The new Netflix original drama The Kindergarten Teacher puts Maggie Gyllenhaal in a very different light. The film follows Lisa Spinelli (Gyllenhaal), who becomes obsessed with Jimmy (Parker Sevak), one of her students, whom she believes is a child prodigy. She starts paying more attention to the boy, but her involvement soon takes a dangerous turn. The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and will debut Friday, October 12 on Netflix.
I sat down with Maggie and director Sara Colangelo to discuss their film and working with young children. ~Marriska Fernandes
Maggie, your character is complex and flawed. What did you see in her that you identified with?
I really do relate to her. I think a lot of women right this minute are waking up to the fact that we aren’t satisfied and we are starving. A lot of things we accepted or ways that we twisted ourselves into pretzels to get the things we needed to survive — there’s a consequence for that. When we made the movie, it was last summer after Trump had been elected. There was this energy, around New York anyway, this combination of radical energy and malaise. And I think Lisa has both of those things. She crosses all sorts of lines and does incredibly problematic things — she really does fall apart, but I still relate to her.
Sara, this is a remake of an Israeli film with your own touch on parenting and other themes. Can you talk about what resonated with you?
I think there’s a certain intensity to the story that really attracted me at first and I love the moral ambiguity of it. It’s not this black or white dualistic thing where Lisa is good or bad. There’s something to me immediately relatable about her, my heart breaks for her. At the same time she’s committing many transgressions and crossing sacred boundaries as a teacher, as a protective person in this boy’s life. That was immediately exciting for me. And I think Nadav Lapid, who did the Israeli film, does a beautiful job weaving the story between the male student’s point of view and the teacher’s point of view. I really wanted to root my version of it in her point of view and really look at her psychology and see the world through her eyes. It’s also a film about the value and space we give art in society and setting it in the U.S. and asking that question here as opposed to Israel is very different.
Can you talk about filming with the kids? I heard Maggie really was like a kindergarten teacher to them.
Sara: Yeah, we discussed this a lot. How are we going to run this set when we have these classroom scenes? In order to get the performances from the kids, we really felt that Maggie had to be the teacher — I had to kind of step back. We put the camera in the corner and really tried to keep the camera back as much as possible and let her run the class and have an activity going on. It was kind of amazing. The kids really wanted to please you and were calling you Mrs. Spinelli.
Maggie: Right, because they knew it was a movie but they could hold both of those things totally truthfully in their mind at the same time because they’re very little. So if they’re painting, they’re really painting. If they start doing letters, they’re like, “I totally know because I’m in first grade (laughs).”
Sara: It was very fluid. It was kind of amazing.
Maggie: It was. It was also like 100 degrees, no air conditioning with the children. I love the way all our faces looked so sweaty. It all just fed all of it, not only the energy of the classroom, which is great, because she has to be a great teacher. If she’s not a great teacher you don’t really have a movie. She’s a wonderful teacher and you get that from the energy. Not only was I acting in the scenes and having to be in every single second of the movie, but also doing this extra job and taking care of all these kids. The kids would ask me if they needed to go to the bathroom or if they wanted a snack.
You both are parents as well. Did that help inform your roles?
Sara: Yeah, my son was six months old when we were shooting. So in a way, I actually looked to you [Maggie] a lot because your daughter is the same age as Parker. So you had a much more intuitive sense of what would work vs. not with him. And you couldn’t tell Parker to act now or be more angry or what do you think this character is feeling. That’s not the right language. It was much more basic, like repeat after me or say this.
Maggie: We let him be alive on camera. I don’t think he was acting. He barely knows the camera’s on him, he’s just being five. But the horrible stuff, the boundaries being crossed, we did not want him to experience that so we made it completely pretend. Stand on that X, look out the window, now look back at the window and say, “I don’t want to go!” And he would just repeat after Sara or repeat after me and we kept it really clinical to protect him.
Maggie, what do you enjoy about exploring these complicated characters?
I think we’re all complicated people. I don’t want to take on a project that’s long with 14 or 16 hour days unless there’s something really interesting to do and explore. And also I remember my 12-year-old daughter has been around for a lot of the talk about [the HBO series] The Deuce. I never really told her I play a sex worker and she asked me, “I don’t really understand. What are you doing?” And I said, “It’s kind of grown up.” I explained it to her in a very simple way and she said, “I don’t understand why you would want to play that person?” And I said, “Well, I want to play that person because so many people in the world judge someone like her. They don’t see her humanity. And I want to encourage empathy and understanding for people who aren’t always given that humanity.” I think with Lisa, I wanted to make it nearly impossible to judge her. Of course you have to, you can’t stick with her the whole way, but I wanted to make it really hard. Then you have to question your own morality and your own ethics.
Thanks so much for the chat!
The Kindergarten Teacher premieres Friday, October 12 on Netflix.