SANTA MONICA – Jake Gyllenhaal continues to move into an interesting stage in his career. His choices as of late have been outside the box, almost like the actor is searching for something. And indeed, spend a few minutes talking specifics with him, you'll quickly learn that's the case. He's marching to his own drum, eager to explore complexity in his performances, not just wear another character's skin for a little while.
Two 2014 films, Denis Villeneuve's “Enemy” and Dan Gilroy's “Nightcrawler,” couldn't make this point any clearer. The former enigmatic thriller tells a twisted tale of fear with a healthy dose of Jungian symbolism to keep it firmly in “WTF” territory. The latter news media drama sees Gyllenhaal more than a few pounds lighter stalking the streets in a story of creepy ambition.
It was fitting that there were a pair of projects to bounce around and chew on as Gyllenhaal and I sat down over tea one September weekend. The last time we talked was backstage at New York's Laura Pels Theater, the topics being the off-Broadway production “If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet” and David Ayer's film “End of Watch.” Now it's a very different set of projects, and continuously, a very different Jake Gyllenhaal.
“Enemy” is now on DVD/Blu-ray. “Nightcrawler” hits theaters Oct. 31.
HitFix: I know you've been really shifting gears lately but this was certainly something to sink your teeth into.
Jake Gyllenhaal: The character's crazy! The character, on the page, is crazy. It's so good. Such a good script. And just structurally, too, the way Dan wrote it.
It's also an extreme shift physically for you. Was that carved out on the page, the sort of gauntness of the character?
No, there was just something about music playing in his own head. Some description of him like that. No, all that stuff came from – there are a lot of coyotes in the script and then there was this – Dan is, like, pretty thin. Like if you see him he has this sort of look and his energy is a certain type of energy. We talked a lot about LA and coyotes in LA and the topography of LA being a certain thing, and then at night all these wild animals come out. Dan kept saying, you know, “You need to be charming. You need to want to follow him,” and all this stuff. There were two scenes in the script that were not in the movie where he was ordering food and he kept asking how much it would be, like a hamburger with extra cheese. Then he ordered a hamburger plain. Then he only ordered ice water. He was always drinking ice water. And then there was a scene that was cut out of him meeting this woman on a dating site and they meet at a diner and he tries to basically go on a date with her and she just wants to fuck him. And in that he talks about, like, the “specials” and the prices for the specials and stuff like that. And so just from all of those things I came up with the thought that he should just be hungry, you know? He should be a guy you watch, he's like, you know, he's searching for a job. He doesn't have a job. He doesn't really know what the fuck he's doing and he's wandering around LA.
He has a sort of scavenger vibe.
Yeah, exactly. The very first scene he's stealing shit and he doesn't even really know what it is, you know? It's like metal and scrap parts and stuff like that. And so there's just this sense of him being this hungry dude. I like thinking of characters as animals.
I assume that also in turn gives you some physical cues as well.
The film is also gorgeously shot. I knew as soon as cinematographer Robert Elswit was involved it would be special but it really gave an interesting shade of the city.
He's my godfather. He took pictures of my birth! That was a big factor for me, you know, him shooting the movie. He's a real storyteller. Like with Roger Deakins, you know? Storytelling is a priority to him and that was a huge factor for me. I knew we would be in really good hands and we were.
We never really get to see the hues of the city like we do here. “Collateral” was a big milestone for that but here it's something else still.
Dan talked about – and he talks about it often – the sort of vastness of the Valley and those areas and those nooks and crannies of the Valley. And just how often there aren't many people there if you don't live there, you know? It's such a huge part of Los Angeles. It's really never been shot. I mean, you've seen it in movies but the sort of structural layout of the Valley – and then beyond that is, like, this desert.
It's a weird landscape. And you got to explore some other areas of that with “End of Watch,” too.
Yeah. But when you see something like “Training Day” or when you see something like “Collateral,” there's a downtown vibe, sort of south-central downtown. And yeah, “End of Watch” was the same thing. But the Valley, you know, even growing up in LA, I hadn't – you drive down and there's sort of strip mall after strip mall in the Valley.
And the roads go on forever.
Forever. They're like ventricles. They're like arteries and ventricles and tributaries of Los Angeles. Like the heart being – I'm not sure where, but it's kind of, like, searching for that.
And with “Enemy,” you actually shot that with Denis Villeneuve before last year's “Prisoners.”
Yeah, that script came to me – it felt like it was just sort of plopped in front of me and it came to me with this description from Denis. And everybody had been telling me over the past year or two, “You've got to see his movie 'Incendies.'” At the time I had taken a lot of time off. I moved to New York. I was searching for something, like an adventure, I guess. I read the script, which was translated from Spanish into English, you know, so it was at times a bit confusing. And I met with Denis and it was just, like, clear. We were of such like minds, I mean, he was so loving and understanding where I was in my life and in my career and what I wanted to do as an artist. And he was so respectful and so encouraging of the thing I was sort of searching for. I keep saying this but the universe was telling me that I need to follow. And so we went and made “Enemy” and we had the most incredible experience. It was just such a magical, wonderful experience. And then three months later he was like, “Do you want to do another movie?” And I was like, “OK.” But it's surprising, though. I mean people are kind of like, “Oh, yeah, you probably want to just go do this sort of experimental film after you had done this movie with him.” It was the opposite.
I watched that movie at home and it was sort of hilarious. My wife would walk in and out of the living room doing whatever and catch glimpse and be, like, “What…the hell…are you watching?” It's a weird movie to just drop into and start watching without context!
[Laughs.] I have a feeling she goes through that a lot, though.
It's a fun one to chew on, though. It's so rich with all that Jungian symbolism.
That movie for me was the birth of the idea of searching – like having the creative process be a bit of an exploration, you know? l like a real search for something. Finding projects that I could search myself and then a world I didn't know or whatever. Creative. We did “End of Watch” literally, and then with Denis it was like we did that creatively. Every night we'd go out and we'd have dinner after we worked and we'd talk about the scene we shot, what we were shooting tomorrow and whether or not it worked. And we'd brainstorm some ideas. Then we'd go shoot the all day the next day and figure that out. And we'd go out to dinner again the next night and we'd discuss it. It was just really collaborative, and we were discovering things together, exploring together. It was really fun.
There's certainly a lot of talk about your work ethic of late, but it's sort of interesting. Just a cursory glance at your filmography and it's clear that you've been pretty selective from the beginning.
Yeah, well, you did that whole thing with the filmmakers.
Absolutely my point. I've just gotten the feeling that, at least to a certain extent, your career has always been somewhat curated. It's not like you did a string of bad product movies and saw the light. And you've been at the prime age to be handed all of these superhero stories and whatnot, but aside from something like “Prince of Persia,” you've been going in a different direction from the outset.
To me that feels like a presence. To me that feels like a sort of present moment, sort of amazing phenomenon, those big superhero things. Those epic tales, you know, of metaphors that we want to be reminded of. They give us faith and strength in certain ways. And to me, I'm sort of those things seem to be part of the fabric for me that I'm trying to look at objectively, to look back at and see, like, what's happening in the world, what's going on in the world. I want to talk about this or be a part of a story that talks about that as opposed to just – does that make sense?
A little bit. I mean are you saying that you're not as interested in like these kind of broader things?
No, I mean, I am. If something came and I was really moved by it and I really felt like I could do something and had the right creative conversation with somebody making it that would really allow me room to create something interesting – what matters is the character. It's just about finding an opportunity where you can really get specific, the thing you're creating. I'm interested in that. I'm the kind of guy, like, if my character flies, I want to know how a plane works and I'm going to learn how to do it and I'm going to try to figure out how that transfers into why a human being would know how to.
Instead of just playing, you know, for lack of a better word, an icon.
Or an idea. I want to know reasons. I want to be a scientist as well as an artist. I want to know those things from a character place so that they have real meaning. I want to do that all myself. I don't want to bombard the story with it but I do think that's what I want to do. The issue I have sometimes is, like, when you're not allowed to do that, when you're not allowed to create a really specific character, it's just not what I want. It's not what I want to do. So it doesn't matter if it's a superhero or if it's a smaller movie you're making for $6 million. I really want to make a big, fun, action movie with Dan, you know, or with Antoine [Fuqua], you know? I want to make a film that has a character at the center of it that we learn and get to know in the same way you learn to get to know someone like Lou [from “Nightcrawler”] or a character like Loki [from “Prisoners”] or whatever.
Is this just an extension of how you've always looked at it or…?
No, that's different. I think when you say I curated things and have I been thoughtful about it – yeah. I've always been pretty intensely thoughtful about what I want to do, but I think that it's changed in terms of – my focus has shifted to character. It started with “Enemy” and then I went and I did the [off-Broadway] show where you and I met. I started to play with it there and then I really started to find great joy in it. It's a gradual thing. Like when I did “End of Watch,” it was there, too.
So you're starting in on Jean-Marc Vallée's “Demolition” now. I really like that guy. His work and just, he's a cool dude, you know?
He's a cool dude. You've got to go see him shoot, man. If you come to New York or anything like you should come. You'll be fascinated by the way he shoots. It's inspiring.
He's obviously been Oscar-nominated for editing already but just seeing how “Wild” was put together I was pretty impressed.
The coverage is so great because he goes back and he shoots a wide shot. And he'll come back and shoot your coverage. Then he'll come back and shoot a wide shot again and then shoot someone else's coverage. Then he'll come back and shoot your coverage. Then he'll come back and shoot a wide shot again and he'll shoot someone else's coverage and then he'll come back and shoot your coverage. And then he'll come from the other side and he'll shoot both sides. He doesn't know what dirty he's going use. Then he'll shoot a clean. Then he'll come back in and go back wide again, kind of another wide. And he'll shoot the inserts. And I mean, there's nobody on set so he's just moving. We have a monitor on wheels and he's just moving around. It's funny from my point of view, because you're doing whatever you're doing and you see them like, whoa, doing 360s. It's fucking great.
Is there something that you're like looking for specifically now? Is there a bigger thing that you're aiming for right now?
I wonder if you can guess. No, I'm looking forward to going on stage again. And I'm looking forward to trying to produce more movies and be involved in movies like that.
Do you want to direct?
Because I come from a family of filmmakers, I recognize the presumption of, you know, an actor saying that. But my great respect for every side of making movies makes me hesitant when I say “yes.” But like I told you, I know if the universe says it's me that I'll try and listen and do my best.