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“This movie has changed me in ways that I can’t really put into words and is the most important film I’ve made so far for a number of reasons,” Jake Gyllenhaal says in reference to David Gordon Green‘s Stronger, which he produced and in which he plays Boston Marathon bombing survivor Jeff Bauman, as we sit down at The Mark Hotel on New York’s Upper East Side — in a room loaned to us for the afternoon by Luca Guadagnino, with whom Gyllenhaal soon will be working — to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s “Awards Chatter” podcast. “I think we helped [Jeff] see things about himself that helped him heal, which, to me, is why I think this movie means more to me than any one I’ve ever made.”
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“You know,” Gyllenhaal continues, “you think about Brokeback [Mountain, Ang Lee‘s trailblazing 2005 film about gay lovers, in which Gyllenhaal stars] — I’ve had people come up to me over the years and say how that movie changed their life or how it made them realize something — and you see the power of movies. I have spent a lot of time in my career making excuses for the absurdity of our world — Hollywood — and all of its confusion, apparent sickness over the past few months that we’ve discovered, the complications, the vanity. But what I will never accept is anyone telling me that movies aren’t an extraordinarily powerful tool for communication and ultimately, in a small way, for change. And sometimes in a big way.”
Stronger makes a, well, strong case not only for the power of the movies, but also for Gyllenhaal as one of the strongest actors of his generation. At just 36, he already has been in the business for 25 years. The early promise that he showed in films such as Joe Johnston‘s October Sky (1999), Richard Kelly‘s Donnie Darko (2001), the aforementioned Brokeback Mountain (for which he received his sole Oscar nomination thus far) and David Fincher‘s Zodiac (2007), was somewhat called into question in 2010, when he starred in the big-budget critical and commercial flop Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. But since that scalding experience, Gyllenhaal has recommitted to his craft and amassed a streak of great performances — in Duncan Jones‘ Source Code (2011), David Ayer‘s End of Watch (2012), Denis Villeneuve‘s Prisoners (2013), Dan Gilroy‘s Nightcrawler (2014), Antoine Fuqua‘s Southpaw (2015), Tom Ford‘s Nocturnal Animals (2016) and now Stronger — that is nothing short of remarkable and second to none during that stretch.
Born in Los Angeles to a writer, Naomi Foner, and a director, Stephen Gyllenhaal, Gyllenhaal suggests he was drawn to acting in part out of a desire to emulate his older sister, Maggie Gyllenhaal, whom he describes as “a huge influence,” and in part out of a “need for love” and the “joy that expression begins.” After seeing Gyllenhaal in a play at his elementary school, another child’s parent, who was an agent, encouraged Gyllenhaal’s parents to take him on a few film auditions. Gyllenhaal was game, and he soon appeared in his first film, Ron Underwood‘s City Slickers (1991), at 11. He then learned a tough lesson at 12, when his parents blocked him from accepting a part in Stephen Herek‘s The Mighty Ducks (1992): namely, that acting would not be allowed to interfere with schooling. By high school, he had figured out a way around this — going out for professional auditions during free periods at school — which yielded his first starring role, in October Sky.
Afterward, Gyllenhaal attended Columbia University for two years before dropping out to focus full-time on acting opportunities that were availing themselves out of New York. The “awkward” youngster landed a string of “teenager-in-transition” roles in films like Nicole Holofcener‘s Lovely & Amazing (2001), James Cox‘s Highway (2002), Miguel Arteta‘s The Good Girl (2002) and, most notably, Donnie Darko — all characters who, he says, were searching for something. (“I think I have always, from very early on, fallen in love with characters who are on a search for identity — psychological, sexual, whatever it may be,” he reflects.) Then his career kicked into another gear — of high-quality adult roles — starting with the release of three films in 2005: John Madden‘s Proof, Sam Mendes‘ Jarhead and, above all, Brokeback Mountain (which he landed several years after a catastrophic audition for another Lee film, 1999’s Ride With the Devil).
In Brokeback, Gyllenhaal starred opposite Heath Ledger, who had been a friend since they both auditioned for Baz Luhrmann‘s 2001 musical Moulin Rouge! and then commiserated over losing out to Ewan McGregor. Over their 42 days together on the project, Gyllenhaal says they “had no idea what the movie and the results of the movie would be” — massive acclaim and a place at the vanguard of massive cultural change — adding, “It became something bigger than any of us could ever have imagined.” On a personal level, he notes, the film introduced a period of “hype and heat” when “momentum started happening,” resulting in not only a best supporting actor Oscar nom, but also, for the first time, “a pick of opportunities.” For the next few years, he decided to focus on working with other top directors — David Fincher (Zodiac), Jim Sheridan (Brothers) and Edward Zwick (Love and Other Drugs) — and then came Prince of Persia, a $200 million adaptation of a video game that grossed just $90 million domestically and landed at 36 percent on RottenTomatoes.com.
“It was a confusing time for me, in terms of trying to pick things to do, and what I believed in, and who I was as an actor,” Gyllenhaal acknowledges. “All of a sudden, the business starts to kind of rush in, your creative instincts start to counteract that, sometimes they move in. Then your idea of what you want to be, what you’ve always wished you could be as an actor, and how you want to be seen — as opposed to who you really are — all of those questions, without you really knowing it, start to creep in.” He adds, “I maybe — if I’m honest — lost a little perspective on craft during that time.” Specific to Prince of Persia, he says, “There was a lot of talk of doing a bigger-sized film or something like that, and that that would create more opportunities and also would be really fun.” He doesn’t regard the film as a total failure. “Being able to have perspective on the things I can do and the things I can’t do — I learned that on that movie, I think,” he says. “It woke me up to, ‘This is a business, I enjoy the business of it, and I’m not that bad at the business of it, so I should get in on it, as opposed to having other people tell me what they think their idea of the business is.'”
So what changed after Prince? “Over the past seven years, what I’ve started to value is when I feel real connection,” Gyllenhaal explains. “I love feeling like you have a tremendous community behind you, and somehow I felt when the movie was a bit smaller, there was a real community together pushing and striving toward something. That energy is infectious to me — I love that energy.” He vowed to only work with people to whom he is personally drawn (like Villeneuve, with whom he made both Prisoners and Enemy in the same year). He decided to set aside whatever amount of prep time a part required (he spent five months preparing for 22 days of shooting End of Watch, and says, “That’s when I realized that acting is incredible”). And he gave himself, body and soul, to his work (dropping 30 pounds for “one of the best screenplays I had ever read,” Nightcrawler).
He also started spending more time on the New York stage — in 2012’s Off-Broadway production If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet, in his 2015 Broadway debut Constellations (a manic two-hander in which he and Ruth Wilson performed 75 scenes in 93 minutes) and, most unexpectedly, as the lead of an extraordinary 2017 revival of Stephen Sondheim‘s musical Sunday in the Park With George — because, he says, “There’s nothing more thrilling to me.” Not many knew Gyllenhaal could sing, but he did so beautifully in Sunday in the Park, garnering raves. “I’ve sung my entire life,” he points out. “I’m trying more to open up to the things I love and the person I am. I think I’ve probably hidden those things.” He elaborates, “You pretend to be cool for only so long and then you stop giving a shit and then you just say, ‘I’m not cool in that way. This is who I am.’ And I think Sunday in the Park With George was about that and was not about facing a fear; it was just about moving into joy.”
Joy is not the first word that one would associate with Stronger. Gyllenhaal first became aware of Bauman on April 15, 2013, the day of the Boston Marathon bombing, in which both of Bauman’s legs were blown off and photos and footage of his rescue were broadcast around the world. A year later, Gyllenhaal read a script for a film about Bauman’s story, and says, “I just fell in love with the character.” He signed up to star in the project, which almost fell apart when “a little shinier” Boston Marathon bombing movie was announced [a reference to 2016’s Patriots Day], prompting him to enlist his own shingle, Nine Stories Productions, to support Stronger, with him serving as a producer. That led to “two-and-a-half years of no sleep,” he says, recalling that the day that gave him the most consternation was the one on which he and Bauman first sat across from each other. “I was terrified to meet him,” Gyllenhaal admits. “But he trusted me. I have no clue why.” The two developed a close bond, and Gyllenhaal’s resolve to honor his friend’s story is obvious throughout Stronger, never more so than in a scene, shot from above, in which he sits in a hospital bed shrieking in pain while the dressings over his digitally removed legs are removed by the very doctors and nurses who treated Bauman years earlier. “That’s a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing,” Gyllenhaal says.
Gyllenhaal says that Bauman saw Stronger with his family prior to its well-received world premiere at September’s Toronto International Film Festival, and took some time to process it, but subsequently communicated his approval and gratitude to Gyllenhaal for helping him to process the extent of what he has gone through over the last four-plus years. “We talk almost every day and I love him,” Gyllenhaal says quietly. “If this movie only helped Jeff survive, then the two-and-a-half years I’ve spent making it have been worthwhile. If it touches anyone else, it’s extra credit.”
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