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'The Deuce' Looks At New York's Grimy 1970's Sex Trade


In the HBO series "The Deuce," Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a sex worker in Times Square who is different from other sex workers. She does not have a pimp. Here's a scene where a new girl on the street meets Maggie Gyllenhaal's character for the first time.


EMILY MEADE: (As Lori) Who's your man?

MAGGIE GYLLENHAAL: (As Candy) No man, just me.

MEADE: (As Lori) No man - how's that work?

GYLLENHAAL: (As Candy) You've got to work a little harder. You got to be little more careful. Sometimes a guy will burn you for some cash, or a player will press you for a moment or two. But it works for me.

MCEVERS: It works for her, but it is not easy. The show is set in 1971, and it follows Gyllenhaal's character, whose street name is Candy, through a period when the sex industry is changing and what is now a multibillion-dollar porn industry is born. Let me just say there is a lot of sex in this show. And be warned. There's a lot of talk about sex in the next eight minutes of my conversation with Maggie Gyllenhaal. She says before signing onto the project, she had one demand for show creators David Simon and George Pelecanos.

GYLLENHAAL: I said, I can't do it unless I can also be a producer so that I can have some say over what the story that we're telling actually is. And that was a big ask to be brought onto this big HBO show. I knew I couldn't do it without that. And so I was really hoping that they would agree. And they called back and agreed actually, and David called and said, I want to collaborate with you, but I also want you to trust me. And I was like, I want to trust you, but I don't know you...


GYLLENHAAL: ...You know? I mean, that's ideally what you want. But I just - you know, I didn't know. And he really understood that. We - and we ended up coming to a place, you know, that was - I would say was one of the most exciting collaborative experiences I've ever had on any job in my life.

MCEVERS: There's a lot of sex on this show.

GYLLENHAAL: (Laughter).

MCEVERS: Like, there are just a lot of sex scenes. It's a show about sex.


MCEVERS: And you know, I've read and heard a lot of interviews with the creators of the show, David Simon, George Pelecanos, Nina Noble, who say they've worked really hard to make these sex scenes less, you know, sexy I guess - like, to shoot them in a way that isn't sort of, like, re-exploiting, you know, the characters, right?

I guess my question is, like, how involved are you in those conversations? And it sounds like from what you said, you're pretty involved. And so I guess maybe give some examples of, like, how scenes were shot and you were able to talk about how to do them in a different way, in a way that felt like it still told the story but it was still somehow not exploitative.

GYLLENHAAL: I think that's a really good question actually in terms of what we're talking about producing and acting. So from an objective point of view, as a producer, I'm looking out for what our show is saying, what the conversation is. But as an actor, I was never interested in, like, making it not sexy (laughter), you know?


GYLLENHAAL: I think, like, that would never work from an acting point of view.


GYLLENHAAL: I think the ideal to hit on is, you know, for sometimes people to be turned on by watching the sex on the show. Then they're involved. Then they're viscerally invested in what's going on. And then if you have to then see the costs and the consequences for the people that just turned you on, then I think you're in a really interesting conversation.

MCEVERS: There's this one really incredible scene that I want to talk about. It's later in the season. It's Episode 5. Candy's been beaten up pretty badly by a john, and she's wearing a lot of makeup to cover the bruises and the cuts. And this pimp comes up and says, you know, that CoverGirl isn't really working. And she's like, you know - in her usual Candy way, she's like, what are you, a fashion photographer? And you know - and then it's this long conversation that goes on between the two of them. It's really something. He's trying to convince her that, you know, she won't get beat up anymore if she just, you know, decides to take him on as a pimp.


METHOD MAN: (As Rodney) You and me out here - you kidding me? I'm talking world famous, baby.

GYLLENHAAL: (As Candy, crying).

METHOD MAN: (As Rodney) You like that, huh?

GYLLENHAAL: (As Candy) Give your number to my secretary.

MCEVERS: And you can't totally see this on the radio, but you can hear it. I mean, at first she's crying, and then, you know, after a few seconds, she's back to Candy. You know, give your number to my secretary. And this happens, like, a bunch of times in the scene where she's sort of going back and forth - right? - between the tough Candy and the Candy who's kind of falling apart a little bit. I guess just talk about playing the scene. It's really something.

GYLLENHAAL: I guess I thought of that scene as really, like, life or death for Candy. She doesn't have a pimp. In some ways, I think that's, like, what she's holding onto. I've got power over my life. I'm - I've got a sense of myself. And I don't know that that's totally true about Candy, but it's what she's holding onto, right? And at this point, I just do think she gets to a place where she's like, maybe I'd just let all that go. Maybe I just kind of die. Maybe I just get Rodney to take care of me. Maybe I buy the fiction that all these other women are buying that these people are caring for them and taking care of them somehow, and I just let myself go. So there's really something at stake.

MCEVERS: Your character's a composite character who's based in part on a woman named Candida Royalle. How much did you know about her, and what is it about her story that you feel, like, is important and can sort of be recreated here?

GYLLENHAAL: She was a filmmaker. She was in front of and behind the camera. So that's interesting for Candy because I think even in Episode 2 when candy goes to make her first porn, she's, like, with all these naked people and having sex. But she's - that's incidental to her in some major way. She's, like - I think that first porn scene is, like, a birth of an artist, you know? She looks at the camera. Like, her whole worldview changes.


GYLLENHAAL: You know, what does it do to put a frame around something, something I've done every night of my life for the past however many years? What is light? You know, what are we as an image? I mean, I think she's, like - you know, her mind is blown.

MCEVERS: And then in doing all of this, the show tracks the beginning of the porn industry, like, how that all sort of happened - the thing that we know now, the thing that is so part of our lives now. The show kind of is there for the - is present at the creation.

GYLLENHAAL: Yeah, and also the way that it gets commodified. You know, rules change when there's money to be made, (laughter) you know?


GYLLENHAAL: And that's true today, and that's really a big part also of what we're watching - and the way that affects the laborers, you know, the way that affects the people who are actually doing the work.

MCEVERS: Why do you think that's important for us to think about today?

GYLLENHAAL: Well, I mean I think it's, like, really explicit and on the table now. There's no way I don't think in America right now to separate the possibility of making money from the laws that are made. They're totally entrenched. And we're seeing one example in great detail.

MCEVERS: Maggie Gyllenhaal, thank you so much.

GYLLENHAAL: Sure. Thank you. What a pleasure.

MCEVERS: That's Maggie Gyllenhaal talking about her role in HBO's "The Deuce." The first season is out now.