Maggie Gyllenhaal was not initially inclined to accept the lead in The Honourable Woman, but Hugo Blick — creator, executive producer, writer and director of the BBC/SundanceTV limited series — won her over.
And Gyllenhaal went on to win a best-actress Golden Globe for her nuanced portrayal of Nessa Stein, an Anglo-Israeli philanthropist.
Gyllenhaal’s character, like the series’ Mideast setting, is conflicted and multi-layered.
Stein’s father amassed a fortune selling weapons to Israel. Wanting to make amends and bring greater economic parity to the region, Stein and her brother spearhead a project to run optical-fiber cables into the West Bank.
But forces intervene, and their beneficent efforts get spun into a tangled tale of international intrigue and espionage.
In an interview with emmy contributor Ann Farmer, Blick and Gyllenhaal discuss the series, which has found an extended life on Netflix.
Although The Honourable Woman is set against the large-scale complexities and deeply entrenched animosities surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there is an accessible human story for viewers to connect to. How do you describe it?
Blick: What I set out to achieve was this big, big story that people are aware of but don't necessarily feel an emotional connection to if they aren't directly involved in it.
The story I wanted to tell, first and foremost, was about one person's response to the intractable problems there. And I'm going to place a woman at the center of the story who herself is deeply conflicted.
It's fair to say that Nessa has experienced considerable trauma in her life, starting with seeing her father murdered when she was a young child.
Gyllenhaal: She says in episode eight, "I deserve this, I deserve all of this. I inherited this." I think her reasons for doing all she does change a lot as the piece goes on.
In the beginning, she feels at odds with what her father was doing, and that it's her responsibility to shift the focus of the company. By helping to lessen the economic gap between Israel and Palestine, she feels that she is making a huge impact on the situation there, and a worthwhile impact. And as it goes on, a lot of other things come into play.
Hugo, I understand that you had to convince Maggie to take the part?
Blick: That is absolutely true. One reason was the sheer scale of the story. She's used to working in film. Here was this project set at eight hours. With an eight-hour story, you really are approaching a much more real-life experience in a performance.
Another reason was the idea of being able to lose control of the performance and the character in terms of narrative, which I'm sure was quite spooky for Maggie. But when she got involved, I daresay it was one of the most creative experiences with character construction that she's had.
So the heavy geopolitical backdrop didn't hold you back, Maggie?
Gyllenhaal: I was only turned on by who Nessa was and the geopolitics of it. And of course, there is the operatic element of this — the thriller stuff, the kidnapping, the murders. There is that element that is larger than life.
But ultimately, at the heart of it, it was totally truthful. And I could see myself in it. I could see a way of pushing the edges of this character to get myself in and learn something about myself by playing it.
In the scenes where Nessa is sexually humiliated, I was reminded of Maggie's early role in the film Secretary. And I was wondering, Hugo, if you had drawn that connection when you thought to cast her.
Blick: No. I really only care about the demands of the character on the page, and the rhythms I feel the actor has within her to express herself fluidly on the screen.
Maggie has great physical poise: the length of her body, the way that she moves. It was important to have this, because she was going to move through very elegant subsections of society. And I think Maggie has a huge intellectual capacity to take on the macro story of this piece.
What did you end up liking most about playing Nessa Stein?
Gyllenhaal: I learned so much. You meet Nessa right when this performance of herself that she's been giving to everyone in her life — not just her professional life but in every aspect of her life — isn't working anymore. You meet her just as the reality of who she is is sort of exploding out of her. She can't keep it in anymore. And that's a really interesting place to enter a story.
The scenes often move in a languid manner….
Blick: It's meant to be a profile of a woman in shock. And I wanted to clue the audience that all her confidence is external. And I wanted to peel those layers off quite slowly.
Everyone seems to have a hidden agenda….
Blick: It's the Middle East. If it were simple, people would have figured it out long before I needed to tell a story about it.
Both sides have a clearly intractable point of view. And they both believe their side is right. And it is the purpose of this drama not to present one side says this, the other side says that, because it would become boring.
However, on the motivation of characters throughout, there isn't anybody in there who is doing something that they don't perceive to be [in the service of] a better end. So evil — if it happens — is done because it's for the better end. When the CIA gets involved, when American politics gets involved, they are trying to find an end to this conflict.
Nessa is also a woman of secrets. What were the challenges of playing someone who appears vulnerable and opaque at the same time?
Gyllenhaal: One of the things that's so special about this project is that we cross-boarded the entire thing. Which means that on any given day we might be shooting something from episode one, something from episode six, something from episode eight. So I gave myself permission to not be organized in that movie way. I walked into each scene having, of course, done the work. Then I'd see where it really and truly took me.
And that is a luxury you can only afford yourself if the writing is incredible. And if you have a director who truly trusts you and can say, "Oh, this is nothing like how I imagined the scene being played. But look, it's believable. I'm into it."
Without giving away too much, there is a scene in which you betray someone close to you. You took some creative license with that scene, right?
Gyllenhaal: That scene was not written to be emotional. It was just sort of a simple scene. But for some reason, I took my clothes off and sat on the floor in my underwear crying into the scene.
That kind of wild choice is not something I would feel comfortable doing in very many situations.
Hugo, did you leave it up to the individual cast members to suss out the riddles in the story?
Blick: Of course, I'm there to help. But I'm like, "Find out. Find out for yourself. Because your character is on a journey of exploration. That's why there is a story. So to help you find that authenticity and that authority in performance, make it a journey for yourself as an actor as well. Research the issues surrounding your character."
And it really often works. A truth is a strange thing to be told. And it nearly is always told by the details.
This is a heady piece that requires some basic knowledge of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the geography of the region. Americans aren't necessarily known for their grasp of world geography….
Gyllenhaal: This is an opportunity to learn about something that is so incredibly important right this very minute. I was hoping that it would draw people in who weren't particularly interested in that area and those politics. So I was hoping as people were watching it — just as I did when I was reading it — they'd say, "I think I know what Hezbollah is. But I'm going to take out my phone and I'm going to look it up. I'm going to be sure."
Maggie, I was struck by how much deeper than usual your voice sounds in this series….
Gyllenhaal: I spent two or three weeks with [voice coach] Sandra Butterworth. And she said, "Okay, you know how to do an English accent. Now just relax and let your voice drop down into being your voice." So I think it has a depth to it, a grown-up quality that maybe actually is me.
Almost all the powerful players in this story are women. Why?
Blick: That was a conscious decision. There is an element of the classic thriller where male characters solve a problem by throwing themselves against it. It's the heroic nature of male characters in crisis — they solve a problem by beating it down.
Whereas I was really interested in placing women at the center of this kind of story to explore the more fluid and unusual way in which they might approach it. So instead of going straight at the crisis, they would go around the problem, deal with it in a less linear way.
And I found that to be a really uplifting experience in terms of storytelling. Also, let's be honest: in many thrillers, women appear as wives, prostitutes or dead, whereas in our story they're both empowered and psychologically fully rounded. They are in power because they happen to be good at their job.
And yet, the Stephen Rea character, Sir Hugh Hayden-Hoyle, who is the outgoing head of the Middle East desk of the British secret service, turns out to be the most lovable in my opinion.
Gyllenhaal: Well that's nice. But you know what? He's the only one who slept his way to the top (laughs). Which, let's be honest, is the normal archetype for the women.
A lot of the shots are contained. What was your game plan in terms of how to shoot this film?
Blick: You place a camera in the best position you hope will reveal the psychology of the characters you're watching. As much as possible as a director, I try to keep out of the way and let the audience see the characters for themselves.
That said, a tension needed to be maintained between this sort of intimacy and the story's more epic elements, so I was careful to inject wide vistas and big thriller set pieces to counterbalance the quieter moments of psychological exploration.
What was it like to shoot outdoor scenes in Morocco?
Blick: The desert is such a strange place. Because logistically, when one is looking one way, it's completely empty. When you look the other way, there're 300 people behind you. And all you're trying to do is create these gossamer-thin moments of interaction between the actor and the lens.
Are there things you would change, in retrospect?
Blick: There is a glib moment in a killing in one episode. I would have killed him a couple of seconds quicker (laughs). I think he's got too long to think about it.
What do you hope people take away from this series in terms of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
Gyllenhaal: I think my intention in playing Nessa was to — and I'm not sure I accomplished this at all — but I was trying to create a person who could speak to both sides of this issue. I guess I just hope that it opens up peoples' minds and hearts to consider what's happening in that part of the world.
How hard was it to leave this story and these characters behind? Do they continue to haunt you?
Blick: The whole story was in the telling in that eight hours. I hope the audience will love it. Even if you don't — if you've got an argument about it — there it is: the thing itself. The painting on the wall. You can love it. You can dislike it. You can argue about it. But it's finished. And that's it.
Photographs by Lee Strickland and Des Willie