Maggie Gyllenhaal Interview, Nanny McPhee Returns

Posted by: Sheila Roberts

Mrs. Green (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is at the end of her rope. Her three children – Norman (Asa Butterfield), Megsie (Lil Woods) and Vincent (Oscar Steer) – are constantly fighting with each other. Her husband, Rory (Ewan McGregor), is away at war and hasn’t been heard from in months. Her brother-in-law, Phil (Rhys Ifans) is pressuring her to sell him Rory’s half of the family farm and her employer, Mrs. Docherty (Maggie Smith), is beginning to behave very oddly indeed. On top of all that, her posh niece and nephew, Celia (Rosie Taylor-Ritson) and Cyril Gray (Eros Vlahos), are being sent to the farm from London for an unlimited stay, and the village warden, Mr. Docherty (Sam Kelly), keeps warning her that bombs could accidentally fall out of the sky at any moment. It’s all too much for Mrs. Green. She doesn’t know it yet, but the person she needs is Nanny McPhee.

MoviesOnline sat down with Maggie to talk about her new movie, Nanny McPhee Returns. She told us what it was like working with such a terrific cast and creative team and how she coped with all the mud and the technical challenges of driving huge dialogue scenes with five kids and a menagerie of real and imaginary animals. She also updated us on her upcoming movie, Hysteria, about a man in the business of curing hysterical women who “inadvertently” invents the vibrator. She also revealed that she will star alongside husband Peter Sarsgaard in a biopic of musician Bill Monroe tentatively titled Blue Moon of Kentucky. Here’s what she had to say:

Q: What did you think about the wardrobe and did you have any input into what you wore?

MAGGIE: Yes, I always have input into it. That’s how I like to work. Emma said at one point when we were talking about the wardrobe that she thought that Mrs. Green should feel like an English country garden that you just wanted to lie down in and I agree. Jacqueline Durand who did the wardrobe is the most collaborative costume designer I’ve ever worked with. She was constantly interested in what I thought and how I felt and designing it with me. I think that Mrs. Green is somebody who does care about what she looks like and loves getting dressed up but just doesn’t have time to consider it. She puts something on, and then right as she’s walking out the door, she’ll grab a flower and stick it in her hair. She’ll pick up even her daughter’s thing and put it on but it’s buttoned wrong. Some of her stuff was embroidered, but only a little, and it was like a project she started but maybe her daughter did the other side. You know, things like that. Then you think about the things that if you’re a mother that you really [notice] – little details that you maybe notice or maybe don’t. Like I always have a hair band on my wrist in case my daughter needs it and Mrs. Green has those kinds of things – mother things where you reach into your pocket and pull out a bag of cheerios that’s in there for some reason and that kind of stuff.

Q: What was it like being in all that mud?

MAGGIE: Well I’ll tell you a funny story. There’s this one flashback scene in the movie where I’m in a wedding dress. We were shooting it and I guess someone from props to be helpful put down a yoga mat because I was going to have to step out of this horse drawn carriage into the mud and part of the joke was that my husband was going to carry me out from the mud so that I wouldn’t get all dirty. So I come out and this yoga mat is there and I just step and slip and completely bite it in this wedding dress. And it was just a tiny little flashback so we only had one wedding dress, and this first take with this yoga mat I got completely covered in mud and I had to stand up. (Laughs) We made it work. It works but I liked the mud. I didn’t mind it. It felt like a funny challenge. It makes everything funnier.

Q: How did you come up with the accent that you used in the movie?

MAGGIE: At first I thought I wanted to sound like Susanna who’s the director. She has a beautiful English accent. It’s hard for me to hear what they hear so well, which is the class that’s in the accent. You can obviously hear it on the spectrums of things, but I think that Mrs. Green is someone who grew up pretty wealthy in the city and moves to the country. So she shouldn’t sound really posh but a little. I think that’s what Susanna sounds like. But really, in the end, it was just the accent that came to me. I don’t know why.

Q: Can you talk about working with Rhys Ifans? What was that like?

MAGGIE: I have a great story about him because most of my work in the movie was with the five children ranging in age from 5-1/2 to 13 or maybe 12, Aros was 12, and animals and pretend animals and working on real scenes that required proper acting. I mean, Emma’s script is no joke. I would be driving these huge dialogue scenes with these five kids and animals and pretend animals and that was most of my experience in the movie. It was fun but it was hard. And then, one day, I get to work, deep into the movie, to shoot this scene with Rhys which was a scene that they were shooting on Steadicam and they were going to shoot it all in one take. It’s us walking down a road. He’s trying to get me to sell the farm and they’re just going to follow us doing the scene. It’s like a play. There’s no cutting so it has to be done perfectly. In Crazy Heart, for example, there’s no such thing as perfect in that movie. If you’ve done your work and you’re just responding to the other person, anything can happen, anything is okay. But in a movie like this, if you have to have a vase fall on your head because it’s funny after you say this line, you need to be standing in the spot where the vase is going to fall on your head. So it’s a different kind of technical work. So I get to work to do the scene. I’m used to doing the technical stuff but I’m not used to working with grown-ups and we start doing the scene and it’s awesome. I remember he started out by bringing me a cup of coffee. We downed these expressos and then did this scene and I was like “You’re a grown-up! You’re an expert.” (Laughs) It was super fun and one of those things that just has to be done [right], you know, we couldn’t make a mistake. Sometimes a mistake would happen and we would turn around and walk back to the building. It was just great.

Q: Of the scenes that you did with the kids, which was the best one that you remember because it was endearing or funny?

MAGGIE: I think I like the scene which was such a long hard scene to shoot. I mean, maybe five days it took us to shoot which I’ve never done before – shot a scene over five days in my life – not on The Dark Knight, not on Mona Lisa Smile, not on any of these big movies ever. Five days was that scene where I come home from work and the sky is starting to say “The person you need is Nanny McPhee” and I’m covered in syrup. I come home and the kids are fighting and everything’s crazy and they’re hanging each other over banisters and I’m kind of hallucinating. And then she comes in. So that whole wild, madcap, crazy scene – that’s sort of the craziest it gets for her -- was my favorite.  

Q: Emma mentioned that you really bonded with the kids and they cried the last day you left. Is that that maternal instinct of yours?

MAGGIE: Yeah, they all did. I remember Lil cried. It was both just liking them because they’re great kids and also that was part of my job to make a relationship with them that felt real. Also, when you’re working with kids, it’s different than grown-ups. Emma and I would be on our knees behind the camera making fart noises or saying a line over and over again fifteen different ways to get different reactions from them. So you get invested in a different way. You’re almost playing a part in directing.

Q: Is there a reason they never revealed your sister in this movie? We see your brother-in-law and the boy’s dad but we only hear about your sister?

MAGGIE: She was played by an awful actress. (Laughs) No, no, I’m kidding.

Q: But we never see her in the movie but she’s referred to.

MAGGIE: No. Maybe you have to ask Emma if she was ever in the script. I never read a script when she was in it. You don’t need to see her.

Q: Are you ever that frazzled at home? Does it ever get as ‘pull your hair out crazy’ as in the movie?

MAGGIE: I have one child. I don’t know. If I had to take care of five children, alone, and try to make a farm run, and work at a general store for some extra money, while my husband is maybe dead, I think it’s possible that it could get that crazy. Yeah. Don’t you think?

Q: Can you talk about working with Maggie Smith?

MAGGIE: Well I had heard that Maggie doesn’t suffer fools gladly and could be really scary and so I was really scared to work with her. But thank God she liked me. We had a really good time. I really like Maggie. She’d say amazing things. I heard her on the phone talking to her son and she was going to visit him after work one day and you could tell that he’d said on the other line “What time are you going to be home?” and she said “Oh I don’t know. How long is a piece of string?” And she literally did tell stories like the How Now Brown Cow story and all those kind of theater stories that you hear about her. She’d tell them. It was amazing. It was really cool working with her.

Q: Was it a catharsis playing a pleasant parent after Away We Go?

MAGGIE: It’s so funny because that woman acts like such a calm parent in Away We Go when really she’s kind of a mess. And this is the other way around. Mrs. Green is so out there with what a mess she is, but inside she’s such a deeply loving, wonderful mother.

Q: How did you handle the energy levels? You said you shot one scene for five days and you were very frantic in that scene.

MAGGIE: It was hard. It’s not what comes most easily to me. It’s the Crazy Heart stuff, that’s my gig. I love that. Like shoot it quick, feel what you’re going to feel, respond to each other, that’s my thing. This technical work is more of a challenge but I liked it. But that’s what’s difficult. How do you keep it fresh and alive and real and engaged and human when you’re taking like “Let’s start from the middle of this line and go three lines over here and you pretend you’re talking to a swimming pig.” That’s more difficult for me.

Q: Emma seemed to get quite a few of her friends to join the cast of this film. As one of the lone Americans in this film, how did you feel embraced by all these amazing U.K. actors?

MAGGIE: Am I the only American? It felt very English, the whole thing. I was just thinking about the way Emma was with Peter, my husband. She’s an actress so she knows. And Greg is an actor so she was like “Thank you. Thank you for giving her to us. Thank you for staying and taking care of Ramona. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I mean, she felt that part of her job was to make me comfortable and to take care of me, I think. I didn’t need that but I appreciated it. I like English people. We’ve shot a lot, my family, in England. We did a chunk of The Dark Knight in London and then Peter did An Education there and then we did this there for four months and we’re going back there again in the fall. So we’re used to it in some ways. It really is different. I don’t think I realized as clearly until I was halfway through this movie how true it is the sort of cultural differences. I think for the most part you do have to do some translating. The same behavior doesn’t mean the same thing in England as it does here. And another thing is I got much more quick witted. That really is a muscle that I just, you know, that’s part of being American too. That’s part of being socially agile here, but it’s really everywhere there, and if you can’t keep up, you can’t have a conversation. I remember thinking that part of my brain, that sort of witty part, got really well exercised when I was there.

Q: What are you heading back to England for?

MAGGIE: I’m going to do this movie Hysteria about the guy who inadvertently invents the vibrator.

Q: Is that based on a true story?

MAGGIE: Yeah.

Q: Is this an adult film or a film for children? How do you think that balance is going to play out with the audience?

MAGGIE: I think it’s a film for children but I think it’s extremely gratifying for adults. I cried watching it. I felt it was so true. I’m interested in children’s minds and children’s hearts. I have one. I probably wasn’t quite as interested before I had one. But I think that’s what is so special about it is that it really is appealing to anyone who is a human being.

Q: Nanny McPhee has five lessons. Do you have any that you would want your child to learn in the future?

MAGGIE: I think it changes as she changes and I think it will continue to change. I don’t think there’s an overreaching one. I think when I get to the end I’ll be able to say “Oh that’s the lesson I was trying to teach in all of this.”

Q: You and Emma were both in Stranger Than Fiction. Did you have any scenes together?

MAGGIE: No. Not a one. I did meet her there and we really got to know each other there but we didn’t act together at all.

Q: Can you elaborate on Hysteria and what else you have coming up next?

MAGGIE: In Hysteria, I play a firecracker suffragette who rides a bicycle and whose father is a doctor who is in the business of curing hysterical women.  He cures them basically by getting them off. And that happened. I end up having a sort of unexpected love affair with this guy who works for him and by mistake ruins the vibrator. And coming up, I’m going to do The Three Sisters with my husband in New York and right after that we’re going to do a movie together about Bill Munroe who invented Blue Grass music and had a kind of Sid and Nancy style affair with this woman, Bessie Lee Mauldin, throughout his life and T Bone Burnett is going to do the music and Callie Khouri who wrote Thelma and Louise wrote the script. We’re going to do that together. I think that’ll be pretty cool.

Nanny McPhee Returns opens in theaters on August 20th.

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