And her star turn in the gritty low-budget film "Sherrybaby" — about a woman who returns home after serving time in prison — has garnered raves, awards from international film festivals and a Golden Globe nomination.
To top it off, she and her fiancé, actor Peter Sarsgaard, welcomed their baby girl, Ramona, three months ago.
A year of media obligations wound down with tea at a Hollywood restaurant just before the holidays, as Gyllenhaal discussed "Sherrybaby," sex in the movies and one decidedly unwelcome side effect of childbirth.
What first attracted you to "Sherrybaby"?
The script was just extraordinarily good. It was written the way people actually behave, and I think that's really unusual. What really appealed to me about it when I read it — and I do think I pushed this further than [director] Laurie [Collyer] had originally anticipated — I think that Sherry is in such dire straits that she doesn't have the luxury of allowing herself to feel any kind of pain or anger.
The only tool that she has is a kind of fierce and naive hopefulness. So I was looking for what was hopeful and good and pleasurable in every situation.
Even things like all the sex scenes in the movie, which are pretty disturbing to watch, were not disturbing to play, because I was looking at it from her point of view, which was the only way she could have sex like that was to turn it around, ethically.
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I think she believes in every one of those cases, "I want you, I want to feel good, I've been in prison for three years, I want to have an orgasm, I want pleasure, I want a connection."
You don't shy away from acting in some pretty intense sex scenes — in "Sherrybaby," as well as "Secretary." How do you approach them?
I think sex in movies can be a really great way of storytelling. I see a lot of sex scenes when people stop acting, and all of a sudden they're doing soft-core porn. But if you think about your life, even with the worst sex, so much is happening, so many thoughts, so if you let that be true in a scene, I think a lot is communicated.
Plus, you don't have to memorize any lines. I had a lot of trouble watching myself in "Sherrybaby," it was much harder for me to watch it than to shoot those scenes, just because they're so exposed.
But I kind of felt like if there were less nudity in "Sherrybaby" it would have been more gratuitous, that there's so much that it's kind of like, "This girl who can't keep her clothes on, what's going on with her?"
Most of the movies you were in this year were made a year or two ago. Have you been working on any films this past year?
I took time off, but I had sooo much press.
Do you have work lined up?
No. I'm going to wait and see what I feel capable of doing. When Ramona was a month old, I never would have done this. It just sort of emerges, what feels comfortable.
You seem to have a pretty low-key life in New York. Has that changed with all your recent roles or are you left alone for the most part?
I used to be left alone, but with my pregnancy it changed, with something about the climate of the world and all the tabloid magazines it's changed, and also with Ramona being born it changed.
And I have to say, I was horrified by the way the paparazzi dealt with us when she was born. When I was in transition labor going to the hospital, there were 30 photographers outside of our house.
We had a reporter buzz our buzzer over and over again for an hour when she was 5 days old. They called the fire department, twice, to try to get us out of our building. It's just outrageous. And the truth is, I don't care at all if they take pictures of me anymore, but I do not want them to come in droves and photograph my daughter.
There are so many things going on in the world that are so much worse, and I'm so lucky in so many ways, so I don't want to complain too much about it. It's just that I don't think most people know what goes into getting those pictures that are in those magazines.