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Jake Gyllenhaal On His Evolution As An Actor and Why He Feels More 'Alive' Than Ever

Photo of Nigel M Smith By Nigel M Smith | Indiewire February 28, 2014 at 10:12AM

There's no denying Jake Gyllenhaal is a heartthrob, but meeting the actor in person, it's also clear that the 33-year-old is first and foremost an artist. It's evident in his recent choice of roles, and in the passionate and thoughtful way he speaks about his craft.
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There's no denying Jake Gyllenhaal is a heartthrob, but meeting the actor in person, it's also clear that the 33-year-old is first and foremost an artist. It's evident in his recent choice of roles, and in the passionate and thoughtful way he speaks about his craft.

Gyllenhaal has always been one to take on challenging roles in provocative fare, dating back to his breakout role as a troubled teen in "Donnie Darko." In the years that followed, the actor worked with a series of notable directors including Sam Mendes ("Jarhead") and David Fincher ("Zodiak"). After experiencing a minor setback with "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time," his first bid at a blockbuster franchise, Gyllenhaal returned to the dark character studies he made his name on. His latest, "Enemy," from his "Prisoners" director and good friend Denis Villeneuve, opens March 14 and is currently available to view on DirecTV.

READ MORE: Jake Gyllenhaal, Spiders and Sex in NSFW 'Enemy' Teaser

The Toronto-set thriller centers on Adam Bell (Gyllenhaal), a university professor who, while watching a film, happens to notice that one of the actors onscreen possesses a striking resemblance to his own. Bell becomes consumed with his doppelgänger -- an actor by the name of Anthony Claire (also played by Gyllenhaal) -- and decides to seek him out. Worlds collide, and, of course, chaos ensues.

Indiewire sat down with Gyllenhaal in New York to discuss his second film with Villeneuve, their unique working relationship, and this new stage in his career.

I walked into "Enemy" without having read the book on which it's based. I watched it as a straight up thriller until that final shot that upended everything I had seen up that point. I left this film feeling not played, but dumb. Did you get the film upon the first read?

You're not in the select echelon of people.

I knew what Denis was going for. All I need is like an anchor, conceptually, emotionally, and he explained to me what he wanted the movie to be about. You know, he wrote a bit of a manifesto and he said, "Before you read the script, this is what I want the movie to be about. I want it to be about intimacy, struggle with identity, searching for your own and how that gets mixed up with being intimate, romantically, sexually, all those things."

I love that idea of someone being split. Trying to kind of find their way and commit to in the end... a real relationship with his wife, who is pregnant with their child. You know, that's to me what the movie was about. To me, that was the beautiful hopeful ending, that I thought, "Okay, that's where he's moving towards." Now the irony of it is, and I don't know if this is a spoiler, the end is cyclical because no matter what we commit to in what we decide we want our lives to be, there's always the biological, psychological aspects that will torment us at times. You know, there's always that snake. The snake doesn't go away, you know what I mean? It's always in the corner of the woods, you just need to know where it is, so you don't step on it again. You can walk around it. And I think that's the idea of the movie to me. There's a lot of other shit there too.

But very simply, Denis said, "This is a movie about being a man in a relationship. and the fear and the relief in a certain type of commitment."I was like, "Ahh, i love that idea!"

All of what you're saying is so heady. As an actor, I'd imagine that in order to play these two characters, you had to let all that cerebral stuff go to just live in the moment.

Well, Denis always thought he wanted it to be about two people. I always had this idea that it was about one. So we were constantly having that conversation. But to me, to play it, you need those concepts. Like going to the children's section of the library and going like, "OK, this scene at the end where Sarah Gadon's character tells me to stay, is an admittance of some sort of truth that I was, at the beginning of the movie, incapable of being able to admit." And so I think to play that, it was about being close to her and feeling ashamed, and there were a lot of things about feeling love -- I think those things kinda came into play.

Every day was an experiment in those kinds of emotions. And when I acted with myself, Denis set aside three days for the first time we meet each other to really discover that. We would discover during the day what was going on. We would start on one side and we would shoot that side, and I felt a little more comfortable playing Adam, the professor character, because he was more of a solid guy and so I'd play that.

We would just play man.

I witnessed the hilarious, 'bro-ish' rapport you and Denis have at the film's world premiere in Toronto. Do you need that kind of levity on the set of a film like this in order to go to the dark places the film requires of you?

Not necessarily. You need to be in sync with your director and where they are and how they deal with their feelings around something. With Denis, he's really playful, really loving and that allowed me to step back and be off stage with him behind the monitor and then go on stage. So no, I don't think you need that. I don't need that. But it was there and I just took it. If he was super duper serious, like that's how he wanted it to go, then I would be serious.

You made "Prisoners" following this first collaboration. Did you two hit it off the bat immediately?

We did, we did. He's just one of those types of people. He's very loving, very open. Really loves actors. Really is not afraid of actors. Really loves their choices, always encouraging. But also as a human being. We've always just gotten along, he and I. He's not really afraid of certain truths and I'm not either. And we keep throwing them back in forth at each other like good friends do.

We met up and meeting him was my decision to do the movie. Even more so than the material and the subject matter. The relationship with the filmmaker is 50% of what you do and that relationship is in the movie. It's the energy in that movie. Particularly if you're the lead of their movie, that relationship, you can feel that as an audience member. That's why we went back to the well with "Prisoners," the relationship was the first thing. It was an artistic exploration. That's a little indulgent, but it was. It was like, "You wanna go play again? Wanna go check this out?" And I was like, "Yeah."

In both "Prisoners" and this, you have so much going on beneath the surface -- they're performances that stick with you. It's no coincidence they're my two favorite performances of yours. You seem to be digging deeper than ever before in your work. Is that due to what Denis asks of you, or did you just come to a realization of sorts?

Yeah. I feel a desperate need to bring that to everything that I do. And I feel that every interaction that I have, be it in the interaction that we're having now, or I go out on the street, whoever I see, whoever I meet, in my life, my friends, the people I love, my family... each on of those things in between each project I do is an accumulation of an experience and I want to put all those things, even if it correlates to the movie I'm doing or not. It's all inside me, it's how I grow. So, I don't want deny that stuff and then go and make a movie. I want to take all that stuff with me and put it into the experience I'm having. And that's a decision I made, I started to realize, "That moves me. Oh, I detest that. Oh..." Whatever it is, and bring it in to the performances. I think you get to a certain age where you start doing that and you're no longer feeling that.. I don't know (Laughs).

Jake Gyllenhaal in 'Enemy'

So I'm seeing more of you in every performance now.

I think so. I think so... I mean, I've become a lot more obsessed with the specificity of characters and like you said, my work, the choices I make, also being on stage was a really big evolution for me. Getting back on stage last year, I will again next year, to me, being a part of... I don't know... I just feel more alive in what I'm doing.

I can't explain it in any way, except the relationships I make with the people I make movies with matters to me the most and how we interact. I'm about to go do this movie about Everest with Baltasar Kormakur, directing the movie, and I know the relationship we have there, like, we will explore. I will listen to him and what he needs and then I'll go into unknown territory for him as a result. I don't now what that's about. I don't know what happened. I just know I went like, "Oh, now's the time." There's no other time but now to go do it. I'm going to make a bold choice and if someone doesn't want it they can cut it out.

This article is related to: Jake Gyllenhaal, Denis Villeneuve, Interviews, Enemy, Prisoners, Thriller