CASA DE LOS BABYS written and directed by John Sayles, produced by Lemore Syvan and Alejandro Springall, with Marcia Gay Harden, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Lili Taylor, Daryl Hannah, Mary Steenburgen, Rita Moreno and Susan Lynch. 95 minutes. An Odeon release. Screens Sunday (September 7), 6:30 pm, at the Uptown 1; Monday (September 8), 3:15 pm, at the Varsity 8. Rating: NNNNN
When Maggie Gyllenhaal crawled across that office floor in Secretary, a star was born. Not just for her daring, or the way her skirt shifted. For her commitment. As an actor, Gyllenhaal goes all the way. "It's an active job. I'm coming at it as a collaborator," Gyllenhaal says from Chicago. "I'm coming at it with a sense of what the movie or the play I'm in should be saying. It's not, like, 'I'll go stand here cuz someone told me to. '"
If Gyllenhaal sounds flush with excitement about her work, maybe it's because she's arrived. She can do both challenging theatre and big-budget Oscar bait.
After Secretary, she joined the Hollywood-cool casts of Adaptation and Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind. This fall she acts opposite Julia Roberts in Mona Lisa Smile, and right now she's in rehearsals for the Los Angeles production of Homebody/Kabul, the latest play from Angels In America playwright Tony Kushner.
And, as the new queen of American indie cinema, she gets to work with John Sayles. In Casa De Los Babys, playing at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, Gyllenhaal plays Jennifer, a fragile young wife waiting in Latin America to adopt a baby.
"I really didn't know why he wanted me," she remembers thinking when the call came from Sayles. "I didn't think I was anything like Jennifer. And I thought I was too young to be playing a woman who'd already decided she couldn't have a baby."
But, she says, she found an answer in her character's wavering strength. Gyllenhaal's Jennifer is a woman a little cowed by life, and coerced by her husband. In one standout scene, she calls him back in the U.S., and a flurry of emotions flash across her face as she tries to connect with him.
Casa De Los Babys offers such gold to its whole cast: Marcia Gay Harden, Daryl Hannah, Mary Steenburgen, Lili Taylor, Susan Lynch, Rita Moreno. That and the story, Gyllenhaal says, confirmed her admiration for Sayles as "a political filmmaker."
"There are a lot of people who don't expect a young actress to have an artistic opinion. I mean, what?!" she practically sputters. "How can you be good at what you do and not have a powerful artistic opinion that's going to move you and push you?
"I look at actresses around me who so obviously have that and fight for the things they want," she continues. "You look at the way they play a character and it's the most personal, interesting, risky way of doing it. I think it takes being a warrior to get that, to end up with a performance like that onscreen.
"Holly Hunter does that all the time. Gena Rowlands is like that. Meryl Streep is certainly like that."
Gyllenhaal grew up watching women like these, and learning the craft of drama from her family. Her father, Stephen Gyllenhaal, directs (Waterland). Her mother, Naomi Foner, writes (Running On Empty). And her brother Jake was Donnie Darko.
"You have to be careful not to romanticize any family," she cautions, but admits, "I did learn a lot from my father. It wasn't so much when I was working with him on movies. I would play teenie little parts where I had nothing to do. It was more when I did a school play and we'd both take it very seriously and talk through it.
"But in the last four or five years, I've made a very specific departure from some of the things he taught me. I've come into my own specific, personal way of looking at it, but informed by the things I learned from him."
Gyllenhaal says she's evolved even since she made Secretary a couple of years ago. She remembers mapping out a precise emotional path to get through that film's difficult content.
But she watched the movie again recently, and "there were scenes where I thought, 'God, I look so sad,' or 'I look so moved' or 'I look so angry.' I didn't know I was feeling that way. I hadn't planned to feel that way. That's the work I'm really proud of.
"I've also realized that - and this is a complicated one, and who knows if it will shift... it's all been shifting a lot for me lately - I am the people I'm playing."
Gyllenhaal has both the passion and the pedigree to grow into a filmmaker herself. But she's not so sure.
"You know, I have written some. I think," she says, wandering into the notion, "that I could be a good writer. I'm a very, very good editor, actually," she laughs.
"But working on Tony Kushner's play right now, I think, why would I write when there are people who can write like this? Why waste my time?
"Other times I read 10 bad scripts in a row and think, 'I could fuckin' do this! Gimme a pen!'"
CASA DE LOS BABYS MAST D: John Sayles w/ Marcia Gay Harden, Maggie Gyllenhaal. U.S. 95 minutes. Sunday, September 7, 6:30 pm UPTOWN 1; Monday, September 8, 3:15 pm VARSITY 8 Rating: NNN
Six Western white women wait in an unnamed Latin American country for babies to adopt. They've paid a lot of money, but they're not all rich. Their hosts exploit them but they're not all bad. People connect in small moments. Complexities evolve. John Sayles maps out another layered, multi-character story here, but this time his greatest resource is his cast, not his theme. Maggie Gyllenhaal and Daryl Hannah create one terrific centrepiece scene together, and Marcia Gay Harden is strong all the way through. Still, some scenes feel uncharacteristically sketchy. This isn't Lone Star, but it does offer a powerhouse female ensemble and a good reminder of why we need John Sayles in the world.