Maggie Gyllenhaal has made a career out of playing complicated women. Few have been as complicated as Candy on The Deuce. As a prostitute turned pornstar, who moves behind the camera to make a better life for herself within the narrow lane that is available to her, Candy is an unlikely feminist – dealing with the world as it was made for her and trying to turn it into the one she would like it to be.
The Deuce is filming its final season now with its return date to come. We discuss how Maggie came to the show, her relationship with its creator, David Simon, the demonization of sex workers, and the surprising symmetry between her role as a producer on The Deuce and the character she plays on the show.
AD: How did you come to The Deuce?
I had been getting ready to shoot a movie that I was really unsure about. I don’t think I’ve ever said this before, but it was this movie that I thought why did I agree to do this? That was not the right choice. And yet, I had agreed, and we were about to start. I rarely find myself in that situation. Two days before it was about to start, it fell apart. Like shockingly. Everybody was trying to keep it together and trying to make it happen. And me too in a way, I felt responsible for doing my best to keep it together, but it fell apart. And literally the next day, I had been in New York – we were out in the city, it was summertime, and I was getting my hair done for that movie – and then I get this call, “Do you want to meet David Simon and George Pelecanos about this show?” They sent me the script and I got this email from one of the producers at HBO and they said, “I hope you like it.” It really felt meant to be, because I really did like it. I had that feeling, which I’ve learned to – without exception – follow, of I know when I need to do something, and I know when I don’t. Then after that instinctive feeling of “yes, I’m attracted to this, this appeals to me on an artistic level,” there’s the more rational, intellectual conversation of “wait, what exactly is being asked of me?”
In this case, I had (the script for) three episodes – which I read really quickly – and Candy had very little to do in the first three episodes if you remember. I knew there were going to be 24-25 episodes altogether, and I got a little nervous about what I was signing up to do. I had never signed up to do anything without the entire script in front of me to see what the story was, and what the intention was, and what the tone was. Even with The Honourable Woman – that was the other television thing I’d done – it was all written, start to finish – it was just like choosing to do a long movie. This was a different kind of leap. I met them, and like everyone else in the world, I was a fan of David Simon. It was an educated guess after talking to him, and George, and Nina Noble, it seemed we were all after the same thing. I thought about it and decided in order to sign up for this, I need to have some guarantee that I’m going to be a part of the intellectual and artistic conversation about what the show is going to be. As an actress, you can hope for that, but you’re not always guaranteed that. So, I said I really want to do this, but I can only do it if I can be a producer. Which, in my mind, would guarantee me a seat at the table when those conversations are happening. I knew that was a risk. I knew that it was a very unusual position to take, based on the fact that it wasn’t my show, it was at a huge network, I had never produced television before, but they gave it to me. I felt like they gave it to me as a way of saying, we want your mind as well as your body.
AD: I had read that David and George were very sensitive, especially considering the material, about the need for a woman at the table for input.
I just spoke with David about this yesterday. He said, “You were going to be a part of this conversation anyway.” Which is true. And I think many of the other actors (on The Deuce) feel they have input into the work they do. But what I got by being a producer is I get the script early, and I see every edit. I see the cuts, I make notes on them, we have conversations and make changes based on my notes – not that they do everything I suggest (laughs). We land – without exception – in a place I feel really good about in terms of my work on the show.
AD: Being a producer formalizes your contributions, right? It’s more than being heard, it’s about making decisions.
Exactly. And to really be a part of the conversations about the cuts. The actors don’t see the cuts of the episodes and get to comment on them, and say, “wait, if you cut this line, or if you leave this line in, you’ve totally shifted the intention of the scene.” That’s what I find so interesting. Really good writers and I’ve worked with many – my mother is also a screenwriter – I find that they sometimes write incredibly interesting, unconscious things into the scene. Things that are not explicit but are so clearly part of the intention of the scene, and they sometimes don’t even know it. You’ll play a scene informed by the subtleties of the writing, the nuanced elements that are clearly in that scene, and they’ll cut something, and I’ll say, “Wait, David. This was the whole point of the scene!” And he’ll say, “Ohhhh…yeah.” And I’ll say, “but you wrote it!” (Laughs). I might have mined it. I found it, but it was in that scene. No question about it.
That’s an ongoing conversation between all of us. It’s really helped flesh out the most interesting elements of the piece. Candy wasn’t even going to be a director when we started. They had her as a producer – a really money-minded businesswoman. Almost in spite of herself. I do think she’s an interesting businesswoman – she’s had to deal with that in order to get what she wants. But I really pushed them for a long time to make her an artist. Because as a producer, fundamentally, that is about money. But if she’s willing to lay herself down on the tracks for art, in many ways, that’s a life or death kind of situation. For Candy, without that art, without that filmmaking – yes, it’s porn – what does she have?
AD: It would seem that your story within the production and Candy’s story within the production have certain parallels.
Absolutely! That’s one of the things that’s so cool about working on an ongoing series that is continually being shifted and changed and re-conceived as they are seeing what the actors are doing and interacting with us as actors. If you’re a really exciting artist, I do not think you have a set thing that is immovable – as a writer, as a director, as a producer. as an actor. As an actor, I look at the scene, I do a lot of work on it, I think about it, I make decisions, but I come to work, and anything can happen. I find that’s true about the writing too. It really does reflect their relationships with the actors and the actors with them. I often feel the conversations I have with them as Maggie, definitely inform the scenes we shoot (when I’m) Candy. I’m putting together a movie to direct, and I’ll be on the phone talking about how difficult it is to find financing, and then I’ll be shooting a scene where Candy is in a bar trying to get financing herself. It’s just crazy. (Laughs).
Aside from the reservations, you had committed to such a long-range project, did the material itself give you pause? The Deuce can be harrowing and explicit in its depiction of the porn industry and the way women are treated within it.
There was a point when there was a lot of press about The Deuce and it was on my lips a lot. My 12-year-old daughter knew a little bit about what it’s about – kind of the appropriate amount. She said, “I don’t understand why you have to do this.” I thought about it a little bit and I explained; I’m playing somebody who is totally marginalized by our culture, who’s being asked to hold and contain so much of the hatred and misogyny in our culture. If we can just put it on someone like Candy, and it’s her fault, we don’t have to take responsibility for it ourselves. In some ways, if you look at the relationship between sex workers and their Johns, it’s a super simple, laid out on the table version of an interaction that men and women have about power, about sex, about commodification in a much much subtler way, many times every day. You can say a sex worker is nothing like me, and they are deplorable, then you don’t have to take any responsibility for the ways you in your own life contribute to the misogyny of the culture, right?
What I said to my daughter is “This is my responsibility. This is my way of creating empathy, and compassion, and understanding for someone who otherwise people in this culture would like to write off.” I think that’s worthwhile. I don’t want to do it in a kind of fake way. I enjoyed the movie, Pretty Woman when I was little. But politically, that’s the opposite of what we are going for here. I’m not interested in that kind of depiction. I want something that feels real and accurate. I think as an actor your body is what you use to tell that story. I think I’m unusual in that way. I think it’s exciting to be 41 and be using my body as a way of telling my story. That doesn’t bother me. Of course, I think very carefully before I decide to share any of the most vulnerable parts of myself – physical or emotional. I don’t just throw it around. In this case, I felt both physically and emotionally, this was a worthwhile place to share my heart and my body.
We are just about to finish season 3. I have one more episode to shoot – which I haven’t even read. I think it’s true of many David Simon pieces, they are incomplete until they’re finished. I think it’s the same thing with The Wire, you almost have to watch the entire thing to see what its point is, and what the storytelling is going for. I would say this final season has put it all into focus for me. I think the final season puts the others to shame.
Yes. I can’t believe it, really. I’ve loved, loved shooting it. It’s made me feel even more sure of my choice to put myself into this work.
AD: Sex workers are one of the few groups where it’s still okay in our society to make cheap jokes about and slight publicly. Even to the point of dismissing their humanity if not throwing them out altogether. This show puts a human face on that community.
That’s the thing. Why the hate? Why is calling someone a whore considered such a terrible insult? I think this is a really interesting question. I think it’s because we recognize in sex work some little piece of what we are all operating in and living in every day. And you look at what was revealed about Hollywood (Times Up/#MeToo) and every professional industry and you realize we have decided as a culture that commodifying sex, that bartering with sex, even if it’s not actual sex, but just a push-up bra in an interview, or laughing at that joke is acceptable. We sort of culturally agreed that that would be allowed. Then we kind of went. “wait…no, this is awful, this isn’t okay.” Seeing sex workers with it so laid out, so straight up, I think it looked disgusting to us because we didn’t want to see the way that was reflected in tiny, subtle ways in our own lives.
The Deuce begins with the start of the professionalism of the porn industry. Season 2 closes right before the 80s when porn started to shift as an industry again due to home video. Will we see that depicted in the final season?
Yes, definitely. Of course, with the 80s came HIV and AIDS, which had a huge impact on the industry. Also, the rampant capitalism that the show has been about from the beginning, that’s at odds with what Candy’s doing, because Candy really is an artist. I think that’s one of the things that’s so interesting with what’s happened politically with her storyline. Yes, there are ways in which porn brutalizes and objectifies women. Yet, for Candy, it’s the thing that allows her to live. Financially and artistically. What are you going to do with that? It’s like the Secretary thing. For this woman, having this sort of sexual relationship with her boss, she is actually made alive by it and found love by it. What are you going to do with that? (Laughs). I love that. How do you throw those kinds of questions into the #MeToo conversation or any kind of feminist conversation? Those are the kinds of questions I’m most interested in asking.
So, yeah. With the 80s, you had video. It (porn) used to be a cinematic thing. You used to have to go to the movies, sit with a bunch of people, and watch porn. That was kind of a fetish-y thing, but it did make a space for some people to make some really cinematic movies – porn movies. (Laughs). And then it turns to being just pumped out on VHS – the craziest shit you can think of. Then what happens to the actors in front of the camera when you’re being asked to do a “gang-bang” or all the crazy stuff that started happening in the 80s. Which really wasn’t as much a part of 70s porn.
The way Season 2 ended, Candy has reached a new level of professional success, but at the possible cost of her relationship with her son and other members of her family. What can you say about Candy’s upcoming journey?
Hmm…what can I say? (Laughs). I guess I would say Season 1 for Candy I decided to play Candy like someone who is a total survivor. Nothing is going to bring her down. Fucking bring it. (Laughs). The writers were like, “We’ve got to bring her down. Can we have her kill someone while she’s giving a blowjob? Is she going to get the shit beat out of her? How do we bring her down?” My challenge as an actress was nothing is going to bring me down. Then of course, it’s super sad when something does. She ends up in that scene with Method Man wondering if she’s just going to give up. If she can take it anymore. From there it’s like a slow ascending, right? Kind of moving up. She starts to get her feet under her. She’s found a way to listen to herself. She’s found a way to survive. And it’s not easy at all. That’s what’s so great about the show. It’s realistic.
Most of Season 2, there are setbacks, and there are things that are difficult, but she’s moving up. I think Season 3…hmm…I guess I can say…I don’t think for anybody on our show – and I’m sure this is not a surprise – it’s a happy ending. It’s a real, human, complicated ending. I think everyone has to reckon with what they want and what they actually have access to. Just like real people all the time.
Stream The Deuce on HBO : https://www.hbo.com/the-deuce