“The Honorable Woman” is SundanceTV’s latest entry into the mini-series drama category and it couldn’t be more timely as it deals with a Jewish woman — Nessa Stein (Maggie Gyllenhaal) — who is trying to help with a peaceful solution in the Israel/Palestine conflict.
As the story unfolds, we learn that Nessa’s father was a Zionist arms procurer, who was assassinated when she was a child, an event she and her brother witnessed firsthand. Years later, after inheriting her father’s company, she dramatically reinvents its purpose, changing from supplying arms to laying high-spec data cabling networks between Israel and the West Bank. Now in her 30s, Nessa’s sudden appointment to the House of Lords, apparently due to her tireless promotion of projects for reconciliation between the Israelis and Palestinians, creates an international political maelstrom — and that is when it gets down and dirty.
“The Honorable Woman” is like an old-time British spy story, so at times it moves slowly, but as the secrets in Nessa’s life unfold — and there are many — the payoff is definitely worth the watching.
yeahstub.com was invited to a special roundtable with Maggie Gyllenhaal to talk about the eight-episode series. Read on to get her take on playing Nessa in “The Honorable Woman.”
Why this project?
I think the thing that really pulled me in was that underneath the exquisitely drawn thriller, is this ocean of human behavior and human interaction. Look, also, it’s about a 36-year-old woman, which is what I am, and there’s space inside this piece to express so many things about what it’s like to be a woman that’s my age. I just hadn’t seen that before in quite this way.
Nessa presents a brave face to the world. She’s going to make this Middle East connection between the Muslim and the Israeli community, yet when we go inside her personal life, she sleeps in a safe room. How do you get inside the head of someone like that?
I really relate to the idea of performing myself, not just because I’m an actress. I think it’s probably an occupational hazard and it might be a little worse for me [as an actress], but I think that’s true for most humans in the world [that they act a part]. Part of my move through my 30s has been becoming aware of that. And I think when you can put that down – or at least a little – is when you can have an interaction with another person and be here in the world. I think that’s really the journey that Nessa is on… Even though you get to spend quite a lot of time with Nessa doing a beautiful performance — much better than I can do — in Episode 1, you also really right away start to see the ways in which she can’t handle it anymore, she just can’t.
Based on the title “The Honorable Woman,” how much is that a challenge for Nessa to stay honorable through the series because there’s a lot of things in her world that could corrupt her and make her dishonorable?
I think it’s more a question of: What does it mean to be honorable? What does it mean to be good? I think when it starts, she thinks she’s got it down. Like even in the they chose a line where I say, “We cannot be compromised,” but what does that even mean? If you have blinders on, you can walk through life and live that way. No, so she’s not going to be compromised by dealing with Shlomo, for example, who has a connection to Hezbollah. Okay, that makes sense, but then what about when the entire world starts being a part of the equation. What does it mean to be good?
Being good is a complicated thing. What does it mean to be honorable in the reality of this world where all of us are damaged just by nature of being born a human being? So, I don’t know. All of those things are on the table. Some people might see her in episode two sleeping with some random guy in the stairwell and say, “Okay, she’s not honorable anymore.” Were does the line get drawn?
Nessa is this woman with a really deep secret. Do you think it’s realistic that that could really happen in this day of social media?
Early on, you find out what her secret is, and they’re making this big deal out of it. Then there’s like 25 other secrets that you didn’t know about. I mean, absolutely. I think the kinds of secrets we’re talking about are the kinds of secrets in your soul. It does take place in a time where there’s Internet and cell phones and the whole thing — Nessa’s job is laying internet cables for cell phones and internet. I think we live hiding all sorts of things from ourselves. It’s incredibly difficult to really truly come clean about who you are. That’s what it’s about.
[Writer, Director & Producer] Hugo [Blick] says something really beautiful. I’ll just end with this. He says, “Look, we don’t say this is what we think is good, or this is what we think is bad in the series. We ask the audience to think and to ultimately come up with at each moment what they think and what they feel is good or bad, or maybe that’s even making it too simple. But what we do do is we always keep on the table the possibility of reconciliation and hopefulness.
“The Honorable Woman” premieres Thursday, July 31 at 10 p.m. on SundanceTV.