Maggie Gyllenhaal on 'The Honorable Woman' and Tackling a Timely Political Topic: 'Sometimes Art Can Feel Like the Only Way In'

Maggie Gyllenhaal in the SundanceTV original series 'The Honorable Woman' - Photo Credit: Des Willie

Call it a miniseries, a limited-run series, a series conceived with an indeterminate future. Call it whatever you want, but when talking about the Fargo's and the True Detective's — that is, the shorter-than-usual seasons of great TV drama the networks have unspooled so far this year — prepare to add Sundance's The Honorable Woman to the list.

Oscar nominee Maggie Gyllenhaal stars in the eight-part series as Nessa Stein, an Anglo-Israeli businesswoman who witnessed the murder of her Israeli arms dealer father as a child. As the head of her family's business, the Stein Group, Nessa idealistically, and somewhat naively, tries to make amends for her family's role in the ongoing war between the Israelis and the Palestinians with a project that aims to make communication, and therefore opportunities, available to all Palestinians. The geopolitical environment in which she must operate, however, is complicated not only by opposing territories but also by opposing spies with opposing agendas. It all helps turn The Honorable Woman into a spy thriller with the usual twists and turns, as well as a deep character study and a family saga that has more than a little in common with classics such as The Godfather.

[Related: TV Review: 'The Honorable Woman']

And the performances are excellent throughout, including Stephen Rea as a weary MI6 officer; Lubna Azabal as Nessa's confidante Atika; Yigal Naor as Shlomo, the surrogate uncle who also wants a business partnership with Nessa; and Gyllenhaal, who slowly unfolds the personal tolls her character pays to pursue her plans for her family's redemption.

Gyllenhaal talked to Yahoo TV about how she prepared for a story that revolves around such a complicated, divisive topic, how TV work offered her an opportunity she'd never gotten on the big screen, and whether or not there might be more primetime projects in her future.

Maggie Gyllenhaal in the SundanceTV original series 'The Honorable Woman' - Photo Credit: Des Willie

Regarding the geopolitical aspect of The Honorable Woman, which is especially timely, most people probably feel they have a basic understanding of the situation in the Middle East. But the series makes it accessible in a way it might not have been previously. I think it's very likely the series is going to spark further exploration and a lot of reading and discussion on that topic for some viewers. Was that true for you as a result of making The Honorable Woman?

I love that you say that. And yes, I found that in order to do it, I had to learn a lot more than I knew. I had a basic understanding, and now, even as I'm compulsively reading the news on what is happening in Israel and Palestine, I've been educating myself about the geopolitics even in the past six months. So I love that you say that because I hope a couple of things. I think in this country, a lot of people are ashamed of what they don't know, which is so understandable, because it is so shifting and changing. It's hard to keep up with, and I understand that, so it's amazing if the show makes you go, "Wait, who's Hezbollah again? Let me just look it up." Or, "What's the difference between Fatah and Hamas? Wait, what are they talking about?" So you read about it, and then you know. There's that element of it, and I have that experience, too, going through it and learning about it.

Then also, this has to do with it being long-form television and airing once a week. I know that ultimately you'll be able to watch it all at once, but there's something nice about this space in between episodes where you have an hour each week where you can use this as a fictional backdrop to throw your ideas against, to throw your feelings against and consider them. Of course, it's just a piece of art, but when it is putting light on what sometimes feels like an impossible topic, I think it becomes valuable as a piece of art. Sometimes art can feel like the only way in. Not that it's going to solve problems, but maybe it can make people listen with their hearts and their brains in a slightly different way than reading the newspaper does.

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What drew you to television, to the role of Nessa Stein?
Well, unlike a lot of television, I had all the scripts when I started, and they were really exquisite. I read them and couldn't put them down. Basically the script was a really good indication, I think, of what it was going to be, with this woman, this character. I'd never read anything like that before, where the possibility of expressing so many elements of being a woman my age was in there.

And I think probably as I got more and more informed about what was happening in that part of the world, the idea of trying to create a character that could speak to both sides really excited me and consumed me and required a lot of thinking and feeling. You know, the family aspect, the emotional aspects of it — that's a different kind of work than considering the political aspects of it, but both appeal to me, both drew me. It took every single thing I had. There's nothing more I could have done; that's it, that's the full offering.

Andrew Buchan, Reeve Fletcher, Katherine Parkinson and Nicole Lopes in the SundanceTV original series 'The Honorable Woman' - Photo Credit: Robert Viglasky

It really is a saga; the story spans such a wide range of time and personal and family history for Nessa.
That's what I loved about it, that she's somebody who uses her brain, her heart, her body — every single element of herself in order to do the work she does, in order to live the life she leads, but that happens as you go along. I think when it starts, the very beginning, you're watching someone who spent most of her life performing herself. Over the course of the first episode, that starts to become impossible for her, so you're meeting her at the moment where who she actually is starts exploding out. Then as you continue, you see every single bit of Nessa start to come alive, and it's not necessarily pleasant for her.

This story could have been told in two hours, and it probably would have been a very tightly plotted thriller. In this format, there's time to develop several of the characters: Nessa, Atika, Rea's Hugh Hayden-Hoyle. This format seems more suited to the kind of projects you like to do. Does it have you itching to do more TV work?
Yeah. I can see that it's so intimate, and it's so intense, and it goes so deep because it's four times as long... when it's an ideal situation, it's heaven. I can also imagine though, that if it weren't such a great situation, it could be awful. I know what it is now... the whole reason I wanted to do this was to explore and express myself. I've never been more explorative than in this, but I can also see how working in a different way, it might not give you what this experience gave me. Basically, I'd do anything with [writer and director] Hugo Blick. I loved him. I loved working with him.

[Related: 'Honorable Woman' Writer-Director Hugo Blick Talks His 'Meditative Pace,' Why Viewers Should Stick Around]

And I do really like the long form. Peter [Sarsgaard], my husband, had just worked on The Killing, and he was saying to me, it's just like you have a bigger canvas and you can explore different elements. I think it's more like a novel... you can get into things you just really would not be able to get into in a two-hour form. I got to explore all these really unusual, strange nooks and crannies of this woman that I think there might not have been space for in a shorter piece. Those are the things that I think we're all hungry for, right? Especially in terms of seeing portrayals of women, and those less-often-seen elements of women that we all relate to.

Maggie Gyllenhaal and Andrew Buchan in the SundanceTV original series 'The Honorable Woman' - Photo Credit: Des Willie

Even the title has more of an impact in this longer format. You have the chance to really delve into Nessa's attempt to be an honorable woman and what that means with the weight of her family's history on her back, versus the business and political realities of her world.

A lot of people have said, "Oh, she's a powerful woman," and I think she is a powerful woman, and she's admirably uncompromising in her intelligence and her grace. I compromise mine a lot more than she does. But she's also all these other things. She's weak and confused and childlike. I think that real exploration of that combination of things, I had never been given an opportunity to play before, and I think it does have to do with the eight-hour form. What she thinks is honorable and good, what she thinks is right, shifts so much, so massively. Usually, in a two-hour form, there is something that is right. Maybe it has to be reevaluated once, or it just remains, "This is right and this is wrong, and that's going to be our moral compass for the piece." In this case, Nessa seems to be so right in what she's trying to do, and then it just turns on itself and everything has to be reevaluated again and again.

[Related: Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard Promote Peace at 'The Honorable Woman' Premiere]

No specifics, but there is more story to be told, more that we want to know about some of the characters at the end of the miniseries. What are the chances of a second season, a sequel, or prequel with some of the characters?
What Hugo said at the [Television Critics Association summer press tour] was that, basically, no, he wants people to be able to trust that this is the story we're telling, and that we have completed it, and that we're not going to trick you into wanting more. I felt like in some ways he was saying it's not a money venture... this is our story, and we've told it. At the same time, to be totally honest, I feel that there's a little opening. Not that he's being dishonest, but I would love to play Nessa again, and I don't feel like it's a done deal. Hugo is so different than anyone else that I've ever met working in film or television... I think we just have to wait and see if Nessa comes back to him and he wants to write another story about her. But he has said no, and maybe I'm silly, but I'm holding on to a slight possibility. I think there's more to explore too. But if it's not Nessa, I'm sure Hugo and I will collaborate again and soon.

The Honorable Woman premieres July 31 at 10 p.m. on Sundance.