The cast of ‘Won’t Back Down’ reflects on the state of education

Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal take on the system in “Won’t Back Down.”

Director Daniel Barnz recalls coaxing actress Maggie Gyllenhaal to star in his inner-city school drama, “Won’t Back Down.” “She was concerned about the long summer shoot and being away from her children — which is funny, because this movie is all about a great mom who sacrifices so much for her kid,” he says. “But I was like, ‘No, Maggie! Be a bad mother! Come be in this movie!’”

Gyllenhaal, who was eventually convinced, plays Jamie Fitzpatrick: the passionate mother of a dyslexic second-grader. Determined to transform her daughter’s failing Pittsburgh public school, Fitzpatrick joins forces with a frustrated teacher, Nona Alberts (Viola Davis). Together, the duo tackles a broken bureaucracy and gathers a cluster of progressive educators along the way — including the charming, ukulele-strumming Michael Perry (Oscar Isaac).  

“I come from such progressive lefties that I wouldn’t be allowed to go home for Thanksgiving if I made an anti-union movie,” admits Gyllenhaal, responding to a range of critics who have already claimed that “Won’t Back Down” unfairly attacks teachers’ right to organize. “It takes a certain level of education to hold two somewhat conflicting ideas in your mind at once,” she explains. “I fundamentally, whole-heartedly support unions. But at the same time, I feel it’s important to criticize the things that aren’t working in any institution.”  

“The film says that we, as people, need to challenge the status quo and not just live life by rote,” stresses Davis in her signature staccato. Davis looked to her sister, Deloris Grant, a long-time English teacher in her hometown of Central Falls, R.I. — “one of the top 10 cities in this country to go bankrupt,” according to Davis — for inspiration. “Deloris is Nona,” she claims. “She’s someone who goes that extra mile and validates you as a person.”

Both of the Oscar-nominated actors make multiple references to their offscreen children — while Gyllenhaal is the mother of two daughters, 6-year-old Ramona and 5-month-old Gloria Ray, Davis adopted a newborn girl, Genesis, last year. “Part of being a mother is teaching my daughter to live a life that’s bigger than her,” asserts Davis. “It’s a requirement, especially in this country where there are so many people who want it all but don’t want to work for it. So I kind of feel like that’s the best thing I can give her,” she says and considers it a moment. “That and Miss Jessie’s curl cream.”


Acting 101

“I had a teacher that inspired me in the fifth grade,” remembers Isaac. “She told us to write a paragraph from the perspective of an animal on Noah’s ark. So I went home and wrote this six-page production from a platypus’s point of view. Thanks to the teacher, we put on the play. That was my introduction to acting!”


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