EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Jake Gyllenhaal talks about life & ‘Demolition’
In the past several years, actor Jake Gyllenhaal has been doing some of his best and most distinctive work, both in film and on stage. His newest film “Demolition,” which opens in New York City on April 8, continues that streak.
Still disarmingly boyish at 35, it’s hard to believe Gyllenhaal appeared in his first film in 1991 (when he had a minor role in “City Slickers.”) Since then, he has acted in such noteworthy films as “Donnie Darko,” his 2001 break-out role; “The Good Girl;” “Brokeback Mountain,” for which he received a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination; “Zodiac,” as part of a remarkable ensemble that included Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr.; “Love and Other Drugs;” “End of Watch;” “Prisoners;” “Southpaw;” and “Nightcrawler,” which earned him Best Actor nominations from SAG, BAFTA and Hollywood Foreign Press.
In his latest film, “Demolition” — in which several key scenes take place in Coney Island —Gyllenhaal plays Davis Mitchell, a Wall Street master of the universe in his mid-30s, who has lived a charmed, comfortable and privileged life. That life is completely upended when Davis’ wife Julia is killed in a car crash. Gyllenhaal gives an intense, nuanced performance, which might very well earn him his first Best Actor Academy Award nomination. The film is directed by Jean-Marc Vallee (“C.R.A.Z.Y.,” “Dallas Buyer’s Club,” “Wild.”).
Recently, during a press junket organized by the film’s distributor, Fox Searchlight Pictures, I sat down with Gyllenhaal to discuss the movie, his recent slate of physically and emotionally demanding roles (for “Southpaw” he bulked up and learned to box; for “Nightcrawler” he became feral and learned to skulk) and what he looks for when reading a script.
Brooklyn Eagle: What attracted you to the role of Davis Mitchell?
Jake Gyllenhaal: In reading Bryan’s [Sipes, the screenwriter] incredible script, I liked the way he respected all his characters; nobody was one-dimensional. I also liked the way Bryan avoided clichés and came at characters and incidents in an oblique, surprising manner.
As I read the script, I kept thinking, “Yeah, I know: now this character is going to go this way, and that character is going to go that way.” But Bryan kept surprising me, going in a whole other direction.
And I immediately recognized Davis. He’s a guy who has always made choices that convention tells him to make. I’ve known, and still know, people like Davis. Caught up in the materialism and the money. But he’s lacking the richness of a real life. Also, having seen and loved
“C.R.A.Z.Y.” and “Café de Flore,” films he made before he directed “Dallas Buyer’s Club,” I knew I wanted to work with Jean-Marc.
BE: In the past several years, you’ve been playing difficult, challenging roles. Has this been a conscious decision on your part?
JG: I did make a conscious move toward material and characters that I wanted to play, as opposed to what other people told me I ought to play. What I like is being in a space where I’m challenged, where I have to stretch and get out of my comfort zone.
And I’ve completely changed my outlook toward preparation. Now I love to research my characters — to take an analytical and intellectual approach to understanding them — which isn’t saying that once I’ve done that research, I don’t trust my instincts. In fact, now my choices have become instinctual.
I’m taking roles where I’m fully engaged, where I’m not just a set of nice teeth and good make-up. I gravitate toward scripts, like Bryan’s, where there’s no obligatory romance, no obligatory physical relationship between me and Naomi [Watts, who plays Karen Monaco, a middle-class mom who serves as the key catalyst in transforming Davis’ life.] In “Demolition” my relationship with Chris, Karen’s teenage son [played by Judah Lewis, in his feature film debut] is the exact opposite of the usual surrogate father role. In fact, it is Chris who literally shows Davis how to smile, who brings him back to life.
BE: You’ve also gravitated toward more independent films, as opposed to studio movies. Again, a conscious choice?
JG: Yes, absolutely. With big budget studio pictures, the marketing guys all want simple storylines and “relatable” characters. Movies that can be watched on your smartphone. I want to act in films that connect to something, that are political, but not political in the narrow sense — rather in the sense that we should all have the power to say and think what we want. After reading a script, I want to put it down and go, “Cool — I want to make that picture.” And what’s ironic — that these pictures can be made on a reasonable budget.
BE: Another element that I’ve noticed about your past four or five films is that you’ve chosen to work with very original, in some cases, very unorthodox, directors. Do you seek them out?
JG: Definitely. Film is a director’s medium. I recognize that and I take pride in the directors I’ve chosen to work with. David [Ayer, director of “End of Watch”], Denis [Villeneuve, “Prisoners”], Dan [Gilroy, “Nightcrawler”], Antoine [Fuqua, “Southpaw”] and now Jean-Marc — are all directors who’ve educated me, pushed me, inspired me to do my best work, not to phone it in. These are directors who put me in space where I can never get away with coasting, where I have to always give a fully committed performance.
BE: Speaking of fully committed, Jean-Marc has said that he didn’t want to use a double for the bulldozer scene (Davis takes the advice of his father-in-law, played by Chris Cooper, who tells him that “If you want to fix something, you have to take it apart and put it back together,” and destroys his trophy suburban home.) So you had to learn to drive a bulldozer. And, of course, in “Southpaw,” you learned to box. In “End of Watch,” to convincingly fire a sidearm. Do you think you’ll ever get to use these skills in “real” life?
JG: Regarding the gun, I sure hope not. With driving the bulldozer, unless my career really takes a nose-dive and I have to get a job in construction, I doubt I’ll be doing that again anytime soon.
BE: Well, when you have a son, I guess you can use your “Southpaw” skill set and teach him how to box. [Note: as soon as I finished asking the question I realized that I had been politically incorrect; he could also teach a daughter how to box. And Gyllenhaal, in the most amiable manner, called me on it.]
JG: Sure, but I could also do the same with a daughter. Believe me, I know a lot of women who could kick your ass.
Since by now the Fox PR people had entered the room, signaling that Gyllenhaal had to dash, our dialogue ended. Revealingly, just as he was about to exit, he came back to reassure me that it hadn’t been his intention to insult me. “Hey, I didn’t mean a woman couldn’t also kick my ass,” he said.
Gyllenhaal is not only an extremely gifted actor; he’s also a genuinely gracious guy.
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