"I was surprised by how little controversy there was and how I didn’t really get a chance to fight for the movie like I hoped I was going to get." said Maggie Gyllenhaal after I asked her about the reaction to Steven Shainberg’s Secretary. It’s unsurprising that she’d prepared herself for something of a fight. Considering that all it took was George Clooney’s naked behind in Solaris to rile up conservative America, who knows how they were going to react to a film about a woman who – after being released from a mental hospital – finds herself involved in a sadomasochistic relationship with her new boss. The (now almost iconic) poster alone, with the tag line ‘Assume the Position’, was enough to get many hot under the collar. But, as Gyllenhaal has pointed out, the backlash never really materialised. Perhaps people got it after all.
It must have come as something as a relief. No stranger to films that have remained resolutely outside of the mainstream (including Adaptation, Cecil B. DeMented and – the film that really got her noticed – Donnie Darko), the 26 year old actress has constantly taken risks in her short career. But her experience didn’t make the decision to take on the role of Lee in Secretary any easier.
"I had the script sent to me and was immediately very moved by it. I mean it was a great script really beautifully written," she recalls. "But the thing that sort of scared me when I first read it was less the sex or the things that I would be doing in the movie, but what the movie could ultimately be saying if it were put in the wrong hands. I think the script was obviously and without question trying to say something smart, political, transgressive and provocative but it was talking about such risky stuff. If it fell off the fine line it was walking it would end up being a reactionary, anti-feminist sex movie. So my real worry was about who was directing it. It took a little bit of convincing"
Indeed, it would take a while before Gyllenhaal would be able to trust Shainberg completely. But, as she explains, it was necessary to have that ‘feeling out’ process in order that they she could be totally at ease. "I didn’t just say [after I decided to do the movie] ‘Now I trust you, fine.’ We stepped out together and had a couple of long talks and the one thing that first convinced me to do it was that I said ‘OK, fine, we’ve been having all these conversations and you sound interesting, but what do you want the message of the movie to be?’ And he said ‘Maggie, I don’t know what I want the message of the movie to be and I can’t know until I’ve made it. And that’s why I want to make it. I know what I want to explore, but I have no idea yet’. And I was really struck by that."
As Lee Holloway, Gyllenhaal begins Secretary as a shy and insular woman prone to self-harm. But, after settling into her role as secretary to lawyer E. Edward Grey (James Spader), she becomes ever more confident. By the time that she and Grey are embroiled in their affair, Lee is finding a control that she has never been afforded before. Their sadomasochistic relationship becomes a force of redemption rather than something that is portrayed as wrong or twisted.
"Steve and I spent about a month together," she says, when asked about how the character of Lee was developed , "a couple of hours a day, meticulously. We were negotiating every single little moment to make sure that the film really did walk the line that we both trying to walk but it didn’t cross over it at any point. We would argue a bit and we would negotiate. I think because we did that, I was able to let go of my brain in some ways and work from the place Lee was coming from: a much more emotional, kind of wide-eyed place."
Her relationship with Shainberg aside, Gyllenhaal would also have to prepare for her on-screen relationship with James Spader. Whilst his character in the film is one of the most subtle and insecure that Spader’s portrayed in many years, it surely must have been initially difficult to formulate the trust that would enable the onscreen chemistry of Lee and Grey to be fully realised.
"I trusted James immediately: I didn’t put him through the ringer, the way I did with Steve," she explains. "He did something really incredible with me on the set, [in that] we really got to know each other well. It was really intense always between us but he never let me into his personal life at all – I don’t know his phone number, I don’t know his kids names – he just kept a really clear boundary up. What that did was it made me feel like anything could happen between us on set and that it wouldn’t bleed into my personal life at all. Which was great."
After all the intense preparation, Gyllenhaal had high hopes for the movie. As mentioned, she was expecting to have to defend the film from all sides but was pleasantly surprised by the reaction that Secretary ultimately received. "I’d made it a priority to talk about the movie politically. Sometimes you’ll meet somebody who’ll go ‘So, what was it like to be spanked by James Spader,’" she says, with a slight hint of cynicism. "They would really be looking it at like just a sex movie, and it’s a total misreading of it. It’s not what the movie’s about. But that’s really rare too, and most people really get it."
Now, almost two years since the film was completed, Maggie Gyllenhaal looks to be heading to the next rung of the Hollywood ladder. With the possibility of a BAFTA and/or Oscar for her portrayal of Lee, and a role opposite Julia Roberts and Kirsten Dunst in the soon to be released Mona Lisa Smile, Gyllenhaal’s star is on the rise. However, with the way her career has gone, it seems that she will always be choosing challenging roles that push back the boundaries. Perhaps her hopes for Secretary sum up exactly what she tries to achieve in her career.
"I hope that it will appeal to people who are willing to look inside it and really have an experience when they go to the movie theatre. I don’t need it to immediately touch everybody, but I do hope that if people are willing to examine it both emotionally and intellectually when they go and see it, then I think it really holds up."