Jean-Marc Vallee’s “Demolition” doesn’t shy away from metaphor: It focuses on a man literally rebuilding his his life after dismantling his own home when his wife dies. But with leading man Jake Gyllenhaal as the undone Davis Mitchell, the film doesn’t live or die by its big, showy tricks (yes, they really did partially tear down a house); instead it’s driven by performance.
This is the latest film in a string of intriguing picks for Gyllenhaal, who has spent the last few years juggling such diverse roles as the perverse shutterbug in “Nightcrawler,” the emotionally battered boxer in “Southpaw,” the identical strangers in “Enemy” and the damaged cops in both “Prisoners” and “End of Watch.” The actor puts a lot of energy into crafting his characters, which is why it was so unnerving when Vallee essentially asked him to not do that for his turn as Davis.
Indiewire recently sat down with him to talk about the kind of work he wants to make, the character-building technique he’s developed over the years and how director Jean-Marc Vallee basically demolished it in service to their film.
The film premiered at Toronto back in September and is just opening now. Is that difficult? How do you keep that momentum?
It’s not my job. I think Fox Searchlight believed that this was a really interesting time for the film to come out. They also love Jean-Marc and respect him as a filmmaker and he explicitly and specifically asked to premiere the movie in Toronto because he’s a Canadian filmmaker. That was really important to him. He’s been there many times before.
You’ve had great success at Toronto too.
I love that festival. I’ve been there almost every year for the past five or six years with a film, so it felt appropriate. That’s why he did that. As to it coming out now, they have many different scenarios as to which they’ve justified it coming out now and I’m down with it.
The more traditional thinking about early release dates seems to be going away lately.
I think, to me, more and more in this business people have this assumption that their movie is going to be released. To have your movie released, particularly in theaters, if it’s not a huge investment or a major studio, is a real coup. It’s not as easy as a game as it seems. It’s a different thing.
For me, it’s exciting when anyone is thinking in an alternative way. I think that’s exactly what Fox Searchlight has done here. I’m really interested to see how it plays out on a business level. It’s fascinating to me. It’s worked well for them with other films in the past. That’s what we are here to do. We are here to have people come see the movie. Movies like this, people assume will come out in the fall and there will be some sort of awards campaign or something. That is a business in itself as well. Either way I hope people see the film.
You did play the awards game a bit last year with “Nightcrawler.” But you don’t strike me as someone who gets caught up in that sort of thing.
My main focus, and I am aware of how it will look in print, is continuing to be able to work and being able to work on things I really love. And play a little bit outside the system and make things that are really entertaining and surprise people and hopefully bring more audiences to what I consider more interesting material. That’s always the goal for me.
We made “Nightcrawler” for $6.5 million. Domestically, it made 40, 45 [million], somewhere like that. For me, that is a huge success. I know that allows me to go make more movies like that and just in general. That’s really what I want to do.
The other stuff excites the child in you. I’m down because I definitely have a child in me. At the end of the day, Philip Roth says, you still have to go to work the next day. So regardless of whether the child is excited, or not excited or bummed out, what I want to do as an adult is work.
Do you feel you’re getting the sort of work you personally want to do?
That’s the play. The play is always, “What do you want to do? I’m going to get you what you want to do.” I will say, to my agents’ credit, and it’s what we’ve created in the past few years, is they really have listened to the things that I love, and the reason I truly think my agents are wonderful is that they have said, “We know we will be financially successful if we let this guy do what he loves.”
I think that is a very smart move, because usually the cart is before the horse. That is not the way they played it with me, and as a result I’m really proud of the work, not just that I’ve done, but that I do with the people I work with.
You’ve always worked with great directors, but it seems like the last few years, that’s the real connection between your films. Is that what’s most important for you?
When I was 25, I worked with three of the best directors in the world. It’s always been something [for me], because it’s a director’s medium. Film is a director’s medium. Any actor, no matter how successful they are or how well they can get a movie financed, is an idiot to think it’s their medium. It’s not.
I don’t know if it’s about only focusing on the director and how talented they are, because everyone I’ve worked with is so talented. What I think more than anything is that I found people who really love who I am. I’m not looking to work with people who I hope will love who I am. Or who don’t get me and I have to convince them of it. I decided to work with people who really do love me from afar from the start. “I like this guy, I like what he does.” There are plenty of people who don’t. I don’t think you are really living or doing anything interesting if you don’t have the people who do and the people who don’t.
I’ve just decided to work with the people who say, “I really want to work with you.” When that happens and you respect their work and great things come of it, because movies are about energy.
And that’s not just on a director or an actor, it’s the whole team.
Someone asked me the other day, they said, “Would you rather work on a movie with great crew and great talent and a bad script, or a great script and really bad talent and a bad crew?” I was like, “Well, my mother’s a screenwriter and a screenwriter is, besides the director, the king in my mind,” but I was like, “I don’t know how to answer that question.” But what I will say is great movies have been made from pretty good scripts. And pretty good movies have been made from great scripts. Great movies have been made from great scripts. And there is no equation. But what I do know is the energy involved.
There are surprises and you never really know what you are doing. That’s another thing I’ve discovered as an actor, you don’t have any idea what it looks like. If you try and translate what it looks like as an actor you are screwed because you are just trying to get control. You really have no control. The only control you have is the discovery and preparation of your character.
If you want to have some sort of say over that overall thing, be part of the filmmaking process, you should direct yourself. That’s the philosophy I’ve adopted over the past few years. And all the people I’m working with are genuinely okay with my craziness sometimes. I’m very intense when I’m creating a character. I believe in it deeply. I also want people who think that’s fun.
In your SXSW talk with David Gordon Green, who you are working with next, you talked about how preparing emotionally for roles is most important to you.
I’m always scared.
When you’re preparing and you’re on set, are you still scared then?
Yeah. I mean, I have a confidence and an assurance of my instinct. At the same time, I’m always scared and I start off scared. It’s always funny when I go to a press junket and people ask, “How many pushups do you have to do to become a boxer?” I know the occupation of acting is filled with vanity. It is hard to find a way around it at times. I will say that that fear is I didn’t know how to box. And I wanted to look and feel authentic in the role.
Even if Antoine Fuqua had said to me, “We’re never gonna have one boxing sequence in this movie, they’re all off screen,” I wanted to walk into a room feeling like that guy’s a boxer. And learn how to do it. I would feel false. That’s just me.
I’m about to do this movie about Jeff Bauman, who lost his legs in the Boston Marathon bombing. It’s a love story, the bombing itself is really not a massive part of the movie. It’s the experience afterwards and what the human being understands about love. That’s what this movie is about, and trying to get this right in a way that is true to Jeff and who he is and his spirit, but isn’t doing an impersonation and mimicking it and asking myself those questions.
We’re two weeks out. I’m gonna be really honest. Every hour I’m at this press junket, I want to be with David. We’re two weeks out and there is just never enough time. So a lot of times I’m just motivated by that.
Bryan Sipe, who wrote “Demolition,” actually worked in demolition at one point. Did you spend time talking to Jean-Marc about using the authenticity of Bryan’s own experience for your work?
No, we never talked about it, which is the first time I’ve done that in a while. Jean-Marc was insistent that I came in without any preparation, and that scared me.
Weeks before, I was like, “When are we gonna rehearse it and can we do it together, are we gonna talk about this?” And he was like, “No, we can talk about it on set.” And we meet for costumes and I was like, “What are we doing?” He really pushed me out of my comfort zone, this technique and this style that I’ve developed over a long period of time. He was like, “I want all that fear. I’m gonna push you away from that fear into a place where you are not gonna feel that much,” and it was a lot, but he was always with me. It wasn’t this manipulation. He was always with me.
So the answer to that is no. I showed up, pretty scared the first day, because I hadn’t done any preparation.
You also recently started doing work on Broadway. Did that challenge scare you?
Not at all. I was nervous. I wasn’t like, “Whoa, I’m gonna go tread the boards.” I tried to do things for myself to ease myself into the process. I did a show three years ago off-Broadway and then I moved on to work on Broadway. I did “Little Shop of Horrors” at City Center.
I think it’s where I am most joyous. It’s where I do feel I belong, and not just because there is an exchange with the audience, but because there is a respect for the storytelling every single night. I really love at the end of my day, as the sun sets, I know I’m going to get to act. It’s the appropriate time to be acting, in my opinion, it’s that period of time. It’s the time when the conscious falls asleep and the unconscious comes alive.
In movies, it’s 6am and the sun’s rising, “Time to emote!” [laughs] It’s that exchange of energy I love about theater.
Of course I’m nervous, I’m quaking in my boots, but it’s not the same kind of thing. You do know pretty quickly how it’s going there. On a movie, you never know.
“Demolition” opens on Friday, April 8.