Maggie Gyllenhaal on The Kindergarten Teacher: 'There was space on the set to explore something unusual'

Maggie Gyllenhaal on The Kindergarten Teacher: 'There was space on the set to explore something unusual'

Actress and writer-director Sara Colangelo discuss the disturbing and intriguing drama

American remakes of overseas films are too often guilty of being crass or reductive. Sara Colangelo's The Kindergarten Teacher (reviewed here), though, might be the exception. Based on Israeli director Nadiv Lapid's acclaimed 2014 film Haganenet, it stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as Lisa Spinelli, a Staten Island married mother-of-two who has worked for twenty years in the education system.

Following up her 2014 debut Little Accidents, Colangelo gradually came round to the idea of transposing Lapid's film to an American setting. 'I felt like I could do something wildly different with it,' she says. The result is an ambiguous and layered drama, as Lisa takes an unhealthy interest in her 5 year-old pupil Jimmy (Parker Sevak) when she discovers his uncanny ability with poetry.

The big coup came casting Gyllenhaal, who arguably hasn't had a film lead this juicy since 2006's Sherrybaby. 'I was thinking of actors that are both relatable and have a sense of daring,' notes the director, 'and Maggie immediately came to mind.' Shooting in the 104 degree heat in just 22 days felt 'feverish' says Gyllenhaal, who also came on board as producer – the first such credit of her career – and helped recruit Pepe Avila del Pino, her cinematographer on TV drama The Deuce.

When it came to finding a young actor to play Jimmy, the production eventually encountered Parker Sevak – a schoolmate of the casting director's offspring. But like any child actor, their working hours are short, meaning a little cunning was required. 'Often we'd shoot scenes with him and then do my side with our 50 year-old bearded First AD on his knees next to the camera, reading off-camera for me!' laughs Gyllenhaal.

With such a female-led film team, the experience was unique, adds the actress. 'I think there was something different about it. I've worked with many women – as directors, as producers. But there was something particularly feminine about the way the set felt. I don't want to be reductive or over-simplistic about what that means … but there was space on the set to explore something unusual.'

The Kindergarten Teacher emerges as a subtle look at everything from prodigies to plagiarism – as Lisa starts passing Jimmy's poems off as her own. What about mental illness? Is Lisa heading for a breakdown? 'I never saw it as such,' argues Colangelo. 'I think it can be a lot of things for a lot of different people. I've talked to a lot of women who felt it was really empowering. Others who felt it was really upsetting.'

The Kindergarten Teacher is in cinemas from Fri 8 Mar.

The Kindergarten Teacher

  • 3 stars
  • 2018
  • USA
  • 1h 36min
  • Directed by: Sara Colangelo
  • Cast: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gael García Bernal, Ato Blankson-Wood

Lisa (Gyllenhaal) is a downtrodden kindergarten teacher who passes off the poems of one of her students as her own. This remake of a 2014 Israeli film stays grounded but it doesn’t have a satisfying enough payoff to its well-developed and intriguing situation.