White House Down's Maggie Gyllenhaal talks shop

Jun 27, 2013 at 3:34 p.m. ET

Maggie Gyllenhaal explains how her family influences her choices — and how sometimes she just doesn't care what they think!

Maggie Gyllenhaal

Maggie Gyllenhaal is about to tackle the biggest moneymaker that can land in an actor's lap: the summer blockbuster. Her new flick White House Down opens tomorrow, and she sat down with Gotham magazine to chat about her career choices and why she makes the movies she does.

The star says becoming an actress was a lazy decision — she's good at it and didn't want to work at honing her skills on the things she isn't good at.

"My dad is a film director; and my mom’s a screenwriter, so I would go to their sets sometimes. [Acting] was something I was good at. It’s hard for me not to be good at something, although there are many things I’m not good at," she explained. "I’m just learning at 35 how to accept not being good at something, then learn about it — that’s how you start to get better. When I was younger, I thought, If I’m not good at this, forget it; I’m not doing it anymore. I’m not proud of that at all, but it’s just how I was. And I think because acting was something that came naturally to me, I just grabbed onto it."

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Her famous family, including brother Jake Gyllenhaal, helped shape her career choices, but she insists that at the end of the day she decides what projects she wants to take on regardless of their opinions. Case in point: her critically acclaimed role in Secretary.

"I remember telling my parents about Secretary, which was one of the first roles I got. For that movie, I was like, 'Oh, I have to do this,' and I can’t tell you why — it’s not that I was into S&M, but something about that movie just called me. It’s not like my parents or my brother could have said yes or no. [Husband] Peter, on the other hand, and I seem to have similar taste in movies. Jake, we’re very close, but our taste is different, and I think our style is different. If I’m really drawn to something and other people don’t see it the same way, I do trust myself. I just say, 'I want to try it.'"

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"Secretary was one of the first times I expressed myself in my work. Before that I was just a jobbing actress — I was like whatever part you’ll let me have, however small, I’ll do it," she explained. "I wasn’t really expressing anything about myself or how I felt about the world. But in that movie I did; it was partially because James Spader and the director [Steven Shainberg] made a space for me to do that. I watched the way James made a space for himself, and for me that was a really big lesson. I’ve taken that with me on everything I’ve worked on since."

While we're used to seeing Gyllenhaal in smaller indie films (case in point: Hysteria, about the Victorian invention of the vibrator), her latest, White House Down, is a big-budget summer blockbuster. Co-starring Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx, it tells the story of an attempted government coup, and Gyllenhaal plays a no-nonsense Secret Service agent.

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"Everybody working on a blockbuster is really at the top [of their game]," she said. "Sometimes on a tiny independent movie, nobody has any money, they’re hiring people who are learning, and lots of mistakes happen. It can lead to amazing things, but it can be hard. I also like to make movies that many people will see. I think White House Down says some interesting things about the world, and it’s fun and exciting. I know only a few people are going to be into the tinier movies I make, and I like that, too. There’s something nice and freeing about both."

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"There was [a technical advisor] on set who set us straight. He would say, 'No that would never happen,' or 'You absolutely have to wear your plastic credentials over your suit.' I thought it was more important to focus on how a woman feels being in such a position — in the government, with the army. I think that’s what people watching the movie relate to."

White House Down premieres tomorrow, but until you can get to the theater you can read the complete interview with Maggie Gyllenhaal in the latest issue of Gotham.

Image courtesy Andrew Eccles/Gotham

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