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Maggie Gyllenhaal explores the honesty of being a mother in her directorial debut


The new movie, "The Lost Daughter," shows a sign of motherhood that Hollywood doesn't often depict. Leda, played by Olivia Colman, is not a monstrous parent or a saint. She's ambivalent.


UNIDENFITIED ACTOR #1: (As character) You don't have kids?

OLIVIA COLMAN: (As Leda) Yes, I have two daughters.

UNIDENFITIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Where are they? How old are they?

COLMAN: (As Leda) Bianca is 25, and Marta is 23.

UNIDENFITIED ACTOR #1: (As character) No.

SHAPIRO: The movie, based on an Elena Ferrante novel, is the actor Maggie Gyllenhaal's directorial debut. When I asked what made her decide to make the leap to directing, she told me she was tired of seeing, at best, 70% of what she wanted to articulate in a film or TV show.

MAGGIE GYLLENHAAL: I would write these epic essays, you know, like, three, four paragraphs about like why you couldn't cut the orgasm or it wouldn't be a feminist scene anymore, you know - and, you know, perfectly crafted - a little bit funny, you know, like, just the right words, not too pushy. And it's a lot of...

SHAPIRO: OK, so did any of your actors in "The Lost Daughter" write such an essay to you...


SHAPIRO: ...Saying here's why you can't cut this? Here's why...

GYLLENHAAL: No, because one of the major things I felt when I was working and I was directing was my set's not going to be like that. My set - and I really feel confident that it wasn't, you know? And there are so many beautiful things in my film that came from other places.

SHAPIRO: Can you give us a specific example?

GYLLENHAAL: I mean, yeah. If you've seen my film, the song "Peel It Like A Snake" was written by Jessie and the little girls.

SHAPIRO: Oh, amazing. This is - Jessie Buckley plays the young version of the character Olivia Colman plays.


UNIDENFITIED ACTOR #2: (As character, singing) Don't let it break. Peel it like a snake. Don't let it break.

GYLLENHAAL: This is a straight leap from the book, right? Her kids love that she can peel an orange in one piece, which I think a lot of kids like, you know? But the song just takes it to a whole nother level, and it ends up being a major key to making the film work. But honestly, there are things like that all over the place. I mean, I I believe in actors with ideas.

SHAPIRO: That song points to something really nuanced about the film, which is that while it portrays an ambivalence about motherhood, it also portrays kind of joy and love and moments that this woman derives real pleasure from being a parent. Can you talk about how you balance that with the frustration and rage and exhaustion that sort of lie at the surface?

GYLLENHAAL: Well, yeah. I've been a parent for 15 years, and I feel very confident that no matter who you are, parenting is designed to bring you to your knees. You know, there's no way to become a parent as anything other than a total beginner. It's designed to grow you, both to grow a child and grow a parent, I think. And growing hurts. And I think it's very, very difficult, even for adult, grown-up people, to hold the ambivalence of parents and mothers in their mind. And so I think we've seen lots of, you know, films and television shows where the spectrum of what's normal is pretty slim. And, in fact, I think despair, terrible anxiety, confusion, along with the kind of heart-wrenching ecstasy is all a part of the spectrum of normal.

SHAPIRO: Do you think Leda as a character is on the spectrum of normalcy as a mother?

GYLLENHAAL: Absolutely.

SHAPIRO: And I sincerely ask that question.

GYLLENHAAL: I absolutely do. I mean, look; here's the thing. She does something - and I won't give it away - that's very aberrant, that's extremely transgressive and that causes her and her children almost unbearable pain, something that I can't imagine is a possibility for me, you know? But basically everything else she does, I can relate to. And I've been told - I've been told by many, many people, I have fallen asleep playing with my children on the floor. And I'm like, yeah, I know. Me, too.


JESSIE BUCKLEY: (As Young Leda) I'm just going to close my eyes for a few seconds, baby, OK?

GYLLENHAAL: I relate to young Leda in that scene.

SHAPIRO: And then her child takes a brush to her ear in an innocent but very painful way.


BUCKLEY: (As Young Leda) Ouch. Bianca, no. Ouch.

GYLLENHAAL: Right. I mean, it's not abusive. I mean, neither of them are doing anything other than something I think is totally normal. And so I have compassion for both of them. I read someone said something like, the children are so awful. And I was like, what? They're just children.

But I will say it's very important to me, even though Leda does something, like I said, that causes a huge amount of pain, that she is seen. There's a whole tradition of movies about crazy women by great directors with phenomenal actresses. Like, off the top of my head, I'm thinking of, like, "A Woman Under The Influence" - you know, Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands. But there's some fascination with watching very interesting, powerful women go crazy. Well, this movie is not that. This movie is about, I think, kind of offering and challenging the audience to see if, as sane people, we can relate to her.

SHAPIRO: Given that all of these women are coming up to you and saying, yes, I've done that, yes, I've been there, yes, I relate to that, why do you think these stories are so rarely told?

GYLLENHAAL: So one thing is, I think, the more there's space financially, artistically, for women to express themselves, we'll hear about things we haven't heard about before. And we'll hear about them, I think, in ways that we haven't heard about them before. But also, I think - Peter, my husband, says something I love. He says, everyone has a mother, you know, which is maybe part of what's reverberating about the film.

And I think when we're little, when we're very little, our survival depends on our parents and maybe in particular our mother, since they're literally feeding us from their body. And ambivalence is very dangerous, you know, because our survival is at stake. And so I think when we're small, we learn to kind of separate all of this good mama, who has bounty and feeds us and cares for us when we're crying, from the bad mama, who's frustrated, who doesn't come right away, who - you know, whatever it is - to separate them into two. And I think it's really interesting how we're able to tolerate, even as adults, a story of a bad mama or a monstrous mama and then the story of a very good mama. But it's difficult for us to join them.

SHAPIRO: What do you think we gain by having a story in which the two are joined?

GYLLENHAAL: I think there's something inherently dramatic and inherently compelling about being told the truth. And to really go for truthfulness, as I see it as a woman, I think comforts everybody, makes them trust in us if we're asking them to think about something difficult. Look; we're telling the truth. Look; we're telling the truth about all of it.

SHAPIRO: Maggie Gyllenhaal's directorial debut is "The Lost Daughter." The movie is in theaters now and on Netflix December 31. Thank you so much for talking with us about it.

GYLLENHAAL: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Ashley Westerman is a producer who occasionally directs the show. Since joining the staff in June 2015, she has produced a variety of stories including a coal mine closing near her hometown, the 2016 Republican National Convention, and the Rohingya refugee crisis in southern Bangladesh. She is also an occasional reporter for Morning Edition, and NPR.org, where she has contributed reports on both domestic and international news.