The definition of “character actor” reads as “one who specialises in playing eccentric or unusual people rather than leading roles."
While perennial lead star Jake Gyllenhaal could never technically be labelled as such, there’s no denying his status as an actor who fluidly bridges the gap by fronting films playing these precise types of characters. In this way, Gyllenhaal is in a league of his own.
Another factor setting Gyllenhaal aside from the rest is an old-fashioned passion for the craft – something easy to discern after mere minutes in the company of an actor who evidently cares as much about his little-seen early roles (2001 comedy Bubble Boy) as he does the ones that, in an alternate world, would have won him every award going (here’s looking at you, Nightcrawler).
It’s perhaps no stretch to say that Gyllenhaal’s enthusiasm has hit a new peak following his latest role in Stronger, a passion project of sorts, telling the real-life story of civilian Jeff Bauman who had both his legs amputated following the Boston Marathon bombing on 15 April 2013. The actor also produces from John Pollono’s screenplay, which is based on Bauman’s own memoir.
Unlike Patriots Day, Peter Berg’s 2016 dramatisation of the ensuing manhunt, this film focuses on the very human story of one man’s recovery after his life-altering injury. While no stranger to changing his physicality for a role (he reportedly piled on 45 lbs for boxing drama Southpaw in 2015), Stronger posed Gyllenhaal with a bigger challenge - one he rates as the most important he’s faced in his career to date.
“I felt a responsibility to Jeff all the way along,” Gyllenhaal explains. “He’s a real human being who’s still here and is vibrant and thoughtful [so] I think all of those aspects made it a real challenge for me. I wanted to do him service. Trying to conceptualise what it’s like to not only lose your limbs but also [to do it] in a way that Jeff did ... I really feel like he’s superhuman.”
Gyllenhaal’s respect for Bauman is sincere. The duo spent a year together before filming began, striking up a camaraderie which enabled the actor to deliver what could well be one of the year’s most formative performances.
Rather than make what could have been a Lifetime-style film layered with faux schmaltz, director David Gordon Green opted for an authenticity best exemplified in a key scene showing the removal of Bauman’s bandages post-amputation. The camera fixes on Gyllenhaal and Orphan Black star Tatiana Maslaney (here playing Bauman’s girlfriend, Erin Hurley), honing in on nothing but their raw emotion.
Gyllenhaal nods. “That [scene] was based on an incredible moment where Jeff said he didn’t want to have either him or Erin see his legs when they did it. That was just so moving. David would roll the camera for very long takes and there would be a moment where these boundaries disappeared and dissolved and we were living in the moment.”
The result is the film’s best scene. While sporadically coaxing your tear ducts, Stronger is unexpectedly also very funny – something that drew Gyllenhaal to the project in the first place.
“The reason I wanted to do the movie is because I was laughing when I first read the screenplay,” he reveals. “I surprisingly found myself cracking up four pages in, then I was moved and then I’d be cracking up again. That was what got me wanting to play the character. Jeff is one of the funniest people I know.”
This point brings to bear the fact that – save for Blair Hayes’ aforementioned Bubble Boy – comedy has largely been absent from the 36-year-old actor’s filmography since his screen debut as a child in 1991 film City Slickers.
Having formed an exclusive club of intriguing characters, following his first lead role in 1999 drama October Sky, cinemagoers are still yet to see Gyllenhaal throw himself headfirst into the genre.
“You don’t want to either,” he quips, levelling why this may be the case. “I think I gravitate towards a certain type of depth of character. For me, you want to feel the time spent while you’re making a film is meaningful for whatever reason and I just don’t have the desire to, for instance, make a film that feels like it’s existing on the surface.
“But if it’s comedic and it has something to say, then I would love to be a part of it.”
You could argue, I suggest, that Dan Gilroy’s acclaimed 2014 thriller Nightcrawler is a comedy. In it, he plays Lou Bloom, a stringer who prowls LA streets after hours to document violent events in exchange for money from a local television news station.
“Yeah, absolutely,” he agrees. “I did always think a number of those scenes were hilarious. People tell me [Bloom] is creepy but he’s hilarious to me in a lot of ways too. He’s a social commentary on so many things. It was very interesting to say, ‘I’m going to approach one take as if I’m going to attack Rick [Riz Ahmed’s character] and then one take as if I’m slowly befriending him’ and I think a character that allows me to make those kinds of choices makes my job more fun.”
The memorable roles don’t stop at Bauman and Bloom: eponymous teen Donnie Darko, LAPD cop Brian Taylor (End of Watch) and Brokeback Mountain’s gay cowboy Jack Twist are just three of the actor’s many defining roles. With demand for his talent in no danger of waning, has Gyllenhaal adopted a code for picking which scripts he’ll next dedicate months of his life to?
“It’s my instinct, I guess. [Roles do] have to have a sense of irony and some sort of edge on which to sort of skate. These characters always have to have a myriad of sides to them with the possibility for me to say, ‘This take I can go here, and that take I can go there.’”
While showing a knack for dishing out equal love to every one of his past films, Gyllenhaal displays a sincere bemusement to discover that not only does his interviewer own a copy of 2004 disaster film The Day After Tomorrow on DVD (”No way!” he exclaims. “Do you still watch it?”), but that psychological thriller Enemy (2013) – in which he plays a pair of doppelgängers – remains Denis Villeneuve’s best film despite the recent release of Blade Runner 2049.
Having played numerous high-profile roles, it’s no surprise to him that journalists are quick to carelessly describe films such as these as chapters or turning points in his life. For Gyllenhaal, however, it’s the behind-the-scenes experiences which mark personal milestones for him.
“When I see my performances, it’s not just about the results, it’s about the experience. I just did this Broadway show ‘Sunday in the Park with George’, which marks something for me that’s huge,” he states, also citing Nightcrawler as a key moment (”I was experimenting with a number of ideas and techniques ... and I loved those words so much; I was sad to let them go).
He pauses for a long time.
“I remember when I was working on [2005 war drama] Jarhead with Sam Mendes – he was the first director that powered me as an actor, really took no excuses for my insecurities and just asked for a leader. I think that was, at a young age, a huge lesson.”
This particular experience recently came full circle for Gyllenhaal, following Stronger‘s premiere at Spaulding rehabilitation centre in Boston earlier this year, during an encounter with the father of Michelle Kerr – the physical therapist who helped Bauman walk again.
“He’s about 90,” the actor recalls. “He looked at me, put his hand out and said, ‘Are you the star of the picture?’ I shook his hand and I said, ‘Yes sir, I am.’ I think there’s something very honourable in that. I felt that way with Sam.”
Gyllenhaal has already completed two roles that look set to embolden his status as both leading man and character actor. He’ll next star opposite Carey Mulligan in Wildfire, the directorial debut of Paul Dano, charting the breakdown of a marriage through the eyes of a 13-year-old boy. Then there’s dark Western comedy The Sisters Brothers from A Prophet director Jacques Audiard.
“It’s been 20 years I’ve been doing this which is extraordinary,” he tells me. “I’m beyond lucky to do it.”
He pauses. “Just don’t tell anybody, I’m a little superstitious.”
Stronger is released in cinemas on 8 December
Follow Independent Culture on Facebook