The actor says he was determined to add layers of mystery and darkness into his “Prisoners” character
A version of this story first ran in OscarWrap: Actors Issue.
A dinner meeting two years ago with Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (“Incendies”) turned into back-to-back movies for Jake Gyllenhaal: the yet-to-be-released “Enemy,” in which he plays two roles, and the slow-burn thriller “Prisoners,” with Gyllenhaal as a detective and Hugh Jackman as the father of an abducted girl.
“Prisoners” won strong reviews and did $60 million at the box office after its September release, a solid number for a film that ratchets up the tension slowly for nearly two-and-a-half hours. It’s not a typical awards film, but Gyllenhaal’s performance as a cop who clearly is hiding a lot of his own secrets has at least put him in the conversation.
Your character in “Prisoners” has tattoos that we can’t see clearly, and he seems to have a troubled background, but nothing is spelled out. Did you add that ambiguity?
Yeah. One of my hesitations about the character was whether Denis and Alcon wanted a character who was going to be essentially a narrator. Because what fascinated me was this idea that a detective — or any good truth-seeker, journalist, whatever they may be — has to be almost infatuated with the mind of the criminal.
A number of the detectives I met while doing “End of Watch” had their own criminal backgrounds, and they were so good at their jobs because they understood that mindset, they understood the movements, they understood the behavior.
And so that just led me into saying, “Well, look, I would love for this guy to be a question mark from the beginning.” I didn’t even want you to see that he was a detective at first. I wanted you to meet the character and go, “Maybe this guy looks like he’s the one who did it.”
Did Denis embrace that idea?
I think, given our relationship from “Enemy,” that he trusted that I was in service of the story. I think that’s always the hesitation, director to actor: Are you in service of the story, or of your character only? And the reason we work so well together is that he knows I’m in service of the story. I’m going to ask him questions that sometimes might be bad and not really work, but I’m trying to help him tell the story.
So when I would do improve and stuff, he never ever told me that what I was doing was no good, even when it was no good. It was so freeing, you know?
You gave the character some unexplained facial tics and mannerisms.
The tics and those physical manifestations, that happened in my mind as I was reading it. Just before I made this movie, I was on stage in New York City playing a character who talked a lot, and had a lot of sort of nervous energy. There was a transition period where I moved that anxiety and overactive mind of the character I was playing onstage and narrowed it down into a type of behavior where there was more silence and stillness. And I started trying things onstage, things like the tic.
It was a really interesting training ground, and an area to explore. Some of the parts that Aaron wrote in the script were really open to interpretation, and then I saw it as this interesting opportunity — like, oh wow, he’s given me this room.
The film maintains tension for almost two and a half hours, but it moves very slowly, which must have provided its own challenge.
One of the choices I made is that I never wanted to move quickly. A lot of times when you want to fabricate tension, you move fast. But tension is a beast — it’s like a lion being coaxed closer and closer. Will it bite? Will it run away? Where’s it going? What the fuck am I doing here with a lion?
They did the most wonderful shot that was not in the movie, which so bummed me out. I get in a car, the glass is totally fogged, and I’m silhouetted as [cinematographer] Roger [Deakins] lit it. I turn on the defroster, and it starts defrosting as I get the call. That’s Denis and that's Roger. I could tell as soon as we were focusing on defrosting a front windshield that we were going to take our time. And so I just tried to move in the same way. And then also sort of deflect and create my own question marks on top of that.
You know that when the base is solid, you can just sort of dance.