Behind the scenes of the Netflix movie people can't stop talking about
Maggie Gyllenhaal opens up about her new psychological thriller 'The Kindergarten Teacher.' And Oscar voters are paying attention.
In “The Kindergarten Teacher,” now streaming on Netflix, Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a woman far more complex than the film’s title suggests. As teacher Lisa Spinelli, she feels creatively stifled, unfulfilled and frustrated by her life. When she discovers that a 5-year-old boy in her class is a poetry prodigy, what starts out as creative encouragement turns into obsession and leads her to behave in inappropriate and increasingly dangerous ways. The movie is a psychological drama with both darkly comic and shocking overtones.
The film is adapted from the 2014 Israeli movie of the same name. The New York Times called the original, directed by Tel Aviv native Nadav Lapid, "remarkably powerful." Gyllenhaal talked about it after an Envelope Live screening hosted by The Los Angeles Times.
“I used to say this is a movie about the consequences of what can happen if you starve a vibrant woman’s mind, but it’s really about watching somebody falling apart,” she said. ”We all could fall apart. We all do fall apart. I’m interested in what that does to you. It’s scary. You’re both with her and not with her from early on because she does things that are really problematic.”
As the mother of a daughter who was the same age, Gyllenhaal worried about the effect some scenes would have on 5-year-old actor Parker Sevak. “There was a moment where I thought, ‘I don’t know if I can do this movie. How do we make this movie and not compromise this child in some way? I don’t want this child to feel like his boundaries are crossed in the way that the character’s boundaries are crossed.’”
Working with a neophyte child actor posed other problems as well. The movie was shot over just 22 days in the summer of 2017 in New York, and per labor laws Sevak could only work limited hours. A stand-in substituted for him when the camera was on Gyllenhaal. “Lots of times, I was working with a 50-year-old bearded person, thinking, ‘This is really weird,’” she said. “But it has to work.”
Getting the film made at all was a feat in itself, and the tight budget didn’t help, Gyllenhaal noted. “You can imagine how difficult it was to finance this movie,” she said. “I was changing my clothes in the bathroom of the Staten Island ferry. Nobody should be naked in the bathroom of the Staten Island ferry. On one level I’m so proud that we were able to do it for nothing, but on another level, I’m like, ‘Why? We just need a little more money, not to put in our pockets but to make our movie.’ We did it as best we could.”
Gyllenhaal – the star of HBO’s “The Deuce” who was nominated for an Oscar for “Crazy Heart” and earned a Golden Globe and an Emmy nomination for “The Honorable Woman” – seeks out multifaceted, complex characters and stories and believes audiences want to see them on screen. “People can tolerate something that hurts, that is complicated, and compelling and painful and truthful,” she said. “I’m so proud of this movie and I’m so glad people are seeing it and responding well.”
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