In Nanny McPhee Returns, the lovely Maggie Gyllenhaal plays overworked and overwhelmed mom Isabel Green. It’s a role she can relate to; she’s a working mom herself, juggling the roles of wife to actor Peter Saarsgard and mother to three-year-old Ramona. We caught up with Gyllenhaal to talk about letting her daughter play with (gasp!) Polly Pockets, her dream to move to Paris, and why she’s not worth crossing the Brooklyn Bridge for.
If Nanny McPhee came to visit your house, what would she help you with?
God, what would she help me with? It’s changing all the time. I get a handle on things for a while as my daughter grows, then something else will come up that’s equally difficult to manage. At the moment, the biggest thing is that my daughter is about to start a full day of school so that will probably present all sorts of challenges. But being a mother is made to be difficult. It’s made to bring you to your knees. That’s why it’s so gratifying. Most mothers could probably use some help, like Nanny McPhee. Although [my character], Mrs. Green, has a particularly difficult challenge, taking care of five children, running a farm, working for a dotty lady at the general store a couple of extra hours a week, and doing it alone with her husband at war. She deserves Nanny McPhee.
How was working with five kids on the set?
I like working with kids a lot. It really works when a kid isn’t a perfect professional or extremely experienced. It’s difficult to get a kid like that to act like a kid. Kids in movies work when they’re relaxed and respond to what they’re given. The kids in Nanny McPhee weren’t seasoned professionals at all; they were great English kids. But, because of that, there were times when Emma and I were on our knees behind the camera making fart noises to get a reaction out of them that felt real, right, and alive. At one point, Emma literally threw herself into a pond to get a reaction.
[Athough] the movie had five kids, pigs, and goats, it was incredibly technical. If you’re the one grown-up, which in most of the scenes I was, you have to drive that scene. Emma Thompson wrote scenes that required proper acting: hard, long, eight-page scenes. I’d been doing most of my work with the kids and the animals for months, and then I shot a scene with [another adult] actor, Rhys Ifans. We drank espressos all morning and did the scene over and over and over at a break-neck pace. It was such a blast to work with a grown-up after all the stuff with the kids.
The farm in the film is a far cry from Brooklyn, where you live. Do you prefer rural or city living? And do you feel strongly about raising Ramona in the city?
I like Brooklyn a lot. My mom is from Brooklyn and grew up there. I was born in New York, grew up in California and now I’ve been in New York for almost 15 years. Where we live [in Brooklyn] is like Sesame Street. Everybody’s a different color and making different amounts of money, [which is] very unusual. Ramona sees all sorts of things in this little block where we live. But I don’t know that we’re going to end up in Brooklyn. Right now, my husband and I are trying to figure out where we want to live. This was our first home that we bought, and we put a lot of work into it. My husband would be happy to live in Nova Scotia and never see anybody, but I don’t know if I could manage that (laughs). We think about moving to Paris, but it’s all fantasy right now. I’m more drawn to living in the country than I ever have been and I think it has a lot to do with who I married.
Do you think being a celebrity makes it harder to be a parent? Are you able to visit the parks and playgrounds without being bothered?
Mostly, yeah. Brooklyn really does help with that. If we go into certain spots in Manhattan, I know the paparazzi will be there but otherwise, they don’t feel like I’m worth crossing the bridge for! But in Brooklyn, we go to the playground, and it’s fine. An actress I know was telling me she can’t take her kid to the playground and I thought if that was happening to me, I wouldn’t live where I’m living. But there are occupational hazards for every job and there are a lot of great things about being an actress and having a child, one of which is that I get huge chunks of time with her whe I’m not working. I have a good friend who’s got two kids and another one on the way who works nine to five, four days a week. Her kids know she’ll be back for dinner every night and to give them a bath and put them to sleep. I’m around more, but then sometimes I’m gone for a big chunk of time, which can be disorienting for a kid. I never travel without her, but sometimes we go to work at 4:30 in the morning and come back at 7:30 at night and I’ve missed her for the day. And when she’s used to having me around, that can be hard.
Has Ramona seen any of your movies yet?
No, she hasn’t. Although when Crazy Heart came out, people would come up to me and say, “I loved you in Crazy Heart!” And Ramona said to me one day, “Momma, what’s Crazy Heart?” It was so sweet because I hadn’t really noticed that that had been a part of her experience. So I looked at the preview to see if it was manageable, because she’s four, and in this stage where if something bothers her or scares her, she really feels it. I showed her a little part of the preview so she could hear the songs and see what it was. I also did a voice from the cartoon Voyage to the Bunny Planet, and when she watched the cartoon, I asked her, “How does it feel to hear my voice? Is it kind of cool or kind of funny?” And she said, “It’s kind of cool and it’s kind of funny.”
In what ways are you a lot like your character, Mrs. Green?
What I love about her is that she’s a really loving mother who’s doing her best, but she’s clearly flawed and overwhelmed, which I think is the situation every mother [finds themselves in] at some point. I also really relate to [the fact that] Mrs. Green starts out thinking that she doesn’t need any help, when she so clearly does. I was that way. I thought, “I don’t need a nanny; I can do everything. I’m going to be fine and I can manage all this and I can do it beautifully.” [But] I’ve learned I do need help and I have a nanny who I cherish. And I ask for help from my friends, from women who know more than me, from men who know more than me, from my mom. [In the film], Mrs. Green says, “We’re managing fine here,” while her child swings from the chandelier in the background. Mrs. Green is really just trying to be a good mother and a good wife and all the complicated things that [come along with it]. And so am I. I’m really trying.
What was it like working with Emma Thompson?
I’m in love with her. She became my friend. She’s such a good actress, but I barely got to act with her in this movie. She’s just unbelievable – so wise, smart, strong, thoughtful, grown-up, but not annoying. [She’s the type of person] who will have a bottle of wine with you and she’ll admit she’s a mess or when she’s in trouble or the mistakes she’s made. I just love her. She was my beacon on this movie, and it was a long shoot. I cherish her.
Was Ramona on the set? Did she get to interact with the young actors?
Yeah, she was but not all the time. We were in London in the summer and her dad wasn’t working, so they’d do stuff in London sometimes. It was a great job, actually, because I worked three days a week and the hours were short because of the children. Crazy Heart, [on the other hand], was a short shoot where I worked every day for a month, sometimes 18-hour days. That was more difficult, but a shorter time. Nanny McPhee was long and slow and great for being a mom. And when we shot in Oxfordshire, the producer lent us his gorgeous manor house and we’d stay up there. Emma had an ice cream truck, which was a real highlight, and not just for the children! They also had a toasty truck, which is what English people call grilled cheese sandwiches. And my makeup artist introduced Ramona to Charlie and Lola, which are big in England, and Polly Pockets, which I thought I’d never do. [I’m more into] use-your-imagination wooden toys, but then we went on a five-hour car ride and I said, “Okay, Polly Pockets!”
Have you had the chance to read the original Nurse Matilda books [which the movie is based off of] to your daughter?
No, she’s a little young. As my daughter becomes more aware of what’s really going on in a lot of the books we read, I can’t believe how many books start with, “Her mommy and daddy died randomly one day and she was left alone with nobody to take care of her.” That’s not cool with my daughter at the moment, and that type of stuff is everywhere – even in Winnie the Pooh! There was a story where all the animals in the nursery tried to steal Baby Rue from Kanga. My daughter was like, “What? What are they going to do with her?” It’s a scary idea if you’re only four. I really like the book Brundibar by Tony Kushner and Maurice Sendak, even though it begins with “our daddy died.” Skip that part and it’s a lovely book. Ramona also likes this book called Little Mommy. My mom, who is the feminist of all feminists, gave it to her. It’s from 1945 or something and it’s about a little girl pretending to be her mommy and she does all the things her mommy does, like washing the clothes and wiping the fingerprints off the doorknobs. I remember Ramona said, “Momma, you don’t do that?”