Rome Film Fest: Jake Gyllenhaal Reflects on His Career Since 'Donnie Darko'

Jake Gyllenhaal attends Okja - Getty - H 2017
Samir Hussein/WireImage

The actor spoke about everything from the odd interview that won him 'Brokeback Mountain' to why his character in 'Nightcrawler' is even more frightening today.

Jake Gyllenhaal on Sunday surveyed his career thus far during a Close Encounter discussion with Rome Film Festival director Antonio Monda as part of the 12th annual fest in the Italian capital. In Italy to promote his new film Stronger, the actor talked about his biggest hits over his more than 25 years in the industry to a packed audience, reflecting on films from Donnie Darko to Nocturnal Animals.

On why Donnie Darko is such a cult film, Gyllenhaal said he thought the story resonated with people in a different way, as a very layered sci-fi film. “It’s ahead of its time, when I look at this movie now and what [director] Richard Kelly did,” he said. “It takes a group of forward-thinking people to champion it.”

Gyllenhaal also discussed his Oscar-nominated role in Brokeback Mountain opposite Heath Ledger. He knew that helmer Ang Lee, whom he described as “a heart with legs,” had envisioned acting pairs together, not individual actors. Some actors didn’t feel comfortable with the role, or dropped out for other reasons, so the pairs were constantly changing. Gyllenhaal and Ledger were a pair in Lee’s mind, but his audition for the role didn’t leave Gyllenhaal feeling very confident.

“It was a very awkward meeting when I met him. I was brought into a room and he sat in a corner and he sort of nodded at me. I sat there and we talked and then he asked me to leave. That was it. And about a month later I was told that I was playing the part,” explained the actor.

Regarding his work in Zodiac, Gyllenhaal described David Fincher in one word as “precision,” as he recalled doing multiple takes on extended scenes until Fincher found exactly what he wanted.

Gyllenhaal said he’s willing to do anything when approaching a role, and has done everything from going exactly by the script to completely improvising the role. “The only structure that I have is preparation, preparation, preparation. Freedom is on the other side of discipline,” the actor explained.

He also explained why he went for long monologues in Nightcrawler without blinking, something his characters have also done in films including Donnie Darko and Prisoners.

“No, I would never not try to blink. That’s just crazy,” Gyllenhaal said of playing Lou Bloom, a stringer who hunts for violent acts in Los Angeles to sell to news stations. He explained that he knew he had to deliver a certain pace to the words that were written on the page. “It was almost a stabbing motion. Somehow as I delivered these speeches, I guess I just didn’t blink. It was not conscious. It was just focused like an animal after prey.”

Gyllenhaal believes the character of Bloom is perhaps even more relevant today. “I think that, not every journalist, but the media in general moves with its audience and the desire of that audience. We culturally define what we want to see,” he said. “I think that Lou Bloom is an invention of modern times. He is a character that is birthed out of our desires. And that is a pretty frightening thing.”

He also delighted the audience by telling them his favorite film was Federico Fellini’s La Strada, because it was the pic that made his father want to be a filmmaker and thus influenced Gyllenhaal to become an actor. “So I guess I thank this movie, because if he hadn’t fallen in love with that movie, then I probably wouldn’t be here,” he said.  

Gyllenhaal also said that the current political climate is greatly influencing the choices he makes as an actor today. “I’m not quite sure in America right now what’s going on. It feels like a bit of a decay of culture,” he said. “I’m afraid of that, but at the same time it fortifies me in my beliefs and in my opinions about what I believe to be right in my heart. It just makes me want to tell more stories.”

Gyllenhaal was lastly asked the common question of which director he would like to work with today. He chose Pedro Almodovar, who famously said he turned down an opportunity to direct Brokeback Mountain because his version would have been too sexualized for studios. (Lee won the best director Oscar for the 2006 film.)