In Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut, The Lost Daughter, Olivia Colman stars as Leda, a professor on holiday in Greece. During her turbulent solo break, a raucous family of New Yorkers provides an annoying distraction, but Lena befriends the mother, Nina (Dakota Johnson), after she finds their straying daughter. Between bouts of beach turmoil and sunbathing, however, Leda commits a theft.

Gyllenhaal’s psychological drama also flashes back to scenes of the young Leda (played by Jessie Buckley) juggling raising children with a blooming career, while Peter Sarsgaard plays the professor she embarks on an affair with. In these scenes, The Lost Daughter offers an even-handed look at the exhausting and relentless aspects of motherhood. 

Get the latest from the BFI

Sign up for BFI news, features, videos and podcasts.

Her own adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s 2006 novel, Gyllenhaal’s thoughtful film offers another assured performance from Colman, who won the best actress Oscar for Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite (2018) and a supporting actress nomination for The Father (2020). Amid the beachside tensions, The Lost Daughter still finds time to show Leda enjoying herself – a scene in which she dances to Bon Jovi’s ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’ being one highlight.

Colman sat down to discuss the film, motherhood and bad holidays ahead of the film’s UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival in October.

Could you tell us a bit about how you worked with Maggie on her first film as director?

She knows how vulnerable you can feel on this side of the camera, so we felt safe. She was saying that when she was giving notes to Jessie, she was giving notes she’d want to hear [herself]. Jessie totally understood, and they had this really symbiotic thing. Then when it came to giving me and Dakota notes, we both went, “Eh?” and she had to change. A director has to speak 15 different languages because each person takes things in a different way. 

We ended up understanding each other without too many notes. I loved her joy in it as well. If you looked sideways, you could see her watching her monitor, living everything with her face. She was having so much fun working with actors from the other side. I’d be amazed if she doesn’t end up doing this quite a lot more.

Is directing something you’ve any ambitions for in the future?

No. God, no. I’d rather put shit in my eye. You never get a scene off. Directors have to make all the decisions and they’re there for every scene. I’d much rather just learn my lines and turn up.

Maggie Gyllenhaal directing The Lost Daughter (2021)

How did Maggie’s style differ from other directors you’ve worked with?

She had many qualities that I recognise in other directors I’ve loved working with; she was a proper auteur. I loved watching her decision making. We’d turn up on the beach or something and I’d think, “Oh, that looks amazing. They’ve really made this look brilliant. It really is how I imagined it in the script.” She’d say, “That’s not quite right.” And then it would change, and you’d go, “Oh yes, that’s so much better.” She was all over all of it.

Like working with Yorgos, who was so specific about everything that he wanted, and the lenses and where that should be and the colours of that background. There’s a similarity there, but there was something about Maggie: because she’s an actress, it felt much nicer in so many ways. She’d say, “I know how this feels.”

One of the most surprising and interesting parts of the film is your relationship with Dakota. What can you tell us about working with her?

Dakota gave me my first ever tattoo. She was meant to give us all tattoos in Greece, but her stick and poke stuff got stuck in customs, so she did this when we got to New York. I think we’re going to be friends for life.

The Lost Daughter (2021)

How do you feel about your character in this film?

One of the reasons I wanted to do it was I was fascinated by her. As Maggie says, it was very important that Leda wasn’t crazy, that people would watch it and go, “Well, she’s barking mad, and I’m so much better than her.” The fact that she’s sane and well educated and intelligent and still does this extreme thing, it means people can watch it and think, “Oh, I’ve thought of doing that. I haven’t done it. I’ve thought of doing it and I’m not alone.” I loved the fact that Leda did something that most people wouldn’t dare to do, and I personally couldn’t bear to do, but I found her fascinating that she did. To play someone who’s different from yourself is really fun.

The film contains some really interesting depictions of motherhood.

It’s incredibly honest. Maggie – and Elena Ferrante, who started this ball rolling – said she’s had so many people say, “Thank you for saying something that no one dare say.” Historically, it’s always been that women have to look a certain way, or behave a certain way, and that’s all been blown out the water in Fleabag and I May Destroy You, with these incredible women writing powerful and hilarious things, which are really honest and dirty. That’s what we all are. Not just the men, it’s the women as well. 

If there’s a story depicting a father who leaves, that’s maybe done in one line, and no one really loses any sleep over it. But the story of a mother leaving is something that people still find shocking. But all parents have thought, “Do you know, if I could just fuck off for two hours, or have a bath for an hour and lock the door and just have some peace.” Everyone’s thought it, but this woman’s gone the extra mile. I think it’s important for everyone to see it.

The Lost Daughter (2021)

What’s the worst holiday you’ve ever been on?

Oh fuck, I can’t remember. Worst holiday. We thought we’d book something, my husband [writer and producer Ed Sinclair] and I, before we got married, and it ended up being a bungalow on a golf course, which is not up my street at all. It rained and that was a bit shit. We just had a little camping stove in this little bungalow thing. We thought we’d book something quite wild and romantic, and it wasn’t. 

We also hired a camper van, and it turns out I don’t like camper vans. I had to sleep with our younger boy in the roof bit because our two boys wouldn’t share the upstairs bed. Ed got the great big comfy bit down, and I was upstairs in this thing that felt like a coffin, and a wood pigeon landed at about 4:30 in the morning and went [makes pigeon noise] really loudly.

How much of a Bon Jovi fan are you?

Massive. I think Slippery When Wet was the first album I ever bought. And I also bought Too Low for Zero, Elton John. I think that was the same year. I bought those two.

The Lost Daughter is in cinemas from 17 December and on Netflix from 31 December 2021. It had its UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival.