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Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Franco talk about why their new HBO project ‘The Deuce’ is especially poignant right now.
Jason Armesto, USA TODAY

NEW YORK – As a native New Yorker, Maggie Gyllenhaal knows the cardinal rule of sane city living: always steer clear of Times Square. 

“I can’t handle it, I’m sorry,” the actress says, smiling. “I’m not great with crowds, and I’m not into M&Ms very much or (Bubba Gump) shrimp — I don’t know, whatever they’re selling on 42nd Street.”

Instead, Gyllenhaal prefers the lawless, less touristy version of the neighborhood depicted in HBO’s gritty new The Deuce (premiering Sunday, 9 ET/PT), in which she co-stars with James Franco. Co-created by The Wire’s David Simon and George Pelecanos, the eight-episode drama is set at the dawn of the porn industry in the early 1970s on 42nd Street, the seedy Manhattan block nicknamed “The Deuce,” that’s inhabited by hustlers, hookers and crooked cops.

Gyllenhaal, 39, plays Eileen (aka “Candy”), a self-reliant prostitute who’s drawn into a porn career, while Franco, 39, plays twin brothers Frankie and Vincent Martino, a gambler and bartender, respectively, who wind up working for the mob. Race, homosexuality and unregulated capitalism are woven into the fabric of the series, inspired by real-life people and events researched by producer Marc Henry Johnson.

More than that particular era in New York — whose sordid underbelly is depicted in ’70s crime classics Mean Streets and Taxi Driver — Simon was struck by “the story of these improbable pioneers of a billion-dollar industry,” he says. But rather than throw viewers onto a porn set in the first episode, the series eases into the adult entertainment world over the course of the season, showing Eileen’s other dimensions as a mother, daughter and shrewd businesswoman.

“Until you establish who’s who and what’s at stake, and you do that through the credible use of quotidian daily life, all you’re doing is (hyperbolic) TV,” Simon says. “People will say it’s slow and ‘Why don’t they get to the point?’, but every scene is there for a reason.” 

The same philosophy applied to the nudity, as producers grappled with how much (or little) was needed to tell an…