Maggie Gyllenhaal has built a solid reputation as a talented and unique actress. She can only be admired for her non-conformist attitude and her ability to garner respect through her natural flair and intelligence in performance.
Maggie Ruth Gyllenhaal was born on 19th November 1977 in New York City. Her mother, Naomi, was a children’s TV producer-turned-scriptwriter and her father Stephen was a published poet and Emmy-nominated director. Her parents’ successful film careers led the family to LA when Gyllenhaal turned one year old, and two years later, brother Jake arrived.
Despite the family being part of the Hollywood industry, home life was a far cry from the stereotypical celeb-loaded party scene. Instead more intellectual activities were encouraged, and the family’s friends were academics and artists rather than actors or musicians. Accordingly, Gyllenhaal was a model student and attended the prestigious Harvard-Wakeland school, but she shied away from any wealthy egotistical classmates and despite appearing in two films directed by her father, ’Waterland’ (1992) and ‘A Dangerous Woman’ (1993), she shunned attention.
In 1995, Gyllenhaal graduated from high school and moved back to her birth town of New York to attend Columbia University. Her brief taste of acting through her father was not enough of a lure to aim for the big time, and she made a promise to herself to focus her attentions on something more worthy: a literature degree. Living in a cheap apartment in Brooklyn to establish her independence from her parents’ wealth, she studied hard and graduated in 1999, keeping the promise she’d made four years earlier to be true to her studies.
Yet, the acting bug had worked its way deeper, fuelled by more acting parts in her dad’s productions. Gyllenhaal headed to London for the summer to train at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts before returning to America. She was selective in her choice of work, intentionally setting out to look for work in independent films, believing this would allow her a broader range of roles she considered worthy and more credible.
Her family name did not influence or affect her ambitions and she got off to a satisfying start, playing a devil-worshipping make-up artist in ‘Cecil B. Demented' in 2000. A run in the Tony-nominated play, Closer, followed with Gyllenhaal taking the part of stripper Alice in a role that Natalie Portman later took to the big screen in 2004.
But it was 2001’s ‘Donnie Darko’ that truly put the Gyllenhaal name on the critic’s map. Her younger brother Jake took the title role and Maggie played the part of his sister in a film that became a huge hit thanks to its eccentric indie plot, based on the experiences of a teenager plagued by visions of a large bunny rabbit.
Gyllenhaal maintained her choice of offbeat roles, and landed a few more quirky parts in the mainstream films ‘Riding in Cars with Boys’ (2001) and ‘40 Days and 40 Nights’ (2002), before officially hitting the big time with 2002’s ‘Secretary’. This film cemented her status as a uniquely talented actress, with her breakthrough performance as a secretary who emerges from her timid former self through her sadomasochistic relationship with her boss.
Gyllenhaal had worked hard to create a character that wouldn’t just be dismissed as attention-seeking, and her bold performance earned her critical applause and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress. She has since admitted that she felt slightly taken advantage of in agreeing to film certain scenes – the film contains full frontal nudity on her part – and has said she "conceded in a way that maybe in retrospect I wish I hadn't". However, the success of ‘Secretary’ opened more doors and a supporting role in Charlie Kaufman’s topsy turvy 2002 film ‘Adaptation’ (which scooped an Oscar) followed, before she took a starring role in the far more mainstream film 'Mona Lisa Smile' (2003) alongside Julia Roberts.
Her political side influenced her decision to appear in two films that gave different perspectives on the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks. On a smaller budget, ‘The Great New Wonderful’ (2005) showed five interwoven stories told against the backdrop of New York, post 9/11, with Gyllenhaal playing the ruthless owner of a patisserie. It was Oliver Stone’s brave ‘World Trade Center’ (2006), however, that would spark mixed outcries. In her biggest Hollywood release to date, Gyllenhaal starred as the wife of a port authority officer trapped beneath the rubble of the Twin Towers, waiting to be rescued.
This was the first big film to tackle the terrorist atrocities and so was naturally released in an atmosphere of some tension, with the studio and cast and crew braced for a critical mauling. To their relief the reviews were generally positive, but Gyllenhaal herself drew strong criticism when she made a remark suggesting that America was partly responsible for the attacks. She later said that she regretted her comments, and met with Port Authority officer Will Jimeno and his wife, Allison, upon whom her 'World Trade Center' character was based. Both stated that they were comfortable with her comment and had no problem with her performance in the film.
Gyllenhaal earned her second Golden Globe nomination for her outstanding performance in the independent drama ‘Sherry Baby’ in 2006. Her role as a recovering heroin addict trying to win respect as a good mother was internationally lauded, and proved her ability to maintain a balance between working in big-budget Hollywood blockbusters and the independent projects which are much closer to her heart. Next, she took over the role of Rachel Dawes in Christopher Nolan’s box office smash-hit ‘The Dark Knight’ (2008), in which she starred with Christian Bale and Heath Ledger in his last completed role. The huge movie propelled Gyllenhaal even further up the A-list ranks.
Gyllenhaal’s sensible and mature outlook to life had been evident from her early years, and her personal life has followed suit. She met fellow actor Peter Sarsgaard at a dinner party in 2002, and the couple announced their engagement in 2004 before baby daughter Ramona was born in 2006. A second daughter, Gloria Ray, followed in 2012.
Her courage and self-assurance permeate the diverse and challenging roles she selects, and suggest that she will keep a cool head in the mad world of Hollywood - good news for those of us who can’t wait to see what is next for the surprising and talented actress.