars in new BBC drama, The Honourable Woman

Maggie Gyllenhaal stars in new BBC drama, The Honourable Woman

Jeananne Craig speaks to Maggie Gyllenhaal about her latest role as Anglo-Israeli Baroness Nessa Stein in Hugo Blick’s political drama, The Honourable Woman


Maggie Gyllenhaal might seem like a settled New Yorker, but she’s been casting her eye across the pond of late – to London in fact – where she has just finished filming the BBC Israeli political drama, The Honourable Woman.

“I feel like that’s really where I ought to be living. I just have to convince my husband [actor Peter Sarsgaard],” she says with a laugh.

“You know how in some cities you just feel like they welcome you in? I feel that way about London. You make friends easily and get the rhythm of the city.”

Maggie Gyllenhaal stars as Nessa Stein in The Honourable Woman

The American-Jewish actress had her daughters Ramona, seven and Gloria Ray, two, in tow while filming the eight-part thriller, her first TV role, which starts tonight.

But she did spend five days on location in Morocco without them.

“It was like a vacation,” she confesses, her already saucer-like blue eyes widening.

“I’d come home and be like, ‘Oh my God, I can just take a bath and eat something, and look at the scene for tomorrow. That’s all I have to do!'”

Gyllenhaal plays Anglo-Israeli Baroness Nessa Stein, who has inherited her late father’s arms business and changed the company’s purpose to laying data cables between Israel and the West Bank.

Nessa witnessed her father’s assassination as a child, was held hostage in Gaza as a young woman, and also harbours a dark secret from her past.

Now in her thirties, her sudden appointment as a life peer, apparently due to her tireless promotion of projects for reconciliation between the Israelis and Palestinians, creates an international political maelstrom.

The show’s topical political themes were part of what drew Gyllenhaal to the project: “In particular, the incredibly compassionate and thoughtful way those political ideas are dealt with.”

Mainly, however, she just loved her complex, powerful character.

“She’s so much more alive than I am – than anyone is, really. It’s nice to be in her skin,” says Gyllenhaal, whose breakthrough role came in the controversial 2002 film, Secretary, about a sexually dominant boss (played by James Spader) and his submissive secretary. The performance won Gyllenhaal a Golden Globe nomination.

“Hugo [Blick, writer and director of The Honourable Woman] wrote a whole person. He gave me space to be a whole woman, who is all the things that we actually are – she’s confident and intelligent and graceful, but she’s also broken and confused and scared.”

Gyllenhaal, who also picked up an Oscar nomination for her role in the 2009 film Crazy Heart, carries off Nessa’s cut-glass accent with aplomb.

“I’ve done an English accent quite a few times now. I did it in Nanny McPhee Returns [2010] and in Hysteria [2011]. But this is the first time I’ve ever felt it was totally in my bones.

“It just felt like it was my voice. I did this thing, which I know is kind of embarrassing, but once I was in work, I just talked in an English accent all day.”

She did draw the line at speaking to her husband in Nessa’s clipped tones. “I could never talk to him in an English accent. He would just be like, ‘What are you doing?'”

Maggie Gyllenhaal is the sister of actor Jake and married to fellow actor Peter Sarsgaard

When she and Sarsgaard aren’t working, they hang out with their daughters and try and go on the occasional run together (“He’s an ultra-marathoner, so he’s been getting me into running lately”).

She also sees plenty of her younger brother and Brokeback Mountain star Jake when he’s in New York. “We are close. And my mom (screenwriter Naomi Foner) really helps me with the kids, she’s been amazing that way.”

Career-wise, everything has changed for the star since becoming a mother.

“It just blew my heart open, and the spectrum of feeling got so much bigger on every side since I had kids. It definitely made me a better actress,” she says. “Also, there’s so much about planning. That kind of carefree, ‘Yeah, I’ll do that job, it’s all right’, it just can’t work like that anymore. I have to really take my kids into account all the time.”

Being a busy mother also means Gyllenhaal, who will make her Broadway debut alongside Ewan McGregor in the Tom Stoppard comedy The Real Thing this October, doesn’t always have time to be camera-ready for paparazzi encounters.

“Lots of times I’m like, ‘OK, I’ve got the kids alone, I need to get Ramona to school, I just don’t have time for a sweep of mascara, I don’t have time for anything’. Sometimes I completely forget about it, and those are the times when I get paparazzied and I’m like, ‘Oh God, I really wish I’d put that cute hat on and sunglasses!’

“I can turn it out and make an effort when I need to, but you don’t have to every day,” Gyllenhaal reasons. “Sometimes, you just have to put on jeans and a T-shirt, and take your kid to school.”

The Honourable Woman begins on BBC Two tonight

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