She's so Vanya

Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Russian roulette with Peter Sarsgaard in Uncle Vanya.

FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE Gyllenhaal turns heads in a Chekhov classic.

FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE Gyllenhaal turns heads in a Chekhov classic. Photograph: Joan Marcus

When Maggie Gyllenhaal was announced as one of the stars of Classic Stage Company’s Uncle Vanya, you had to wonder: Would she portray the alluring Yelena or the plain Sonya? It’s a testament to her talent that she could easily step into either part. At once an indie darling and a mainstream movie star with an offbeat beauty that has earned her modeling contracts and snarky online insults, Gyllenhaal, 31, has no problem transforming herself to suit a character, even if it means putting vanity on hold. For Vanya, however, she will be playing up her glamorous side as Yelena, the attractive but idle object of affection for a trio of men, including doctor-cum-environmentalist Astrov, played by Gyllenhaal’s real-life partner, Peter Sarsgaard. It’s her first time tackling Chekhov and only her second New York stage appearance after 2004’s Homebody/Kabul, but if the actor is nervous, it doesn’t show.

How did you land the part?
Last year Tony Kushner called me to do a last-minute reading at CSC and afterward we had dinner with the artistic director, Brian Kulick, who mentioned he was doing Vanya. They both said I’d be perfect for Yelena. I’d read the play in college and I didn’t really remember her; she hadn’t made an impression on me. But when I reread it, I realized that I had to play her.

Why’s that?
This role is absolutely right for me right now. I think Yelena’s often misunderstood. I feel so much empathy and compassion for her. A major part of her is missing, which is her as an artist. She’s a pianist, and yet she’s told all through the play that she has nothing to do, that she’s just meant to be looked at. She kind of wakes up as the play goes on. I guess I relate to that.

Were you apprehensive about acting opposite Peter?
I recommended him for the part! We did a short film back in 2006, but it wasn’t a satisfying artistic experience because I was so pregnant, it was hard to focus on my work. When I heard CSC was looking for an Astrov, I thought, Why not Peter? This is the perfect way for us to collaborate, in a small 200-seat theater where we can just explore. We have this wild scene in Act III that’s really physical with all these hairpin turns, and I’ve mixed up my lines a few times. I never do that with anyone else, but with Peter it’s like, Fuck it, let’s just do whatever happens. I so trust him as an artist.

I read that you and he usually alternate gigs so that one of you can be with your daughter, Ramona. How are you managing that now?
I literally was calling Austin [Pendleton, the director] and saying, “We want to do this but we need to find a nanny.” My mom came and lived with us for a while. She convinced me that it was okay to lean on her by saying that Michelle Obama’s mom was moving into the White House.

What’s this Vanya like?
At CSC, the audience is on three sides and our set bifurcates the space with these columns, so there’s nowhere you can sit where you will see absolutely everything. If you sit house right or house left, you’ll see a different play. There’s also no set staging. Austin encouraged us to experiment without quelling our instincts.

Ever worry that critics or audiences see you as a film star dabbling in theater?
You know, it’s interesting...I went to Columbia and I did tons of theater, I spent time at RADA and I started out in regional theater, all before doing movies. It’s not like I woke up one day and went, “Ooh look, theater!” The problem with theater is if you don’t have an extraordinary cast and play and director, it’s awful, because you have to do it over and over and over again.

So you’d do more stage work?
Absolutely. I really want to play Masha in Three Sisters. And I would like to do a musical. I’m a good singer—not an extraordinary one—so it would have to be a show where I don’t have to sing sing. And I may play Yelena again. The day I decided to do the CSC show, I got a call saying I was offered another production of Uncle Vanya on the West End. Somehow characters just find you if they’re right for you.

Uncle Vanya is at Classic Stage Company through March 8.

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Team Theater gives you a primer on the Russian master.