Maggie Gyllenhaal lives on Sesame Street, otherwise known as a Park Slope byway. The four-story brownstone she shares with husband Peter Sarsgaard and their 3-year-old, Ramona, has emission-free “fireplaces” and an overabundance of couches in the parlor, but the first thing you notice is a pile of well-loved paperbacks waiting to be deposited on the sidewalk. “In Brooklyn—maybe it’s the same in the city—you’re kind of allowed to put things in front of your house, and they’ll always get taken,” she says with such awe it’s hard to believe she moved to New York from L.A. fifteen years ago, at 17. From upstairs comes the sound of Ramona having a grand time doing toddler things. This is the home that’s teaching Gyllenhaal to be an adult, she explains. She gave birth and closed on the brownstone within the space of two days and learned that “when you have a child, life becomes impossible if you’re not organized. Like, to take the subway with a huge diaper bag full of all sorts of shit is awful.” Same with homeowning. “I had no idea what I was taking on: a brownstone that hadn’t been touched since the seventies. We made huge mistakes. At first, when we got bids on work, we said, ‘Of course we’ll take the cheapest bid.’ Which I would not do anymore at all.”
Her own work almost sounds like a vacation. She and Ramona romped around Santa Fe and hippie-filled hot springs while filming Crazy Heart, with Jeff Bridges in an Oscar-baiting role as an alcoholic country-and-western singer and Gyllenhaal as the rookie reporter who falls for him. And they just returned from a four-month shoot in London, where she was playing a harried WWII mother of three opposite Emma Thompson’s magical governess in Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang.
But now Gyllenhaal’s ready for more domestic improvement. She’s already got cooking down, but she’s actually been reading an instruction manual, Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House, to figure out the rest. “Honestly, I grew up with a mom who was a writer, and her mom was a doctor, and I wasn’t handed down a lot of housekeeping tips.” In a few days, a nervous Gyllenhaal will be having a group of fifteen over for a “ Russ & Daughters Christmas morning”—a compromise between her Jewish upbringing and Sarsgaard’s Catholic one—and she has a mess of shopping to do. So she suggests a trek down snowy concrete to “beautiful” gourmet shop Bklyn Larder.
On the way, Gyllenhaal marvels at the quaint little life she’s managed to carve out in this place she doesn’t really consider to be New York City (as in, “I thought I would have kids in New York City, but I’m glad I’m out of there”). She tells how, after the recent blizzard, everyone got up to shovel, except for the nightclub Southpaw. But she wasn’t mad. “I just thought, Aw, they’re still sleeping.” She raves about her favorite coffee shop, Gorilla, “though they’re a little tough there. One time Peter was like, ‘Do you think we could come over and get 20 to-go cups for a little party?’ I mean, we go there every day. And they were like, ‘Uh, I don’t think so.’ ” A garbage man waves and she waves back. “I mean, you’ve got to thank the garbage man, right?” she says, though she refuses to speculate with me on which of her movies he’s seen. “Our block, it’s like Sesame Street. It really is. There are people who live in one room, and people who own the whole brownstone. There are people of all colors. When we were living in the West Village, there was that whole black-tranny-hooker contingent, which is completely wiped out now. Here, everything converges.”
Picking out her cheese plate at Larder, Gyllenhaal already knows she wants Petit Agour and Stichelton. Vacherin Mont d’Or is too “holiday season; they’re very sophisticated, my friends.” She dislikes a particularly earthy-tasting Pecorino Gregoriano she tries, but decides to get it anyway: “My husband will love that kind of dirty-whore cheese.” In search of something soft and gooey, she calls her mother, screenwriter Naomi Foner. “Hi, I’m doing an interview, but I have a quick question because we’re, like, fake-cheese-shopping in the interview, but I am actually buying cheese. What is that kind you used to buy, with the ceramic dish and the cream, that was so delicious?” The counterman, listening in, says he’ll get in some Saint Marcellin tomorrow for her, and the shopping—fake and real—is finished.
On the walk home, I ask Gyllenhaal—who, truth be told, had wanted to see Kandinsky at the Guggenheim instead of shop—if she has any lowbrow guilty pleasures. Does she watch reality TV? “No! Do you?” Does she want to see Avatar? “Peter really wants to go. Oh, I saw Up in the Air last night. It was sort of a guilty pleasure. Different from watching an Almodóvar movie.” And later on, she’s getting Sarsgaard to take her to Ikea. “We read a lot of novels, and we have boxes and boxes of books we’ve given away, but we have eight more to sort through, and at this point, I just want them off of the floor. I don’t care if the bookshelves are beautiful.”