The mother of all battles

Maggie Gyllenhaal is sitting in a luxury beachfront hotel in Cancun, Mexico, talking about her new role in action movie White House Down but her heart isn't quite in it. It has nothing to do with the movie, which she's excited to be part of. Eventually she reveals that her press duties have meant she's missing her daughter Gloria's first birthday. ''People keep telling me she won't remember it but that doesn't make it any easier,'' she says, sadly.

Gyllenhaal had just given birth to her second child (she has a six-year-old daughter, Ramona, with actor-husband Peter Sarsgaard) when she met with action director Roland Emmerich (The Day after Tomorrow) last year to talk about White House Down. ''Roland really charmed me into doing it,'' she says, picking herself up as talk turns back to the blockbuster. ''I was not looking to do anything with a new baby, let alone something like this, but he told me, 'I want this woman to be strong and powerful and smart, but I also want her to be confused and in love and be a real person,' so I was like, 'OK, I'll do it!'

''I liked that even though it's in the context of this massive action movie, she's not just the girl in the bikini on the yacht or something.''

White House Down stars Channing Tatum as a policeman on a tour of the White House with his daughter when he's suddenly forced to protect the President (Jamie Foxx) from a group of paramilitary invaders. Gyllenhaal plays his ex-girlfriend, a Secret Service agent who turned him down for a job and who tries to be the voice of reason during the crisis.

''I didn't get to do much of the running-through-burning-buildings kind of action,'' Gyllenhaal says, ''but mostly my character is the thinker. I'm the one who's in the safe place going, 'You move over here,' and 'You move over there'. But what's amazing is I'm doing it and at the same time having this very complicated relationship with the people I'm supposed to move around, so that's fun to play.''

The 35-year-old New York-born actor is the daughter of filmmakers Stephen Gyllenhaal and Naomi Foner and the sister of actor Jake (Brokeback Mountain). She is better known for low-budget fare, such as Secretary, Donnie Darko, Sherrybaby, Hysteria and Crazy Heart, the last of which earned her an Oscar nomination.

Although Gyllenhaal had experience in the world of big-budget movies when she appeared in Chris Nolan's 2008 blockbuster The Dark Knight, she admits she was nervous stepping into the world of Emmerich, a filmmaker who has destroyed the White House twice before, in Independence Day and 2012.

''I was really surprised by how into acting Roland is,'' she says, ''and there was really something to do for my character as opposed to being a damsel in distress, so that's very unusual.''

Gyllenhaal says the film production made many accommodations to get her on the Montreal set a few months after giving birth. ''There were literally times when there would be 1000 extras on set and things on fire and I would say, 'I have to nurse,' and they would let me go,'' she says. ''They let me fly back and forth between New York and Montreal and do it all in a very manageable way.''

Gyllenhaal says she had never met Tatum or Emmerich but was acquainted with Foxx and a little intimidated on their first day, filming in the Air Force One helicopter.

''Jamie made a movie with my brother and my husband [Jarhead, 2005] and I was a little scared of him because he had his own trailer with this whole entourage thing,'' she says.

''But in terms of working with him, it turned out he was so much fun that at one point in the helicopter I had to tell him to stop making me laugh because I looked unprofessional.''

Gyllenhaal says she and Sarsgaard moved to a small suburb of Brooklyn after they had children so they could keep their lifestyle as normal as possible.

The down-to-earth actress also admits that becoming a mother has changed her career choices. ''I think it's very difficult to be an actress and have children because of the travel,'' she says.

''Having one child who wasn't in school was kind of manageable … but now with two, and with my older girl in first grade, I read a project recently that I thought was fascinating but it shoots in three countries and I know I probably can't do it.''

Jenny Cooney Carrillo was flown to Cancun as a guest of Sony Pictures.

White House Down

Genre Action-drama

Buzz Made a modest $US72 million at US box office, a relatively low number despite the star power of Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx.

Stars Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal

Director Roland Emmerich

Rated M

Release September 5

This story The mother of all battles first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.