'Enemy' Director on Jake Gyllenhaal's Identical Characters: 'It's Maybe Two Sides of the Same Persona'

Denis Villeneuve, who also directed the actor in last fall's "Prisoners," talks about casting him in the indie, which they shot first, and his uncertainty about digital release strategies, like the one distributor A24 is undertaking for this film.

In his new film Enemy, Jake Gyllenhaal plays two characters: a shlumpy history teacher and a confident actor, both of whom look exactly alike, even sporting the same hairstyles and full beards.

Director Denis Villeneuve says the characters' mirror-image appearance was necessary to get at one of the possible explanations for the characters' relationship with one another, which is never explained.

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"You don't know if they are two in reality, or maybe from a subconscious point of view, there's just one," Villeneuve tells The Hollywood Reporter. "It's maybe two sides of the same persona … or a fantastic event where you see another [self]."

Furthermore, Villeneuve explains that he needed both characters to look exactly alike in order for the moment when they meet, after history teacher Adam tracks down actor Anthony, to be as strange and horrifying as it seems to the characters, who each act as if they're threatened by the existence of a mystery person who looks just like him.

"I thought that in the book [The Double, on which the film is based] … it was so strong … the strangeness and the monstrosity of such an encounter: meeting someone that looks exactly like yourself," the director says. "There is something unbearable about it. And in order to create that, I needed both characters to be physically identical but … have different souls."

But Villeneuve said he could tell which character Gyllenhaal was playing "just by the way he was breathing." Indeed, the director, who reteamed with Gyllenhaal on last fall's Prisoners, which was shot after they filmed Enemy, explained that he needed an actor of Gyllenhaal's ability to carry the film.

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"I knew that the movie would work and it would make sense … only if I had a very strong actor in front of the camera," Villeneuve tells THR. "I learned as I was casting that Jake Gyllenhaal was available and I remembered how strong Jake was in Brokeback Mountain … among all [his] films, I was mesmerized by the profoundness of this actor."

Villeneuve says that he sent Gyllenhaal the script with a long letter explaining what he was looking for in an actor and trying to achieve with the film, and Gyllenhaal invited him to get a drink in New York, where they talked about "cinema and vice." Gyllenhaal, Villeneuve says, seemed to be looking for the same thing he was seeking, which was the chance to develop a strong relationship with the person on the other side of the camera.

"I was in need of a creative relationship as a director. I really needed to create a relationship with one actor to think about acting, directing and filmmaking together," Villeneuve says. "I think Jake had the same need. I think he did Enemy not that much because of the screenplay but because of that process I wanted to do, which was to share cinema with him, to exchange, to have the chance to take time and to risk and explore things in front of the camera."

One of the things they explored was what Villeneuve believes to be the film's central question.

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"How can we evolve and not repeat the same mistakes that we are doing over and over again?," he says, adding that the movie's really about "repetition," as far as he's concerned.

"That's why the movie is constructed like a spiral," the director adds. "That's why it's a challenge for the audience, it's an enigma, but I hope that the audience will have fun trying to solve this enigma."

The film ends with one of the biggest mysteries of the movie, a head-scratching final image that will leave viewers wondering about the significance of what they just saw.

Villeneuve tells THR that's exactly what he wanted.

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"For me, the final image has a precise meaning, but I like to let the audience free to find it by themselves," he says.

In terms of why he chose such a strange final image, he says, "It's like opening a trap under the seat of the audience and trying to create the feeling of vertigo. I love those images in cinema that are a challenge for the intellect."

The unusual film has an unconventional release strategy, playing on DirecTV since Feb. 6 before getting a limited theatrical release on Friday.

"Enemy is an experimental film and to have an experimental release makes a lot of sense to me," Villeneuve says.

But although he trusts distributor A24 and is OK with this release strategy for Enemy, Villeneuve said he's not generally a fan of the concept of movies being released via new, digital platforms.

"I'm a bit afraid of that approach, I don't know if it will work. But I'm willing to try it," he says. "I love when as an audience I go into a theater and I share emotions with other people around me. I'm not a big fan of Internet access to movies. I'm deeply in love with the big screen, but sometimes for more challenging movies, there's a new way to release them."