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Article

You Don't Know Jake

In recent years, Jake Gyllenhaal has quietly transformed himself into one of the most daring and complex actors of his generation. His nerve-rattling new film, ”Nightcrawler,” made us wonder who he has become and where he wants to go. So we asked him.

Posted on

Chuck Zlotnick

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Jake Gyllenhaal is running, hard. It is October 2013 and he is alone, at sunset, humping across the rugged hills of Los Angeles’ Griffith Park, in a grueling 15-mile run to the set of his new movie, Nightcrawler. He does this every day. He has shed almost 30 pounds. He lives on kale salad and chewing gum. He has not seen his friends in weeks. As he runs, he recites lines—entire monologues—from the movie in his head like a mantra until he has the script memorized. ”I worked like a motherf—er,” he says now. Each night, as he runs, he thinks about the creatures that shuffle out into the twilight. ”After mile 10, I’d have these strange fantasies of being one with the animals,” he says. In particular, of being one with the coyotes. ”Growing up in L.A., you have these totally random interactions with coyotes. They’re in my soul somewhere. They hold the power because they don’t give a s—. They are hungry and they are out to get what they are going to get. It gave me this permission to become that.

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Jake Gyllenhaal is running, hard. It is October 2013 and he is alone, at sunset, humping across the rugged hills of Los Angeles’ Griffith Park, in a grueling 15-mile run to the set of his new movie, Nightcrawler. He does this every day. He has shed almost 30 pounds. He lives on kale salad and chewing gum. He has not seen his friends in weeks. As he runs, he recites lines—entire monologues—from the movie in his head like a mantra until he has the script memorized. ”I worked like a motherf—er,” he says now. Each night, as he runs, he thinks about the creatures that shuffle out into the twilight. ”After mile 10, I’d have these strange fantasies of being one with the animals,” he says. In particular, of being one with the coyotes. ”Growing up in L.A., you have these totally random interactions with coyotes. They’re in my soul somewhere. They hold the power because they don’t give a s—. They are hungry and they are out to get what they are going to get. It gave me this permission to become that.”

It’s fair to say that Gyllenhaal, 33, has also become something few would have predicted not many years ago: a commanding, dauntless, and often startling actor. ”I don’t think there’s a person on the planet who could challenge or push Jake more than he pushes himself,” says Nightcrawler director Dan Gilroy. ”He’s committed on every level, and he has a deeply creative, artistic mind.” In the film (rated R, out Oct. 31), Gyllenhaal stars as Lou Bloom, a sociopathic rogue videographer who trawls L.A. in search of roadside carnage for the insatiable, ”if it bleeds, it leads” maw of local TV news. As the film progresses, Bloom becomes increasingly predatory, craving the next bloodbath. It was Gyllenhaal’s idea to interpret Bloom as a coyote. That may sound crazy (and, okay, it sort of is), but it’s also impossible to watch his twitchy, rapacious performance without glimpsing that feral hunter behind his eyes. Whatever he did, it works. It’s the latest in a string of intensely specific idiosyncratic roles, including those in 2012’s cop drama End of Watch and this year’s mind-bending dual-character study Enemy. ”He can take big risks,” says Enemy director Denis Villeneuve, who also cast Gyllenhaal as a tortured, tattooed detective in last year’s Prisoners. ”He has balls.”

Yet it wasn’t so long ago that Gyllenhaal appeared fixated on conquering the mainstream. We know the story: He was the art-house stalwart of Donnie Darko fame who broke through at the multiplex in the hit 2004 climate-disaster thriller The Day After Tomorrow, then followed it with a risky Oscar-nominated turn as a closeted gay cowboy in 2005’s Brokeback Mountain. He seemed poised for a perfectly respectable kind of big-screen stardom, thanks to washboard abs and real acting chops (as well as a tabloid-friendly love life with celebrity exes such as Reese Witherspoon and Taylor Swift). He even auditioned to play the Caped Crusader in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and to replace Tobey Maguire in Spider-Man 2.

But about five years ago, two events led Gyllenhaal to hit the reset button on his career. One was the failure of 2010’s big-budget videogame adaptation Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, an intended franchise featuring the actor buffed up in balloon pants. ”There was a moment when I went, ‘I’m not what my work is,”’ Gyllenhaal says, seated in a plush downtown New York hotel. ”Meaning, I’m not communicating who I am.” The other reason, surprisingly, was his parents’ divorce.

Gyllenhaal grew up in the industry. His father is director Stephen Gyllenhaal (Losing Isaiah), his mother is screenwriter Naomi Foner (Running on Empty), and his older sister, Maggie (The Dark Knight), started acting around the same time Jake did. His parents’ 2009 divorce, after 32 years of marriage, rattled their son, but not for the reasons you might expect. ”It was incredibly painful but liberating for them,” says Gyllenhaal, who moved from L.A. to New York to be closer to his family. ”When anybody does something that honest, it inspires you. I tried to emulate it in my work and in my life, too.”

His newfound drive for honesty has been channeled into borderline obsessive-compulsive preparation for his roles, coupled with a willingness to endure extreme physical pain. To portray an LAPD beat cop in End of Watch, Gyllenhaal immersed himself in five months of all-night police ride-alongs, during which he witnessed a fatal shoot-out between rival drug gangs. ”I learned that preparation was my savior,” he says. ”Freedom was on the other side of discipline.” For next year’s fact-based disaster film Everest, he simulated altitude sickness in a hypobaric chamber and climbed Italy’s Dolomite mountain range. And for the upcoming boxing drama Southpaw, he packed on 25 pounds of muscle by working out two times a day for six months. ”I watched him vomit in the gym and almost pass out,” says director Antoine Fuqua (The Equalizer). ”I watched him take gut shots to the ribs, get dropped. You can’t ask for more than what he did. And it’s not because of some Hollywood reason. Jake gives you his heart.”

It may be tempting to roll your eyes at that kind of effusive praise, or at the earnestness with which Gyllenhaal occasionally slips artsy terms like ”process” and ”presence” and ”energy” into conversation before catching himself: ”It’s almost pretentious-sounding!” (Yep, almost!) But it’s hard to ding a guy for committing to work he loves and has dedicated himself to mastering. Over these past few years, he says, he’s shifted his focus away from how a movie will be received by audiences (or what it can do for his career) and toward the work of acting itself. ”Instead of being an escape, it has become a way of listening to my instincts,” he says.

Those instincts were very much on display two weeks ago on the Manhattan set of Gyllenhaal’s upcoming film Demolition. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who cast Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto in their Oscar-winning roles in Dallas Buyers Club, the drama stars Gyllenhaal as an investment banker grappling with an existential crisis after the death of his wife. In one scene, he was required to ad-lib a moment of wild, abandoned dancing on a subway platform. There was no time for rehearsal. He had to just do it. ”The subway door opens, and he starts to dance,” Vallée says. ”It looked so crazy, so beautiful, so alive, so…real!”

This winter Gyllenhaal will make his Broadway debut in the new romantic drama Constellations. He’s moved on from that coyote in his soul, but he’s still seeking out what’s pure, and animal, at the core of his characters—and maybe even of himself. ”That’s what I ask myself,” he says. ”What do you feel in yourself that moves you forward? That makes you search?” Because here’s the thing about animals: They only hunt when they’re hungry.

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