Jake Gyllenhaal Makes An Excellent Psychopath

Jake Gyllenhaal can pull off creepy, but only just barely. Call it a hazard of being handsome. There’s a limit to what our mortal minds will accept and gloss over, no matter how vivid our imaginations, how staunch our suspension of disbelief. Essential as good looks are to being a leading man, they impede our belief that anyone with such a chiseled jaw or piercing eyes could be a peeping Tom, a crazed stalker, or any number of other garden-variety weirdos. There’s a reason Steve Buscemi got all those parts for so long.

In Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal’s inherently sympathetic eyes, normally so puppy-like in their shape and appeal, are unsettlingly tweaked in intensity and sunken into gaunt cheeks. He’s thin, so hungry he can’t be trusted. In Nightcrawler, Jake Gyllenhaal plays a video journalist with an increasingly good eye for the kind of violent videos that turn into lead stories on the morning news. It’s a thrilling piece of acting. And one that succeeds due to Gyllenhaal’s remarkable physical transformation.

“That’s a ridiculous question!” he laughs. I’ve just asked him about his handsomeness—if he doesn’t ever wish he were less handsome. Because then he’d have more opportunity to play less handsome (and often more creepy) men. And while he laughs, not at all unkindly, at the question, he still has a bit of trouble answering it. After a few false starts, he says, “To me, I need to believe something internally is different, some thing; not all of it, but something internally is different from who I am. It’s about creating certain obstacles, as opposed to opposition. You create opposition, and that’s creativity. If there’s some rub, you know. But, if you can create an obstacle for yourself, or there is an obstacle there, it allows you to see something from a different angle. I like to create obstacles for the character. And things come from that. You want the power of the character to proceed the power of the person playing them. I wanted to fit the character, as opposed to making the character fit me.”

“So, you don’t want to be less handsome,” I say, summarizing whatever it was he said.

“It’s sounds like you do,” he jokes back.

It’s a fair point. You do kind of wish Jake Gyllenhaal were less handsome. Not because you aren’t fond of his work—who could be un-fond of Gyllenhaal’s work: from his breakout in Donnie Darko through his Oscar nod for Brokeback Mountain, and now, well into his intense indie phase he consistently improves whatever he’s in. He’s likeable and legitimately good. Good enough to make you wonder how much more interesting of a performer he’d be if his face was just a little less symmetrical, say.

Nonetheless, he has not taken the straight road to action franchise lead man-dom. He has yet to play a superhero and his work becomes more and more furious and nuanced as his perspective broadens. “There are these moments where I think what I do is so serious. I take it so seriously. I try to give it everything I can give it. And that’s coupled with thinking that it’s so absurd. Realizing that I am only making a movie. And it’s fucking awesome. This is ridiculous and extraordinary.

You’re in Pittsburgh [shooting the upcoming boxing film Southpaw]?


How do you like Pittsburgh?

I like it. There’s something really nice about shooting here. There’s an interesting solitude, at the same time that it’s a real city. I feel like I’m in a bubble making this movie, so it’s a good place to be creative. And I like that about this city. It’s beautiful. All steel. The bridges and things are so beautiful.

I like the sadness of the city. Not all cities have it. I think Toronto has it, too. I actually like that about cities. It adds a maturity to them. And there’s definitely a kind of hue of sadness here that I like.

Nightcrawler is a creepy movie.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I guess so.

No? You don’t think?

[laughs]. It’s funny, my perspective of the movie is truly singular. You’re playing a part from a very particular place. Which is Lou’s mind, and how he looks at the world. I look at it as the birth of an artist. There’s a real positivity, and there had to be playing it, so I look at it, like Yes! Lou succeeded! Which may be kind of perverse, but it’s the only way I could play the role, and it’s strangely the way I see the movie.

I wanted to ask you about that. How much of Lou was on the page when you started, and how much did you create?

After it becomes 3D, it becomes kind of hard to answer that question, but I can tell you that the character was one of the most incredible characters I ever read. And the dialogue is verbatim, every single thing that [writer/director] Dan [Gilroy] wrote. There’s not one variance. I approached it very much as I would a stage play. I had pretty much everything memorized, which is rare. I don’t do that often. It was word for word.

I mean, the other parts of the character that were not really written was his physicality, a lot of his behaviour. They were informed by the words, but a lot of them where choices I made.

I wanted to ask about how he stays an extra beat too long, after key interactions, like he’s figuring out what he’s got from that interaction.

It’s about him. It’s not about the other person. They are just a way of him getting information. I’ve sat and talked with some incredibly successful people, people who have done things that are just unbelievable, and sometimes those people have this way that would make you feel uncomfortable, but it’s really them processing. There is a sense of power in that processing. Because they don’t care about your perception of them. They’re just constantly processing. He’s just taking information, thinking about how he can use it, to better himself and hopefully ultimately his company. You could call that a sociopath, but that’s why I don’t think of it as creepy, because to me, I could only look at it as beautiful.

I’ve been reading interviews you’ve done. And specifically during End of Watch, you talked about all the prep you did for that role. I wondered what kind of prep you did for Louis.

I started having these very early inspirations for characters and stuff. I’ll read the script, and things pop into my head. I guess that would be instinct. When I was reading this script, I immediately thought of Lou as someone who would have something about him that made people uncomfortable. I just thought of a coyote for some reason. This duality between the city of Los Angeles, which is a huge component in the movie, and the outskirts, the desert. Coyotes only really come out at night, mostly you hear them at night, you hear them attacking at night, and when you do see them, they’re so thin and hungry and full of this need, but at the same time, they’re so dangerous. I had that picture in my head of Lou. I decided he should be super thin. That was the first idea I had, and then I started prepping for that idea.

I went around with the guys who do this job. Stringers, they’re called. Irony of that is, when I was doing End of Watch, we saw these same guys around the crime scenes, so I knew them and I had seen them, and I had been filmed by them when I was with the police officers. It was interesting being on the opposite side.

I was reading this old interview you did with Susan Sarandon, you might even remember when you did it.

I think I do. Was it the one for Interview magazine?

Yeah, it was.

We were on the bathroom floor, or something.

You were in the bathroom, yeah. And I knew it was an early interview partly because of the photos attached, and partly because no one who came into the bathroom was like, there’s Jake Gyllenhaal. They didn’t know who you were yet. One of the things you said it in it, and I wanted to fact check it against 33 year old Jake Gyllenhaal. You said, “I think more and more there is a sense that the best performances that I give are the ones that are the truest to who I am. The further I move away, the worse they are.”

I think there’s an evolution to that. I must have been 23 when I said that. Maybe ten years ago.

Yeah, something like that.

I believe in not wearing a mask. I still do believe in that. And when moments are true, there is a balance between a character that you have hopefully dutifully created and then who you are as a human being. But, I also think that you only learn more about yourself if you can go in the places that are uncomfortable, that you never knew or understood, and so I think that acting, and making movies has allowed me that opportunity. And I didn’t know that at 23, or whenever I said that, I didn’t really realize that I could go and spend 5 months on the street with police officers and learn more about my life and make deeper friendships than I’ve ever had in my life, based on the process of preparing for a character. That the character became secondary to the people I was with who were doing the real job. I’ve learned that now, and so that’s become more of who I am, in a way, even though the character might be further away from me.

You kind of get to know yourself better as you age, and you learn aspects of your potential, you can connect more with different characters.

It’s interesting, because I fell in love with and despise Lou simultaneously. There are so many things from my personality that I drew from him, that I could never do, but I learned a lot about being human from him. At the risk of sounding super cheesy, you can learn great empathy. There is an immaturity to acting, but at the same time you can learn some really interesting empathy from the real people doing the real jobs that are actually important. [laughs].

Do you ever just want to be in a comic book movie so you can take a break from thinking of these things.

I wouldn’t do that in any movie, I mean from here on out. I think I would look and be searching always and trying to find the specificity of moments and who somebody is, and if they could fly or if they don’t know how to. I would not take it for granted, I would need to know how it happened and why, and I would need to believe it. It really doesn’t matter who the character is, or the size of the movie or whatever, my delight is in that stuff. Maybe the answer to that question is no, but…

No, I think that was a very Gyllenhaalian answer.

[laughs] You’re not going to get just a yes or no from me.

That’s all I want. I just want a whole interview of some guy saying yes and no after all my questions.

I admire that.

You admire one word answers?

I do.

You just moved a couple of years ago.

Yeah. I moved to New York a couple of years ago.

How is it?

New York? It’s like Toronto, there’s just a lot more things. I love it. My family is there. My mom, my sister, my two nieces. And so, there’s that. And the sort of spirit of the city. But my family, that’s really why I moved.

Sometimes when you talk to actors, you get the sense that they’re just happy and content being actors, other times they say they really just want to direct. But, you seem like the kind of actor who would be down with writing his own movie. Or writing and directing his own work.

I grew up with all that. I’ve always sort of approached acting like that, that you’re part of the storytelling process and the story is king. And that really, the screenplay is king. I think the process of making movies and being a part of it is incredibly fun, and that’s what I’d like to do. But I also know, having watched my parents, it is also an extraordinary craft: writing, directing, producing, all separately crafts to be mastered that take lifetimes. So, yeah, I would love to do that, but I also know that when I do it, it has to be something where you put aside everything and really know you can do it.

That’s respectful. That’s admirable.

 You know what I mean? I grew up watching my family do it from the other side. I wasn’t an actor, but I heard a lot from the other side. I think when you look at it from an actor’s point of view, I don’t think people think of this a lot, but an actor sees the opposite side of what everyone else sees, You can watch a first camera assistant do what they do. You can watch a grip do what they do. You can watch the video assist, you can watch the script supervisor, you can listen to the director and script supervisor work together. You can watch all that stuff, and when you start to watch it, you can see shit—these are all really, and separately, incredibly difficult crafts.