Bewitching Dark Knight star Maggie Gyllenhaal, who smolders opposite Jeff Bridges in Oscar-buzzed Crazy Heart, reveals the secret to her onscreen allure and the sexy truth about May-December romances

(Angeleno, February 2012. Photographs by Nino Muñoz)

THE BREAST. We must first speak of the breast.

Why? Because it is the first thing Google shows us when we ask it about Maggie Gyllenhaal. That means we must all be searching for it, discussing it, sharing it. And so there it is, thumbnailed in the warm New York sunshine. It looks perfectly harmless. It is tended to by an adorable child in pink socks. It is platonically agreeable. Its owner a famous, movie-star mother, laughs at something out of the frame.

And yet, two years after paparazzi snapped the photo, mommy bloggers still froth over it. How could she? Why shouldnt she?! Has she ever heard of a towel?! Gyllenhaal is amused. “If I had thought it through, I would have been more careful,” she says, lingering over a warm farro salad in a rustic trattoria near her Brooklyn townhouse, “because I probably don’t want a picture of that anywhere.”

But that’s not really the point. And soon, Gyllenhaal lays down her fork, tilts her head as if she has tasted something she doesn’t like, or senses a teaching moment, and flashes those downturned green eyes. “You know, I think if you’re a mom on the go, unless you’re gonna sit home all day until your child gets hungry, there will be times when I have to feed in public,” she says. “And paparazzi love babies. Which is a shame, because they really are the most vulnerable.”

As an actress, Gyllenhaal, 32, seems to have cornered a market on motherhood and vulnerability. In two of her most arresting roles, playing a junkie mom seeking redemption in the aching 2006 “Sherrybaby,” and a single mother/journalist who falls for Jeff Bridges washed-up alcoholic country music star in the new film Crazy Heart, Gyllenhaal offers us complexly damaged but defiantly hopeful heroines.

As green reporter Jean Craddock, she delves into a poignantly reckless relationship with Bridges whiskey-soaked crooner, Bad Blake. (The role has already earned the actor a Golden Globe win and after four previous Academy Award noms, serious buzz that this time he’s got a shot at an Oscar).

“It’s a complicated thing to play someone whose choices you don’t necessarily condone,” she says. “I feel like Jeans so broken and also strong. She really stops thinking for a while. And I like to think of myself as a thoughtful thinking person.” Gyllenhaal’s unusual—some might say indie—sex appeal has its core in this idea of a thinking man’s heroine. From her 2002 kinky S&M breakout hit “Secretary” at age 25 to playing Batman’s love interest in 2008s big-budget “The Dark Knight,” she seems mature beyond her years. It’s an uncommon quality that audiences and critics alike appear to respond to; among the long list of awards and nominations under her belt are two Golden Globe noms (“Secretary” and “Sherrybaby”).

Bridges says he had always been taken by her acting ability, coupled with her sweetness and tenderness. He first met Gyllenhaal at the premiere of 2003’s “Mona Lisa Smile,” which featured his nephew Jordan Bridges: “I went up to her and said, ‘Gee, I love your work and I’d love to work with you one day.’ I’m glad that came true because she was on the top of my list of actresses that I wanted for that role.”

“I think she harkens back to the era of great actresses from the 30s and 40s,” says “Crazy Heart” director Scott Cooper. “She has a unique beauty, uncommon in American films. She would fit right in and be comfortable with European filmmakers.” Cooper adds that because Gyllenhaal is such a doting mother (she took her daughter to the New Mexico set), she was really able to connect to the child who plays her son.

She can also relate to Hollywood’s obsession with pairing young women with older men. Bridges was 58 and Gyllenhaal was 30 when “Crazy Heart” was shot. The love scenes between the young, luminous Jean and the broken-down, hygienically challenged Blake are enough to make you squirm, a detail seemingly untouched by critics. “I think it makes people uncomfortable enough, they don’t want to talk about it,” she says.

But Gyllenhaal is happy to oblige, since she has lived this scenario both on screen and off: in “Secretary” with James Spader; in 2005’s ensemble “Happy Endings” with Tom Arnold; and in “Sherrybaby,” with several seedy and opportunistic characters. Gyllenhaal says she understands the attraction on both sides of the spring-winter divide. At 19, she started dating guys nearly 30 years old. “There was a mutual connection,” she says, spreading her fingers on her chest in sincerity. “A mature woman would demand guys take on responsibility. That was the last thing I wanted to put on somebody.”

Her husband, actor Peter Sarsgaardwho plays an older man who seduces a teenage Carey Mulligan in one of this Oscar seasons also-buzzed films, “An Education,” is seven years older. “You can feel it,” she says. “We call it the sexy age difference. But sometimes he’ll say, ‘Do you ever think about the fact that I’m older than you?’ And I’ll always think, ‘Why are you saying that? Because I’m acting like a baby?’ There are things he knows more about and things I know more about. Its equal.”

Gyllenhaal was born in New York but moved to Los Angeles with her filmmaker parents when she was a year old. Her Emmy Award-nominated director dad Stephen (“A Killing in a Small Town”) and Oscar Award-nominated screenwriter mom Naomi Foner (“Running on Empty”) instilled in her and her younger brother Jake, 29, a sense of activism, not entitlement.

“My parents weren’t celebrities,” she says, smiling broadly and exuding the same flirtatious charm she does onscreen. “It wasn’t like growing up with famous people.” Her politically oriented mother lent their home for parties. “There were interesting people around, says Gyllenhaal, who, along with Jake, attended L.A.s prestigious Harvard-Westlake prep. “Isabel Allende read by candlelight when the electricity went out. Things like that.” The first six movies she appeared in, beginning at age 14 with 1992’s “Waterland” were directed by her father and were essentially blink-and-you-might-miss-her parts. But it wasn’t until she graduated from Columbia University in 1999, with a degree in literature and Eastern religions, that she got serious about acting, appearing as the sister to her real-life brother in 2001’s indie hit “Donnie Darko.”

As both her and her brother’s stars have risen, Gyllenhaal says she finds its more important to remember what’s real and what’s Hollywood. “I don’t feel attached to having to look hot or beautiful,” she says. Though her brother Jake got buff for his role in “Prince of Persia,” the leggy, five-foot-nine-inch actress doesn’t see herself ever altering her body that much. “Sometimes, guys, especially playing a lawyer, they get super cut and thick,” she says. “And I think ‘What lawyer has time to work out that much?’ You know, I do think it’s nice to look like a real person.” In fact, her look is more granola mom than It girl actress. Today, she is wearing a scoop-neck jersey, Top- Siders and what look like retro, high-waisted mom jeans. “I’m wearing ACNE jeans, so they’re not cheap,” she says with a chuckle. Still, she knows how to vamp it up for the red carpet. Gyllenhaal has modeled for Miu Miu and Agent Provocateur, traveled to Paris in 2007 to attend the Louis Vuitton spring show and was a guest of honor at its 2010 Cruise line launch in New York. “That’s been a real treat,” she says. “But mostly I would prefer not to go to fashion shows of my own accord. I like clothes. Its OK to think about clothes. As long as you also think about other things.”

Those other things, however, do not include gossip. In the newsstands nearby, on this winter day, the tabloid racks are emblazoned with her brother Jake’s face and headlines proclaiming a bitter split with flame Reese Witherspoon. “I don’t even read the covers,” says Gyllenhaal. I blur my eyes. Its a pretend version. It’s not my brother. My mom used to read them, because she wanted to read about us. And I had to tell her, ‘Don’t, those are the magazines that chase us around and take our pictures.'” (Just days later, it was her parents, who split in January 2008, who endured tabloid scrutiny when their divorce was finalized after 32 years of marriage).

Gyllenhaal and her husband appear to have found some respite from the limelight in bucolic Park Slope, Brooklyn, where they moved into an 1860’s townhouse about two years ago. She and Sarsgaard (whom she met at a dinner party in 2002) make a real effort to keep things pretty relaxed for their three-year-old daughter, Ramona. “But there is a part of it that’s pretty exciting,” she says. Her dad is in Spain right now working on a film and he’s bringing her back a little flamenco dress. Although she rides the subway to Manhattan every day to take Ramona to school, Gyllenhaal steers clear of the paparazzi hunting grounds of the West Village and SoHo. “I can handle it if it’s me, but if its my daughter I get so mad. But here shes safe “because they’re too lazy to cross the bridge.”

That may change after her next outsize role opposite Emma Tompson and Ralph Fiennes in the upcoming family-friendly “Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang.” While such big-budget fare certainly raises Gyllenhaals profile, its the quieter indie films that interest her most.

“The roles Ive been most proud of are like Lee in “Secretary,” who is a submissive but a powerhouse,” she says as the waiter clears the table. By now the restaurant has filled up, but Gyllenhaal doesn’t seem to notice. She sits back, satisfied. “I used to think, when I was younger, the ideal thing was to be as strong as you could possibly be, and as fierce as you can possibly be,” she says. “And I don’t think that anymore. I think the bravest thing you can do is be vulnerable, and sometimes quiet. And that’s harder for me in many ways.”