LOS ANGELES—Maggie Gyllenhaal, who broke out with the kinky 2002 film "Secretary," continues to rack up indie cred with "Sherrybaby," in which she plays a single mother trying to reclaim her life after serving time in prison.
"[The film] takes somebody who is so easy to judge, so easy to write off and I think it asks you, 'Can you be compassionate enough to really understand her and try to love her?'" says Gyllenhaal. "That's really a kind of honorable thing for a film to do."
At 22, Sherry Swanson (Gyllenhaal) has just finished three years of jail time for robbery to feed her heroin addiction. Now she has a vision of landing a decent job and reconnecting with her daughter Alexis (Ryan Simpkins), who's been living with Sherry's brother Bobby (Brad Henke) and his wife Lynn (Bridget Barkan). Unfortunately, Sherry discovers that finding employment, staying clean and mastering motherhood are much harder and complex than life behind bars.
Even though Gyllenhaal's life is on quite a different path, she still found a way to identify with her character.
"I think [the similarities] are mostly -- because our circumstances are so different -- have to do with grey-area, kind of emotional things," says the actress. "It's much harder to articulate. It's hard to say, 'Well, in this scene, this feels like me.' Almost nothing actually feels like me, but sometimes the way she'll deal with things, the way that she'll try to function, try to survive [is familiar]."
One of the biggest differences between the Hollywood star and the ex-con is their wardrobe. While Gyllenhaal demonstrates her hip, but classically appealing style on the red carpet, Sherry's taste runs to colorful halter-tops, tight jeans and miniskirts.
"I always pay a lot of attention to the wardrobe of my characters," says the actress. "It's something that I pay attention to in my own life, so, it's important in everyone I've played. I felt like I had to really believe in her ...[and not make] any judgments about her at all. I had heard someone once in a fitting on another movie say, 'Oh, that outfit is so great: It's so awful,' which is such a judgment about who you are playing.
"I wanted to make sure the clothes I wore, that I found in some part of myself that they were really beautiful -- what a real mother, a real woman would wear," she continues. "There is no reason a real mother can't be hot. Even though they are really different than clothes I wear, I just feel good in them."
Some of the most telling scenes in the film, however, revolve around Sherry taking off her clothes for various men. Gyllenhaal, who has appeared nude in films before, had no problem reconciling the nudity with her character's mindset.
"Well, I think I approached it the way I approached everything with Sherry, which is, 'Yeah, I'm naked. It's fine. Everything is fine. It's my body. I'm hot,'" explains Gyllenhaal. "Which isn't necessarily how Sherry feels either. I think that's revealed in the movie. But I wasn't analyzing her when I was playing her. I was just playing her, so I felt very, very brazen and comfortable. But, I think actually watching the movie, I feel much more exposed and vulnerable and comfortable than when I was shooting it."
While starting her life over from scratch is difficult enough for Sherry, the people around her aren't helping. The other women at the halfway house where she's staying are hostile, and the man at the employment office won't give her the job she wants until she offers him sexual favors. Despite these setbacks, Sherry remains optimistic.
"She comes up against many, many obstacles, but I don't think she even has time ... when she comes up against those, to almost even feel them," says Gyllenhaal. "It's like she got knocked in the head, but it wasn't bad, so now on to the next thing. 'OK, I'm going to sleep with this guy in a basement. I haven't slept with anyone in a long time. I can do that. I feel strong, I feel sexy, I can do whatever I want.' No room for, 'This actually doesn't feel great' or, 'I'm so lonely.' The only thing that Sherry has to survive, the only tool she has is this really deep sense of hope."
Bobby and Lynn are also undermining Sherry's motherhood goals since they find it hard to allow someone else to raise Alexis after standing in as her parents these past three years. In a way, Sherry must set aside her maternal ideals and accept who is best for her daughter at this time.
"I think [being a good mother] is different for everybody," says Gyllenhaal. "It isn't just going through pregnancy and giving birth. That doesn't make you a mother. I think the movie is about her becoming a mother, just a little, just a sprout, a little possibility of that. I think that ... asking her brother to help her is major. I don't think it means she's perfect and got it all sorted out."
Gyllenhaal doesn't quite have motherhood sorted out yet either, but she's expecting a baby with fiancee, actor Peter Sarsgaard, this fall. It's been a busy year for the actress. Already, she's appeared in "The Great New Wonderful," "World Trade Center," "Trust the Man" and as a voice in the animated "Monster House." After "Sherrybaby" opens in limited release on Friday, Sept. 8, she has one more film, "Stranger Than Fiction" co-starring Will Ferrell and Emma Thompson, due this fall.
"I certainly will take some kind of a break," she says. "I am really trying not to anticipate what it will be like to have a newborn baby. I really have no idea and I'll wait to see how it feels and really wait to make those decisions when I know more about being a mother than I know now."