Jake Gyllenhaal recalls lessons learned from Ang Lee, Sam Mendes, David O. Russell and more

One of the striking things you note immediately about Jake Gyllenhaal's portfolio of work is the caliber of filmmakers he's worked with. As a supplement to our feature interview with the star of the off-Broadway production “If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet” and the screen's “End of Watch,” we asked Gyllenhaal if he could recall what he's taken from the experience of working with a handful of these esteemed craftsmen — three of whom feature in the Oscar race this year.

In 2005, Gyllenhaal landed his first and only (to date) Oscar nomination for Ang Lee's “Brokeback Mountain.” The film was based on E. Annie Proulx's “New Yorker” short story about two cowhands who enter into a forbidden homosexual relationship in 1960s Wyoming. Gyllenhaal starred opposite the late Heath Ledger in the film, which tells a story of love as an unstoppable force of nature.

“He's called a master for a reason, because he truly is,” Gyllenhaal says of Lee. “What I learned from his is that silence, particularly between an actor and a director, is the most powerful, the most motivating, sometimes the most manipulative but ultimately the most inspiring choice for a director and actor. Most of the time, if you have an actor who's intuitive, if you give them their space and the opportunity to create something and find something — just like a shift here, a little shift there — massive things can happen. What I learned from Ang was invaluable.”

2007 brought a collaboration with notoriously meticulous filmmaker David Fincher on the dense and lengthy exploration of the trail of terror blazed by the Zodiac killer in the Bay Area of Northern California. “Zodiac” didn't manage much awards traction but is largely considered one of Fincher's finer moments, featuring one of Gyllenhaal's finer performances.

“I learned so much from David,” Gyllenhaal says. “I think I learned more from David than any director I've worked with. What I walked away with from my experience with David is an utter respect for the director and their position and their power. And that as an actor, your job is to service that vision. That is your job. You must do that in every possible way. I also learned that there are two things that work when making a movie with David, or in general: to take the work that you do as serious as life and death when you're doing it, but then at the other end to realize that it's just a movie. And if you can keep that perspective, you'll be all good.”

The very same year as “Brokeback Mountain,” Gyllenhaal was featured in a leading capacity in Sam Mendes's Gulf War dissection, “Jarhead.” Based on the memoir by former Marine Anthony Swofford and drawn from works of existentialism such as Albert Camus's “The Stranger” (which is even featured in the story), the film depicts a soldier at his wits' end, yearning to matter in a war that seems to make no sense, and it clearly gave Gyllenhaal a unique psychological opportunity as an actor.

“If I ever check in with myself, if I ever have any doubt about my work or my skills or my mind as an actor, I always go back to working with Sam, because he was so trusting, so confident in my skill,” Gyllenhaal says. “He empowered me so much as an actor. What is a theme amongst these directors that you mention is the ability to have so much confidence in what they do and the story they're telling that they give the actors space. Sometimes there's nit-picking, and obviously with Fincher's repetition and there's a meticulousness with the way he frames things — and that's all of his movies, and that's why he's brilliant — but there's a space. There's a respect. There's a sense of the major league. You know what I mean with that? I think I learned from Sam — he was the best acting director and coach that I've ever worked with. The things I learned about acting from him I've taken with me everywhere I've gone.”

One film Gyllenhaal starred in which no one has seen, or ever will, it appears (due to legal disputes with the film's financiers, among other things) is David O. Russell's “Nailed,” featuring the actor opposite stars like Jessica Biel, James Marsden and Catherine Keener. It joins films like Tony Kaye's “Black Water Transit” and Jerry Lewis's “The Day the Clown Cried” as efforts lost to the ages, but that doesn't change the fact that Gyllenhaal did the work and took plenty from the experience.

“I learned from David that no matter how brilliant you are as a director, no matter how brilliant the script you're directing is, no matter how cool the cast is, sometimes — it's unbelievable — but no one will ever see it,” Gyllenhaal says. “That's a huge dose of reality in some way. But I also learned that David's brilliance is in abstraction. And there's an aspect of joy that exists in David, and he's always looking for the darkness in the humor, and then always looking for the humor in the darkness. David has a real sense of darkness and a real sense of humor. You can't get to the same place that David can take you. Only David can take you there.”

In 2009, Gyllenhaal was afforded the privilege of working on “Brothers” with Jim Sheridan, who made his mark on the medium via films like “My Left Foot,” “In the Name of the Father” and “In America.” A remake of Susanne Bier's Danish film “Brødre,” “Brothers” tells the story of how the war in Afghanistan tragically affects a young man thought missing for a time who returns home only to see that his wife and brother (played by Natalie Portman and Gyllenhaal respectively) have grown closer together — too close. It was an interesting flip side of the “Jarhead” coin for the actor.

(Gyllenhaal takes a moment to fully consider the role call: “You're baffling me. Like, what a fucking blessing it is to work with all these people.”)

“I loved Jim,” Gyllenhaal says. “Jim was just game for anything. He was constantly discovering, constantly trying to figure it out, never stopping, full of will. He is the epitome of, 'If there's a will, there's a way.' Maybe it's his cultural background. Maybe it's just the type of movies he decided to make, the themes. I remember Jim coming up to me and saying, 'Hey, I have an idea about this scene.' The scene had nothing to do with this action but he's like, 'I think in the middle of this scene you should jump down in the middle of the snow and start making a snow angel.' And I was like, 'That's brilliant.' He's like, 'Try it. Let's do it.' And it was always an adventure. It was like you were adventuring out into this world of the unknown every day with him. I loved that the most.'”

Gyllenhaal worked alongside an on-fire Anne Hathaway in Edward Zwick's 2010 effort “Love and Other Drugs.” Based on a novel by former Viagra salesman Jamie Reidy, the film walks a high wire of tonal shifts and is highly sexualized, unique in Gyllenhaal's career. Both Gyllenhaal and Hathaway received Golden Globe nominations for their performances.

“Ed was — it's funny,” Gyllenhaal begins. “All these guys and different times in your life, you know? Ed was at a critical point in my life as a person and as an actor. To this day, he functions as a sort of big brother, paternal to me. His precision and his — he was so tough with me and at the same time so loving, you know? He just wouldn't let up. Sometimes Ed would whisper things to me like 'go do this' or 'try that' that would break so many rules that I found myself getting nervous. Like he'd give an intention in the scene that was so way off what he had written but it would open us up into a whole other world and it was like an adventure, too. But a little more violent, a little bit more, like, dangerous, you know? I loved that about working with Ed, but I learned so much from him. I mean, that journey with us was a life journey, too.”

Finally, Gyllenhaal's collaboration with David Ayer on “End of Watch,” a pivotal moment not only in his life but in his career.

“That motherfucker changed my life,” Gyllenhaal says bluntly. “I don't know how to put it any other way. He took this kid, who had, like, grown up in LA, relatively easy lifestyle, and he threw him into a world that I definitely had preconceived notions about and had my own stigma about, not only with law enforcement but also southeast LA, all that, and he just blew it open. He just showed me a place that he called home, that changed his life, that made him who he is and it's been the most influential part of the world I've been. I made some of my closest friends I have to this day because of the experience with him. He was like, 'You're going to do this. You've got to walk through fire.' And literally. We were in a controlled burn with the Orange County Fire Department, sitting there in full get-up in a house that was burning. Me, Dave, Michael [Peña], with like smoke down, we're on the ground and it's like a thousand degrees if we put our hand up, you know what I mean? He really threw me into the fire and all the risks were real, and there are people who don't fuck around and there was no movie stuff. There was no safety net. And I think that in a majority of life lived with safety nets, someone who pulls that out and says, 'That's for real. Are you ready for this?' That changes your life.”

And that's just a sampling of a group that also includes talents as varied as Duncan Jones, Mike Newell, John Madden, Roland Emmerich, Richard Kelly and Nicole Holofcener. But it's clear the actor has come a long way from his first work on screen as a child in 1991's “City Slickers,” and he'll be the first to tell you he owes the lessons of that journey to his collaborators.

Be sure to check out our full interview with Gyllenhaal for more on his work in “End of Watch” and “If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet.”