This is not the same Jake Gyllenhaal.
This is no longer the cute boy with the perfect hair and dreamy lips. This is no longer the frontrunner for that next big blockbuster, or the dude you have to consider for your upcoming superhero franchise. This is a Jake Gyllenhaal who is now embracing the unexpected, tackling roles that require a lot more than big muscles and a tone physique. A Jake Gyllenhaal who's seeking out close, passionate relationships with filmmakers who like to experiment and push boundaries. Filmmakers who offer an experience versus a performance. Filmmakers like Prisoners director Denis Villenueve.
Gyllenhaal and Villenueve's working relationship began on a very personal and experimental film called Enemy, which premiered at this year's Toronto International Film Festival. The close bond they formed on that movie helped fuel Gyllenhaal's approach in Prisoners, where he stars as the heroically wounded and detached Detective Loki. He's a character we don't know much about at all, but Gyllenhaal brilliantly plays him as a guy who's both zeroed in on the task at hand and at the same time only minutes away from completely unraveling.
In both Enemy and Prisoners, we see a more grown-up Jake Gyllenhaal -- a guy who's primed to enter the awards conversation, and one who proves he still has a lot more to accomplish in his career. It's almost fitting, then, that our recent conversation kicked off with a little chat about our unconventional Bar Mitzvah parties.
Movies.com: You know, one thing we have in common is that we both had unconventional Bar Mitzvah parties.
Jake Gyllenhaal: [Laughs] Is that the only thing we have in common?
Movies.com: No way, but it’s one of the things. I read yours was held in a homeless shelter, and I found that really interesting. I’m curious to know why.
Gyllenhaal: So am I! [Laughs] What my mother says is that she practiced this secular humanism, and she wanted her kids to have a perspective on the world and be able to feel like the idea of giving was as important as the moment that you were celebrating. So yeah, my parents on my 13th birthday – along with a party; we still had a typical party as well – we all spent the day at a homeless shelter. Why, what was yours?
Movies.com: I grew up in New York and it was always my dream as a young kid to visit California and Hollywood, so in lieu of an actual party, my parents and I road-tripped California.
Gyllenhaal: No s**t! That’s so great!
Movies.com: Well it sounds better than it was. I was 13, and ordering room service and watching Back to the Future II in a hotel room was a lot more fun than sitting in a car with my parents.
Gyllenhaal: [Claps hands] Haha, that’s amazing! Really, I love it.
Movies.com: You seem like such a relaxed guy, and yet everyone we talk to says you’re really intense. Are you an intense dude, or are we confusing you with the roles you play?
Gyllenhaal: Obviously it’s not something for me to say. I couldn’t tell you that. But I am focused when I work on something, and I think my tendency of late has been to move towards darker material.
Movies.com: Why is that? Do you get a rush from this type of material?
Gyllenhaal: I just seem to understand them a bit more. I’m someone who wants to know the truth of a situation, whatever it is. Like it’s hard for me to be in a context like this and not want to have an exchange. That’s what I like in a scene. Sometimes it’s hard to find material that allows for more of that exploration; allows for you to explore all different types of feelings. I have an instinct when I read something, and I like to share that with the person making the film to see if they are into those ideas, and that’s what I did with Prisoners. This role could've gone a number of different ways, but I had this idea that I shared with Denis Villeneuve, who I was working with at the time [on Enemy] and he was into it. He likes to explore that sort of darker, unconscious world. That’s why we love working with each other, because we’re not afraid of going to those places. In fact, we revel in them. I don’t know if that’s intense, or intensity, but we’re definitely not interested in skimming the surface.
Movies.com: Your character in Prisoners, Detective Loki--we know very little about him. So coming into this role, did you create an entire backstory or was one given to you? How much more did you know about him versus how much the audience knows?
Gyllenhaal: I know a lot about him. There were a few clues that Aaron Guzikowski had written into the script, like there’s a line about having spent time in a boys home and there were about two or three clues as to who he was. He was alone in a Chinese restaurant at the beginning of the movie – those types of things. From there Denis and I just started to work. Denis had always told me about this idea for the movie – this theme he wanted between institution and the individual. Hugh Jackman's character represented the individual and my character represented the institution, and that thematically he wanted my character to have been worked by the institutions into the position that he’s in.
My interpretation of that is that if he had been in a boys' detention center or boys' home, maybe he went through the juvenile detention system. And during that time maybe he did some things that allowed him to understand the criminal mind. We went through that story and we wrote it ourselves. From there we just gave little clues. The tattoos he has, he covers. Maybe he’s ashamed of those things. He’s looking for truth in other people, but he’s ashamed of his own truth. I could show those tats to someone to show that they couldn’t f**k with me, and then other times when I needed to bring out another type of truth in someone, I would hide them. Things like that, all over the place. But yeah, there was a long backstory that both Denis and I know. Things we like to share and things we’ll always keep to ourselves.
Movies.com: Was this a satisfying character to play? After you were done, did you feel like you brought something to this performance that maybe you haven’t tried yet?
Gyllenhaal: There’s allowance in this role for stillness. I had to listen very carefully, and I think I’ve just moved more towards simplicity as something you have to get to--nonacting. And again, it’s that sacred space you find yourself in. When you’re in front of the camera and there’s that space, anything is possible and anything should be possible. I learned that with this character. There were choices I would make that Denis would always protect, and working with him was him protecting that space in front of the camera, allowing me to do things and experiment. The first thing we did together in this movie Enemy, that was the entire experience. It was this crazy experiment of acting and directing; us working together and trying to figure things out. I’m very proud of that movie. So with Loki, we sort of evolved. We took all those things we learned from that process on Enemy and we put it underneath. That’s what I learned… just deliver the pizza.
Movies.com: Do you want to keep working with Denis?
Gyllenhaal: Yeah I would love to. There’s a deep, deep honesty between us. I make a joke – and he says this a lot about me, too – that I love him and I hate him. I think that’s the perfect relationship in a way. If he needed me for anything, I would be there. But I’ll always challenge him on things and ask him questions, and try to push his boundaries as he does mine. But ultimately, because he’s the leader, I’ll completely respect him.
Movies.com: Some of the best movies are born out of these close, intimate relationships that actors and actresses have with their directors. That’s not something you’ve really had yet in your career. Is that something you’ve been searching for?
Gyllenhaal: I haven’t known that that was possible. I feel like I’ve just begun my career, in an interesting way. I didn’t know that all that matters are those relationships, and the trust that goes on. That it’s a very delicate process to bring out honesty in someone else, and that I think it’s only time that allows that to happen in any relationship. If you make two movies together or more than that, you just trust that someone has your back if you make a choice, be it bad, great, crazy, sane – those choices in that space will be protected if you trust each other. And that is beautiful. In all of our jobs, we should make space to get to know the people we work with. It only brings out better work. Actors are strange creatures. Everyone is in their own way, but it’s a very odd job.
Movies.com: It is an odd job, and you've done it all. Something changed after Prince of Persia, though. Do you think you only had one shot at leading a big franchise, and was that it? Was Prince of Persia your last attempt at that, or is “the big blockbuster” still something you want to keep pursuing?
Gyllenhaal: I’ll say it’s definitely not a goal…
Movies.com: At one point it was a goal, right? You were almost Spider-Man, and came close to starring in both Batman Begins and Avatar. So at one point there definitely was a hunger in you to do that kind of stuff. Has that changed?
Gyllenhaal: I think the hunger in me now is to find and make relationships with filmmakers who I love and respect, and give to them and their movies whatever the size of it is. I really don’t care about the size of the film. What I care about is the connection with the person you’re making the movie with. That’s what makes a great movie. And I think I’ve gotten much better at being able to see who wants to go to those places I want to go to. I think that’s the thing I want and have always wanted, but I didn’t always know.
Movies.com: You haven’t done a comedy in a while, either. Bubble Boy was your last straight comedy, and that came out in 2001. Did that film turn you off from making another comedy?
Gyllenhaal: No way, I’m always down. There was never any decision to not do that thing. I’m down to do whatever, man. I just want to keep working. Honestly, you want to keep working.
Movies.com: It feels like the trend this awards season has to do with tales of survival. From Prisoners to Gravity to Captain Phillips to 12 Years a Slave, it runs through so many of these films. Since you're a guy who reads a lot of scripts, do you get a sense for what that next trend might be?
Gyllenhaal: What a lot of people said to me after Prisoners is that we need an opportunity for more commercially successful adult fare to come out. That’s been like the mantra after this movie, and I think this awards season has allowed for that, too. Especially considering the fact that we’ve had some movies this year like that have made money. I was watching Network on the plane, and there’s this sort of undercurrent of the movies being made that are moving us away from a certain truth. I have a feeling there are more of those Network-type movies that are exposing a truth, and we need to move towards those.
Movies.com: Maybe it's on you to keep making them...
Gyllenhaal: What I know I want to do is keep making movies that allow me to interact with real human beings doing real jobs. That I can spend months with them and learn and put it on film, and not have it feel like a performance. I think we’re moving a little more towards that, and if we do that’s great. I think it’s moving away from acting and hopefully moving more towards a sense of presence, and hopefully that’s where movies are moving towards, too. I can only speak about acting, and I feel like that’s where acting is going. Hopefully you’ll see a new generation of actors who are moving that way, who want to experience it more instead of just act it.
Prisoners will arrive on DVD/Blu-ray on December 17.
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