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.