Maggie Gyllenhaal knows a thing or seven about taking on audacious roles. Since she broke out as James Spader's submissive assistant in the 2002 film Secretary, she's played heroines in major blockbusters (The Dark Knight) and heroin addicts in indie sleepers (Sherrybaby). The Oscar nominee has also shunned the typical Hollywood-celebrity scene, instead living a quiet life in Brooklyn with her husband, actor Peter Sarsgaard, and their two daughters. For her series-television debut, she's chosen The Honorable Woman, an eight-episode SundanceTV drama about the very real, very violent, and very current troubles between Israel and Palestine.
Gyllenhaal stars as Israeli Brit Nessa Stein, a newly minted member of the House of Lords, who has sworn to use her assassinated arms-dealing father's dirty money to broker peace in the Middle East. That is, until a tankload of even dirtier family secrets, two competing MI6 agents, three murders, one clandestine affair, the mysterious suicide of a Palestinian businessman, and the kidnapping of Nessa's brother's maid's son all begin to compromise her ideals. We talked to the actress — currently preparing for her Broadway debut opposite Ewan McGregor in a revival of Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing — about tackling such drama.
TV Guide Magazine: You've been on TV before, but nothing of this scale, right?
Gyllenhaal: When I was first starting out, I did a couple of TV things — mostly directed by my dad [Stephen Gyllenhaal]; I would just walk across the back of the screen. Basically, it was padding my résumé. I didn't have a real television role until Denise in [the adaptation of the Jonathan Franzen novel] The Corrections.
TV Guide Magazine: HBO passed on that pilot in 2012 and it never aired. Did that scare you off from ever coming back to television?
Gyllenhaal: I've had massive disappointments, things that broke my heart in terms of my work. But that really wasn't one of them. I worked on it only for one day. And I was super pregnant. My character was sleeping with her boss and her boss's wife. There's no way she could have been seven months pregnant! I had the baby right before we learned it didn't get picked up, and I was like, "Whatever!" I had a five-day-old. At that moment, work was in the background.
TV Guide Magazine: The Honorable Woman tackles a controversial subject that's once again front and center in the news. Are you trying to stay current as you promote the show?
Gyllenhaal: Yes. It's my responsibility to know as much as I can. Especially now, because, when we made the series, [the region] was in a period of calm, and it's now shifted to a period of violence. And politics are a huge part of the show. We can't just say, "Oh, our series is this spy thriller with the conflict between Israel and Palestine as a backdrop." It is about the conflict. We do take it on.
TV Guide Magazine: That's pretty brave.
Gyllenhaal: Well, it's also an exquisitely drawn thriller. There are kidnappings, sex, and a whodunit — all the elements that draw in people who say they don't want to think about what's in the news. But they do want to think, especially about what's going on in the world.
TV Guide Magazine: Does the show take a stance on the conflict?
Gyllenhaal: It doesn't say this is what's right or this is the side we're on. It asks the viewers to consider how they feel about an issue that is terrifying and upsetting and relates to all of us. There are people on either side with a vice grip on their points of view. The show asks them to loosen it, even the tiniest bit, for a few seconds.
TV Guide Magazine: Is the way the show deals with these issues the reason you took the role?
Gyllenhaal: Partially. I really believe in what we're saying and how we're saying it. I had also never read a character like Nessa. She is so many things all at once. She's intelligent, powerful, and graceful. But she's also confused, terrified, guilty, weak, and lost. I think those different aspects are in all of us. I'd never been offered a character that I could express so much through.
TV Guide Magazine: As Nessa starts to feel the pressure, the title of the series becomes more ironic — she even has a friend murdered. Were you able to continue to see her as honorable?
Gyllenhaal: It's funny, but I never thought she had that person killed. I adore [writer and director] Hugo Blick — I've never had a more exciting artistic relationship — and that was the one thing we really disagreed about. We were at dinner before we started shooting, and he mentioned that Nessa basically sacrificed this person. And I was like, "No, she didn't! That's not true. She's an honorable woman!" Whatever that means. Nessa's trying to do good at every moment. I was so upset, and he said, "Look. Let's leave it as a question mark." So I didn't play it like she killed that person.
TV Guide Magazine: Is she naive, then?
Gyllenhaal: There's an aspect of her that is naive. I think that's true of most people who are trying to change something. She never, ever, for a second takes the possibility of reconciliation in the Middle East off the table. Neither does the show. It believes in the possibility of change.
The Honorable Woman airs Thursdays at 10/9c on SundanceTV.