SundanceTV’s latest miniseries The Honorable Woman follows the Baroness Nessa Stein (Maggie Gyllenhaal) as she struggles to modify her late father’s arms company and reinvent it as a philanthropic endeavor. Maggie spoke with DIRECTV about the series, along with some of her summer plans.
This sounds like the most generic question to start off with, but let’s talk about [your character] Nessa a little bit.
Of course. You need to see the whole thing to really understand her, but I really feel like if you see the first four episodes, you have a full picture of who she is. Where, as a big piece of the first episode, you’re watching her perform herself. You’re coming into the story at a point where this woman who has spent her life performing herself, where the truth of who she is starts to seep through, starts to bubble up in a way that she can’t keep down anymore.
You start to see that in the first episode. There’s that scene with me and Atika the nanny, where as soon as she walks in the door, I start weeping.
In the beginning, you see how grateful she is, how intelligent she is, how powerful she is. But the other side of it—the terror, the fear, the tiny little baby inside her, the human-ness—starts to show through.
She works on a lot of levels. Because we see her—and not to be spoiler-y—but you see her chasing after guys on motorcycles with guns.
She’s a fantastic character, and she’s surrounded by fantastic characters.
I think what’s interesting about the show is that there’s that element of guys on motorcycles with guns, and kidnappings, and rapes, and MI6, and the CIA, and of course the other element of geopolitics and how relevant it is right this minute. And then there’s also this human element, where yes, I’m chasing after people with guns, but I really think you’ve seen a lot of thrillers where the humanity is missing. I think the thing that really drew me—because I could take or leave a thriller, personally—was all the space for all of the actors in it to express what it feels like to be a human being, what it feels like to be a 36-year-old woman in the world, as opposed to the pretend fantasy movie or TV version of that.
Family is so important to Nessa, and you sort of wonder if she’ll ever be able to wash the blood off of the Stein name.
That’s a really good question, and I think that’s a question that you have to watch the show and continue to ask, and continue to think about. I think what she’s inherited is very complicated and very, very difficult for her.
One of the things that I think is really special about this show is it really does ask everybody who’s watching it to think about these things, to feel about these things themselves. We really don’t say this is the good guy, this is the bad guy, or we believe this, we don’t believe this, or this is right and this is wrong. We lay out, I think compassionately, thoughtfully, aspects of what’s going in the world, aspects of all these people, and we say, “You think about it, you feel about it. Here’s a space for you to have an idea or a feeling about what’s happening in the world.”
That’s what I always want. I never want to be told, this person’s good, this person’s bad, now you can basically fall asleep. Or, this is what we feel about this conflict, and if you don’t agree, you don’t have to watch it. I never want that. Who wants that?
I think you do a good job of putting a face on a pretty complex issue.
It’s interesting because I think in this country, there isn’t a lot of room for a complicated conversation about what’s happening in Israel and Palestine, and I think most people want it. Most people want to think about it, they want to talk about it, they want to feel about it.
In a way, [the series is] almost like a wolf in sheep’s clothing in that you get the stuff that’s really exciting to everybody—the guns and the motorcycles. The thriller aspect of it is really awesome, like really, really exquisite in the way that he [series creator Hugo Blick] drew it. Underneath it, you have a real conversation about geopolitics, you have a real conversation about humans and their hearts and their minds. It’s a combination of something that’s inherently thrilling and something that is also really worth thinking about.
One of the most compelling things for me is that Hugo Blick has said that this is it, it’s a true miniseries, it’s not going to go on for six seasons.
I still keep hoping that he’ll change his mind about that. I would love to keep playing Nessa.
I think because it all comes from Hugo. He wrote it, he conceived of it, he directed it, he edited it. If there were to be another season, it would have to come from his heart and soul. I love that about him.
BBC and Sundance, they’ve said, “We’d love to do another one.” He doesn’t care. I love that. We can’t do it without him. It’s him! I love that he doesn’t care what anybody thinks. He just wants to tell the story. I feel similarly in a lot of ways.
The Honorable Woman doesn’t feel like a binge-watching show to me. I can’t wait to watch more of it, but it’s so heavy, I feel that I want to absorb it.
I know. I actually think it’s nice to take a little time in between. I agree with you.
I’ve been hearing people say, “I can’t wait. I need to see what happens.” It definitely does have an element of that. I think once you get another episode or two in, you’ll want to binge watch.
It’s summertime. Are you taking any time off?
We took a little vacation, which is over now. I took my girls up to Martha’s Vineyard, where my mom was spending some time. I think we’re going to try and go to Sweden, where none of us have been. At the same time, because we’re actors, and our work is so up in the air, I’m actually waiting right now waiting to hear if my husband’s decided if he’s going to do a job in LA, because then we’ll have to cancel our plans to go to Sweden.
It’s the 75th anniversary of Batman being created, and you were in perhaps the best of the Batman films. It’s been six years, do you have any thoughts on how that movie’s endured?
In a lot of ways, my experience on that movie, and also on the way it was received, is still very much tied to Heath Ledger and his death. It was always a complicated experience for me. I think there was a gravity to it. On some level you think, “It’s a comic book character.” But it felt, in a way, like a lot more than that.
Chris Nolan is so great and so talented and he also really made something that was awesome and really about something. But because it was tied up with Heath’s death for so many people, it took on another whole [other] element. It’s still tied to that for me.
You do a lot of awesome charity work. Anything you want to mention?
I love Partners in Health, I think they’re fantastic. They an organization that sets up hospitals and brings medical care to people who need it. But instead of just supplying, they work to change the infrastructure to sustain better medical care in whatever country they’re working in. They do a lot of work in Haiti and they’re a great organization.
The Honorable Woman premieres Thursday, July 31, at 10/9c on SundanceTV (Ch. 284).