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."