- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 9, 2006

Maggie Gyllenhaal is the daughter of Emmy-nominated director Stephen Gyllenhaal and Oscar-nominated writer-producer Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal. She played the sister of her real-life brother, actor Jake Gyllenhaal, in the 2001 cult favorite “Donnie Darko.”

That’s quite a pedigree. Yet the actress, who turns 29 Thursday, is building a career in Hollywood that’s all her own.

Her latest film, “Stranger Than Fiction,” opens in theaters today. She plays Ana Pascal, an independent baker being audited by IRS agent Harold Crick, played by Will Ferrell. Although Harold has a lot going on in his life — he can hear his every move narrated by an unseen author (Emma Thompson) — he can’t help but fall for the saucy chef who tells him to “Get bent” when they first meet.

“My character was trying to wake him up, shake some life into him,” Miss Gyllenhaal explains, speaking by telephone.

Is there an actress who would be a better choice for such a nervy role?

Miss Gyllenhaal made her breakthrough in 2002’s “Secretary.” She played the title character alongside James Spader as a lawyer who starts a sadomasochistic relationship with his disturbed employee.

“I adore her. How could I not?” says “Secretary” director Steven Shainberg, in town recently to promote his upcoming film “Fur.”

“She has complex powers,” he says of the actress.

After years as one of the hippest darlings of the indie scene — in 2002 alone, she also appeared in “Adaptation” and “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” — Miss Gyllenhaal has started taking on roles in larger films. Earlier this year, she played Allison Jimeno, the pregnant wife of a police officer trapped in the rubble in Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center.”

She hasn’t purposely tried to take on more “Hollywood” pictures: “Whether it’s a studio movie or not is less important than what the material’s like,” the actress says. “I choose movies and roles based on what I feel I have to work with and go through.”

Working with “Stranger Than Fiction” director Marc Forster (“Finding Neverland”) offered her a new kind of working experience. Mr. Forster would shoot multiple takes in a row, without cutting in between. It was a style of filming Miss Gyllenhaal hadn’t experienced before.

“It amped it up to this fairy-tale thing,” she says of the film. “It had a crazy energy it might not otherwise have had.”

Miss Gyllenhaal has lent her own trademark quirky energy to some other films this year, including “Trust the Man,” co-starring Julianne Moore and David Duchovny, and “Paris, je t’aime.” The latter is a collection of short films all set in Paris. Miss Gyllenhaal played a lonely American actress in Paris in director Olivier Assayas’ segment and got a chance to show off some French. (She has a bachelor’s degree in English from Columbia University.)

She also has made some notable stage appearances over the past few years, playing Alice in Patrick Marber’s “Closer” (later made into a film) and Priscilla Ceiling in Tony Kushner’s “Homebody/ Kabul,” both at Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum.

She would love to take to the boards again, but having worked with two of the world’s most notable playwrights, the actress says, “I was kind of spoiled. Because doing the same thing with the same people every night for months, you have to make sure it’s an amazing project.”

It may be a while before we see Miss Gyllenhaal onstage or on-screen again. Last month, she and her fiance, actor Peter Sarsgaard, became the parents of Ramona Gyllenhaal Sarsgaard.

“It certainly, so far, has deepened my life, and it’s only been a month,” she says. “Before I could go and get completely lost in a character.” Now, the actress says, she’ll have to “experiment” to find the right balance between art and life.

Art on film

Montreal’s International Festival of Films on Art is the oldest showcase for movies on architecture, cinema, dance, music and the visual arts.

Thanks to Foreign Affairs Canada, the Canadian Embassy and one District venue, Washington has its own minifestival devoted to the subject.

Each year, the National Gallery of Art presents the award-winning films from the Montreal festival, now in its 24th year. This year’s program, which runs for two consecutive weekends starting Nov. 18, features films from 10 countries.

Highlights of the program include “Beethoven’s Hair” (Nov. 19 at 4:30 p.m.), which follows the journey of a lock of the composer’s hair taken at his deathbed from 19th-century Vienna to a home in late-20th-century Arizona; “Bergman and the Theatre” (Nov. 25 at noon), in which Ingmar Bergman recalls the 100-plus plays he directed at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm; and “Building the Gherkin” (Nov. 24 at 2 p.m.), a look at the second-tallest building in London and its architect, the controversial Norman Foster, called “Lord Wobbly” by London’s tabloids.

Admission is free. Films are shown in the East Building Auditorium at Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue Northwest. A full list of films can be found on the Web at www.nga.gov/programs/filmart.shtm#nov18.

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