Of all the dark horse Oscar hopefuls this year, none deserves more consideration than Jake Gyllenhaal for his role as an LA cop in David Ayer’s “End of Watch.” It’s such a competitive year for leading actors that I hope this performance in a this well-reviewed indie film will be seen. Critics groups may give it some attention.
Major movie stars have a hint of danger about them; Gyllenhaal, who hits 32 in December, is one of many boyish American leading men who are earning gravitas as they age. “End of Watch” marks Gyllenhaal’s finest and most aggressively mature work to date.
Gyllenhaal was raised with sister Maggie in L.A. by director Stephen Gyllenhaal and screenwriter Naomi Foner in a rich artistic soup of an environment, with people like Steven Soderbergh living over the garage. Gyllenhaal has always embraced theater as well as film, from the 2002 play “This is Our Youth,” which won him the London Evening Standard Theater Award for outstanding newcomer, to his well-reviewed recent New York stage debut in the off-Broadway play ‘If There Is, I Haven’t Found It Yet.’
Gyllenhaal broke out so early as a teenager in the 1999 true story “October Sky” that it took a while for him to grow up on-screen. After Richard Kelly’s strange 2001 psycho-drama “Donnie Darko” earned him an Independent Spirit nomination as Best Male Lead, Gyllenhaal burnished his acting cred by playing a series of sensitive, sweet young men in low-budget indies such as “The Good Girl,” “Proof” and “Lovely & Amazing.”
While it was not Gyllenhaal’s finest hour, the 2004 disaster epic “The Day After Tomorrow” marked the actor’s biggest global hit to date: a total $544 million. He scored critical raves for two 2005 films, Gulf War actioner “Jarhead” and Ang Lee’s tragic gay romance “Brokeback Mountain,” opposite Heath Ledger, which earned $178 million worldwide and scored Gyllenhaal the supporting actor BAFTA and his first and only Oscar nom.
His biggest misfire to date was the $200-million would-be franchise “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” a well-made but featherweight B-movie adventure from Jerry Bruckheimer and Mike Newell. After losing “The Dark Knight” to Christian Bale, “Spider-Man” to Tobey Maguire, and passing on “Avatar,” Gyllenhaal took on a major action role in a summer tentpole, or so he thought. Instead, many reviewers argued that Gyllenhaal was miscast, and despite his buffed-up physique, failed to carry the action adventure.
Thus far Gyllenhaal has been viewed as a likable leading man best suited to naturalistic dramas. And like most actors his age, there’s a gap between his thespian bonafides and his ability to put butts in seats. While Gyllenhaal earned upbeat reviews in dramas “Brothers,” “Rendition,” “Zodiac” and “Love and Other Drugs,” the films disappointed at theater wickets. But he ably carried Duncan Jones’ time-travel thriller hit “Source Code,” opposite Vera Farmiga and Michelle Monaghan. (I interviewed him at the time.)
During “Source Code,” Gyllenhaal decided to get serious about his future roles and ignore studio paydays. He’s working with Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (Oscar-nominated “Incendies”) on two films: “An Enemy” is in the can and “Prisoners” is in prep. (No longer in development is musical “Damn Yankees,” in which middle-aged Joe Boyd sells his soul to the devil to become a young baseball slugger; I’d have liked to see Gyllenhaal, a trained singer, do this one).
Whether or not “End of Watch” ends up at the top of Academy voters’ screener piles, we can be sure that Gyllenhaal’s best work is still to come.
Gyllenhaal called me on the phone from New York:
Anne Thompson: You’re on a roll: you got your best reviews to date for your latest film ‘End of Watch’ as well as your off-Broadway play ‘If There Is, I Haven’t Found It Yet.’
Jake Gyllenhaal: I don’t read them. I find it overwhelming; the stage work is still alive, so those type of things get in your head. It’s best not to think in terms of that, it ends up affecting you, whether it’s good or bad. So I stay away and do my work.
AT: Did you make a recent change in your approach to choosing projects?
JG: It was a perfect storm of a lot of things happening. The reality of life itself was hitting me hard, at 30. It was not a calculation. I had spent the majority of my 20s blessed by being able to work consistently. I grew up thinking I understood the business of making movies. I got to a point where I said, ‘What do I want my life be? It’s about more than career.’ So I don’t put my career before my life anymore.
In my 20s, I did start off very young, there was a sense of searching for identity anywhere. The movie business presents you with an identity and you put it on. You play different characters. As an actor it’s rare to find someone in my age range who is able to define themselves clearly at a young age.
There’s that my parents got divorced two years ago; I have two nieces now. I started looking at work as trying to learn about my life as opposed to strategizing. I never thought about my work that way, never with a sense of objectivity. I was inspired by a piece of writing or a director or a character. It was not a question or discussion of doing one big one, one small one.
What has really happened: I was saying to myself, ‘how do I feel most free?’ If I am blessed with the opportunity to do good work, studio or indie, most of the time it has to do with the interaction with the director, to try to help the director toward the vision he always had. I have to do more than expected from the character I’m trying to play.
AT: So your agents at WME guide you?
JG: Yes and no. There’s a select group who get to make those choices. I want to be a working actor, I have the opportunity to be given choices, it is not a conscious direction, ‘I’m not going to do this kind of movie or this.’ I do movies, find movies that I can get inside. I’m about to do a deal again with Denis Villeneuve, “Prisoners,” playing a detective, l did his last studio movie, “An Enemy.” I want to work with great directors.
I don’t really know if it’s a conscious move. It’s a strange profession, at times absurd, acting. It’s really a craft, it can be easily sidelined, as a business, away from craft. You can objectify yourself, the craft of acting, be able to observe and objectify, watch yourself, shape it, and fall back into it again. Uta Hagen was the first to say that a character eventually becomes you. That is what an actor is. As a result you can do that in a career. It’s important to be savvy and smart and be involved in things you care about and deeply believe in. What works is caring what you do. That’s where I’m at.
I said to myself, ‘there are so many wonderful things coming from outside to take away from understanding and exploring yourself, internalizing.’ I got into this because I adore acting with actors, as a team player, that’s what I want to be. I wanted to devote myself to something that has actually changed my life. I want to make movies where I learn about life, to forever be a student.
AT: How did ‘End of Watch’ play into this period?
JG: I sat down with David Ayer. He said, ‘if you want to make this movie you have to devote your life. It is going to affect your soul.’ At the time, that was the reason I did the movie, which has been marketed as a big cop genre action movie. Ultimately it’s not really, this movie is about the relationship between two guys and how much they love and would do anything for each other. That’s why I did the movie, was the heart of it. The sense of originality is what inspires me to do something when I read something, not that it’s a cop genre movie, which is done a lot. It’s not to learn how to hold gun and shoot actual rounds at a target. At inception this idea has a huge beating heart, David was embarrassed about what he wrote about, that was it to me.
AT: You were immersed in the police environment?
JG: We were buffered at all times by police officers who we worked with in the shooting area, which was patrolled, they’d come by, four sets of partners worked with us in areas as technical advisers. Three of them became our best friends, are my closest friends, I get texted by them. One sent me a photograph the other day of a gun pulled off a guy in the cartel, the same situation in the movie. We were constantly surrounded by them, on patrol, they rolled by while we were shooting, like family, excited throughout the shooting. It was real to us, we are shooting a movie, we are in the moment all the time, in cars for five months, shooting 22 days. They’d still be with us; it was as if we were given our own patrol car. We had to devote ourself to that idea in our absurd actor minds.
AT: How much did you shoot?
JG: 135 hours of footage in 22 days. Mike Pena is driving, there’s a sound rig in there, microphones on the car, for a single shot there’s a single mike, for two-shots there are small cameras on the dashboard. Mike and I could do these scenes like a play, rehearsed hundreds of times, we’d run scenes in the back of the cop car during ride alongs. Mike and I, while we were being shot, we had to be so on our game, during the day and into the night, with a lighting rig on top of the car. Mike drove the whole time.
We were rehearsing five months. He wanted 24 days but we got 22, he wanted to spend money on action. He had three takes on the first shootout, or else we were fucked.
AT: How much was improvised, or scripted?
JG: 15 % are improv, the rest are totally written by Dave. Things we’d add here and there, little things, like in a scene, ‘Do I have to explain and put it into Hispanic?’ That’s all improv, whatever the fuck, in a very formulated scene. We’d go back and do that do scene, flip flop scenes, run, run, run it, hours of those scenes.
AT: How long could Ayer’s cameras roll?
JG: Digital cameras. We could shoot for 20 minutes or more. We’d pull over and change shifts. He’s fussing, he’s laying down with the monitor and ear phones in the back seat. We’d do pullovers to talk to people, take the video camera out and film the interaction with someone, ask permission. Some things didn’t end up in the movie. What we were doing was definitely walking the lines. We were trying to live in as much of the experience as possible, we never had to refer to the script, we always knew where we were. We had 22 days to shoot the movie, we were ready like an army with a plan. They had us so rehearsed and ready to go, Anna [Kendrick] and me and Mike. She’s amazing, we all loved each other.
AT: Didn’t you get exhausted?
JG: Well, it’s a different definition of exhausted. Having worked with police officers, you get invigorated by those things, creativity does not tire, only inspires, energizes, I think that’s the thing, when you find yourself getting exhausted sometimes, you put in so many hours and get so little sleep, physically it’s that way. But this state of mind is exhilaration, recently for me that hasn’t stopped. I worked so hard in the post-production process. The relationships were so committed with the actors and the technical advisers, all the guys we worked with. We don’t talk about the movie, we talk about our lives, what’s going on, it’s inspiring every day.
AT: What changed?
JG: My philosophy has always been to be a diligent worker, have a good work ethic, more than anything. Now it’s, ‘how can what I do, or a movie coming out, what relationships can I make, be in people’s lives I care about, how will it inform my life, when it comes out?’ Reading reviews I don’t care about, I know what I’ve done, I’ve gotten what I want, I’ve been totally fulfilled and then some.
AT: Are you plumbing more of your dark side?
JG: Of course I’m not running from it, not at all. I’m embracing it. I always have, just because you like to be good people and respect people, thinking about them outside yourself, doesn’t mean you’re running from darkness. I’ve always embraced that, played Donnie Darko. To suggest that a human being is more complicated than people assume objectively is a fair assessment. You will see in the future more things come out that will hopefully surprise you. It happens all the time.