In Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, Robert De Niro showed that dedication to one’s cinematic craft can include more than just remembering lines and melting into character. The benchmark that De Niro set in that film, in terms of transforming body type to help bolster a performance, has been taken up by more actors in recent years. Will Smith packed on the pounds for Ali, Denzel Washington got in possibly the best shape of his career for The Hurricane, and Demi Moore got ripped for G.I. Jane. But the weight scale can tip either way when it comes to dedicating one’s body to a film, as we’ve seen in movies like Dallas Buyer’s Club and The Machinist, where Matthew McConaughey and Christian Bale, respectively, lost enormous amounts of weight to embody their characters.
Transforming body type has become somewhat the norm in Hollywood, but it’s still awe-inspiring. Jake Gyllenhaal is fast becoming one of those actors who can seemingly shift and reshape his body to fit a specific role. In Southpaw, Gyllenhaal is probably in the best shape he’ll ever be in, unless he decides to balloon up to play The Rock’s lifting buddy for a film. This is not the first time, though, that the lifelong Hollywood mainstay has made it his mission to provide audiences with a body that fits the film.
In 2005’s Jarhead, Gyllenhaal beefed up to play a Marine. It was the first time the thespian had to physically dedicate himself to a film following his breakthrough dramatic role in Brokeback Mountain.
I trained first before we started shooting. I did a lot of physical training. I was swimming and biking and running and lifting weights, stuff like that. And then we went to boot camp and we went through a rudimentary, I guess, boot camp. The process of it was about a week. And at the end, we were running drills. We were in teams and we were taking hills and things like that. And we were sleeping out in the field but had to hump out to the field. So we got all of our gear together and went for a pretty long hike. I dont know about 50 miles, but Ill go with 50. Ill go with that. That sounds intense.
Gyllenhaal continued to build on his “body” of work for 2010’s disappointing Prince of Persia. While the film faltered in terms of critical praise and ticket sales, Gyllenhaal revealed a leaner and buffer body to go along with the heroic titular character. In order to get in shape for the role, the actor had to go through various types of training, including weight lifting, parkour, and sword fighting.
The development of the character was massively physical at first, just getting in shape and doing all that stuff and learning Parkour, learning how to swordfight, learning how to get into the mentality of a warrior, somebody who as written is someone who can really fight. That was a big part of it for me, and I knew that if I got through that, then I knew I’d be halfway there. Really, it’s basically just a lot of training, working out with a lot of running and all different kinds of sports.
Getting in shape for the film was more than just cosmetic. He also wanted to make sure that if he was called upon to run up walls — as the character does in the video game the film is based upon — he’d be able to do that, too.
…It also happens to be based on a video game so he has to very agile in a lot of other ways then you would normally… it’s not just gladiator-style fighting although we have all of that. It’s also having to be able to jump up walls and climb up walls and run on walls and all of those things. Basically, simulating all that through training, so when I get to the day and someone comes up with an idea and they’re like, “Hey, I think it would be a really great idea if you ran up that wall,” I say, “Okay.”
By 2014, Gyllenhaal — with standout performances in Prisoners and Enemy — proved that he’s one of the best dramatic actors today. For Nightcrawler, playing a creepy, freelance videographer meant that the pendulum of body transformations would have to swing the other way: He lost a lot of weight. Gyllenhaal, who also was a producer on the film, brainstormed with director Dan Gilroy on Lou Bloom’s look; they wanted him to look like a coyote. Using a diet of kale salad, niblets of meat and crackers, and chewing gum to trick his mind that he was eating something more substantial, Gyllenhaal dropped 30 pounds from his 180-pound frame. The result was an emaciated Lou Bloom whose grotesque actions were multiplied by his appearance.
“I would try to eat as few calories as possible,” he said in an interview with Variety. “I knew if I was hungry that I was in the right spot. Physically, it showed itself, but chemically and mentally, I think it was even a more fascinating journey. It became a struggle for me.”
Jake Gyllenhaal’s newest example of his dedication, Southpaw, goes nationwide this weekend. He plays Billy Hope, a boxer who experiences a downward spiral in his life and boxing career and who’s determined to make it back to the top. For the role, Gyllenhaal trained six hours a day for six months, enduring weightlifting training, boxing drills, and calisthenics to produce an incredibly chiseled look. He even tossed around a 200-pound tire to help pack 15 pounds of muscle onto his frame.
I knew nothing about boxing when I started really. I knew that in order for me to pull it off in any way, I was just going to have to learn how to do it. When I set my mind to something I just won’t stop until I do it. It’s something I pride myself on. It’s something I hate about myself. By the end I felt like I could do it.
Gyllenhaal also recognizes the dangers in packing on pounds and dropping weight. Tom Hanks developed type II diabetes after fluctuating his weight for various roles. It’s something that the actor is aware of, and something that he watches closely. After all, you only get one body in this lifetime.
“It affects your body, but I try to be as safe as I can,” he told the BBC. “Sometimes, things get a little dangerous, but you always have to be mindful.”