A shot at redemption
No more rubbish blockbusters, please. As a cop in the startling End of Watch, Jake Gyllenhaal is now in pursuit of realism and danger
Jeff Dawson Published: 11 November 2012, Sunday Times Culture
Round, close-set eyes, long face, upturned nose, beatific grin... No matter how hard one tries to banish the thought, when you see Jake Gyllenhaal, you can’t stop the image of Woody from Toy Story popping into your head. Maybe that’s why he got cast in Brokeback Mountain; perhaps Heath Ledger reminded the producers of Buzz. Today, though, the picture is somewhat skewed, because Gyllenhaal’s youthful looks are obscured by an added cartoonish adornment — a beard of such pirate-captain volume and lustre, you suspect there’s a band around his head, holding it in place.
We are used to black-clad Hollywood bucks disfiguring themselves in the name of art, as if handsomeness precludes integrity, so this is nothing out of the ordinary. The face rug is, however, for a part; he’s appearing in If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet at the Laura Pels Theatre, in New York.
Lampooning Gyllenhaal — with a soft “g” — is a bit mean. He is, it turns out, a most excellent and genial fellow. Generous, too, breaking bread in a downtown Manhattan hotel, late in the afternoon, when he really ought to be limbering up backstage for tonight’s show. “I happen to like not starting my engine until very soon before,” he says. “It makes it a little more exciting for me.”
Written and directed respectively by the Brits Nick Payne and Michael Longhurst (the team behind the Royal Court hit Constellations), the play sees Gyllenhaal grunge down as a bourgeois London slacker, complete with accent. In a weird piece of symmetry, it is 10 years ago that he made his acclaimed theatrical debut in the West End — as a bourgeois American slacker — in This Is Our Youth. He hasn’t appeared on stage since, so this is only his second outing, and his Broadway entree. (“Off Broadway,” he corrects.)
So why the comeback? “It was a questioning of what I want to do with my work and my life, and if I felt fulfilled,” he says. “I think it may have been turning 30. I’d made a promise to myself that I would really only pursue my artistic instincts, no matter where it took me, and I kind of broke that promise.”
To an outsider, at any rate, it all seems to be going swimmingly for Gyllenhaal. Off the back of last year’s time-travel yarn, Source Code, comes a gritty LA cop thriller, End of Watch, the film we’re here to talk about.
The movie has earned plaudits for Gyllenhaal and his co-star Michael Peña, who play police officers cruising the mean streets of South Central. Written and directed by David Ayer, whose forays into the milieu include Training Day, Swat and Harsh Times, the film was shot for $7m — movie peanuts — but is riding high at the US box office.
Beefed-up and shaven-headed, Gyllenhaal’s Brian Taylor is a spiritual cousin to the Marine grunt he played in Sam Mendes’s Gulf War movie Jarhead, although the film remains, essentially, a buddy story, its best parts the car-bound “bromantic” interludes. “That was the heart of the film, and was essentially why I wanted to do it,” he says. In a sort of throwback to Brokeback Mountain, the two officers spend more time with each other, joshing about life and love, than they do with their other halves (Anna Kendrick and Natalie Martinez).
There is a contrivance, in that the film is supposedly viewed through Gyllenhaal’s omnipresent digicam: “YouTube meets Training Day,” as Ayer put it. Key to the exercise, Gyllenhaal says, was realism. He spent five months on night-time ride-alongs with the LAPD, cruising the ’hoods seen in the movie. Whenever an actor makes such a claim, I say, one can’t help but think of the film The Hard Way, in which, for the purposes of filmic research, a pampered movie star (played by Michael J Fox) is foisted on an abusive hard-boiled detective (James Woods). “So do I,” he chuckles. “And, by the way, don’t think we didn’t get all that shit while doing it for real. The very first ride-along, we were the second call on a shooting, a murder. Guy bled out right in front of me.”
At the end, as a bonding exercise, he and Peña got themselves “tased” by their new police chums. (Yes, it hurts.) “My approach to making movies and to art now is not just to produce the greatest result,” Gyllenhaal says. “It’s how it affects my life.”
It’s another hint that he hasn’t always been the master of his own domain. Yet he is far too diplomatic to express specific regrets. Indeed, if you need proof of his all-round decentness, watch Brother Jake sit politely on talk-show sofas while dribbling hosts vouch that they have the hots for his older actress sister, Maggie.
Then again, the Gyllenhaal siblings learnt early on to take showbiz in their stride. They grew up in LA, where their director dad, Stephen Gyllenhaal, made the 1990s cult flicks Waterland and Paris Trout. Their mum, Naomi Foner, penned the screenplay for the River Phoenix drama Running on Empty. There are few people who can claim to have received their first driving lesson from Paul Newman. Gyllenhaal laughs. “That’s not true. That doesn’t do my father a good service, because he put hours and hours in. But I did go to a racetrack, and Paul was there and took me in a car.”
While his mother is Jewish, the paternal line reveals the Gyllenhaals to descend from Swedish nobility, founder-practitioners of the liberal Christian order Swedenborgianism. With God and the movies on his side, Gyllenhaal, aged 11, got a small part as Billy Crystal’s child in City Slickers. At 13, he was appearing in an episode of Homicide: Life on the Street directed by his father. After a stint at Columbia University, he dropped out to return to the family business. “There is a clan aspect to this,” he concedes, “and in a way it feels second nature, because it’s a language I’ve been speaking since I was so young.”
After his breakthrough in Donnie Darko (2001), as a disturbed teen conversing with a giant rabbit, Gyllenhaal was fast-tracked for stardom, cast as a lead in the somewhat prescient eco-disaster epic The Day After Tomorrow. It’s probably fair to say that Hollywood has since cooled on him as a blockbuster opener: too old now (32 next month) to play the boyish roles his face suits; not grizzly enough (beard notwithstanding) for a mature heavyweight.
When Tobey Maguire was prevaricating over a return to the Spider-Man series, Gyllenhaal’s name was dangled. He was up for the role of Batman in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight reboot, but was passed over, as he was for the lead in Avatar. His star performance in the 2010 video game spin-off Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (employing another English accent) could not prevent the projected sequels being put on hold.
“I think where I feel most comfortable is being able to really collaborate, and where the risks taken are emotional,” he says. “I don’t really think the size of the movie is the thing that matters to me, although I think it’s more possible in independent film.” Which has probably left him — and us — with a far more worthy back catalogue.
Gyllenhaal runs through the highlights, picking out Donnie Darko, the Sundance hit The Good Girl (as Jennifer Aniston’s toy boy) and Jarhead as particular favourites. “And obviously Brokeback Mountain [his Oscar-nominated, Bafta-winning turn as the gay cowpoke Jack Twist], not just for the process, which was incredibly special, but for the result that came out of it. I’m so grateful to that movie for everything.” One might add David Fincher’s serial-killer docudrama, Zodiac, or Love & Other Drugs, opposite Anne Hathaway, with Gyllenhaal as a Viagra-touting pharmaceutical salesman.
Both the offbeat choices and his ability not to be fazed have made him less gossip-rag fodder than might have been the case after relationships with Kirsten Dunst, Reese Witherspoon and the country warbler Taylor Swift. (Her new album reportedly contains a number of nods to their courtship, including the not entirely subtle We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.)
You know your most underrated performance, I say. “No?” Bear Grylls: Man vs Wild — a corking episode in which Gyllenhaal and the survival expert are dropped on a glacier in Iceland, then yomp across volcanoes, swim icy waters and try to eat a rotting sheep. He laughs. “That was fun. That was the start of all this crazy stuff, going on the streets with cops after going with Bear. I thought, ‘Yeah, this sounds dangerous. Let’s do it.’”
One thing Gyllenhaal’s new direction won’t include is the screen version of Fifty Shades of Grey. Stories have spread across the internet linking him to the part of the priapic Christian Grey, something based on the casual comments of the book’s author, EL James. “Literally, I know nothing about that.”
Currently, he has a more pressing engagement, with a theatre audience. He’s cutting it fine and still has the rush-hour traffic to contend with. You know what, he says, family business or not, acting would still have been his vocation. “Because, at times, there is nothing that brings me more joy than being up on the stage or being in a movie, watching an actor give an extraordinary performance across from me. That gives my soul joy. And I know it sounds like a total cliché, and it is, and in print it sure will be, but it does.”
End of Watch is released on Nov 23