Back in July, Jake Gyllenhaal achieved one of New York men’s fashion week’s most memorable looks in just a white cotton t-shirt. Not a total surprise, given that his blue eyes add depth to even the most casual of his ensembles. But, in this case, he had some help – his crewneck, designed by Raf Simons, was adorned with a poignant slogan: “New horrors/ Old dreams.”
Gyllenhaal’s latest film cuts to the very heart of that dichotomy. Stronger is based on the best-selling memoir of Jeff Bauman, a man who lost his legs in the Boston Marathon bombing but gained fresh resolve in its aftermath. Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany co-stars as Erin Hurley, Bauman’s strong-willed ex who finds herself balancing lingering feelings for him with fresh doubts about his dependability. In one sense, the movie is a timeless love story; in another, an all-too-timely look at the lives affected by recent terrorism attacks. Hope, fear – it’s all there.
So, safe to say Gyllenhaal’s choice of t-shirt at that fashion week event was a case of attire mimicking art. Know this about the actor: he’s willing to take critical analysis of his clothing seriously – perhaps even too seriously. “I’m a big believer in the unconscious,” he says, “so I do believe in horrors. And there are many happening every day. But I also believe that your history takes you through the world. And if you want to learn about it, you evolve – and you can turn it into something new. So never deny those things.”
At least, that’s his deep answer. The guy spent his years at Columbia University majoring in philosophy, after all. But then, as if anticipating having to unpack this somewhat cryptic response, he breaks character and comes clean: of all the clothes Simons sent him to consider for his event, the slogan t-shirt was the only item that fit. “But it definitely had resonance,” Gyllenhaal insists, chuckling and beginning to sound more comfortable. “It might have just been fate. I’m glad that it makes me seem more interesting than I am.”
Modesty is a handsome celebrity’s oldest trick, but it doesn’t quite work in this case – we already know that Gyllenhaal is interesting. Or, at the very least, that he has a knack for choosing intriguing roles. Among his cohort of talented young-ish character actors, the 36-year-old is the rare one dodging comic book franchise contracts in favour of stories about tormented souls.
Case in point: in 2015, the year Gyllenhaal’s gutsy performance as an obsessive crime photographer in Nightcrawler became one of the most confounding Oscar snubs to date, Academy Award nominations for Best Actor instead went to Bradley Cooper and Benedict Cumberbatch – the future Rocket Raccoon and Dr. Stephen Strange, respectively. The category winner that year was Eddie Redmayne, who now headlines a Harry Potter spinoff series. But Gyllenhaal has made no such recent play for mainstream movie success. It’s hard to imagine that’s because studio executives haven’t tried. For his part, the actor has a gracious response when questioned about the lack of colourful spandex in his life: “People always ask why I don’t play the superhero. But I’m playing one in Stronger,” he says.
Granted, he was briefly rumoured to be replacing Tobey Maguire as Spider-man at one early point in his career, and did give blockbusters a go with leading roles in 2004’s apocalypse thriller The Day After Tomorrow and 2010’s video game adaptation The Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.
“People always ask why I don’t play the superhero. But I’m playing one in Stronger,”
Whether as an adverse reaction to his experience on Prince’s theme park-like set or not, the actor has spent the past seven years delivering increasingly intense portrayals of inner turmoil. After first showing promise as a moody teen experiencing disturbing hallucinations in Donnie Darko, he has made a career out of embracing his dark side. At this point, a case can almost be made that Gyllenhaal has warped into exactly the sort of anguished character he is drawn to playing. His preparation regimens for his ever-more-harrowing movie roles verge on downright obsessive. He shed 30 pounds to play Nightcrawler’s rail-thin reporter, did 2000 sit-ups a day to transform into Southpaw’s bulked-up boxer, and now, for Stronger, shot a film in which his legs were digitally removed in post-production.
The lengths to which he will go to in his commitment to embodying a role have made him a favourite of many acclaimed auteurs: Sam Mendes, David Fincher and, more recently, Okja’s South Korean visionary Bong Joon-ho and past Palme d’Or winner Jacques Audiard. In turn, these figures have played a role in shaping Gyllenhaal’s appreciation of films as a craft rather than a commodity. Sure enough, when asked what drives him as an actor, he quotes his Brokeback Mountain director: “I presented Ang Lee an award somewhere, and he said, ‘We pretend so that we can get closer to the truth’. I thought, ‘What a perfect way to summarize what we do.’”
In that sense, Gyllenhaal’s own truth may be diving to extreme emotional depths in order to gain rare insights into the extraordinary lives carrying on alongside his own. “I act to try to understand the world around me a little bit better,” he says simply. For him, acting is emotional exercise.
Which isn’t to suggest that he isn’t also drawn to the mechanics of moviemaking. On the contrary, Gyllenhaal has indicated mounting interest in exploring the art of storytelling from new corners of a film set. Stronger is the first picture produced by Nine Stories, a production company he founded two years ago. This move could be seen as paving the way for an eventual Affleck-ian transition into directing. In any case, Gyllenhaal cites the emotional potency of Bauman’s narrative about perseverance through hardship for finally convincing him to try his hand at producing. “I was just so moved,” he says, balancing the earnestness of a man who truly means that with the professional dedication of one who very much like you to see his new film. “I thought, This thing needs to be told.”
As both the star and a producer of Stronger, Gyllenhaal has a lot riding on the movie’s gala premiere at this year’s edition of the Toronto International Film Festival. The event serves as an early launching pad for Oscar campaigns, and will act as a litmus test for how audiences respond to the film’s raw subject matter.
Printed as the front page of the April 16, 2013 edition of many newspapers, a graphic photograph of Bauman being wheeled down Boston’s Boylston Street with his legs reduced to jagged bones became the defining visual for an event that rocked the world. The following day, the Costco worker awoke from surgery and met with the F.B.I. to help identify one of the bombers – cementing his status as a man forever associated with the resilience of the “Boston Strong” movement.
“I do remember that image of him,” Gyllenhaal says when asked how he first heard about the bombing. “I remember it strewn across television sets.” He goes on to confess that the morning the Stronger crew recreated the bombing on set produced a lot of visceral reactions. “It was a very intimate, emotional day for everyone.” he says. “And connective. That’s what I felt. It connected all of us.”
Even after the movie has moved on from the morning of the marathon, it is by no means easy viewing. Sure, there are enough funny moments – most of them Red Sox jokes – to remind audience members that Stronger director David Gordon Green’s resume also includes The Pineapple Express. But this is still very much a story about a double amputee. And Gyllenhaal – no stranger to making audiences uncomfortable – does not hold back while portraying everything that Bauman endures. One early hospital scene feels like it lasts for 15 minutes. Filmed as a close-up on the actor’s face as a doctor removes sutures from his character’s out-of-focus stumps, it is a blunt study of extreme pain.
For such an invested actor, reflecting that level of agony on screen often goes hand-in-hand with experiencing it. “You do carry those things with you,” he admits. “There were a number of times on this film where I’d come in the next morning having done a scene and then not having slept, because I had those moments running through my mind and I was thinking about what Jeff went through.”
Gyllenhaal spent countless hours with Bauman prior to shooting, studying his mannerisms and learning how he shifts his weight to move both with and without his prosthetic legs. Now, the two continue to text regularly as friends.
Yet, as much as each of Gyllenhaal’s new projects brings its share of fresh psychological baggage to process, he isn’t feeling worn out just yet. “As you get older, [acting] continues to bring you back to a very youthful place,” he suggests. “When I was really little, I couldn’t believe that I could have so much fun doing it. And I’ve gotten back to that. But I also think that can be dangerous. You can be Dorian Grey in that space.”
Mind you, Gyllenhaal might welcome leaving a set with the odd digital filter still applied to his body. As he enters his late thirties, he is feeling the challenge of maintaining a cover star’s physique with a slowing metabolism. “The bask really doesn’t last,” he laments. “It sucks. And I haven’t stopped eating anything, unfortunately.” This is a funny admission coming from someone who once lost a fifth of his bodyweight in preparation for a role. But it’s also a reassuring indication that there is still a private, real-life persona behind the workaholic who is seemingly always getting into character.
Thankfully, when asked about his favourite high-calorie indulgence, Gyllenhaal manages a fun answer. “Haribo holds a dear place in my heart,” he says. Haribo, for those unacquainted, is the German inventor of the original gummy bear. In North America, the candy company creates bags of assorted gummies sold with names like Polka Mix, or Starmix, or World Mix. And yet even this choice of vice quickly relates back to Gyllenhaal’s appreciation of transformation. “What I love about them is that they have all these varieties of essentially the same thing,” he says. “Which is really a mind-fuck in a way. But at the same time, really entertaining. They’re doing their duty as entertainers.”
As is Gyllenhaal, a modern master of becoming hundreds of versions of a brown-haired white guy — each one facing off with his own fears in pursuit of his own dreams. In any guise, the actor is an unmatched force. And portraying the potent conflict between hope and fear — well, that’s his signature style.