I first spot Jake Gyllenhaal in the lobby of the InterContinental Hotel in Toronto wearing a button-down shirt and sunglasses. I am supposed to interview him in 20 minutes about his role in “Nightcrawler,” an enthralling new genre flick about a psychotic freelance cameramen who films crime scenes for local news programs. These freelancers, or nightcrawlers—unscrupulous vampires of the night—listen to police scanners for brutal car crashes and headline-worthy crimes, then speed to the scene and film what they can. The resulting footage gets sold to local outlets for cash. The general rule of thumb: the bloodier the scene, the bigger the payout.
Unfortunately, due to the hectic nature of film festivals, my interview with Gyllenhaal about this role gets pushed back more than an hour, and I am eventually asked if I’d like to conduct the conversation in the car on the way to his next press opportunity. “Absolutely,” I reply. Any time you’re able to interview an actor outside of a sterile hotel room is a win. Plus, the car setting is fitting considering Gyllenhaal spends most of his time in “Nightcrawler” driving. I soon find myself in an elevator with the 32-year-old star and his team, heading downstairs to their SUV in the hotel garage. On our way there, Gyllenhaal strikes up a conversation.
“What’s up dude?”
“Hey, how’s it going, Jake?” I reply.
“Good. How’s your festival been?”
“Pretty good, but hectic.”
We soon get off the elevator and wait for Gyllenhaal’s black SUV to pull up. The car rolls around and Gyllenhaal’s publicists, myself and the actor all pile into the back. The car begins to drive down Front St. I take out my voice recorder, turn on the power, and start the interview. I begin by pointing out the obvious irony of where this conversation is taking place.
“In the backseat of the car, though,” he says. “We are being driven,” as opposed to his character in the film, who does all of the driving.
“And we’re not on the way to a crash site––at least I don’t think we are,” I reply.
“You never know,” Gyllenhaal says, smirking.
Gyllenhaal begins to tell me how he ended up learning about the nightcrawling profession and its in-your-face mentality. “There were a lot of details I wasn’t aware of,” he says. “I had been aware of it from shooting ‘End of Watch.’ We were with police officers in the street for like four or five months. Almost every night there would be stringers out there. Depending on what they were shooting and where they were, they’d be there. I was aware of them then and probably out of the hundred or so places or crime scenes we went to, 20 of them had cameramen there. So that was the extent of it.”
“Were these guys doing anything as shocking as the stuff we see your character do in the movie?” I ask.
“It depends on who they were, but they were a little more respectful.”
To inhabit the terrifying power behind Lou, Gyllenhaal first did a little hands-on research. For a couple nights, he, director Dan Gilroy and cinematographer Robert Elswit, met up with a real nightcrawler in Universal City then drove the streets of Los Angeles in order to get a better idea of his job.
“It’s like a Batmobile,” continues Gyllenhaal, regarding the police scanner setup the nightcrawlers he shadowed had in their car. “It’s pretty cool how they use the sensors that they use, particularly their hearing, because they have 15 scanners going on at once. The level of noise going on at one time is fascinating. They tune their senses to a very specific thing. They are like animals. It’s got a very animal Wild West quality to it. They’re outside the norm, not only are they up at night, but what they’re doing is so…you know they’re searching for tragedy and they’re racing to it at 120mph, which is not always the safest thing.”
Gyllenhaal also dropped 30 pounds for the role, transforming his bulky movie star physique into a skinny, emaciated frame. Though the actor-losing-a-substantial-amount-of-weight storyline is one that’s often played out during Oscar season, Gyllenhaal’s dedication to becoming Lou is admirable. His performance is energetic and unhinged. He barely blinks throughout the movie, attacking his job as a nightcrawler with a surgical-like precision, devoid of emotion and terrible a predilection for speaking to people. This leads to some rather disturbing moments between Lou and the crime scenes he encounters.
As I am about to ask my next question, the car pulls up outside the Canadian Broadcasting Centre building. Are we picking someone else up? No, stupid, this is where they are getting out. According to my recorder, the trip from the InterContinental to Gyllenhaal’s next location was a grand total of about four minutes.
A small group of fans gathers outside the car to see who’s inside. Thankfully, I am told we can keep talking while we’re pulled over, though they are clearly still rushed for time. I quickly bring up the film’s idea of voyeurism and how it parallels with some of what we see today on gossip websites and from paparazzi. “While we were shooting there were a couple times where we had those guys on set and they were all doing it,” says Gyllenhaal. “So it was just one of those interesting ironies: they’re taking pictures of this guy who’s doing the same thing. All of a sudden it became very meta for me.”
I then spit out some random thoughts about his emotional and physical transformation into Lou. The longer Gyllenhaal’s answer, the more the tension in the car rises. The publicists are clearly in a hurry and need to move Jake to the next appointment.
“What happens is, I started not eating as much and I started getting into the character that way,” he says. “I started isolating myself. You can’t go out to dinner with people. And as we got closer to shooting, I would stay up later, I would go for runs late at night. And that just, pretty soon as we started shooting I realized I wasn’t seeing anyone, I wasn’t talking to many people, and I was shooting up at night all night. And then sleeping a couple hours at the end.”
“Alex, they’re telling us we have to wrap it up,” says one of the publicists.
I turn to Jake.
“I just wanted to ask you about the films you have coming up.”
“Yeah I can go through all of them real quick,” he says.
“You have ‘Southpaw,’ ‘Everest,’ and ‘Demolition‘ with Jean Marc Vallee—.” Nope, we’re cut off, it’s time to go.
“OK, oh shit,” says Gyllenhaal as the door opens and he jumps out onto the sidewalk where he is greeted to a chorus of screaming fans and a security guard. I get out and run around the other side of the car. Gyllenhaal calls me over and gives me a quick synopsis of ‘Demolition,’ while gingerly walking toward the building’s entrance…
“It’s a movie about a guy who’s losing his wife and it basically tears apart his life as a result of what happened, but it does it in the most interesting ways, literally and figuratively,” he says, the screams chirping up in the background.
I follow him almost to the front the door and then he goes in. I stop and turn off my recorder. The interview is over. I have got about seven minutes worth of quotes, less than half the time I was originally given. As I walk back out to the sidewalk, I can hear a group of pre-teen girls giggling over seeing Gyllenhaal. One of them is looking at her phone. “Look at all the pictures I got of him!”
“Nightcrawler” opens on October 31st.