5 Questions for the director and cast of the new film Hysteria
I recently spoke with director Tanya Wexler and actors Maggie Gyllenhaal and Hugh Dancy who star in Wexler’s new film Hysteria, a romantic comedy about the invention of the vibrator in Victorian England.
Hysteria is Tanya Wexler’s third major motion picture, but she stems from a film family which includes her uncle, the award-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler and half-sister Daryl Hannah. Hugh Dancy, who began his career with a role in Black Hawk Down has made a name for himself in films like Confessions of a Shopaholic and Our Idiot Brother and he’ll soon be starring as Will Graham on NBC’s Hannibal. Gyllenhaal is well known to movie goer’s from her role in The Dark Knight, her Golden Globe winning role in Secretary, and her Oscar winning performance in Crazy Heart. In Hysteria she plays suffragette Charlotte Dalrymple.
Here, I spoke with Maggie Gyllenhaal.
Maggie, so many of the roles you play have this sense of sexuality to them. What attracts you to these really sexual roles in different women’s lives?
I don’t know, isn’t everyone attracted and interested in sex and sexuality? I think most people are. Charlotte doesn’t have much sex in this movie, she actually doesn’t have anything to do with the vibrator at all but I do think she’s a sexy woman but she’s not particularly overt about it.
Yeah certainly, but often with your roles the women are very sexually liberated. Were you drawn to them because you were or weren’t that way, do you relate to that in your personal life, is it very different?
Well, like I said, I think everyone is interested in sex and sexuality and I think it’s a part of being human and so and I do think film is an interesting place to explore that, especially because I think sex has been explored in film in a way that’s very unreal and very much based in fantasy. When I see sex scenes in movies that are real and feel like my own experiences of sex, they are so much sexier and I also think it’s very much, I don’t know, like a subtle feminism to be able to express it from a woman’s point of view – what real sex is like and the actresses I see that do that who don’t, you know, where it’s like you’re wearing a black, demi cup Victoria’s Secret bra and it’s lit perfectly and you’re arching your back, where it’s not like that but like actually what it’s like, I kind of feel like, yeah, you’re a sister, I really appreciate that.
I’m a teacher, so I’m particularly interested in your upcoming film Won’t Back Down, about failing inner city schools just because education is becoming more and more of an issue with the elections coming up and different things like that. What did you come away with after working on something like that? Did it change the way you view education?
I guess the major thing I came away with is [that] I don’t see how we can have a democracy that isn’t a total joke unless we educate the people living in this country. You basically need to be able to analyze and assess information in order to choose who you want your leaders to be, if you can’t do that, then you are choosing your president based on his hairdo or based on whatever the radio station that you listen to most often tells you. The thing I came away with was even if you are lucky enough to get through high school, learning how to read and write well and add up a tip on a check, which many, many people aren’t, are you able to get through and make an intelligent personal decision for yourself on who you want your leaders to be and if you’re not, then your leaders can manipulate you to vote however they want. That is what I came away from it with. The point of the movie is, and I do believe this, it’s a commercial movie and in some ways it says it in a simple way but I believe that’s fine, is that if you believe that something is wrong and that something needs to change, you can have a massive effect on changing it, you know, you can. As an individual, this country is set up that way and that is one of the major messages of the movie. I think that there’s a real lethargy in this country, a lot of people kind of don’t believe that and I think it’s difficult and I think you’ll get shot down and I think the story of this movie is a little bit of a fairy tale but the message is try cause you can have an effect.
Chatting with Hugh Dancy.
This is a comedy, but it’s based on something that actually happened, and it’s kind of crazy. When you were doing research did you look at how prevalent this was and did you have any case studies that you guys looked at specifically?
How prevalent the diagnosis of hysteria was?
Well, I know hysteria was really wide spread, but I’m speaking about the doctors treatment of hysteria (through vaginal stimulation)?
Well, it was the diagnosis for hysteria that it covered, the diagnosis was completely spurious, this is pre-Freud and as it turns out, Freud’s diagnosis was spurious, but as a physical diagnosis the idea [was] that they were shifting the uterus by pelvic manipulation. [Hysteria] covered so many examples of women who were unhappy or frustrated, so, no there was no one case study that we looked at but it baffles me because we know that some men prior to the late 19th century had figured out that women could enjoy sex, because we all read Byron, we knew these guys sorted it out, but a whole body of men, it wasn’t like they were in denial, they just truly didn’t realize what they were doing, it still astonishes me.
I heard that you were going to star in NBC’s upcoming thriller Hannibal, based on Thomas Harris’ novel Red Dragon. It’s a brilliant story and it should be interesting seeing the tale of Hannibal Lector broken up episodically, but what do you hope to be the real focus of the series?
I hope that it explores the psychology of both people, the hunters and hunted. In fact, often they are one and the same thing. The character I’m playing Will Graham and Hannibal and some of the other monsters, they share a lot of qualities and that’s what makes the book, to me, quite interesting and dynamic, more than just an array of hideous crimes. If we can get that balance right and that sense of manipulation that Hannibal Lector is so good at, it’ll be real interesting.
We talk with director Tanya Wexler.
You came from this really successful family with Haskell and all these different people, did you feel pressured to make your own way or were you encouraged by your family? What was it like in that enviornment?
My family’s great. It’s funny, you know my dad was in real estate, he did really well but was not in the film business although he did help finance a film and then asked for his name to be taken off so he could exist in the business world in Chicago afterwards, but wished he hadn’t but kinda had to. I don’t know, there was never any pressure in a kind of ‘you need to be this or that’ kind of way, there was always a kind of positive pressure of you know, kind of- ‘you’re talented, you’re smart so you need to do your best work, you need to live up to who we think you are’. It wasn’t about achieving any kind of specific status or level, it was just purely you know, pressure ultimately. I used to say to my mom, oh my god, like uuuuh, I’m so stressed out and I even remember that feeling as a kid like what would you do if I ever got like a C? She was like- “you won’t so don’t worry about it” oh, that’s not a good answer and then I found out I was like the best student out of most of my siblings! Being the youngest, there are all these myths, I have 6 sisters and a brother right, so I have his and hers and I’m ours so when you’re the youngest, the youngest by far, which is now, at 41, really fun to say, I think for me, there’s always like this family kind of mythos that gets built up that you just believe. I know I did, maybe I was just naive, I don’t know, I think it was great, you know it was kind of lots of exposure, it was really cool, I got to be 13 on the set of Blade Runner, right that’s one of the best things in the entire world ever, the end, right? It’s just f-ing awesome but no one said, okay, now you get to direct this movie, right, it became tangible to me, I was like, people do this because people I know do this. I think there are other people who are born in LA and that’s the business and everyone they know does it and I think that can be easier because once you have some hint of talent or success you can start to kind of build on it much more quickly. I grew up in Chicago, it was great circumstances but I still had to do it all myself and then now that, finally, all these years later it’s starting to groove, that’s actually when having grown up in that environment and knowing people is paying.
It didn’t open a ton of doors but now that I kind of busted the doors open, now people kind of go, “oh my God, you’re Haskell’s niece” or “I remember you when you were 12” or “you’re Darryl’s sister,” you know, but it reinforces the success you make. At least for me, everyone kind of made their own way but it seems like in our family everyone ended up being a shrink or in real estate or movies… it was kind of that was what you got, you know, you could’ve done anything else but everyone else seemed to want to do that so I don’t know, it was cool though, it was awesome.