by Jay S. Jacobs
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.
Demolition 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 Demolition?
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 improvised?
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. (laughs)
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 out?
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 journey.
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. (laughs)
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 knew.
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. I’m 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 a choice.
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. (chuckles)
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?
(laughs) Yeah. (laughs 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.
Copyright ©2016 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: April 8, 2016.
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