Emmanuel Itier: What made you decide to take the role of Rachel Dawes in The Dark Knight?
Maggie Gyllenhaal: Well, let’s see. I wasn’t actually looking to work. I had a three-month-old and I wasn’t reading scripts at the time. But I was a fan of Chris Nolan’s and the cast. I think that everyone who’s in the movie was already in it. It was Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, and Aaron Eckhart. It was hard not to take that seriously, because they’re incredible. I met Chris and he was lovely and smart and thoughtful, and he gave me the script to read and, when he gave it to me, he said, “She’s not quite finished yet, this character.”
It was early on, and I guess it was a sort of early draft. I read it and I had a lot of ideas. I guess, for me, there were two chief worries. One was that I wanted to make sure that I had Katie Holmes’s blessing and I didn’t want to get involved with it if I didn’t. I also wanted to make sure that Chris wanted the character to be smart and feisty and fierce, and a real whole thinking woman who cares just as much about making Gotham an honorable and safe place to live as any of these guys did. When I realized that Chris wanted exactly that, then I had to do it.
EI: Did you try to remain faithful to Katie’s performance of Rachel, or did you approach the character from a totally different angle?
MG: I’m a fan of Katie. I think she’s a really lovely actress, and I know her a tiny, tiny bit. I loved what she did in the previous movie, but I didn’t think that it would help anybody for me to imitate her or even watch it too closely. I think it was better for me to think of her as a whole new woman. At the same time, there are plot and narrative things that she built that are important for this movie that follow the movie that we did. Most importantly, I guess it was that she says at the very end of the first movie that she loves Bruce Wayne but that she can’t be with him if he’s Batman. She understands why he has to be Batman, but that she can’t be with him that way.
EI: Did you know why (director) Christopher Nolan chose you to replace Katie Holmes as Rachel?
MG: You’d have to ask him. I don’t know why! I look at the cast in general and I think that there are great actors who are very operatic or great actors who are very kind of larger than life. But I think that the actors that he chose for the movie seem to all be pretty interested in realism. I think that’s one of the things that makes the movie work–that it takes place in this sort of fantasy world. It’s larger than life and yet the people who exist in the world are playing everything for honesty and truth, as much as we can.
EI: What was your experience doing the stunts like?
MG: I didn’t have much to do, but I liked it. I sort of thought that I would be fine, and then right before I did it, I got a little bit scared. Then we did one take and it was just really fun. I really liked it and it was really cool.
EI: When you first saw Heath Ledger in character as The Joker, what was your initial reaction?
MG: I really only have that one section with him, and I knew, I guess immediately, that he was doing something really unusual and rare and extremely special, even for the most talented and experienced actors, which is that he sort of found this stride where he was totally free. What’s so incredible about that is that when that happens, it bleeds over into everyone around you. Although the scene that I did with him was scary and full of tension, it actually was so fun because he’d take anything that I threw at him. He threw all sorts of interesting things at me. Also, they shot the scene with one camera circling us. Usually, if you’re shooting a scene in many angles, once you’ve established how you’re going to move in the scene, you have to repeat that in every angle. As a film actor, you have to get used to that and find a way to be free anyway. But when they’re shooting in that way, with one camera circling you, you don’t have to match anything–not exactly.
EI: How did you approach Rachel’s dilemma in choosing these two guys, especially since she knows Bruce Wayne is really Batman?
MG: Look, you always have to try and make things as difficult as possible for yourself as an actor, and you put yourself into these difficult things and choices that you’ve made. Then all you have to do is try to make your way out of them. So I thought the most difficult thing to choose would be that she really loved both Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent, absolutely–equally. I think she’s trying to figure out–in a lot of the movie–which of these two very honorable men is going about trying to change the world that they live in, in a way that’s more effective and better. I think there’s Harvey Dent, who’s following the system and using the system to change the system. He’s using the system to try and make things better, which is what she’s doing in her job too. Then, over here, she sees Bruce Wayne as Batman, who I think is maybe more of a radical. I think he believes the system is so broken that it needs some help, that it needs someone to sort of smash into it in order to really change things. I think she believes that there’s a part of him that’s very, very brave and a part that’s very cowardly.
EI: It’s well-known that comic book fans triple analyze actors’ performances in superhero movies. Did you think about before agreeing to do the role?
MG: I didn’t think about it much, but I also didn’t really know about it much until I got involved in this. I didn’t really read comic books. I didn’t have a problem with them, but I just didn’t know about them, really. I just didn’t ever read them, and then I’m doing the movie and I’m getting super involved in the movie. Different things happened, like I’d be doing a scene and being super into it, and I’d be taking it absolutely seriously, and then I’d hear myself in the scene saying, “Believe me, the safest place in Gotham is now Bruce Wayne’s penthouse!” I would be like, “What? I’m in Batman.” It feels so cool and so kind of thrilling. You can hear the music swell. And then, of course, when I did that stunt where I’m hanging off the edge of the building and I’m about to be thrown to certain death, and Batman comes and sweeps me up in his cape–that’s how you get the 30-year-old women. It’s appealing. It’s overwhelming too. So then I kind of got into it. I started to pay attention to the fact that there are these people out there that really care about this, and it makes me feel like I hope that we did justice to the world that they imagine. I hope that I did justice to Rachel Dawes, who isn’t in the comic books, but to this character who’s a huge part of Gotham–at least in this imaginary world.
EI: Do you think you served the character and pulled off the role?
MG: That’s something that I can’t answer for people. They need to answer that for me, but I feel proud of what I did, yeah.
EI: Rachel Dawes is not in any of the Batman comic books?
MG: No, I don’t think so.
EI: What did you like about shooting part of the film in Chicago?
MG: Actually, this is the second movie that I’ve shot there. We did Stranger Than Fiction there as well. I’m really crazy about the food in Chicago. [Laughs]
EI: What was it like shooting on the streets of Chicago, especially with pedestrians surrounding the set?
MG: We shot that huge scene where Commissioner Gordon gets shot, and that was like on a huge avenue and we took up the whole thing for days and days. I’m sure it must’ve been strange.
EI: Since you’re now in you’re 30s, do you think your maturity has made it easier to balance motherhood with a successful career?
MG: Well, it’s not something that I have down, by any means. I’ve barely worked since my daughter has been born. I did this and I made a movie with Sam Mendes in the spring, but mostly I’ve been with her. It changes everything, being a mother. Some people have asked me whether I’ll choose roles that are safe–that have a more sort of child appropriate content–and I don’t think so. I think I’ll choose what’s interesting to me. But I do think that it’s really difficult to get me away from her.
EI: With a film as massive and epic as The Dark Knight, that was filmed over seven months and shot out of sequence. How were able to find a through line as an actor?
MG: I think that, in this case, where every actor was so great, I thought that basically, if I came to the table knowing what my intentions were and what was important to me, I knew that they would come armed with the same stuff. So then you just play the scenes and you see where they take you. Then, even if the scene that you’re playing is the eighth scene in the movie and you have to go back and shoot the first scene–even if it happens in that order as opposed to the other way around–what you’ve just shot will inform everything else. So it was easy, on this movie, to do that because everyone was so good. To find something, especially in the midst of what was a writer’s strike…it’s difficult to find a script that’s good enough for me to think, “Okay, I really need to do this instead of being with my daughter.”
EI: What is the title of the (director) Sam Mendes project you did this past spring?
MG: It’s called Farlanders, although I thought that was a working title. I don’t know if it’ll end up being called that.
EI: Is there a particular type of role you would like to do that you haven’t tackled so far in the movies you’ve done?
MG: Well, they just asked me that earlier. We’ll see what happens, but I have played a lot of people who were really broken and who did things that are easy to judge. I think that part of the reason that I was attracted to doing that was because I felt that was an honorable thing to do–to take someone who is troubled and show an audience how they’re lovable. If you can show them that about an imaginary person, it’s sort of almost a way of practicing teaching being compassionate and practicing being compassionate myself. I have to take these people that I might not immediately like and learn how to love them. So I love that, and I’ve done that for years. Now I want to play someone who is strong and elegant.
EI: Maybe a character like a Noel Coward heroine?
MG: Maybe. Like a queen…
'The Dark Knight' is in theaters now from Warner Bros. Pictures