The Arty Semite

Q&A: Maggie Gyllenhaal on 'Hysteria'

By Curt Schleier

  • Print
  • Share Share

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Maggie Gyllenhaal is no stranger to playing strong, confident women. The Academy Award-nominated actress has played roles ranging from a journalist and single mom in “Crazy Heart” to a liberal and outspoken academic in “Mona Lisa Smile.” Her latest film, “Hysteria,” which opens May 18, is set in London during the Victorian era, when various female “afflictions” — melancholia, frigidity and nymphomania among them — were bunched together and labeled “hysteria.” The supposed cause: a disorder of the uterus. The preferred treatment: “manual stimulation” of the womb.

In the film, Dr. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) joins the practice of a “hysteria” specialist, Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce). Granville becomes engaged to the very proper Dalrymple daughter, Emily (Felicity Jones). But what good film is without conflict? Granville falls for Emily’s sister, Charlotte (Gyllenhaal), a firebrand progressive fighter for women’s rights. Gyllenhaal spoke to The Arty Semite by phone about the strong women in her life, eating Jewish deli on Christmas and attending her first Orthodox Seder.

Curt Schleier: Tell me a little about your background.

Maggie Gyllenhaal: My father [director Stephen Gyllenhaal] was raised in the Swedenborgian religion — kind of a Christian mystic religion — and he grew up in a small Pennsylvania town. My mother [screenwriter Naomi Gyllenhaal] is Jewish and grew up in Brooklyn.

I just participated in the [TV] program “Finding Your Roots,” so I have a vey accurate and informed family history. On my mom’s side, it was exactly what I thought. They were peasants in Russia, and when my great-grandfather was drafted into the Russian army, which was a dangerous thing for a Jew, they left. First they went to Lithuania, then they came [to New York City] and lived on the Lower East Side, where my great-grandfather was a tailor. My dad left the religious town and put that all behind him. He… left that part of my upbringing to my mother. So I grew up mostly Jewish, culturally. How I eat, a lot of the way I think, comes from my mother, because my mother values that part of herself in a way that my father didn’t.

Did you celebrate the holidays?

We did, and we still do, though it was always pretty reformed. I never went to Hebrew school, and I was never bat mitzvahed. During our Seders, we used to have this really hippie Haggadah about oppression all over the world… I went to a friend’s house for Passover last year. She is Orthodox, but also a hip young woman. She lives in L.A. and is a make-up artist and clothing designer, and her husband is a comedian and director, and they take their religion very seriously. I cried all the way through [the Seder]. It moved me so much. I think for the first time as an adult, I listened to the Seder and the Exodus being talked about and explained. I watched their children ask the Four Questions in a way that showed they clearly understood the meaning.

You had some very accomplished ancestors, including your grandmother and her two sisters. Were they an inspiration for you?

Yes. My grandmother was a pediatrician, and her sister, who is my great-aunt, was a lawyer and a judge. The other sister was an opera singer. They were first generation, and, probably because their parents were immigrants, there was a different kind of pressure to succeed. I never knew my grandmother, but I was close to my great-aunt Frieda, who was the lawyer. I think it’s kind of amazing that all three of these women so long ago were able to be as successful as they were. My mom is also interesting and smart. She’s a writer in her 60s and just about to direct her first movie and is very politically active.

You’re married to Peter Sarsgaard, who is Catholic. I understand you celebrate Christmas — but with Jewish food.

Every Christmas, I order food from [the Manhattan deli] Russ & Daughters.… It’s the best place in New York to get smoked fish. I get pickles and herring and all those traditional Jewish foods. All those things [that]I remember and come from my mom’s side. When I go in there — and I’m a regular — the way we [Gyllenhaal and the store staff] talk, I can sort of imagine it’s 60 years ago and I’m a Jewish housewife doing my shopping. It’s not all I am, but I do value that part of me.

Watch the trailer for ‘Hysteria’:


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Interviews, Hysteria, Film, Curt Schleier

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • Russia's playing the "Jew card"...again.
  • "Israel should deal with this discrimination against Americans on its own merits... not simply as a bargaining chip for easy entry to the U.S." Do you agree?
  • For Moroccan Jews, the end of Passover means Mimouna. Terbhou ou Tse'dou! (good luck) How do you celebrate?
  • Calling all Marx Brothers fans!
  • What's it like to run the Palestine International Marathon as a Jew?
  • Does Israel have a racism problem?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.