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I recently had the opportunity to sit down in New York with the Oscar-nominated actor Jake Gyllenhaal following a screening of his hit film End of Watch for a wide-ranging conversation about his life and career. Gyllenhaal, who will turn 32 next month and has now been acting professionally for 21 years, says that he recently arrived at something of a turning-point in both: after his experience with End of Watch and now the acclaimed off-Broadway play If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet, he has decided that he will only take on projects that challenge and mean as much to him as they do. Together — as you can see for yourself by checking out the video at the top of this page or read about below — we took a look back at his remarkable journey to this conclusion.
Gyllenhaal was born on Dec. 19, 1980 in Los Angeles, California. His parents, who divorced in 2009, are the screenwriter Naomi Foner and the film and television director Stephen Gyllenhaal. His older sister, of course, is Maggie Gyllenhaal, who is now an Oscar-nominated actress, and to whom he largely attributes his own interest in the acting. (“Her name is ‘Sister’ on my phone,” he shares.) Interestingly, Gyllenhaal’s parents initially discouraged him from jumping into acting as a career, at least until he had studied the craft and acquired real-world experiences from which he could draw upon. Fame and fortune, it was made clear from the outset, were not legitimate reasons to become an actor.
From a young age, though, Gyllenhaal was allowed to go out on auditions, and, if he snagged parts that didn’t take him away from his normal life for very long, he was sometimes permitted to take them. The first of these, a bit role as Billy Crystal’s son in City Slickers (1991), came when he was 10 years old. Years later, while in high school, Gyllenhaal became active in the drama program, while also continuing to go out on professional casting calls. He says that a major wake-up call came for him when he assumed that he would get a leading role in the senior play, but then didn’t get any part at all because he had neglected to adequately prepare for it so that he could instead focus on preparing for his audition for October Sky (1999). A conversation about this with his drama teacher forever changed the way that he approached his work, and the leading part in October Sky, which he ended up getting and knocking out of the ballpark, put him on the map as one of the industry’s most promising young actors.
After a two-year stint at Columbia University, Gyllenhaal came back to Hollywood and took on a string of what he has called “teenager-in-transition” roles. He says that the believable adolescent confusion and angst that he depicted in his performances in films such as Lovely & Amazing (2001), Bubble Boy (2001), The Good Girl (2002), and Donnie Darko (2001), the last of which is now a cult classic, was born out of his own similar feelings at the time.
Everything changed in 2005, though, when he starred in three high-profile films that were all well-received, and showed him in a different light: namely, as a grown man dealing with real-world problems. “It was an overwhelming year” filled with “blessed things,” he reflects. There was John Madden’s Proof, in which he portrays a man seeking meaning in the notebooks of his former math professor, who has since developed a mental illness. There was Sam Mendes’ Jarhead, in which he portrays a Marine before and during the Gulf War. And, most notably, there was Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005), in which he plays a gay cowboy who finds forbidden love with a closeted companion (the late Heath Ledger), and for which he received a best supporting actor Oscar nomination. (The category was ultimately won by George Clooney for his performance in Syriana.) “It was an amazing time,” he says of the making of the film and its rapturous reception, which he says was totally unexpected.
Over the seven years since then, Gyllenhaal has become one of Hollywood’s go-to leading men. He has starred in films of all sorts: big (Mike Newell’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time) and small (Jim Sheridan’s Brothers), critically acclaimed (David Fincher’s Zodiac) and derided (Edward Zwick’s Love and Other Drugs), commercially successful (Duncan Jones’ Source Code) and not (Gavin Hood’s Rendition). But the bottom line is that, for the usual variety of reasons—unmistakable good looks, charm, and talent—he is universally accepted one of the A-list stars of the moment.
Now, rather than simply be content with that, it seems that he is out to prove that he is not only a great movie star, but also a great actor. With his performances in both End of Watch and If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet, he makes a strong case.
End of Watch, a $7 million film that topped the box-office on its opening weekend by grossing over $13 million, and has made nearly $39 million overall, has been hailed by critics as one of the finest films of the year. Many have also noted that Gyllenhaal’s performance in the film is among the best of his career. Directed by David Ayer, it focuses on the relationship between two cops who are partners on the LAPD beat in southeast Los Angeles.
Though the film was shot in just 22 days, Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena, who plays the other cop, elected to first spend five months training, learning, and riding around with real LAPD cops in order to get a real sense of what their lives, work, and relationships are like. (This came with some real drama: on their first ride-along they witnessed a murder, and Gyllenhaal says it wasn’t the only one.) Gyllenhaal says that they didn’t receive special treatment because they work in the movies; in fact, he jokes, “the cops that we worked with didn’t give a shit about us [being famous].” He also chuckles that “there was a lot of joking about movies I’ve made [a reference to Brokeback] — endless humor in a cop car.”
The main thing that attracted Gyllenhaal to End of Watch, he says, was “the dialogue between these guys in the car.” For the film to work, Gyllenhaal and Pena’s interpretations of those words — and occasion improvisations — had to be completely believable, and they are. You would never guess that the two actors actually got off on the wrong foot with each other and really didn’t get along until after having a major blowup in which they vented their frustrations to one another. “I haven’t really ever talked about this,” Gyllenhaal says, before revealing that their “massive fight” took place after a miscommunication during a tactical training exercise that involved live ammunition nearly caused an accident. Gyllenhaal confronted Pena, who insisted that, because he was wearing ear protection, he hadn’t heard Gyllenhaal say to him that he was moving positions. They had it out there, but the next day Pena called him to talk about it, and after that, Gyllenhaal says, “I had that motherfucker’s back.” Today, he describes Pena as “just a brilliant actor” who is “just brilliant in this movie,” and adds that the making of the movie itself was “a life-changing experience” for him.
In the time since the film wrapped, Gyllenhaal has gone back to the theater. Since Sept. 20, he has been appearing in Nick Payne‘s off-Broadway play If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet, giving eight performances a week at the Laura Pels Theatre at 111 West 46th Street. Gyllenhaal plays — with a flawless English accent — the well-intentioned but immature uncle of an overweight teenage girl whose parents are too busy to realize the extent of her emotional troubles. The play begs the question of whether his arrival on the scene as sort of a truth-teller makes the situation better or worse. Tickets cost $100, but the show, which runs through Nov. 25, has played to packed crowds every night, something that has not escaped Gyllenhaa’s notice. “I can’t tell you what a privilege it is to be up on stage every night,” he says, “to know that 450 people filled the seats of a theater every night to come see four people work on a stage.”
The old saying goes, “Once you’ve seen Paris it’s hard to go back to the farm.” For Gyllenhaal, End of Watch and If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet seem to be something like Paris. It’s not like he was previously making a living as a hack, but his work on these two projects has been so challenging — and ultimately gratifying — that he doesn’t want to waste precious time on others that are not. As he puts it, “I have no intention of doing work, here-on-out, that doesn’t take that same type of devotion and that same type of care.”
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