NEW YORK -- Two years of Maggie Gyllenhaal's work are flooding the cineplex around the time of her first child's birth.
Talk about labor. If delivering movies were the same as babies, Gyllenhaal would need a double epidural. The release Friday of Trust the Man, a romantic comedy, follows on the heels of the July release of World Trade Center. Then, also this month, in limited release, comes Sherrybaby, marking her second film as the lead. Another supporting role follows in the Will Ferrell vehicle Stranger Than Fiction, having its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival and opening in November.
The exposure probably isn't damaging. She'll be out of commission as an actress for a bit, and she has put her professional life on hold.
"I haven't made decisions about it," Gyllenhaal says during a recent interview in a Battery Park hotel. "It's impossible to anticipate what it will feel like to be a new mom." Gyllenhaal, 28, is not quite an A-list actress to the ticket-buying public, but to filmmakers she qualifies as an It Girl.
"I believe her in everything she does," said Trust the Man director Bart Freundlich. "I don't feel her persona coming through."
Apple cheeks, wide-set blue eyes and a gravel whine of a voice bolster her often quirky appeal.
Likes taking risks
Whether as the outcast Jew in Mona Lisa Smile (2003) or the sexually forward girlfriend of father and son in Happy Endings (2005), Gyllenhaal doesn't fish for awards or kudos. The extra props would be nice, though.
"I guess validation is often helpful," she says. "Most of the actresses I admire really take risks, like Laura Dern, or Holly Hunter or Meryl Streep. They always are making huge choices and committed to making them seem real. And I think it's easier to take risks when you're told: 'You're doing good, we get it.' At the same time I don't feel everybody has to like me or get me. That can throw you off, too."
Gyllenhaal, a Columbia grad who attended high school in Los Angeles, built her confidence early in films directed by her father, Stephen, and co-starring younger brother Jake (Brokeback Mountain), with whom she later teamed in Donnie Darko. Questions about sibling rivalry annoy her, much like the photographers who now track her every move.
They follow her because she now shares a life, impending parenthood and the vagaries of show business with fiance Peter Sarsgaard (Flight Plan).
While her screen alter-ego Elaine struggles to make her beau commit in Trust the Man, Gyllenhaal has found the secret to romance offscreen. "If you're not honest and you're not really ready to risk something, it's not going to work," she says. "That's been my experience."
In the film, Elaine is an aspiring children's author who wants children of her own, but her longtime boyfriend Tobey (Billy Crudup) is not ready for a new chapter. Freundlich (World Traveler) originally wanted someone older for Elaine. "The positives outweigh the narrative," he explains.
Julianne Moore, Freundlich's wife, and David Duchovny (The X-Files) play the other couple in a breezy take on modern romance in SoHo. Some broad moments, such as Tobey's encouraging Elaine to use a bikini photo for a book jacket, jolt Freundlich's indie sensibility.
Gyllenhaal was game as long as she could root the moment in some reality. She craved the comic relief. In Oliver Stone's World Trade Center, she portrays the pregnant wife of a transit cop pinned under the ruins of the twin towers. (Before filming, she courted controversy when she made what she said were misconstrued comments about the United States' responsibility for the 9/11 attacks.) "It was a mix of an exhilarating feeling of working with [Stone] and then this really dark, painful step," she says.
Sherrybaby is, well, Gyllenhaal's baby. She dominates the camera as an ex-con trying to connect with her daughter. Its premiere got mixed reviews at Sundance.
"It took me a really long time to recover from that movie," she says. Sherrybaby represents Gyllenhaal's only moment atop the marquee since her breakout as a budding S&M; enthusiast in 2002's Secretary. Carrying a film as a performer is like being a filmmaker, she says, because every decision can change the course of the storytelling. The commitment also cuts her from everyday life.
"You go into some other world, and you don't really come out of it until the movie is done shooting," she says.
Being a parent can be even more consuming - but there hasn't been a part yet that Gyllenhaal has shown she couldn't play.
Ron Dicker writes for the Hartford (Conn.) Courant.