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Maggie Gyllenhaal Takes On The Power Imbalance Of Sex Work In 'The Deuce'

Maggie Gyllenhaal stars as a sex worker who gets off the streets by becoming an actress in — and then a director of — porn films in HBO's<em> The Deuce. </em>She's also a producer on the series.<em> </em>
Paul Schiraldi
Maggie Gyllenhaal stars as a sex worker who gets off the streets by becoming an actress in — and then a director of — porn films in HBO's The Deuce. She's also a producer on the series.

When the creators of the HBO series The Deuce first approached Maggie Gyllenhaal about starring in the show as a sex worker, she didn't immediately say yes.

Set in New York City in the 1970s, The Deuce centers on the intersection of sex work, pornography, organized crime, the police, politicians and feminists. Gyllenhaal didn't have a problem with the role, but she did have strong feelings about how the power dynamics of sex should be portrayed.

Reading the first three scripts of The Deuce, Gyllenhaal says, she was struck by the writer's depiction of the "imbalance of power between men and women — in terms of sex, in terms of art, in terms of business."

Because Gyllenhaal was wary of the show's potential to be exploitative of her or other actresses, she insisted on being one of its producers before she would agreed be its star.

"What I wanted was to be a part of the conversation, to be in the room," she says. "I knew they needed my body, and I wanted to make sure that they also wanted my mind, because I thought, I'm an asset here, not just as an actress."

Show creators David Simon and George Pelecanos, who also collaborated on The Wire, agreed. Now Gyllenhaal wears two hats for The Deuce. She says that being a producer has given her a "guarantee in terms of storytelling" that she wouldn't otherwise have as an actress. It's also allowed her to make tweaks to the set — including hiring an "intimacy coordinator" — that help the actors feel comfortable during the show's many sex scenes.

Interview Highlights

On hiring an "intimacy coordinator" on The Deuce

I had been to some meetings of actresses talking about things, simple things, that we could change on sets, and someone suggested at one of them that, you know, when you do a fight scene in a movie or a play there is always a stunt guy there, always, to make sure you're physically and emotionally protected if something doesn't feel comfortable to you. You can go to the stunt guy. In fact, they even look and see if after the stunt you might be sort of unconsciously rubbing a part of your arm or something and they'll come and say, "Are you all right? Did that hurt?" And an actress at one of these meetings suggested, "Why don't we have that for sex, for sex scenes?"

And so on The Deuce, in the second season, we did. We had this woman who was "the intimacy coordinator," we called her. And she would call the actors the night before she'd say, "I'm here to make you comfortable, and this is what your contract says. Do you still feel comfortable with that? Because you don't have to do it." And then she would be there, she would help with the choreography of the sex scenes and she will check in with people.

The truth is, for me ... I feel like I can say, "This doesn't feel right. Hold on. Something's off." I do know how to protect myself at this point. But I felt for people who were coming in for one day, who were so happy to have the gig ... [who] might not feel as comfortable as I do saying, "No, I actually don't feel OK with this anymore." That's what she was there for. And I read this pieceactually that one actress wrote in The New York Times about coming on our set and how great she felt with Alicia [the intimacy coordinator].

On the allegations of sexual misconduct against James Franco, who is also in The Deuce, and how she handled it as a producer

We had to do the most careful, nuanced, intelligent clear thinking, all of us, and assess the situation. And for me, and I think this was true for everybody involved, I felt that continuing to tell our feminist story was the most important thing, and made the most sense, even in light of those allegations. ...

I felt as a producer it was my job to confront that and talk with him, and also to talk with the women on our show, both in the cast and on the crew, and make sure that everyone felt that they had been treated with absolutely nothing but respect in the work place.

Terry Gross: So you're saying you wanted to make sure that there were no women in the production of The Deuce who had anything negative to say about his behavior. That there was no misconduct found on the set.

Gyllenhaal: Exactly. That's right. That's what I'm saying. I thought that was part of my job.

Gross: How do you find out? You asked each of the women?

Gyllenhaal: Yeah.

Gross: Did you do the asking yourself or did you have like an outside person come in and ask?

Gyllenhaal: Both.

Gross: And you're satisfied with the results?

Gyllenhaal: Yeah, yeah, I was. I was. I mean, in terms of making a show, which is about all of these things that we're talking about, I think it would be a terrible shame not to be able to continue the conversation, which is, I think, a deeply nuanced conversation about exactly what's happening culturally right now, in terms of misogyny, in terms of an imbalance of power, in terms of sex as commodification, in terms of all the subtleties of that.

On the connection she sees between her character on The Deuce and her character in The Kindergarten Teacher (Netflix Oct. 12)

Basically, I made season one of The Deuce then I made The Kindergarten Teacher and then they made season two, and I think both women, both characters, like many women right now, are waking up to the fact that they've been accepting a way of living that they're not OK with, and not only not OK with, but is keeping them from living, is keeping them from being who they are. I think that's dramatically interesting.

We were talking about about #MeToo and Time's Up, this cultural moment where women are saying "I don't know how I lived like this for so long. I don't know how I accept that. It's unacceptable." ... And personally I love the idea that it's the pornographer who is thinking clearly and knows what she wants and knows how to get it, and it's the kindergarten teacher who doesn't. ... And I love that they're coming out at the same time, you know, and what it means when you think about them together.

On why the 2002 film Secretary, about a woman in a dominant-submissive relationship with her boss, was an exciting role for her when she was 22

The things that excite me the most about the roles that come into my life is there something in this script, in this story, that will allow me to explore something that's on the kind of the edge of what I know about myself? But with the protection of fiction.

It became a real self-expression about someone becoming a woman, somebody having a sense of what they want — even if it isn't what everyone tells you you're supposed to want.

So Secretary was the first time I ever got to do that. I never could have articulated that that's what I wanted at the time, I just was like, "Oh, there's something in here that's for me." I think it was kind of an amazing experience, because the director was interested in me as an artist, was interested in what I was offering, and the way that that shifted the story, as opposed to whatever he'd imagined before I got there. And so it became a real self-expression about someone becoming a woman, somebody having a sense of what they want — even if it isn't what everyone tells you you're supposed to want.

Lauren Krenzel and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.