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Maggie on the challenge of playing a 42nd St. hooker

At the premiere of the HBO GO original drama series The Deuce (in Asia, available only in Singapore and the Philippines Mondays at 9 a.m., until Oct. 30; simultaneous with the US airing Sundays at 9 p.m.), from left: David Simon, the writer; Maggie Gyllenhaal as a prostitute; James Franco as twin brothers Frankie and Vincent Martino; and George Pelecanos, co-writer. — AP

NEW YORK — In The Deuce, the eight-episode original drama series which premiered on HBO GO (only in Hong Kong and the Philippines) last Sept. 11 (every Monday at 9 a.m., simultaneous with the US airing on Sundays, 9 p.m.), Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Candy, a self-reliant hooker who became a porn film star.

“I love playing Candy,” Maggie, 39, told a group of international journalists during the round-table interview last month at the HBO office building on Times Square, a breath away from the iconic 42nd Street where pornography as a lucrative industry was born in the early ’70s (1971 to be exact). “It was not easy, it was lots of hard work. Candy is interested in the artistry of film that’s why she became a porn actress. I love the candy character so much that I felt as if I was in heaven.

“The role gave me an opportunity to express things in a way that cannot be expressed any other way. The material calls for sex to be articulated explicitly for the series to mirror that specific time, and there’s no other way.”

Researched by producer Marc Henry Johnson and co-created by George Pelecanos and David Simon (who wrote The Wire, the hit TV series about the drug war told from the point of view of drug lords), The Deuce depicts the lives and times of the hustlers, hookers, pimps, crooked cops that turned 42nd Street into perhaps the most dangerous place to be in New York. The Deuce was the nickname given to that sexiest Manhattan block swept clean by then NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani. (Of course, Times Square today is probably the safest place in The Big Apple, sealed off for locals and tourists to relax in without fear of being mugged, and where the annual New Year Countdown is held, attended by thousands of people and watched on television by millions around the world.)

The series also stars James Franco (featured in The STAR recently) as the twins Frankie and Vincent Martino, a gambler and bar owner respectively, who ended up working with the mob. The twins were based on real persons, one of whom was interviewed by James and the writers before he died. Both Maggie and James are co-producers on the series, with James saying “yes” to the project only if he was allowed to direct an episode and ending up with not just one but two (episode 3 aired on Sept. 25 and episode 7 airing on Oct. 23). Maggie agreed to play Candy only if she would be a co-producer who could have a say on the scripts and the final editing.

Asked how was it to be directed by James, Maggie admitted, “It took us a little while to come together. He was naturally shy. As a director, he was easy and straightforward. I love working with him; no drama, just love and respect. James would ask, ‘What do you think of this shot?’ He respected your opinion.”

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Maggie was so into the Candy character that she didn’t have qualms doing the sexy scenes, one of which almost ended up in the dustbin.

“It was Candy’s orgasm scene,” disclosed Maggie. “I said, ‘You want to cut the scene because you are protecting me?’ No way. That orgasm scene was what made the scene feminist and exploitative of women, so I said, ‘Put it back in!’ If you don’t show scenes of sex and violence which were prevalent in those times, then you might as well do a Pretty Woman.”

Maggie added that in a previous interview for another sex-heavy movie, she was asked if pornography exploited or empowered women.

“I didn’t know the right answer at that time but now, after playing Candy, I think I know. Yes, for Candy, it is both. Pornography empowers as it exploits women. The question is: who is exploited and who is the exploiter, and where does the money go?”

So what really is pornographic and what is obscene?

Said Simon, “At the time when people were figuring out what pornography is, then US Supreme Court Associate Justice Potter Stewart said, ‘I know it when I see it.’ And what is obscene? Obscenity is hard to define. Is it the shot of a penis? Is it the shot of a vagina? It depends on the purpose.”

Maggie is directed by James in the third and seventh episodes. ‘He’s easy to work with, very straightforward.’

Said Pelecanos, “Neither do I know how to define pornography and obscenity. Maybe the better answer is this: what may be pornographic and obscene to you may not be pornographic and obscene to me.”

The question that lingered in the filmmakers’ mind was how much (sex and nudity) should be shown, and how far? Was there a limit on what’s okay and what’s not okay?

“If the camera lingers on a sex scene or nude scene, is it enjoying itself in a pornographic way? Hard to tell,” said Simon. “If you can’t bear to turn the camera on nudity, then you have no business doing this kind of film. It has to be matter-of-fact; it has to be blunt.”

Pelecanos agreed. “We wanted to do a movie that would look like it was shot in 1971 and we wanted to show what it was like in 1971. We had to rebuild Times Square through the computer. There was a lot of discussion where the camera should be and how long should it focus on one shot.”

Simon recalled that he was 11 at the height of the 42nd Street popularity (rather, notoriety).

“George is two years older than me and I don’t know with him,” added Simon. “But with me, my memory of pornography would be commensurate to my stealing my dad’s copies of Playboy. What was interesting to me was not that there was no pornography before 42nd Street but how pornography became a billion-dollar industry.” 

Besides sex and pornography, misogyny is also tackled in the series.

“Misogyny is as relevant today as it was during the The Deuce era,” noted Simon. “Misogyny is not dead, it is very much alive today. Nothing has changed in the way women are being portrayed pornographically for 50 years. It has influenced how young boys who are now adults look at women. There was Playboy then. Now in this digital age, one click on your laptop and you can watch a woman being f----d. During the presidential campaign, we saw and heard how Trump treated women. What or who could be more misogynistic than that, than him?”

Maggie agreed.

“Women then and now have been exploited and that makes the issues raised in our drama series as relevant as ever,” stressed Maggie. “Misogyny was in my mind as I played Candy. I was thinking about a woman in relation to her power, her sexuality, her ability to make money and her place in a misogynistic world,” adding for impact, “with an undeniable misogynist at the White House, what an amazing time to have this show come out.” 

(E-mail reactions at entphilstar@yahoo.com. For more updates, photos and videos, visit www.philstar.com/funfare or follow me on Instagram @therealrickylo.)

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