‘Demolition’ Star Jake Gyllenhaal on Taking Risks: ‘I’ve Upped the Stakes’

“There’s this weird line that I am liking to walk recently, which is trying to merge some life lessons into my work,” the actor tells TheWrap following a string of tough, surprising performances

jake gyllenhaal
Jeff Vespa for TheWrap

Jake Gyllenhaal has hit his stride. In the past three years, the 35-year-old actor has mined a deep vein of emotion to bring to the screen a series of indelible characters: Detective Loki in “Prisoners,” Louis Bloom in “Nightcrawler” and Billy Hope in “Southpaw,” to name a few.

Now he delivers another remarkable performance in Jean-Marc Vallee‘s “Demolition,” playing an investment banker who struggles following the tragic death of his wife.

The drama, which also stars Naomi Watts and Chris Cooper, premiered at last fall’s Toronto Film Festival and opens nationwide on Friday.

We sat down with Gyllenhaal late last year to talk about the maturing of his talent.

In the last few years, your career has jumped to another level in terms of the risks you’re taking with the films you choose. What happened?
I had been doing a number of movies and I wasn’t really sure why I had been doing them. I don’t think I had chosen them for reasons that were based on my belief in the characters themselves. Some of the choices had been made based on what other people’s suggestions were. I was in a little bit of — I would hesitate to say — turmoil in terms of trying to figure out how I wanted to express myself. I was just going from one thing to the next. Then a movie came to my door and I read the script and it was not offered to me, and I was just so moved by it.

What movie was that?
“End of Watch.” It was a beautiful script by David Ayer. I think really it was David pushing both Michael Peña and me into the real world of police officers — the world of southeast L.A., and the culture. We spent five months in there, preparing. The movie is about a friendship. The two friends happen to be in police uniforms. Every moment they hop out of that car, they’re threatened and that friendship is threatened, and really that love is threatened between the two of them, and I think that’s what makes the movie so dynamic. We had to build up that friendship. We also had to build up the skills and techniques where we could improv and spend time in the car and we acted and moved like police officers. Those idiosyncrasies were really important because we knew we had a very short time to shoot the movie and there was no time to mess around. We had to walk in in character and spend the 22 days of shooting in character as best friends.

Since then, you’ve played very complex roles in movies that include “Southpaw” and  “Demolition.” You’ve taken a turn in your career, taking on very challenging characters very successfully.
I don’t feel like there’s any other way. There’s this weird line that I am liking to walk recently, which is trying to merge some life lessons into my work. Trying to have experiences that will affect me in my life as well as in the job. And that’s the weird thing about the job that I do. It offers that opportunity, to be able to get to know people doing things in the real world and learn from them, and then bring them into my job and pretend it, or as far away from pretending as possible. I’ve just noticed that through a certain amount of preparation, I’ve learned so much and it’s changed my life.

How so?
“End of Watch” led to “Prisoners,” really. With something like “Prisoners,” you’re dealing with child abduction. I was dealing with a character who was having to deal with everybody being a suspect in his mind. He was the guy searching for the truth, yes, but I think the question of who was telling the truth became fascinating to me in that story. And that’s how that character came alive. And that came from hours and hours of watching pretty horrible footage and reading about, researching stories of actual abductions and what happened.

Ultimately, when the stakes became real for me, when I said to myself, “These are legitimate things that happen every single day, unfortunately.” The stakes are high, and I walked into every scene carrying the burden of the reality of those stakes. And I try and do that more and more. It’s easy as an actor to live in a world of fiction where people talk about wearing masks, creating a character to escape what is their real life. I don’t feel that way. I feel like there’s an opportunity to head into real life and have it beat you up a bit so you can come in to the fictional world and hand whoever you’re with — be it your director or the other actors — the reality of the situation. And that’s just where my approach has changed. I’ve just upped the stakes.

But you are playing too, as an actor. How much is that preparation versus your imagination?
I don’t want to walk into every scene like I’m carrying all that burden. There is a moment you throw it away and your imagination comes into play and you’re faced with the reality of the person in front of you, and whatever that might be. And they are not as you imagined. When I was at the Sundance Film Lab, Delroy Lindo…

Like, 20 years ago?
Twenty years ago. He was our acting mentor, and he said, “You know the difficult part about working with first-time writer-directors is that it’s hard for them to translate 2D to 3D.” Once it becomes a reality, they’re like, “Wait a second, I hate their voice. That’s not what I pictured.” Or, “What are they doing with their hand?” And the same thing happens as an actor. You walk in, you’ve done all your work, and all of a sudden you’re working with everybody else and you just have to assimilate and recognize you’re a part of a group of people. And that’s the weirdest part about making a movie. You spend all this time preparing and then all of a sudden it’s the day, and everything gets thrown out.

So let’s talk about “Southpaw.” It’s yet another incredible performance. You transformed yourself physically again, after having lost all this weight for the character you created in “Nightcrawler.” Why did that appeal to you?
It was scary to me. I didn’t know anything, really, about boxing. It felt very far away from who I am. I am now an avid fan. And I wanted to learn how to box. And I also really was moved by the story between father and daughter. The easy part would be learning how to box. The harder part is becoming a father. Those two things seduced me into the role. And [director] Antoine Fuqua — he is a boxer, has been since he was a kid, he’s an avid boxing fan.

Both David Ayer and Antoine Fuqua are really interesting. There’s something deep in their work about modern masculinity, manhood, what it means to be a man. It’s an interesting topic for you to explore.
I also think I’m an unlikely person to be playing those roles, honestly. And I love that. I think there’s a way in which — and I don’t mean to be provocative, or maybe I do, I don’t know — there’s a way in which Hollywood tends to create a convention, and I think that can be really misleading for an audience sometimes. A convention around masculinity, a convention around love, a convention around romance… And I consider that to be a responsibility.

That’s an interesting idea. What do you want to be conveying about masculinity?
It doesn’t come as you expect it to come. You don’t see it as you expect to see it. What is that? What does that mean? How do we define that? What is that? It’s even more of a question than it is an answer. And I think by creating these sort of stock stereotypes, it allowed me as I was growing up to be like, “Well, what do I really love? I love musicals. What’s that? But I also love action movies.”

The men I respect are the ones who really love what they love, whatever that is, and love it strong. And so that’s what I think “Southpaw” is about. A guy who loves his daughter. Loves his wife. Couldn’t live without her, and loses her and has to learn how to love his daughter, has to learn how to be vulnerable, has to learn how to open himself up, his mind up, his heart up. That’s the only way he can get his life back and regain any sense of self, that he can fight as hard as he can and beat as many people up as he wants with his hands, but that ultimately is not going to get anybody back. And that’s just a beautiful idea.

Did you find the shoot grueling? You have all these fight scenes. You definitely appear to be getting hit.
I did get hit, a lot. We shot the fight sequences for the first two and a half weeks of shooting, and that was pretty brutal. We didn’t stop. We would shoot 14-hour days, and I was just going and going and going and had prepared for that physicality. The first day, I was ready. We had trained like it was a fight. I had dropped weight three days before, we did a weigh-in, we had our hands wrapped that day as we entered the fight, we did the entrances as if we were entering the fight, we filmed them.

And then two and a half weeks of that and at the end of it I was like, “OK, cool, the movie’s done, great.” [Laughs] I think you don’t really realize how much you need the physical to fuel the emotional. I was tapped out two and a half weeks in, physically. Then we got into all of the emotional stuff that hits this character, and that’s where I started to realize that physical component to accessing emotions is a very important part.

A version of this story originally appeared in The Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine. To read a more visual presentation of this story, click on the cover below of TheWrap Magazine:
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For the full unedited cover interview with Jake Gyllenhaal, listen to Grill: Hollywood on the Hot Seat