“Some sort of strange cousin”

Features, FILM, Interviews
img_jakegyllenhal-nataliadeyrJake Gyllenhaal on Everest, family, boxing, and Lou Bloom’s connection with Donnie Darko. Illustration by Natalia Deyr.

Jack Gyllenhaal’s imposingly muscular upper body testifies to his intense training for Everest, and Southpaw, about a champion boxer’s fall and redemptive arc. “I trained for six months for that. Being a boxer, learning how to box and training for boxing really helped boxing,” he laughs, looking at me slightly pugnaciously. “In fact, anything you want to do you should learn how to do it before you do it. That’s my advice.”

In a Downtown New York hotel, we’re discussing Nightcrawler, Southpaw, and his latest film Everest, in which he plays American climber Scott E. Fischer, who died on the mountain alongside Cantabrian Rob Hall during 1996.

Does he see any of his exhilarating 2001 breakthrough role Donnie Darko in Nightcrawler’s resourceful Lou Bloom, the creepy freelance crime videographer? “Yeah, as some sort of strange cousin. I wouldn’t want either of them together at a Thanksgiving dinner, but my family gets that every Thanksgiving, in one way or another,” he says, blues eyes twinkling, bringing to mind his godfather Paul Newman, possibly the most illustrious blue eyes in cinematic history. “I think there’s a magical thinking to both of them. I think there’s a great innocence to both of them, too.[1]

“Donnie Darko had that innocence moving from adolescence into adulthood, and the hallucinogenic nature of that transition. I think with Lou there’s a great innocence there too, and he has his own trippy vibe.”

Family’s big for Everest—there are loaded shots back to Keira Knightley’s pregnant Jan Arnold in New Zealand—and for Gyllenhaal, who was born into Hollywood privilege. Newman taught him to drive. Writer Naomi Foner and director Stephen Gyllenhaal are his parents. Then there’s his older sister Maggie Gyllenhaal. “Maggie was always performing, and in so many ways.” Another inspiration, aged 7, was watching River Phoenix rehearsing Running on Empty, a Golden Globe screenplay award for his mother.

Gyllenhaal doesn’t share my revulsion towards Lou, who has no limits in what he will do to snare his violent images. In fact, rather weirdly, he says he loves the gaunt loser he lost 20 pounds to play. “Have you never felt that way before? That’s the thing about work. He uses all these huge corporate slogans and Tony Robbins self-help. He doesn’t always do great things with them, but I kind of agree with everything he says.” Presumably he’s referring to Nightcrawler’s critique of how it’s hard for young people to get ahead these days.

Sure there was the much-lampooned Prince of Persia and Roland Emmerich’s global-warming disaster The Day After Tomorrow, directed with the distancing arrogance of an Austrian parking warden.

But he’s had a decent run of films, Jake Gyllenhaal. Prisoners. The Good Girl. Brokeback Mountain, which saw him and Heath Ledger both nominated for Oscars. Jarhead, with Peter Sarsgaard, his beloved nephew’s father. Rendition, with ex-girlfriend Reese Witherspoon.

Despite Nightcrawler’s disturbing feel, Gyllenhaal loves the town where he was born and raised. “I keep Los Angeles weird… This is going to be abstract, but I tend to speak and think like that. Because the topography of Los Angeles is so vast, because it is so expansive, because it is so horizontal, I think there is an allowance for more to kind of seep up through the ground. I think you can feel something, particularly at night, and Dan [Gilroy, director] and I talked a lot about this, and I think [Angeleno] Robert Elswit filmed it so beautifully and brilliantly.”

To unwind from—and, perversely, to build—the intensity, Gyllenhaal got addicted to running during the shoot. “I wanted to be a coyote, you know? Dan and I talked about the topography of Los Angeles and about how coyotes are a staple of the landscape of Southern California. At night these coyotes come down from the mountains. Anyone who’s lived in that area knows, or has had some sort of interaction with a coyote. They’re hungry and starving and ruthless and looking at you like they’ll tear your throat out. In fact, you can hear them do it sometimes.

“So I wanted him [Lou] to look like that. I would run through Griffith Park in Los Angeles, which is sort of training ground for coyotes, there are so many around. I would run 15 miles. That was really the way I stayed in the mind-set, but also relieved some of the thoughts and feelings that Dan’s writing put in me when playing the character… I memorised this movie like a play.”

Initially, Gyllenhaal demurs when asked to comment on how his A-lister experience being on the other end of the paparazzi informed Nightcrawler. Instead, he cites End of Watch, where he played a police officer, and more recent research rolling with stringer brothers the Rikers. “It almost strangely felt like this second nature because I had done it before so often… I’d been on the streets in South East L.A. for five months, with police officers three or four times a week, from six p.m. until four a.m. in the morning. We’d been to so many crime scenes and accident scenes and there had been stringers there.”

Shortly, however, he illuminatingly ponders how audiences are complicit with the likes of Lou. “We need to feed the beast. Somebody going off and getting a coffee, somebody taking photographs of that or videos of that, is right along the same homepage as the State of the Union, or some other major political issue.” He’s referring, of course, to the world’s most eminent maple lattes he and then girlfriend Taylor Swift were snapped trying to drink on Thanksgiving 2010. (Swift later released a ridiculously popular break-up album about him. Cutting personal songs included ‘State of Grace’, ‘Red’, ‘Sad, Beautiful, Tragic’, and ‘We Are Never Getting Back Together’. Lines like the latter’s, “I’m really gonna miss you picking fights… With some indie record that’s ‘much cooler’ than mine.”)

“What does that say about how we take in information?” Gyllenhaal continues, animated. “I do believe there [should be] a hierarchy of importance. If I go on my phone right now, go on a webpage—maybe you work for some of these media sites—there’s an equality of information. Which I think can be dangerous because it can create somebody like Lou. It’s a fertile ground for someone like him to rule, ultimately.”

Gyllenhaal sees the danger of today’s relentless e-connectivity. “He’s the product of interaction with the Internet. His morals are based on electrical connection as opposed to a human connection.”

“[David] Fincher paints with people,” Gyllenhaal objected in 2007, about the terrific Zodiac set, “It’s tough to be a colour.” He’s diplomatic when I ask him to compare the Fincher/Gilroy experience. “You would probably agree with me about Fincher because of his vast, eclectic oeuvre,” he says, awkwardly stretching his arms wide. “I think there’s an ambition and there’s a great desire to tell a story in the most complex, specific, detailed way. That’s a huge similarity, the amount of preparation the two of them do.”

He made his off-Broadway stage debut in 2012 with If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet. “I want to come home at the end of the day and be wiped out and feel I’ve torn my heart out from acting and feel fulfilled,” he said around opening night. Did he feel a similar intensity making Nightcrawler? “There was this consistent push and pressure in this movie that I think helped me create the character, that was Lou Bloom. Yes, I finished, and even as I see it now I feel like I tried to leave it all on the field.”

Gyllenhaal was a rookie producer on Nightcrawler. “You can appreciate the beauty of a watch, but when you take it apart and you see all the pieces and how they came together it’s a whole other situation… I loved the physical aspect of production.” He had to be hard-nosed to get/keep locations. “I found myself to be incredibly ambitious and ruthless in trying to tell a story that I care deeply about.”

He hopes to produce again. “It’s really hard to produce a movie; it takes a lot of energy and a lot of belief and,” he reiterates avidly, “a lot of ambition and a lot of ruthlessness—which matched the character! It did!”

Now a Downtown Manhattan resident, Gyllenhaal thinks every city has a dark side. “When I did this film Enemy directed by Denis Villeneuve [in] Toronto, we found there’s a great darkness there. He found it in the images and imagery there.” Villeneuve/Gyllenhaal’s Demolition opens at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival in September.

“Every city has a beautiful darkness and I think that L.A., because it’s continuously sunny, there’s a consistency to that, there’s a perversity to that. You can see it when you just sit still there because of the way it’s laid out, and I also think a great beauty.

“On the other end, culturally it’s vast and extraordinary. It gets a lot of blame for some reason, maybe because Hollywood is the centre of it? But, culturally, it’s one of the most amazing cities I’ve been to in the world. You just have to go look. You have to have a car, unfortunately,” he laughs. “Opening the windows and getting out of the car, which is another thing that doesn’t always happen.”

He sees himself directing in the future. “When I’m in a pretentious—no, presumptuous—mood, maybe yeah.”

© Natalia Deyr 2015. All Rights Reserved. More illustration at nataliadeyr.com.

Alexander Bisley is a Radio New Zealand film critic. ‘Southpaw’ is in cinemas now. ‘Everest’ opens on September 17. Thanks to Thomas Phillips for transcription assistance on this article.

[1] “When we were trying to search for a way to make him a character that you root for we had this eureka moment: we were with the stringers in L.A. and I was watching them thinking, ‘this is like kids going out climbing trees and burring things.’ There’s not mentally much difference, though it becomes more dangerous when you’re in a big body and you’re an adult.”

Filed under: Features, FILM, Interviews


Alexander Bisley is an editor-at-large who has contributed in-depth interviews and more to The Lumière Reader since 2004. He’s written extensively on culture (and sport) for all of New Zealand’s leading outlets, and also makes his living freelancing for international publications including The Guardian, Slate, and The AV Club. He’s published by The Independent, BBC, Vice, The Sydney Morning Herald, Playboy, and Slate France, and has been paid once by The New Yorker.