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Filmmaker Spotlight: Maggie Gyllenhaal

Maggie Gyllenhaal’s feature directorial debut, The Lost Daughter, recently swept up at this year’s Gotham Awards — the unofficial kickoff to Oscar season — taking home best feature, best breakthrough directing, and best screenplay. Considering Gyllenhaal produced the film, directed it, and adapted the screenplay from Elena Ferrante’s novel of the same name, it’s an impressive list of awards for her to receive as a first-time feature filmmaker. You may be wondering how the A-list actor wound up an accoladed multi-hyphenate who’s now staked her claim as an awards season contender. We’re here to help, starting at the beginning.

Gyllenhaal was born into an entertainment family, and her first IMDb credit is for a film her father Stephen Gyllenhaal directed, Waterland, in which she had a small role. Her mother Naomi Foner adapted the screenplay for Gyllenhaal’s second acting credit, A Dangerous Woman, which her father also directed. Jake Gyllenhaal appeared in the feature, as well, and the siblings worked together again in his breakout film, Donnie Darko. Then came the role that put Gyllenhaal’s name on the map: Lee Holloway in Steven Shainberg’s 2002 dramedy Secretary.

The film earned Gyllenhaal her first Golden Globe nomination and paved the way for a string of big tiles. There was Mike Newell’s 2003 period drama Mona Lisa Smile in which the actor played opposite Julia Roberts, and she took over from Katie Holmes the role of Rachel Dawes for Christopher Nolan’s 2008 sequel The Dark Knight. Then in 2010 came Gyllenhaal’s first Oscar nomination, which recognized her work opposite Jeff Bridges in Scott Cooper’s romance drama Crazy Heart.

The actor brought her talents to TV in 2014 with Hugo Blick’s BBC2 limited series The Honorable Woman, starring as Nessa Stein in the conspiracy thriller. Gyllenhaal told Vanity Fair that the project was a turning point in her career. “I actually don’t think I’ve ever been the same since then,” she shared. “I think it really changed something in me … I really learned so much from that part.” 

Another milestone in Gyllenhaal’s career came in 2017 with David Simon’s HBO series The Deuce, which saw her stepping into the role of producer for the first time with the period drama, along with starring in it. She performed the same dual role of producer/star for Sara Colangelo’s 2018 indie The Kindergarten Teacher. And now Gyllenhaal has established herself as a writer/director/producer to watch with The Lost Daughter

The psychological drama follows Leda (Olivia Colman), a literature professor who becomes increasingly emotionally involved with a young mom (Dakota Johnson) while on holiday in Greece. Johnson shared about Gyllenhaal’s style as a director during a recent Deadline panel. “Maggie knows what it feels like to be an actress acting, especially when your body is so on display,” she noted, referencing her role in the film. “She created a profoundly safe environment so that I felt free and safe and held and supported.”

The Lost Daughter made its world premiere at this year’s Venice FIlm Festival, garnering a best screenplay win for Gyllenhaal. It will play in select theaters come December 17 before releasing on Netflix on December 31. At that time, you can determine what all the early awards season buzz is about, but in the meantime, we certainly think the first-time feature director has earned her filmmaker spotlight.


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