Interview: Jake Gyllenhaal
by Carlo Cavagna
LEFT: Jake Gyllenhaal stars in Brokeback Mountain.
2005, though, is unquestionably Jake Gyllenhaal's year. First, he starred in John Madden's Proof, playing a math geek romantically interested in reclusive and possibly unbalanced Gwyneth Paltrow. Next came Sam Mendes' Jarhead, in which Gyllenhaal stars as Tony Swofford, a young man who discovers the First Gulf War isn't everything he expected it to be. Now, he's starring in Best Picture frontrunner Brokeback Mountain, directed by Oscar-winner Ang Lee (Sense & Sensibility; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and based on a short story by Annie Proulx. Gyllenhaal portrays Jack Twist opposite Heath Ledger's Ennis Del Mar, two gay lovers in the American West fated never to realize their true desires.
In November, Gyllenhaal discussed Brokeback Mountain, Jarhead, and his amazing year with reporters in Los Angeles.
Question: Here we are again. You're a busy person.
Gyllenhaal: I know.
Question: Congratulations on Jarhead opening so well. With all the hype that you've heard about what a great year you're having, do you think people are missing something about the work itself?
Gyllenhaal: Missing about it? I don't know. I mean, to me the movies I've been in are full of interesting ambiguity. It's really nice to know that audiences are responding to an ambiguity, like they're not always wanting something always totally clear and spoon-fed. People I've seen, my generation, you know, I feel like they're really responding to it, and it's really cool. In terms of the work, the work is the work. When we shot them, both [Jarhead and Brokeback Mountain] changed my life in the process.
Question: With Jarhead, what's your response to people who think it's not appropriate to do a movie about the Gulf War during the present time?
Gyllenhaal: I think people tend to want to politicize so many things. I think that films on their own, just by the nature of what they are, are political. But to need something, to want something— I've noticed people asking Sam [Mendes] for a sense of leadership, to take some side or something. Maybe it's because they feel some sort of lack of leadership themselves or something. I don't know what that is, but to me it's one Marine's experience.
We've had enough perspective I think on the First Gulf War, and it is a very different war. My character in that movie says, “Every war is different, every war is the same.” I think it's really important to acknowledge that the soldiers in the first war had a very different war from the war that's going on right now. It lasted four days, and the casualties were nowhere near the same. Their experience of warfare is completely different. I understand that the topography is the same, and the geography is the same, and all of those things, but to me experiencing it and talking with the men who fought in that war—it's very special to them. It kind of upsets me to know that all wars get blurred into one somehow. It's a very special, intense experience for all of them, and that to me is why I think it's such an interesting film, and so different from—and yet, at the same time, some of the same—what's going on now.
Question: You said that Brokeback Mountain changed you as well. In what way?
Gyllenhaal: Yeah. Ang was at the beginning someone who said—who didn't say much. I like to compare my relationship with Ang [to] a marriage in some ways. There's a honeymoon period, and then after that—you have the wedding and then you have sex like once or twice a year, but the sex is great, you know what I mean? [Laughs] Both Heath and I were incredibly surprised to see Ang at press conferences totally articulate and really very clear about what he was saying about the film. We're both like, “When we asked it was like…”
He sort of set a stage, and he asked us to play whatever we were going to play. He did manipulate us in ways, and I think that really angered us at times. Then at the same time I think we feel really proud of the end result. There's an odd benevolence to him and his process, in the same way that his movies are benevolent. It's empowering, because you feel like, “Okay, I've given all I can.” There are scenes [in the final cut] where I'm like, “Oh wow, I gave so much more, but he pulled it back.” That was him balancing his film. I just learned a lot as an actor in a director's—in particular, in an auteur's movie. It's just another tool on my tool belt.
Question: Does that mean when you finished the movie initially you felt like you never wanted to work with Ang Lee again? We talked to Heath on Brothers Grimm and he was like, “It was the hardest experience of my life.” It didn't sound like it was because of the character, but because of the process.
Gyllenhaal: Well, yeah, Heath and I— When I first saw the movie, I saw him out somewhere, and I was like, “Did you see the movie?” He was like, “Yeah, yeah.” I said, “What did you think?” He's like, “I've no fucking idea!” I was like, “Me too.” It's a very interesting thing. Personally it was kind of a rough time in my life, and it mimicked a lot of things in the movie that were going on. I was just exhausted emotionally from it. It was hard. But for me it was hard in a different way than with Heath, because Heath was constantly being pushed back by Ang, pushed back into his skin. I think Heath constantly wanted to get out, and Ang kept pushing him back in. With me I had heard all these stories from actors, their first day of work walking up to Ang and asking him how it was, and Ang saying, “You'll get better.” I was so waiting for that, and actors have given incredible performances in his movies. So I was waiting for this apathy, and the first day of work he walked out to me and was like, “Great job.” And I was like, “Noooo, that's not good!” So he had different approaches to how he abused us.
Question: You age twenty years in this film. Can you see yourself twenty years from now?
Gyllenhaal: I think in this movie, there's a kind of timeless aging. There are dates on things, but I also feel like this relationship could be five years; it could be thirty years. What happens between the two of them and how they feel doesn't really have like a timeframe on it to me. Can I see myself in thirty years? Yeah, God, I hope so. I think age is something that's earned. I don't know how I see myself, but I hopefully see myself still here and doing something interesting, whatever it is.
Question: What is your next film Zodiac about?
Gyllenhaal: It's a movie [directed by David Fincher] about the serial killer. Zodiac was a serial killer in [the] San Francisco area in the late Sixties, early Seventies. He would send letters to the San Francisco Chronicle, different newspapers around town. It's a true story about three people on the case—the detective, the journalist and then there's a random cartoonist who became obsessed with the case. After the other two fell off, he picked it up and solved the case, but they never really found the Zodiac killer.
Question: Do you play the cartoonist?
Gyllenhaal: I play the cartoonist, yeah. They could never really get the guy, so he's still out there supposedly, and so [ironically] I feel very safe making a movie about it.
Question: Did you meet the cartoonist?
Gyllenhaal: Yes, Robert Graysmith. We met many times and he's been to the set. He was just on set the other day, my last day of work.
Question: What's the challenge of playing someone who existed?
Gyllenhaal: Eh, it's easy now! It's different with every story, and it's different with how every director approaches it. I've considered characters I've played that aren't real people to be people that are still living out there, or have lived, who have struggled with the same things. I think Jack Twist is just as much of a real person as Tony Swofford. I approached both in the same way. They're aspects of every person, everybody's personality. With Jack Twist, I met with a lot of different cowboys and rode horses, and learned how to pack mules, and all those things. That became a big part of that character for me. With Robert Graysmith it's a different style, because David Fincher is very much into the reality of what happened. He's filming the murders exactly inch by the inch, literally how it happened and where the bodies were. It's based in a real reality, things that really happened, things they really said, so for me it's very important to get the idiosyncrasies of Robert Graysmith.
Question: Can you talk a little about how you and Heath approached doing the love scenes? Did you talk about them before you did them? Did you have an immediate rapport with him. We heard you didn't audition together.
Gyllenhaal: We knew each other before we filmed this movie. We had both been on an extensive, really intense, audition process for Moulin Rouge with Baz Luhrmann. There was me and Heath and Ewan [McGregor] as the last three for that role. I feel like I was the puppy of all the three of them. I don't know what I was doing in there, but I was just amazed to be in there when we were auditioning. Heath and I started to know each other just by name, because I never saw his face—Baz never let us see each other. We'd be ushered into a room and locked in, and the other would go out and audition with someone and then ushered back in, so I heard him by name for a long time. When we were both not cast we become friends out of jealousy. From there we knew each other on and off, different times we'd see each other.
When this came up, to tell you the truth, I questioned. I was like, “I wonder if Heath can pull this off. This is very, very intense. It's the most critical role in this film, to really push [the audience] through to the end and show that this relationship is really something meaningful.” I thought, could he? And then we started to work together and I was just like, “Yeah.”
We talked a lot. Heath would say stuff to me like, “I really think this character is very sensitive to light, and I think he's very sensitive to sound and he doesn't really like being around any place that's too noisy.” Then when it came to doing love scenes and stuff like that, the best metaphor I can give is that we were both like, “Are you ready?” “Yeah, let's go.” And we dove off the boat into the deep end. It's like when you're terrified of the water. You see a little kid thrown in the water, and they're trying to get back to the boat as fast as they can. That's what it was like, but at the same time we really went for it. We knew we had to consummate this somehow. It couldn't just be a story about friendship, because there's a part of two people connecting intimately, sexually, that drives that intimacy through the years. In my opinion when you see the movie, as soon as that happens, you're like, “Okay, I'm here now. I'm ready to see what's going to happen.” Or, “I'm out of here, I'll see you later.” Either way it does knock you into something. We knew that it was going to have to do that, and we were going to have to commit to it, and there was a high five, and jump in. It was just—I don't really remember it very well.
Question: I've got a sensitive question about the bull riding—did you hurt your privates and how did you protect them?
Gyllenhaal: Who are you writing for? Thank you for the empathy. No, I didn't really hurt anything, at least not right now that I know of, maybe there's long term damage.
Question: Can you recall your experience when you first read this script? What particularly impressed you and moved you about it?
Gyllenhaal: Annie Proulx wrote me a note very recently that has made the entire movie—making it—totally worth it, no matter what happens, and how people respond to the film. She wrote me a note with a limited edition copy of Close Range, which is the book that “Brokeback Mountain” the short story is in. In it she said that Jack Twist refers to— “Twist” refers to the strength—this might answer [your question about bull riding]—the strength of the thighs and butt muscles that a bull rider has to have in order to stay on the bull. I had never really thought of it that way. It's so funny, it's so clearly in you the whole time and you never really know what that is. I thought, “Yeah, there's a real endurance.” Everybody joked—when we were filming Jarhead even—that I had this ridiculous strength that I didn't even know—I didn't really know how tight I was holding onto people. There were times when I would choke people with the flack jacket [when] I was holding onto them. Once Lucas Black punched me in the face because I was choking him and I didn't even know.
There is a strength in nature, holding onto a goal, whatever that might be. To me [it] is something I really relate to. Wanting things to progress, [no matter what] the response, definitely is something that I related to in Jack Twist. I fell into always pushing Ennis to say how he felt, or to communicate something, even if it's imperfect. I never really knew at the time that was [what I was doing]. When I read the script for the first time, I thought, “Oh Ang will probably want me to play the Ennis part,” because I've played much more isolated characters before. That's a very obvious, very actorly way of thinking about it, because actually Heath and I as people are really more the characters that we play.
Question: What else did Annie Proulx write?
Gyllenhaal: She just wrote a long note to me in the book, a beautiful, beautiful note. If I could actually quote it, then that would be pretty awesome. But the thing I relate to in the character was that one thing. It honored me that she felt very proud of the movie. I've never met Annie Proulx. I had never been in contact with her in any other way until that moment.
Question: Did you create a back story for Jack Twist other than what was in the book? Did you think about him having a rough childhood?
Gyllenhaal: I think regardless of what any of us say, we've all had pretty interesting—if not rough—childhoods. To me it made me [think about] this struggle to try and present something, this struggle as an actor to go, “This is what I'm feeling right now.” I think you see that in performances a lot, and I think I've done that a lot. In this movie it was like, “I'm going to show up and what baggage I carry with me, I'm bringing with me. I'm not going to try and create new baggage to play a character.” I'm showing up every day and I'm going, “This is what I bring with me.” That to me is why it's been really nice the response that Jarhead 's gotten. Yeah, it is complicated, and it is okay to be complicated. So, I had a very interesting childhood in a lot of ways, and I brought that with me, and somehow Jack and I parallel somewhere.
AboutFilm: You said you thought about whether Heath could pull it off. Did you ever question yourself, and what did you question in yourself?
Gyllenhaal: I always had an argument with Ang—not an argument, but he was always like, “Jack has had more experiences with guys before, and he's more gay of the two of them.” And I was like, “Wow, am I really going to be able to be the one who brings [Heath] into this, and comforts him somehow?” I'm just as skeptical of it also, so how am I going to emotionally go there? Like their scene in the tent where I'm like, “Come in here.” I know what I'm doing, but I have no idea what I'm doing with this, you know what I mean? I'm the one who initiates these sexual encounters—which to me was totally foreign. It's like, “How do you do this? Does it look right?” And, yeah, I consider it a real movement towards something to go to a place where you're like, “Oh, this is about intimacy between two people.” You're going to have to put [the other stuff] out of your mind, and I had doubts from the beginning whether that was going to work. I think it surprises people when I say, “I think these two guys are straight, and yet they find each other somewhere.” People are like, “What's that mean?” And I'm like, “I don't really know. I just think that we're both servicing a story that is so much bigger than both of us and everybody involved.”
[Read the AboutFilm review of Brokeback Mountain]
[Read the AboutFilm interview with Ang Lee]
Article and interviews © December 2005 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN images © 2005 Focus Features. All Rights Reserved.
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