Steven Shainberg’s black comedy Secretary was awarded a Special Jury Prize for "originality" at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival. The jury led by John Waters, revealed to Shainberg afterwards that they were intending to give him an award for ‘daring’ or ‘audacity’ but in the end ‘originality’ became the official term for a film that explores the sexual spanking games enjoyed by a lawyer boss and his only-too-willing secretary.
Maggie Gyllenhaal, star of Cecil B Demented, Adaptation and Donnie Darko alongside brother Jake, is swiftly becoming known as an actress who likes to take on edgier roles and her role in Secretary certainly falls into that category.
Meeting her in Deauville last September where Secretary was being shown in competition, what was her viewpoint on her character? "Lee’s been asleep, turned off. No one’s taken the time to engage her. It’s a kind of an awakening in that sense. Initially she’s like a heroin addict, she’s trying to sooth herself. Pain at first, is the only way she can feel anything."
Taking a job working for lawyer Mr Edward Grey (played by James Spader) it is not long before a strange empowerment takes place. Mr Grey spanks her for typing errors, she enjoys it and so deliberately makes more.
Maggie explains how she perceives this relationship and what makes it tick. "When Lee gets together with Grey and start this S&M thing, she’s letting herself in for a kind of pain like love that is awakening her. The reason it’s awakening her is because it comes from him seeing her in a certain way. By the end of the movie she’s so awake, she’s able to see a connection between pain and pleasure, that in order to really feel love, you also have to risk the possibility of pain."
What about allegations of sexism that could be levelled at the film, can they be answered?
Maggie’s reply is forthright. ‘Lee is always in control. That’s often what they say about S&M relationships, the person’s that submissive is the one determining how far something can be taken. Lee’s also in control because she’s the one brave enough and gallant enough to come in and say ‘ let’s stop f*****g around, I love you and I’m risking everything for that!’
Maggie refused to go along with some lines in the script that initially gave the impression that her character was not that intelligent, it wasn’t an angle that Maggie was fully prepared to perpetuate.
"Most of the script worked beautifully but there were moments when lines were crossed and things didn’t work for me. For example, there was a part in the script where I was leaning over, I was in my fantasy, and I’m leaning over this bed of flowers, saying ‘I’m your secretary, I’m your secretary’, and in the script it read ‘I’m stupid, I’m stupid’ Steve gave me a very intellectually convincing argument as to why this would work, but I felt like I just couldn’t say it because of where we are right now."
Maggie hadn’t worked with Spader before, what I wondered was it like working with him? "When I met him, I was immediately in love with him! I just thought he was immediately overwhelming, with a very strong presence. Acting with him, all I really had to do was let his presence come through."
Maggie enjoyed the experience of playing opposite her brother Jake in Donnie Darko, and like her brother, she’s a bit of a workaholic. "I’d just made a movie a week before that, called Casa de los Babys, a new John Sayles movie and that was extraordinary. It’s about six women who go down to Mexico to adopt Mexican babies, and they have to wait weeks and weeks and weeks for residents’s rights to get sorted out and they’re all living in this hotel together – I was working with Darryl Hannah, Susan Lynch, Mary Steenburgen, Marcia Gay Harden, Lily Taylor, like amazing actresses – it was such a wonderful experience. We were all living in a house in Mexico, six women, it was great fun!"
Does she intend to keep choosing edgier roles?
"I do, I’m going for things that challenge something in me and also challenge something about the way the world is set up. You know shake up things that seem to be set and immovable. It’s important to view something and say that looks really solid but hang on it can’t be really solid because everything’s made up of molecules, everything’s moving and everything’s changing, there’s a lot of thermodynamics going on, so let’s shake things up a bit."
In a way that’s what Secretary does.