Jake Gyllenhaal's Eclectic Career Path on Stage and Screen

Evan Agostini/Invision/AP
Jake Gyllenhaal and Rachel McAdams at the 'Southpaw' Premiere

With a standout performance in 'Southpaw' and rave reviews for an abbreviated run in 'Little Shop of Horrors', the actor sets his sights on Broadway.

With the release of Southpaw, Jake Gyllenhaal has become a double-threat for critics in the month of July.

First came rave reviews for his two-day stand as Seymour in a concert staging of Little Shop of Horrors, and now he’s garnering praise for his portrayal of prizefighter Billy Hope in Antoine Fuqua’s redemption tale of the ring. “It’s a nice thing to hear,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter of the positive critical response. “Hopefully the movie works. Hopefully people respond to it.”

Written by Kurt Sutter (Sons of Anarchy), Southpaw follows light heavyweight champ Billy Hope, whose life falls apart when his beloved wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams), is caught in the crossfire between he and a prizefight challenger, Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez). A fit of rage costs him his boxing license and he loses his daughter to child services before hitting the comeback trail with the help of disgraced trainer Tick Wills, (Forest Whitaker). Not a particularly original tale, as many critics have noted, but Gyllenhaal’s transformation into the kindly, though brutish, Hope is a revelation.

“Jake didn’t have a stunt double,” notes McAdams, who says she sometimes joined her costar and director in the ring on their twice-daily workouts. “These boxers train for six months to go maybe twelve rounds. And he had trained for three months to go forty rounds a day, five days a week. There were times when it was like, Oh my God, is he going to be okay, is he going to make it?”

Read more: 'Southpaw': Film Review

Gyllenhaal’s career path is as eclectic as the three movies that launched him in 2001  cult favorite Donnie Darko, Disney’s low-budget Bubble Boy and art house dramedy, Lovely & Amazing. Critical hits followed, like Brokeback Mountain, Zodiac and last year’s Nightcrawler, interspersed with a few generic studio tentpoles like The Day After Tomorrow and Prince of Persia.

“I love discovering things, and I love being pushed,” he offers. “The past couple of years I’ve played characters that have been sort of in darker worlds, but I like to find humor in those places too.” Little Shop of Horrors is a darker world, loaded with just the kind of humor he’s drawn to. Reviews for his three performances at New York’s City Center in early July were superlative, with the New York Times calling him, “one of the few American movie stars who was clearly meant to be a stage star,” and THR critic, David Rooney describing his singing voice as “sweet, expressive and tuneful.”

Such accolades come on the heels of a Tony snub for his Broadway debut, Constellations, playwright Nick Payne’s critically-acclaimed two-hander about a romantic couple and parallel universes. His second theatrical outing, Little Shop Of Horrors is based on the 1982 musical of the same name, which is based on the 1960 Roger Corman movie featuring Jack Nicholson in one of his earliest roles. Set to the songs of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, the book centers on Seymour Krelborn (Gyllenhaal), who harbors a secret crush on coworker Audrey (Ellen Greene) at Mushnik’s Skid Row Florists. Carnage ensues when Seymour adopts an exotic flesh-eating plant, after which fame and romance flourish with deadly consequences.

Read more: 'Little Shop of Horrors': Theater Review

The closest Gyllenhaal ever came to being in a musical was the time he auditioned for Moulin Rouge, which is why it took some coaxing by Fun Home composer, Jeanine Tesori, (who had seen him in Constellations) to get him to play Seymour. The clincher was a plant she sent him with a bloody Barbie doll cut into pieces and a note reading: “Just do it.”

“I saw the movie when I was a little boy,” recalls Gyllenhaal. “I remember seeing Ellen Greene, and she’s this sort of sexual, odd creature that I remember being like, What is cleavage?” He got to revisit his boyhood fantasies being paired with the 64-year-old Greene from the original production, but the experience also gave him insight into his career up until that point.

“All of a sudden I realized why I had done all the movies I had ever done. It was so I could be singing with Ellen Greene on stage. I was like, Oh shit, now I get it. And then to see people’s faces, ya know, talk about going to dark worlds, and what do I enjoy. There was so much joy. So it’s not all about darkness, though Little Shop of Horrors is pretty damn dark.”

While he welcomes the opportunity to work with the cast again, he doubts there are plans for a Broadway run, though he continues to look for other chances to sing and dance. “Given the musicals that have come out of Broadway this year  Fun Home, Hamilton, which will be on Broadway  I think there’s starting to be a real kind of revolution, evolution of the Broadway musical, which I think is pretty dope. There’s no better time to be involved in musical theater than now.”

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