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[This story contains spoilers for Spider-Man: Far From Home.]
Fourteen months after reports surfaced that Jake Gyllenhaal would be joining Spider-Man: Far From Home, the 38-year-old actor is finally opening up about the true nature of one Quentin Beck (aka Mysterio).
Since 2003, Gyllenhaal has frequently been the subject of rumors, speculation and fan-casting whenever a highly coveted superhero role became available — including Spider-Man. Eventually, Far From Home filmmaker Jon Watts presented Gyllenhaal with an offer to play a complex character named Mysterio.
Together, Gyllenhaal and Watts crafted a villain pretending to be a hero by subtly doubling down on superhero tropes that would be easy to miss until a second viewing. Gyllenhaal selected an oversized wedding band for Beck to lean into the family tragedy cliche; he also heightened a few lines; and because Beck is also a disgruntled former employee of Stark Industries, and not a seasoned actor since the age of 9 like Gyllenhaal, the actor knew that his performance within a performance needed to be imprecise. In other words, Beck couldn’t be as good of an actor as Gyllenhaal.
“Throughout the whole thing … there’s a real shakiness to certain things that he does, and I think fellow actors could probably look at it and say, ‘Oh, okay…” Gyllenhaal tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Calibrating that constantly, take to take, was what Jon and I enjoyed so much. … Devising that plan was the best part of it.”
The role allowed the actor to further explore an onscreen duality that he’s become so adept at playing, thanks to his roles in Nightcrawler, Enemy and Nocturnal Animals.
In a recent conversation with THR, Gyllenhaal also discusses his return to Broadway on July 26 as Abe in A Life, the A-list filmmakers who influenced the role of Mysterio and his reaction to 2008’s The Dark Knight, which starred his sister Maggie Gyllenhaal and Brokeback Mountain co-star Heath Ledger.
I was exhausted by just watching your Far From Home press tour unfold. Have you finally recovered, or is there a bit of a hangover still?
There wasn’t much recovery needed. It’s a tremendously invigorating process. Even though you’re flipping time zones like a psychopath, you’re being greeted in every city with this incredible energy. We would arrive in each city, one farther destination after the next, and there would be a crowd of people at the airport who were so excited to see us … and they’re filled with enthusiasm and positivity. Compared to a lot of different tours that I’ve done that were less extensive, it was really invigorating.
When you agreed to play Mysterio, did you realize then that you’d have to play Mysterio again during the press tour, given his hero facade you had to uphold?
(Laughs.) Yes, I did. I knew that there would be a meta quality throughout that process. But, it wasn’t difficult because I genuinely adore Tom Holland, and we love spending time with each other. For a majority of the movie, we are really on the same side. It could be argued, at least from where I stand, that we were on the same side anyway, even by the end of the movie. I kinda liked it; maybe that’s what made the press tour so entertaining for me. It was still a certain type of performance.
I imagine that you can relate to Tom Holland quite a bit since you both started acting at a young age. Have you consciously become a mentor figure to younger actors on set — such as Tom, Southpaw’s Oona Laurence or Wildlife’s Ed Oxenbould — since you know exactly what they’re going through?
It would be presumptuous of me to say that I could be a mentor in that way. Recently, I heard someone say a line that I love: “Be the adult that you wanted when you were younger.” I think there is an idea in my head that as someone who’s older, you somehow have more experience — and in some cases you do — but because Tom and I started so young, I think that is why we get along in a lot of ways. I learned so much from all those actors you just named. Oona was one of the most incredible vocal improvisers I’ve ever worked with, and was so awake, so alive and filled holes that I couldn’t seem to in performance and various situations. I was constantly learning from her in terms of acting, and vice versa, definitely. I love being there for Tom if he needs me, and he knows that I am, not just in terms of career but in terms of life or anything. To be honest, I’m grateful to still be doing stuff so that I can meet younger actors and work with them. (Laughs.)
In theory, Quentin Beck shouldn’t be as good of an actor as Jake Gyllenhaal. Thus, did you purposefully show some cracks in Beck’s facade?
Yes. Generally, throughout the whole thing, if you look at it, there’s a real shakiness to certain things that he does, and I think fellow actors could probably look at it and say, “Oh, okay…” That was the extra meta that I loved, and it’s the part that Jon Watts and I loved constantly, which was, “How far do you push what is real? How real is this moment to Quentin, and how much of it is a performance? How good is he really?” Calibrating that constantly, take to take, was what Jon and I enjoyed so much. Actually, I think there were moments that were probably too real, where you kinda went, “Wait a second…” So, if you go back and see the movie again, I think you can see some of those cracks, but not enough to where you go, “What’s this guy doing?” But, I know there’s a significant amount of people that probably don’t think I’m any good at what I do and just generally feel that way anyway. (Laughs.) Devising that plan was the best part of it.
What clued me into Beck’s facade was the oversized wedding ring. Since superheroes are known for the family tragedy trope, he was clearly leaning into that via the ring and lines like “This is for my family!” The wedding ring even reminded me a bit of Lou Bloom’s oversized stolen watch in Nightcrawler, as there’s a reason why these accessories didn’t fit either character. Was the oversized wedding ring a choice made by you, Jon and the costume designer?
The wedding ring was, the backstory was… We had a lot of conversations about that, and that’s sort of a communal thing. I needed enough of a reason that wasn’t just the expository, “I’m from another planet.” The size of the wedding ring and the choice … as usual, there’s a great props department and they presented me with a number of different choices. So, I picked one, and then Jon was like, “Okay, cool…” Also, it wasn’t just the size of it as much as it was how he shot it, and then, how I would futz with it.
You introduced Mysterio to the majority of people who saw Far From Home. Was the ability to create a first impression of Mysterio a major factor in your commitment to the role, versus playing a character who’s been portrayed by several actors already?
Yeah, I think there’s something in the originality. They’re equal degrees of difficulty in trying to come in and fill the shoes of a character that’s been played by a number of people and a character that’s already been imagined by a number of people. He has been created, just not personified, but I loved that about him because it gave me room to play. Some of those other roles that have been played by many people have a lot less wiggle room. People have made a lot of choices around them. And what I Iove about Mysterio is that he has so many different faces. You could play someone who literally calls themself Chameleon, or you could play somebody who says that they’re a bad guy, but this is somebody who exists on either side of the line all the time. That way, he’s utter confusion, and in that way, he’s sort of unbeatable, which makes him almost un-actable. Because of that, I thought that would make a great challenge. I don’t know if I have an aversion to the more well-known characters; I don’t. It’s just that he presented me with a Rubik’s Cube, and I loved that.
Another deciding factor must have been the fact that Mysterio would reveal Spider-Man’s identity to the world. Even if Mysterio never appears in another MCU movie, his presence will be felt for a really long time. Were both of these aspects intriguing to you?
Well, I just love great endings that refer back to other great endings. The first movie [Homecoming] was great like that, too. I also love the end of Prisoners. I love those kind of cliffhanger moments. So often, we’re used to the same structure, particularly in very large movies, and it takes a lot of courage to leave on those kinds of cliffhangers. The way I look at it is twofold: Mysterio exists as someone to teach Peter Parker a lesson. In my opinion, there’s no use for just a straight-up bad guy unless there’s a lesson to be learned. And the lesson, particularly for Peter, is what is growing up for real. The truth of it is, if I go back to earlier work that I did, the thing that I love about adolescence — and was terrible about adolescence — is that as you grow up, the world becomes totally unclear. One of the things that I loved about doing Donnie Darko, when I was Tom’s age, was that it portrayed adolescence in a way that I had not experienced through most high school movies. The courage that the filmmakers had in Far From Home to say, “We’re gonna bring in a villain that’s going to turn Peter’s world upside down and force him to be who he actually is to the whole world. Nothing’s a secret anymore,” that was amazing. As an audience member, not as the person who played Mysterio, I believe in Peter Parker, and I believe in Spider-Man, his power and how strong he is. What Mysterio reveals will end up helping Peter, somewhere. He’ll learn from it, and those are the best characters. The characters who teach our heroes a lesson don’t always have to be like Obi-Wan.
I think a lot of people were surprised that it took as long as it did for you to commit to a superhero movie, especially since your name was tied to several of these roles over the years. When you saw what your sister Maggie Gyllenhaal and Brokeback Mountain co-star Heath Ledger did in 2008’s The Dark Knight, were you champing at the bit back then to find your own analogue?
You’re talking about two incredible actors in a space with an incredible filmmaker, who allowed them to be great actors inside that, and make courageous choices. I don’t think that actors often have that opportunity in huge movies because you have to communicate language to the whole world. Because you’re telling a myth sometimes, the acting can lose a certain complexity. In that movie, they didn’t. Complexity was never lost; in fact, it was embraced and then loved by audiences. It kind of retaught people what a superhero movie could be. I actually believe that Jon Watts, when he presented me with the idea of Mysterio, it was one of the first times where I went, “Oh, I can use the things that I love about acting, and I can do the things that I love about movies. And it still works.” So, I don’t know if it was really that those two actors inspired me; they’ve inspired me for years. In the case of my sister, she continues to, along with a lot of other actors. I just don’t think I’ve had an opportunity to play a character as complex or was offered one.
Because Mysterio is essentially playing both a filmmaker and a lead actor, was there any particular director you channeled into your performance?
Out of respect and to quote Mysterio, “Mysterio is the truth,” so I gotta say the truth: Jon Watts, obviously. The funny part about Mysterio is that he’s all of us and every filmmaker. There’s no one I was channeling specifically, but Jon and I would laugh all the time because he would say something on set like, “I just want green, just give me green. I said green, not forest green!” and then we’d improv it into the next scene. Unfortunately, in the end, Watts would probably side with Peter Parker as he does. He’s made an incredible character with Tom Holland. We were channeling the producers, the director, but no one that specific.
Well, I know you weren’t channeling Denis Villeneuve because at no point did Mysterio say, “I deeply love it.”
(Laughs.) There’s a little Denis in there if you look close enough, but only at the beginning…
On July 26, you’re returning to Broadway for nine weeks with Sea Wall / A Life. Is stage work a palate cleanser in some ways, given the hustle and bustle of Hollywood? Is it a healthy way of rediscovering what the craft is all about at the end of the day?
I don’t know if it’s that conscious. There are pieces that move me whether they are scripts to become movies or scripts that are for the theater. There are things that move me, and then I just have to do them. I think that’s where I gravitate towards, and I think with the theater, there is the thrill of the live audience. It’s truly invigorating. I also really like the schedule, if I can be totally honest. (Laughs.) After so many years of being grateful but waking up at 4 a.m. to start my job, it’s really nice to start your job and rehearsals at 10 a.m., and then finish at 6 p.m. during rehearsal time. And then your performance time is usually 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. or midnight. I also like coming back to the same place every night that we all congregate together. The theater is a deep love of mine. It’s not a palate cleanser so much as it’s informative. It shows me my weak spots, and it constantly humbles me. You think so many things are happening as an actor, and you think you control so much, but you really don’t. You feel that nowhere more than on the stage. One of the things I see people do — people who don’t spend a lot of time onstage — is they’ll sometimes be in a scene and they’ll just stop the scene or they’ll cut themselves. They’re almost directing themselves. You never know what’s working and what’s not working. That’s the beauty and the terror of being an actor. It’s up to someone else to cut it together, and it’s up to the audience to respond to it. You just gotta give what you give, and give it with all of you. That’s what I love about the theater.
You’re performing A Life, which is about life and death as well as fatherhood. In what ways does this piece strike a chord with you?
It was given to me by Nick Payne, the playwright, while we were working on another show called Constellations a number of years ago. I asked him to do it every year for about five years, and he refused because it was so personal. Every time I read it, I would be laughing out loud, and then I’d cry in moments that just hit me so deeply. It is about fatherhood — and I have yet to be a father — but it’s also about family, love and faith. I think those concepts really strike me, and the way he writes is so honest that it just creates something wholly original. Once we started to perform it in front of audiences, I realized that it creates a night of theater that is unlike anything you have experienced. I’ve never come back to a piece over and over again that’s made me cry and made me laugh just reading it, either to myself, or out loud over a six-year period. So, I just needed to do it.
Since we’re short on time, I’d like to do a lighting round of sorts. I have numerous quick questions, so let’s see how far we get.
I loved Velvet Buzzsaw and Nightcrawler, of course. Has Dan Gilroy pitched you anything lately?
Not yet, no. He’s been in his … I don’t know what it would be … I call my period of time where I’m tinkering with things “behind the black curtain.” So, I think he’s behind his black curtain. He’s got a quite a mind, so I just respect that. Whether it involves me or it doesn’t, I just can’t wait to see what he’s gonna do.
Reportedly, you’re going to be working with Jessica Chastain and filmmaker David Leitch on The Division relatively soon. Will you be doing John Wick’s famous training regimen at Leitch’s studio?
(Laughs.) Yeah! I’m up for it. I’m up for anything, man. This job is about the experiences you have off-camera as much as the experiences you have on-camera. So, I’m down.
Your performance of “Fire all the drones now!” reminded me so much of Gary Oldman’s “Everyone!” in Leon: The Professional. Was that performance moment a nod to him?
(Laughs.) No, actually. When a character is truly frustrated, I guess there are similarities. I didn’t, but that’s an honor, so thanks.
The City Slickers’ classroom scene, especially the New York construction worker, is still being quoted to this day. Do you remember if you and the rest of the kids kept breaking during that scene?
I remember just being so excited to be on a movie set. I couldn’t believe I was acting on a movie set. Every single moment of that experience was memorable. I do remember the room being very, very hot because there were so many lights lighting the room. It was already hot outside, and I couldn’t quite figure out why they needed so many lights. Even to this day, I can still remember saying, “My dad’s named Mitch, and he’s a submarine commander.” I said it so many times, and I practiced it so many times that to this day, that moment hasn’t left my head. That experience really made an impression on me.
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