Written by: FFT Webmaster | March 7th, 2010
When actress Maggie Gyllenhaal talks about Crazy Heart, she does so with a passion that’s both endearing and contagious. Certainly she’s done this movie as much for her soul as for the paycheck and acclaim. And all that has paid off with Oscar noms this year for herself and co-star Jeff Bridges and the movie itself. In this recent roundtable, Gyllenhaal freely mused on the role that got her into the Academy’s category of Best Supporting Actress and motherhood among other things.
In telling the tale of down-and-washed-out country musician Bad Blake (Bridges) — who is now reduced to playing bowling alleys — the film amply details the collapse of one career, but in intersecting his decline with novice music journalist Jean Craddock’s (Gyllenhaal) attempt at a career and personal ascension beyond being just another struggling single mother, it caps a dual redemption.
The New York born and bred Gyllenhaal has done the deliverance part before, and not always so successfully, as in the young drug addict she played on the set of Sherrybaby. (Still, that role earned her a 2007 Golden Globe nomination, as did her 2002 screen debut in Secretary.)
Her signature strength and vulnerability, tempered with forthrightness, are a combination the 30-something thesp genuinely possesses — yet also wields as a laser to heighten the characters she plays. In Craddock — a single mom whose uncle owns the Santa Fe bar where Bad Blake plays and who hopes to write about him to jumpstart her journalism career — Gyllenhaal has found a worthy focus for her beam. The character imagined in the Thomas Cobb novel, Crazy Heart, and directed by filmmaker Scott Cooper poses an acting challenge if only for her crazy choices.
Q: You’re a mother both in real life and onscreen here. What were the smiliarities, and was your character drawn from your actual childrearing experience?
MG: I’ve played mothers before I was a mother and, I think, successfully — sometimes anyway. I’ve also played heroin addicts and have not been a heroin addict, but for me, in this particular movie, my state as a mother when I made the movie is a huge part of the movie for me. It’s also a huge part thematically of what happened to Jean.
My daughter was almost two when I made this movie, and I was having that feeling that I think parents must have intermittently throughout their children’s lives. I had it for the first time, like I had been focused almost completely on my daughter, on being a mother, and I had this surge of a feeling that I needed to do something for me. I was also a woman and an actress and not just a mother. I worked.
For some reason [maybe] in the production notes or something, it said that this was the first movie I’ve made since she was born. It’s not, but everyone all day has been saying that to me.
I did The Dark Knight when she was seven months old and I also did Away We Go, but Batman was literally 15 days over eight months. It was very different. It was difficult, but my focus was on my eight-month-old. As much as I could, it was impossible for me to take my focus from her.
[The time it took to do] Away We Go was three days. So, this was in some ways the first thing [I’ve done]. If I say that I needed something for me it was this movie. I had so much built up and kind of welling in me that needed to be expressed after having become a mom. And it’s in the movie.
Basically that’s what’s happening with Jean. I think she’s been trying to be a good mom and pull it together after what must’ve been a complicated beginning with this child. I think she’s at an emergency state of what I’m describing and I think she just feels like, “I need something for me. I need something that feels good to me. I don’t care if it’s bad for me. It’s better if it’s bad for me.”
Q: How did it feel to take these intense emotions for your own child and apply them to some little boy actor that you’ve never met before?
MG: Well, I don’t think it’s that simple. I think it’s the feeling of wanting to be free and to be an individual and be…
Q: Coming into your own…?
MG: That’s sort of more where it resonated. I didn’t feel anything like what I feel for my daughter for Jack Nation, the little boy who played my son. It’s not like that for me. It’s sort of a little more trippy or something. It’s more that on a sort of bigger level I think these things were sort of very simpatico.
Or for example, like the scene where he’s writing a song on my bed and I get upset, I think that scene is actually not anything that’s actually expressed. It’s not about what I’m saying. It’s actually about…me kind of saying, “I’m completely screwed here. I’m in love with you already. It’s over. It’s done. It isn’t good for me but there’s nothing that I can do about it. It’s over.”
When you have that feeling, and there is a four-year-old involved, the stakes are massively raised. And I just don’t think that I could’ve understood that before I had a child. But in terms of like the everyday stuff, I think you can sort of fake that if you’re not a mother. I’m not sure.
Like in Sherrybaby, for example, I played a mother, but it didn’t matter because I wasn’t really a mother. I mean that woman had never put a bag of Cheerios in her purse and had never put her hand in her coat and pulled out like a squeaking giraffe ever. She gave birth but that’s it.
So it was almost better that I wasn’t a mom. Actually, I just watched this recently, I watched it at the premiere, and when asked, “What’s the most important thing about you?” I say, “I have a child.” So for me in this case, being a mother and the way I am a mother are all tied up in the performance.
Q: Was your daughter with you on the shoot?
Q: If Jean weren’t a mother, would she have stayed with and gotten into that destructive role, or did being a mother lead her to protect herself ultimately?
MG: Yeah, I think so. What’s so nice about working on a script that’s so good and with an actor who’s so good is that you don’t actually have to make a lot of choices.
I think if you’re working with a weak script you have to solve things often, and if you’re working with someone who’s not there with you and going to respond to you, you do have to make a lot of sort of actor choices. If you’re lucky enough not to be in that position and you know where you’re coming from and what you want and all these sort of basic acting things, you can kind of just let anything happen.
Usually though, even with a really good script or something, there will be one thing that I’ll kind of think, like, “Oh, that’s something to avoid or something that I kind of need to think through,” one thing that I’ll hold onto. I remember thinking before we started shooting, like, “Okay, how does,” and this was way before we started shooting. “How does a capable, smart woman fall for like a serious drunk?”
Obviously, it’s a much more interesting movie if she is a capable and smart woman than if she’s just like a wreck. So how does that happen? Then, you know what, I never thought about it again. I think that’s how I did it. She’s just not thinking. I am a person who uses my brain and I don’t think, too. It happens to us.
Q: When your character meets this guy, she’s apprenhensive. He calls and says, “Do you want me to come over or not?” She hesitates…
MG: Yeah, but it’s over. It’s done. The second I walk in the room it’s done. I mean, it’s done and that’s how it is. There are a few moments, I think when I say goodbye to him and we’ve spent the night together. I say goodbye in the driveway; I played that scene like, “This was crazy and goodbye. I slept with Bad Blake. How did that happen?” But it’s also kind of over.
Q: Was it her desire for adult affection that made her vulnerable? That’s what makes this film seem so authentic.
MG: This is the thing for me on this movie. When a movie works for me — whether it’s successful to other people, there are movies that I’ve made that work for me — and…usually when I read them I know, like, “I have to do this movie.” I don’t usually know why until later and I’m just figuring out why for this one.
I think the reason is that I had that feeling, that I had to do this and wanted to see why. And then it’s so different, this role, for me than some of the other roles that I’ve played that I’m proud of. The other ones, some of the others I think about, I think I was fierce. I was so fierce and kind of like a powerhouse in some of my other roles that I like and I think when I was a little younger I thought that was the idea, just be as strong as you can be and that you could fight anything that got in your way.
Like Lee Holloway in Secretary, she’s the submissive but she’s a fucking powerhouse. This woman is not like that. When I watched it, sometimes I watched some of the things that I did in the movie, and when I first watched it I watched it with my best girlfriend because my husband was away and I was so ashamed watching some of it. I thought, “God, she seems so weak.” Then I was looking at my girlfriend, who’s a professor, and she’s so great and so awesome and strong and I thought, “She’s weak, too and so am I.” Sometimes I’m not.
I think it’s only recently really, like in the past couple of months even, that I see the real power in feeling your feelings and being vulnerable and not being so ashamed of the weaknesses in you and to expose them sometimes. So that’s what I learned here and I didn’t know that. I knew it in my work before I knew it in my life.
Q: The images from this film stay with you.
MG: It haunts you, yeah and it goes so down and dark and terrifyingly dark and then brings you back up again.
Q: This movie has a remarkable sense of place, which helps with the character and her role in the movie. In that way it’s similar to Away We Go.
MG: I think so. We shot really quickly in Sante Fe. The movie takes place in Santa Fe and we didn’t have to pretend that part of it. You get there and you’re like high…
Q: From the good air?
Q: Did you have trouble with Sante Fe’s altitude?
MG: See, I don’t like the desert. It’s not my thing.
Q: So you don’t go to the Burning Man Festivals in the desert?
MG: [laughs] No. That’s not my thing. I was a little bit afraid of going to Santa Fe and being in the desert, and I loved it. I loved it. I did. It just went along with everything else in this movie, which was so intense and so fast and so open. I mean that’s what happened with Jeff [Bridges] and I.
I just knew that the movie wouldn’t work unless these people actually deeply love each other. It wouldn’t have and I think he must’ve known that, too and we just met, didn’t have any time and we just sort of went, “My heart is open. I’m up for anything.” And I felt exactly the same thing from him and we just did the movie.
Q: One reason your two characters worked together so well despite the 25-year difference is that she has had as much trauma in her life as he had in his, except in very different ways…
MG: Yeah, of course. I think that’s true. That’s the thing, what brings people together? My friend who is a screenwriter and really smart and great and who I love came to see the movie at the premiere and liked it a lot and said, “I watched you walk into the room and I thought that if these people were supposed to be lovers the movie isn’t going to work. If they pretend that they’re going to be lovers they’re cheating. Then I watched it work.” I think that, too. I love that about it because it does make you have to be compassionate about why people love each other. I don’t know why they [get together], but you’re right, it’s all those things. You can be so attracted to the thing that makes you the sickest.
Q: She’s relieved in a way, not even telling herself that once Bad does something in losing her kid she can never forgive him for it and will never get back with him.
MG: Well, I do think that if my friend is right that you begin the movie thinking, “No way they’re going to work,” and then you watch it work, and then at the end it can’t survive — then that’s a good movie. I think at the end it really can’t. I mean, how can you make the movie so that they end up together and it’s right? You can’t. I mean, I understand what you’re saying, but no, I don’t thinks he’s glad. But I do think that it makes it a little clearer.
Q: What are her priorities?
MG: Well, not just what her priorities are but like it makes it… The thing is that if someone were a responsible parent who was not drinking and thinking carefully and the child got lost for a half hour they could end up together. Somebody said to me, “He only had a sip of that drink, that’s all you saw.”
I think it makes absolutely no difference. If you’re with someone who’s a drunk they could be drinking and who knows, who fucking knows, maybe he only did have one drink. I don’t know. He might’ve had one drink. He might’ve been drinking all day. He might’ve been drinking all the times in the movie that you think he’s trying not to.
You just don’t know and so it can’t work because ultimately she knew. I mean, how about in the movie, which is so great what writer/director Scott [Cooper] did, where he firsts takes Buddy and she comes home and they’re not home for two seconds and she thinks, she knows it’s not safe and if she knows it’s not safe then she can’t do it. I don’t know if I felt relief but I think it’s just really terribly sad. At the same time they do reveal their love for each other, both of them, by not being with each other. I think she is loving him by telling him no.
Q: She can’t find anyone else that she had that much fun with…?
MG: In order to be with him she has to not think, like I said, and that can’t be good for anybody.
Q: How was it seeing Jeff on stage and seeing him as a musician?
MG: Everyone was playing music all the time. Steven Bruton, who was T-Bone’s partner and passed away and to whom the film is dedicated, he was around and he and Jeff would sing “Falling and Flying” to me and it was just all the time happening. Everyone was practicing, playing. The musicians who were playing, most of them were real musicians and so music was really just a part of it.
Q: What did you talk about with the musicians?
MG: I did spend a lot of time with Bruton. The musicians, who were the day players… playing musicians in the movie, I didn’t [talk to]. The only scene that I’m in is that one scene at night where I have another focus, which is really Bad Blake. But Steven and I did get to know each other really well and I hadn’t listened to Lefty Frizzell before.
My husband [actor Peter Sarsgaard] listens to a lot of blues, which is actually where that question about Son House and Big Bill Broonzy came from because I’d heard a lot of that music. He played me music and we talked a lot about sort of some of the background of the music because I do think that Jean does listen to country music and knows more about it than I do, although not a great deal more.
I think she does walk into the interview without a massive amount of information, but I think that’s part of their connection, that she says, “I can feel that you must’ve liked Lefty Frizzell,” not that that takes a genius, but it takes knowing more about music than just Hank Williams.
Q: Did you know who the late honky tonk-influenced country singer Lefty Frizzell — who is referenced in the movie — was before doing this movie?
MG: Did I know Lefty Frizzell as a musician? It’s interesting that you ask me that because I actually to listen to country music and it completely came from me. I was born in New York and I grew up in California and I’ve lived here for fifteen years, in New York. There’s no reason at all why I should like country music and I do.
The country music that I listen to though, I’m not sure what T-Bone would think because it’s not influenced by where I’m living at all and none of my friends listen to country. It’s all my own thing. I didn’t know Lefty Frizzell although I did listen to Merle Haggard and Hank Williams and some of the other old school guys that we talk about. I didn’t listen to Lefty Frizzell until I started the movie and did the interview. But I do love Gillian Welch and Iris Dement, Emmylou Harris. I love The Dixie Chicks. I do listen to country music and I don’t know why. I just like it.
Q: Did you ever go on the road with a band?
MG: No. No, I never have.
Q: Were you a big concert goer as a kid?
MG: Yes and no. I had a boyfriend who was really into music, very snobby about music and really kind of liked a certain indie rock thing and looked down on my CD collection. I was completely ashamed by it. I definitely thought at the time that my music wasn’t cool enough.
Q: If you had a chance to do an interview with someone who would you like to talk with?
MG: That’s one of the questions where later on I think, “Oh, I should’ve said…” but I have to say that I’d like to talk to David Lynch.