When you meet him, it's striking how normal and sane
Jake Gyllenhaal seems. Not that anyone has questioned that aspect of
his life, but as an actor the young Hollywood star has had a tendency to
gravitate towards crazy roles – from his breakout performance in
Donnie Darko to last year's pitch black morality plays
Nightcrawler and Southpaw.
Gyllenhaal's latest role also has some blips in its
sanity. In Jean-Marc Vallee's Demolition, he plays Davis
Mitchell, a successful investment banker who seriously gets lost when
his wife is killed in a car crash. Touched by an odd sense of apathy,
Davis destroys his relationships, career, and literally his house (with
sledgehammers and a bulldozer) in order to finally come to terms with
his feelings of grief and loss.
He ends up writing an absurdly detailed complaint
letter to a vending machine company after losing a candy bar in the
hospital on the night his wife died. He comes to find himself through
an unlikely friendship that forms with a woman who works at that company
(Naomi Watts) and her wiser than his years twelve-year-old son (Judah
Lewis). In the meantime, his unusual reaction to the death severely
strains his relationship with his father-in-law (Chris Cooper), who also
happens to be his boss.
is the third time
Cooper has co-starred in a movie with Gyllenhaal. "It's like running
into a nephew who you don't see but every few years...," Cooper said at
the press day. "He was 16 when we first worked together on October
Sky. Then we did Jarhead and he was a young man by then.
And, by golly, he's a man now. It's just terrific to work with him.
Over these years he's become a better actor, and lately making very
strong choices. Very daring in his work."
A couple of weeks before the opening of
Demolition, we were one of a few media outlets who were able to sit
down with Gyllenhaal at the famous Essex House hotel in New York to talk
about the film.
What was the most fun
part of making
Well, the fun for me was working with [director]
Jean-Marc [Vallee]. His style and his process is unlike any other
director I've ever worked with. All the trappings and vanity that exist
in most productions, or the bulkiness and the cumbersomeness quality of
moving a crew around, he's eradicated from this process. Nothing is
lit. There is no makeup. Everything is hand-held. He is just
searching and editing in his mind while he goes. To me, the process of
making a movie and storytelling is always more fascinating than
anything. Watching him work was inspiring. That was so fun.
I also like where people don't get so indulgent in
their own process. You lose track of the things that are real. The
technicalities get so... again... cumbersome. He's just moving, moving,
moving, moving. You're always moving. You never know really where
you're headed to next. Even in the scene when you have lines. Even
physically. Like, we're shooting up on a building on the 55th floor in
the financial district. We go take the elevator down. He throws a
camera on his shoulder. He says, "Here's some earphones and some
music. Go dance around in a crowd of people." That happened at the end
of the day. When we had two hours and then we were done. That was fun,
the process. How he works. For me, that was so, so fun.
You didn't get off on
destroying all that stuff?
No. I'm an actor, you know, so.... Isn't that
what we do in hotel rooms? (laughs) No! I mean, yeah,
definitely, that was so fun. It was great fun. But for me, I think
there was even a more profound fun in watching an artist create. That
was more fun. I think creation is so much harder than destruction.
That's definitely something I learned. It took the people that built
that section of the house a whole lot longer to build that section of
the house – to design it, talk about it, plan it – than it did for us
two guys to take it down.
I'm not dissing demolition crews, but I'm just
saying there is something, metaphorically speaking: it's so much easier
to cut somebody down than to raise them up for some reason. It's so
much better and so much more satisfying, ultimately. So much more
life-affirming. It makes you feel so much better when you create. As
opposed to cut down.
What was it like
working with Chris Cooper again? You've worked with him over different
stages of your career.
Yeah, when I first worked with Chris I was 16 years
old. He had, obviously, all this technique, that he still has. But I
didn't have any. I had no idea why he was being so aloof and made me
feel so awkward. Felt like he didn't care about me at all. Then I
realized once we finished shooting and became friends that he had this
huge heart. That was something he was trying to cultivate on set. Then
we worked together six years later in this movie Jarhead. He
played a small part in that movie. I watched him again, accumulating my
own tools and my own techniques and craft.
Six year after that, seven years after, I don't
know, maybe more, we met for this movie. I had all these tools myself.
I had a technique. I knew how to make him feel a little aloof. That's
actors' expertise, making people feel aloof. I learned how to do it
myself. It was really cool to say: Look at my tool belt. I've got some
shit there, too. It was a real honor. It's always an honor to work
with Chris, people who are as sensitive as he is and as talented as he
is. Sometimes I look at the most talented people as sort of like hearts
walking around with legs. Do you know what I mean? He just happens to
be one of those people. But you don't want to... I wouldn't fuck with
him, either. It's always been an honor to work with Chris. He's
weirdly been like a teacher throughout my entire career, without even
saying much to me.
Then you have this
young actor on this film. Did you feel the same way about him, that you
had to show him the ropes?
Chris was older than me. (laughs) No, I'm
just kidding. I don't know how Chris felt about working with me, but I
do know that my mandate about working with kids is that you always
follow them, because they are always closer to the... something.
(laughs) Something more interesting and always something more
honest. That's just my rule. If they don't feel like following you,
then that's not the way you go. You follow them. If they feel like
following you, then okay, you're the one to be leading.
But my rule is always follow them. So to work with
Judah [Lewis]... I also worked with this wonderful young actress named
Oona Laurence on another movie [Southpaw]... and to work with
kids is my favorite. Because, they really are listening. It's like
that Stephen Sondheim [song from Into the Woods]: Be careful of
what you say around kids. They will listen. But they will in a scene,
also. It's a sensitive place and it was wonderful to work with Judah.
He is charismatic and talented and he's fantastic in the movie.
How difficult was it
to do the dancing scene?
Was that dancing? Jean-Marc didn't tell me when we
were going to shoot that scene. He was just like, "Oh, we'll figure it
out." So he came to me one day, we were shooting on a train, and he was
like, "Okay, we're pulling up to Penn Station." We finished working
outside on this train and all day long he was like, "We're going to film
this one little piece. Here's some earphones and here's some songs." I
didn't even know the songs. I didn't know what I was listening to. And
he was just like, "go dance."
So it was all
Yeah. He showed me a video of a guy dancing that he
wanted me to play around in the same world. But then he was like, "Just
go have fun." Because of the style of the way he shoots, if I had time
to think about it, I would have probably would have, like, not done it.
It makes it more
difficult if you have to think about it...
Yeah, that's how we did it. He was just like, "here
are the earphones." We just kept going places and doing it. After a
while, it was like two days of stuff, I did it. Dancing around all
Manhattan and not giving a shit about any of it. It was great. It was
so fun. Once you pass through embarrassment, which is a brutal passage,
oftentimes you find yourself in a land of excitement and elation and
pride. I did. And then I watched what I looked like, and I went back
to embarrassment again. (laughs) But at the time, it felt good
to just express myself. No matter how badly.
How much is this
character like you?
I think this character is closer to me in certain
ways. I haven't experienced what he experienced in the same way, so I
can't really tell you. But I think I have spent a number of years
playing characters very far from myself and I think this character is a
little closer. I also always try to find the piece of me that is like
the character I'm playing. I believe we have beautiful, loving,
murderous, thoughtful, thoughtless, insensitive, sensitive feelings all
the time. If you just let them pass through, you can grab on to the one
that is helpful for the part.
People have almost a
conventional idea of how one should react to grief, but everyone takes
it very differently. As an actor, was it interesting to follow his arc
from unable to connect with what he was feeling to finally letting it
That's what I loved about the movie. I loved about
the script. The script was... I read it and the first scene I read, I
was: oh, really? I've seen this in movies before. The first scene when
they are in a car and there is a crash, and I'm like: okay.... And I
don't want to seem insensitive about that, but you do look for things
that are original. So, I went, oh, okay, we're going down this path.
And then it had been pitched to me as – as it is to audiences – as a
movie about a guy who loses his wife. Oh, geez, I don't know if I want
to see that. Then, you start watching it – or as I was, reading it –
and you go, oh shit! Every time I thought I was going one way, I was
like: oh wait, what??? Then by the end I was like I kind of love this
Whether or not this guy seems like an insensitive
jerk sometimes, or does some stuff that I would never see myself doing,
what it was conveying the whole time was the loss. Your expression of
whatever that is. Your search for yourself after you've lost it, way
before the loss. That's the other thing. This character lost himself
way before. He married when everyone said he should. He got the job
that everyone said he should get. He looked a certain way to everyone.
He looks a certain way, or makes himself look a certain way to
everyone. He lives in a house that looks and is very nice, but it's
what everybody would seemingly want. But deep down inside, none of it
is actually really him. So, when the profound loss happens, I think
he's then forced to try and say, "Oh, shit! Where are my feelings?" Yo,
homey, you left them behind long ago. Go back and try and find them.
Then there is this kid, who probably at that point
is about the same age that Davis lost his feelings. [The kid is]
searching for his feelings, too. Acting just as awkward and just as
irrationally. Looking for his identity. That's how [Davis] starts to
find how he actually feels. At the end of the movie, to me, he's like
Alice [in Wonderland] when Alice says, "Oh, I'm lost." He doesn't even
know he's lost until the end of the movie. He's like: "Oh, shit, I'm
lost!" That's the movie.
Have you ever gotten
to the point where you were feeling lost and wanted to start again,
either in your career or personally?
In my career, once or twice or forty times a day.
(chuckles) Yeah, definitely in my career there were times that I
felt like that. In terms of what we all do sometimes, our career and
what we bring to our work really reflects the energy that we bring to
our lives, and vice versa. No matter what you do in your work, it
definitely influences the other. I started, and had the privilege of
starting rather early. Really young. As a result, I think, in those
years in my 20s or whatever, you're not really supposed to know what you
believe. What you're supposed to say. I did a lot of really good
acting of knowing, thinking I knew, or trying to convince people I
I was making choices based on things I though maybe
people would like, or someone told me they like. Then, at a certain
point, I went like: What am I doing? Let me just do the things I like.
If people don't like me for it, then so be it. I'll feel better. A lot
of people don't like me for it, and a lot of people do. That's good.
Chris was saying that
he liked a lot of your choices, so it's interesting to me to hear you
say that you're just following the work. It's not a specific pattern,
it's what satisfies you?
Well, I'm lucky enough to say that, in a way. But I
also think there is a responsibility. I also do still have the actor in
me that is like whenever I get a job, there are a lot of people that are
more talented that didn't get it, so you've got to prove everybody
wrong. There is a conscious decision for me, in terms of just they are
all different ones. Sometimes I feel like things I'm afraid of I want
to move towards. Sometimes think it's time to have some fun. You've
been hurting yourself and putting your heart through a lot of stuff,
maybe just go enjoy yourself a little bit. (laughs) So, that's
But, yeah, some of them are just choices because I
believe something needs to be told. Some of them are just for me. But
at the same time, every single time it feels like a privilege, so I try
and give it everything that I can. I love hard work. I believe in hard
work. I admire people who work hard in whatever they do. To me that is
the difference maker everywhere. That's the big thing I've learned,
hard work is everything. Sometimes even more than talent. That's what
you learn as an adult, I think. As an adult, that's what you learn.
What's coming next?
I'm doing this movie [currently called Stronger]
next about this guy, Jeff Bauman, who lost his legs in the Boston
[marathon] bombing. But it's a love story. It's a love story between
him and his now-wife, who was then his girlfriend, and their journey
through all that, which is just incredible. Beautiful, hilarious and
moving. So there's that that I'm about to do. Then I'm going to go do
this movie [currently called Okja] with this guy Bong Joon Ho,
who did Snowpiercer and The Host and stuff. I play a guy
who is host of an animal show.
Do you like animals?
harder) That's a loaded question. Yes, of course I like animals.
But that's super fun. That's one's going to be crazy, in a really fun
way. I'm going to do this movie called Life with Daniel
Espinosa, who is directing it. It's a really, really fun... not fun, I
mean it's scary, but it's fun.