sits down with Chaunce Hayden
to discuss his thoughts on acting and his new film Demolition
Oscar-nominated actor (and eye candy to millions of women around the globe) Jake Gyllenhaal is known for his work in films like Donnie Darko, Brokeback Mountain, Southpaw and Everest, just to name a few. He is now starring in one of his most emotionally challenging roles yet as an aloof widower in Demolition.
Gyllenhaal, who is now 35 years old, worked as a child actor in films like City Slickers and A Dangerous Woman before starring in the indie classic Donnie Darko in 2001. He later starred opposite Heath Ledger in Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, for which Gyllenhaal received a supporting actor Oscar nomination. Other films on the Gyllenhaal roster include Proof, Jarhead, Prisoners and Nightcrawler, as well as the Broadway production Constellations.
The son of director Stephen Gyllenhaal and producer/screenwriter Naomi Foner, Jake and his sister Maggie have been acting since childhood. Some of Gyllenhaal’s earlier films included City Slickers, in which he played Billy Crystal’s son, and A Dangerous Woman, directed by his father. The young Gyllenhaal graduated from Los Angeles’ Harvard-Westlake High School and studied for a year at Columbia University in New York before dropping out to pursue acting.
In order to make the transformation from child actor to adult actor, Gyllenhaal purposefully passed over teen fare for such films as 1999’s October Sky and Donnie Darko, co-starring Drew Barrymore and sister Maggie, for which he earned an Independent Spirit Award nomination. Several of the roles that followed echoed former projects in complexity: Gyllenhaal played Jennifer Aniston’s troubled love interest in The Good Girl (2002), while in Moonlight Mile (2002), the actor portrayed a young man grieving over the death of his fiancée with her family.
In 2014, Gyllenhaal once again earned buzz for his role in Nightcrawler, a stark drama in which he plays a cameraman looking to become successful via harrowing crime footage. Gyllenhaal earned his second Golden Globe acting nod for the part, along with BAFTA and SAG Awards nominations.
Film projects this past year include the romantic comedy Accidental Love and the boxing drama Southpaw. Gyllenhaal also made his Broadway debut in the play Constellations opposite actress Ruth Wilson, with the work fusing ideas around cosmology and relationships.
I recently sat down with Jake to discuss his latest film, Demolition, a movie about a husband who loses his wife in a car crash and yet seems emotionless as he searches for truth and feelings.
Chaunce Hayden: You seem to have a movie coming out every year. What was it about Demolition that attracted you?
Jake Gyllenhaal: Well in this case I was just an actor for hire. I read the script and honestly didn’t know it had been in development for as long as it had been. The first thing that really attracted me to the film was the director, Jean-Marc Vallée. His movie-making process is now famous. I also love Canadian filmmakers. Something happens and I just have to do it. I don’t really know what it is that makes me feel that way. We just seem to make good movies together. Also, when I read the script, what I liked about it was also what I didn’t like about it. I first started reading it and I thought, “Oh, I’ve seen this scene before.” Then all of a sudden this movie happens. It looks as though it’s about to go through an eye-rolling/conventional route, then something comes and sideswipes you.
One example is the accident in the beginning of the film. Almost every 5 or 10 pages I would go, “Okay, here comes the woman he’s going to have a romantic affair with and…oh wait, no.” In another scene, this young kid comes out of the closet and he starts to move closer to my character like he’s about to kiss me and…again, no. All he was doing was trying to make my character smile. The movie is called ‘Demolition’ and my character has to take things apart. So I thought, “Oh great. We are all going to be seeped in metaphor here.” But they actually fucking destroy a house!
In other words, don’t judge a script by its cover.
Yeah. I wondered, “Okay, when is this cathartic moment? When is this guy going to come to his senses and realize that he’s made all of these huge mistakes so we can really emphasize with this guy?” But as I finished the script, I had this realization that maybe apathy is equal to empathy. I thought, “What an interesting way of looking at loss.” Often times we try to make things so the audience can relate to the character. I will tell you now that this is not a very relatable movie.
I think the jury will agree that you’re one of Hollywood’s best looking male movie stars.
Well, thank you! I think you’re very attractive as well.
Thank you. My point is that there’s a better chance an audience will accept you playing a character they don’t necessarily like or relate to just because you’re Jake Gyllenhaal. Do you agree?
I think the audience will look at the character I play and think I should be devastated over the loss of my wife, but even I don’t know how I feel about it. There’s logic behind it. I may look like a sociopath or a lost soul, but I’m really just trying to search for how I truly feel. Some people say, “I love this song despite the fact that it plays on the radio a hundred times a day. I just really love it.” Another person thinks, “I like it because I’m supposed to like it.” It’s the person that thinks they are supposed to like it that doesn’t really know how they feel. They are afraid to say, “I hate it.”
You’ve played many controversial and challenging roles. How do you prepare yourself to get into the place you need to be able to pull it off?
I always try to come prepared with a sense of reality myself. What I think is most interesting about a scene is when someone calls you out on your bullshit or you call someone else out. When someone is very honest, it just makes you look at yourself. I try to be brutally honest about myself with every scene I do. That’s my approach.
Do you take your character home with you at the end of a day of shooting? Can you separate yourself from the character when you’re in the midst of filming?
It’s a little bit of both when it comes to separating myself and keeping the character with me. I believe in the unconscious. I believe in communicating thoughts all the time. So yeah, there’s a part of me that can go out to dinner and be myself and there’s also a part of me that continues to mimic the feelings of the character I’m playing in the world that I’m existing in. I also know that there is a place for craft. That’s why I believe in the analytical side to acting. I think education is so important when it comes to acting. It may look easy, but I find that you are on a mission when you take on a role to be sure to get it right. I believe in doing research and being prepared.
How did you prepare to play a guy who loses his wife in a terrible accident and shows no remorse?
It’s interesting because in this movie, the director didn’t want me to prepare at all. He just said, “I’ll see you on set.” I was like, “Wait! Aren’t we going to prepare?” By doing this, he threw me into a place that was uncomfortable, because I have my own way of working. So yes, the answer to your previous question is “yes” – I do take my character home and I discovered that it takes a while to get rid of those behaviors. You have to be thoughtful and caring, and be around people who appreciate what you do. They don’t look at you like you are crazy. I think that if your ship is built well, when you get into a storm, most of the time you’ll be all right. Feelings are like that storm. You just have to build that ship so it’s strong. I don’t know if that answers your question…
You’re in your mid 30’s now. Do you feel like you have turned a corner in the type of roles you play, compared to the roles you played when you were in your 20s?
I don’t think there was a time when I made that decision or thought about that. I do think that there was a time when I realized I can’t show up to set and say my lines just because I understand the rhythm of the scene and I’m confident in front of the camera, so everything will be okay. There’s a moment when you become an adult where you understand that only hard work will separate you from the love and passion for what you do. You have to work hard. I don’t know when that happened exactly, but if I had to pinpoint it I would say it happened during the filming of Zodiac. During the filming of that movie, I didn’t have the work ethic that I have now. I criticized myself in my mind for that, but ultimately I adopted a new work ethic that I have learned from different people.
Chris Cooper, who plays my father-in-law in Demolition, taught me a lot about work ethic. In our first movie together, October Sky, I had no idea why he was so aloof and wouldn’t talk to me…but that was his character. Now I have those same tools – I just accumulated them. One day you wake up and you’re grown up, I guess.
Finally, Joe Namath, the iconic quarterback of the New York Jets once said if anyone were to play him in a movie it should be you. What do you think about that?
There was talk for a while about doing a film on the life of Joe Namath. It looked like I was going to be a part of it so I was attached to it for a very long time. However, it never came to fruition. I will say this about Joe Namath…he has really good taste!