NEW YORK — If Maggie Gyllenhaal were a superhero, she'd combine the power of strength with invisibility.
The actress, 30, has opted for an existence that's removed from Hollywood and Manhattan, living in Brooklyn with her fiancé, Peter Sarsgaard, 37, and their daughter, Ramona, who turns 2 in October. She walks around in nondescript clothes, pairing a gray jacket with a loose skirt, her hair pulled loosely away from her face. Photos of Ramona were never sold to any magazines, and the little girl is rarely photographed out, despite hitting local playgrounds and parks with her parents.
"We do our best, but it's very difficult," says Gyllenhaal of shielding her toddler. "You do the best you can. (But) they still find you."
She could become easier to spot after her co-starring turn in "The Dark Knight", out July 18, one of this summer's most awaited films.
Gyllenhaal takes over for Katie Holmes, who appeared in 2005's "Batman Begins", as Rachel Dawes, Gotham's ambitious, nattily attired prosecutor who's torn between DA Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) and Batman himself (Christian Bale). Gotham, meanwhile, is being terrorized by a demonic, disfigured criminal: the Joker (Heath Ledger).
"Dark Knight" looks likely to vault Gyllenhaal, often dubbed the art-house princess for her long list of edgy films (2006's "World Trade Center", "Stranger Than Fiction", "SherryBaby"; 2002's "Secretary"), into a stratosphere of stardom she's not so sure she wants.
The film is Gyllenhaal's first bona-fide behemoth of a movie, a prospect that leaves her a little leery.
"I really didn't know if I wanted to do a huge blockbuster," she says. "And I don't think I realized how big it was going to be. I'm really proud of the movie, to be a part of something really great. When you see "Dark Knight", you see that it's in no way a compromise."
That's no surprise to directors who have worked with her.
She's "a powerful actress, original, different," says Oliver Stone ("World Trade Center").
"She's one of the most original and most talented actresses of her generation," says Marc Forster ("Stranger Than Fiction"). "She's very much in the moment and captures the moment in a three-dimensional way."
Unlike other stars with careers poised to hit the big time, her instinct is not to jump right into it. It's to pull back. Once she's done promoting the film, she says, "I'm going to try and hide out a little bit."
When it came to her "Dark Knight" role, she was the furthest thing from passive. She met with director Christopher Nolan in Los Angeles to discuss what made the character tick. They swapped ideas, and she talked about how she saw Rachel. And then she landed the holy grail: an actual copy of the script.
"It was a big deal. This guy sat in my driveway the entire day. I was a new mom and it was a really long script, and I was trying to do other things while reading it," she says.
"I had a lot of ideas," she adds. And when talking it over with Nolan, "I was very clear that I didn't want to be arm candy. He was so receptive, so interested."
Nolan says that Gyllenhaal was a natural choice "because she has the kind of natural drive that I thought the character needed. She isn't the type to show up and read lines. She has specific ideas about her character, and isn't afraid to bring them up."
The 1999 Columbia University grad, part of the Gyllenhaal filmmaking family (mom is screenwriter Naomi Foner, dad is director Stephen Gyllenhaal and her brother is actor Jake), wanted Rachel to be smart, outspoken and a solid presence.
Eckhart calls her "a strong personality. She has very distinct ideas about her character. She has opinions, a lot of energy and is not a pushover."
Anyone who has spent time around the actress can attest to her strength of will. She has been known to berate tabloid reporters for working for publications that stalk her and her daughter.
She's more circumspect when it comes to Ledger, who died of an accidental drug overdose in January. Gyllenhaal recently saw "Dark Knight" for the first time, but she isn't one to share any intimate memories of working with Ledger and has been critical of the circus-like coverage of his death and funeral. But she does say that watching him on screen left her "really emotional."
"In the middle," she says, "you sort of get lost in him being the Joker. … I felt like someone could hate this or love this, or think it's a wrong choice or a right choice, but really there's no way to qualify it. Sometimes in my work, you're just alive and being the person you're playing. It's unusual. It's difficult to get there. And I think Heath did. Nothing Heath could do was wrong."
Despite the film's dark subject matter, the set at times resembled a day care center. Gyllenhaal shot the film when Ramona was an infant and brought her to the set. There, she was often greeted by Nolan's four children. "Sometimes it was the only way we could see our kids," Nolan says. "She always came prepared, but that side of her helped keep things light on set."
Adds Eckhart: "Maggie brought her child to set, and Heath brought (daughter) Matilda. Gary (Oldman) has two beautiful young boys. So the baby talk was rampant in the makeup trailer. I remember just watching Maggie as she talked with such excitement about her daughter: 'She pumped out her cheeks,' and I'd be like, 'All right!' "
In interviews, Gyllenhaal is less revealing. She's crisply polite and friendly without ever bordering on cuddly. Forster says some may confuse her reticence with coldness, when in fact, "I'd say she's more quiet, a little bit shy."
She'll happily demonstrate the correct way to eat an artichoke or talk about her latest read, "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao". But she's not sharing baby photos or anecdotes.
And she's on a tight schedule, thanks to her daughter's nighttime regimen: "This is an intense time with a kid. It's the time for the dinner and bath and bed, and I'd like to catch some of it."
Being a mom changed Gyllenhaal's outlook; at least for a while, working was out. "I read so many things that I could do, but it wasn't worth it to me," she says. "I don't know what it would take. Some kind of little spark? I didn't have it for a long time. I didn't, until she was about a year old. I really didn't feel ambition."
Now, that drive is back. And she's looking for "something hard. I want to find a really good, hard drama. But there are things I can't do anymore. There was a movie that wanted to shoot off the coast of Tasmania, on an island that had no inhabitants, no store.
"Peter was great. He said, 'If you want to do it, we'll figure it out; I'll go with you and take care of her.' I think it would be irresponsible. I can't do that anymore. Your priorities shift."
One thing she did last year: show serious skin in a campaign for luxe lingerie label Agent Provocateur.
Gyllenhaal was a fan of the line, especially after Ramona's birth left her "a good 20 pounds heavier" and in need of a confidence boost.
"They make nursing bras, and I went right in there and bought three pairs of matching bras and underwear that made me feel so good about myself. All of a sudden, to have a hot-pink something peeking out from my shirt a little bit — it made me feel so good," she says.
And then, the British label asked her to pose in their racy campaign, which made its debut in September.
"I found myself, six months after having a baby, in my underwear, getting my picture taken. How did I get here?" says Gyllenhaal, smiling. "It was like playing a character. They're sexy, but they also have a little bit of irony in them. I love that."
But, like with "Dark Knight", the scope of the project — and the attention she'd get for it — didn't really register with Gyllenhaal until later.
"I didn't know how scrutinized I'd be. My brother called me and said, 'I'm in Heathrow, and there's a 12-foot picture of you upside down in a negligee.' People are really rough on you when you do things like that. But I had a good time."