Jake Gyllenhaal (‘Stronger’): ‘The imperfection of being human was the most interesting thing about the film’ [Complete Interview Transcript]

After a dozen years of excellent performances, Jake Gyllenhaal might finally be competing again at the Academy Awards. His new movie “Stronger” has brought him a Critics’ Choice Awards nomination as Best Actor, plus he won that same category recently at the Hollywood Film Awards.

For his career, he received his first Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor for “Brokeback Mountain” (2005), a role for which he won at BAFTA. He competed at the Globes, SAG, and BAFTA as Best Actor for “Nightcrawler” (2014), and at BAFTA once more for “Nocturnal Animals” (2016). Despite all of these accomplishments in a varied career, he is still looking for that elusive second Oscar bid.

His latest film is a Lionsgate release which tells the true story of Jeff Bauman, who lost both his legs in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, becoming a symbol of hope and courage for a shaken city. The film was directed by David Gordon Green and co-stars Tatiana Maslany as Bauman’s on-again-off-again girlfriend, Erin Hurley. Enjoy watching our recent video interview hosted by Gold Derby’s Zach Laws with Gyllenhaal above or read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby: So, Jake Gyllenhaal, your new film “Stronger” tells the incredible true story of Jeff Bauman. It’s a project that you’ve been working on for a few years now. I’m just curious, take us back to the beginning. What about Jeff’s story made you want to tell it and play the part?

Jake Gyllenhaal: I think I was initially sort of surprised, his sense of humor, the character as written in the screenplay and then when I eventually met him, that sort of is the essence of who he is, that every time he comes into any situation he’s always facing with a sense of humor. There was that, and then there was also just the idea that I wasn’t very interested in the historical part of the story, the way in which we tend to obsess the event itself and how the media does. I was interested in the human being that was affected by this seemingly unfathomable, impossible thing and how they get through it, with the most unlikely person to find themselves in a situation like that.

GD: One of the interesting things about the movie is that typically in movies like this, we see this catastrophic event happen to a person and then all of a sudden they sort of change like that. They become more heroic, they become more life-affirmed. But Jeff we see in the beginning before has problems with commitment, with his relationship, with growing up. He still has those problems after he loses his legs. Can you talk a bit about that?

JG: Yeah, I think the imperfection of being human was the most interesting thing about this film for me, and I think there is a tendency when you’re talking about inspirational stories to paint characters with broad strokes. And his complications and particularly his family’s complications were the most interesting thing to me. What do you do when you’re dealing with the pressure of a group of people who have expectations for you while you’re just trying to recalibrate your life, your physical life, your emotional life, your mental life in the midst of all this pressure? To me, I think that was the most interesting, and also, yeah we don’t shy away from the fact that he struggled with partying and alcoholism and not showing up, that was really the essence of the movie for me. It was two simple things. One was, it’s a story about a guy who just never really shows up. He’s always late and always making excuses, is in this perpetual adolescence, totally happy living with his mother and working at Costco, doesn’t have any prospects farther than that and is fine with that. And then this event happens and even after the event, he seems to be okay with that and tries to stay in that same space and the universe won’t let him. It just won’t let him, and he’s forced to grow up.

GD: And the film plays around with this idea of Jeff having to be an inspirational figure for the people of Boston. He’s thrust into this instant celebrity as a beacon of “Boston Strong.” Can you talk a bit about that?

JG: Yeah, it’s interesting, I think we have this need for heroes and I think that after an event like that, the city and the world wanted to pin those ideas, that idea of a hero, onto someone, rightfully so. At the same time also support that person who is going through this impossible sort of understand experience, and I think with the best intentions thinking that they would put that label on him, ended up putting more pressure on him in a way, without knowing it. And what are you supposed to do? You’re a guy who’s standing there. It was a triumph to just show up for Jeff and hold a sign at the finish line of the marathon and then this thing happens and he’s painted this way and I think that pressure… he buckled. And he really had a hard time with it. He continues to have a hard time with it. You ask him today and he says stuff like, “I’m just not a hero, it’s the first responders it’s the people who saved my life, those are the really heroes.” And I think he has since that day and over time and healing, accepted the fact that he’s a symbol of inspiration but it’s very, very complicated. I think it’s very complicated, and I don’t think it’s until he faced himself, started to understand what’s inside him, that he was able to accept that position as a symbol of a hero and inspiration. But yeah, it’s the struggle. I think the movie is really about that struggle. Like what defines a hero, for real?

GD: And certainly the physicality of it, him learning to take just a few steps, is something that the film charts. Can you talk a bit about the physicality of the performance, how you and David Gordon Green kind of plotted out how you were going to go through the physical transformation, if that makes sense?

JG: Yeah, of course. I mean, what you’re dealing with is someone who has no idea how to work in the world. We’re not talking about Jeff two years after this injury. We’re talking about a man who within the span of 15 seconds his life changes and then for the course of the movie is about him trying to function in the world. So for both me and David, I think the discussion was less about becoming familiar with that, though I spent a year with Jeff up into shooting, spending time with him watching him maneuver around the house and watching him move around the world with his legs, his Ottobock Genium legs which are extraordinary, they’re these robotic works of artistic and scientific genius these things, that he wears to help him walk now, but also just watching him move around without those legs, but he was much more agile. It had been over a year.

So for me I was interested in what was it like when it first happened, and so David decided to make decisions, made the scenes of the spaces we’d have those scenes in very hard to maneuver. Oftentimes… there’s a scene in the bathroom when I first arrive back home and Jeff is getting into the shower for the first time, and that actually was a build, it was stage, and it was also a real set too. But in the scene which was the build, he purposefully made it almost impossible for me to maneuver around that bathroom and in that all those difficult frustrations of me trying to move, I think we created a scene. Then there was also extraordinary visual effects team and prosthetic makeup team and prop department and cinematography Sean Bobbitt and our editor Dylan Tichenor who added to when you see explicitly the legs and when you don’t and holes in the floor sometimes, sometimes green socks. It was a team effort.

GD: Yeah, the visual effects are really something in this movie and just watching it, you mentioned that scene in the bathroom and you’re looking to see, “Okay, how did they actually do this?” Working with all that stuff, how does it affect your performance?

JG: Well every step of the way… not every step but pretty much every step of the way while I was trying to figure out Jeff’s physicality the visual effects department was at that time called Nicros, they were with me. So we would have discussions about what felt real and what didn’t. We always had about six eyes on each scene or each shot, so we knew. But I mean, I think I wanted to make this movie for the people who have had their own amputations who were bilateral amputees and people who understand it can see that and see “Oh, that looks real.” And so the details were something that’s why I spent so much time with Jeff, watching him movie around, videoing him and annoying him (laughs), daily, weekly basis. And I think over time I started to see how he actually moved, what would happen, and we all tried to mimic that best we could.

SEE Tatiana Maslany (‘Stronger’) chats ‘very intimate story’ of Boston Marathon bombing film [EXCLUSIVE VIDEO INTERVIEW]

GD: I wanted to talk about the relationship between you and Erin, played by Tatiana Maslany. Can you talk a bit about working with Tatiana and the relationship between her and Jeff?

JG: Yeah… like Erin and Jeff or Tatiana and Jeff or?

GD: You and Tatiana, and then Jeff and Erin (laughs).

JG: (laughs) She is extraordinary. She is without vanity. She is courageous emotionally and she was tapped in and tried to go as far as I had gone with Jeff, with Erin. They are two totally different characters, as real humans and as characters. And also neither of them are very forthright in sharing a lot of very intimate information, at least at first. So working with Tatiana was like… David creates an environment where we would roll for very long takes and because she and I had done a tremendous amount of research and we felt pretty confident and she’s really into improvisation as well, we would do the scene and then we would continue it and we would improv and we would find something else and roll back into the scene and she’s just wonderful. She’s very clear and very direct and wonderful.

In terms of her relationship with Erin, she was doing her television show, she was finishing it up, so she was back and forth and she was talking with Erin a lot and they became pretty close. The relationship between Jeff and Erin is the movie. It’s everything. In a lot of ways I think Erin is the strongest one of all. There’s one shot in the movie that’s a really long shot when the sutures are being take off that is sort of the idea of the whole movie, which is the pain that a situation like this causes but at the same time, this tremendous support from the people who love you, and the love between them will never die. They are two complicated humans but man do they love each other.

GD: And she is more than just the supportive girlfriend of this guy. She really does push him in the very beginning of the movie to show up and she pushes him at the very end of the movie to show up. I think about that scene towards the end in the car. Can you talk a bit about that?

JG: Yeah, you’re walking a really fine line when you’re making a movie like this, trying to be honest and true to the people that you are portraying and at the same time trying to really tell the truth, trying to respect them and their story and then also be true to the heartbreak that they had at the time. And so that scene was really tough and I think we both knew that, not just us but everyone involved in the movie the two nights we shot that over, and it was a series of a number of drafts of a scene that had been written by John Pollono and then us using differently Iines from that space and then kind of putting us into the ring which at the time was the car and shooting simultaneous cameras and really going after each other. And I have to say that that’s a testament to Tatiana. There’s a moment where she yells and she says, “That doesn’t scare me, Jeff.” And that was just her saying that to me as an actor, Erin saying that to Jeff. and a combination of what John Pollono had written and it was those moments were happening we shot for a long time and I have to say after that scene that night, I did not really sleep. This movie has gotten more than into my bones, you know. It’s more than a movie now. And that was one of the first moments of the process where it started to leave its essence forever (laughs). But yeah, you can’t do it without all those incredible people.

GD: Absolutely. I wanted to ask you about the other pivotal relationship in the movie, the one between you and your mother, played by Miranda Richardson. Can you talk a bit about that?

JG: Yeah, I’ve had a crush on Miranda Richardson since I was a kid so it was only logical that she play my mother (laughs). It was a very hard part to cast. And it really required a sense of humor but I think a sense of darkness too and Miranda came in and she is Miranda Richardson. I think a lot of people are really impressed by the fact that she’s British, and it’s a love triangle. We always said the movie was a love triangle, it was sort of Jeff and Erin and Patti, and this struggle between this adolescent man-boy and his mother and their desperate need for each other and this event that starts pulling them apart but also brings them closer together and then this X factor in Erin, who is a real woman who wants him to be a man and is demanding that of him and in some ways Patti wants him to stay a boy. And so I think that that’s the love triangle so Miranda had to calibrate not being the antagonist and also being really lovable and working with her was… I never thought that I would work with her. We wooed her for a number of weeks and she said yes and thank god she did.

GD: And the city of Boston really does play a large role in creating character for the movie, giving it a sense of place. Obviously it’s where the real event takes place and where Jeff and Erin both live. What did shooting there add to the film and to your performance?

JG: Well there’s no other place we could shoot and I don’t think we could fake it anywhere else. I don’t think we could’ve gone to Vancouver and shot half of it, which was a strain on our budget I have to say, but there was no other choice. I think the energy of that city, not only their support but also their criticism drove us to try and tell the honest story and it also created a sensitivity around, and the energy of that city is in the movie. There’s a scene in the Bruins game, which is a big scene where Jeff in real life went and was the banner captain and waved a flag and we had to shoot that scene on the first day of shooting ‘cause we didn’t think that the Bruins were gonna make the playoffs (laughs). And they didn’t, so I’m glad that we shot on the first day.

It was terrifying to think of shooting this huge scene, particularly the first part with all these extras. So we put out an APB and told everybody that they should stick around if they could. We prayed that they won so everyone was excited and stayed. And of course they lost. At the end of the game we ran down in the wheelchair, Jeff and I had made an announcement on the video screen and said please stay ‘cause we’re shooting a movie and we thought, “No one’s gonna stay,” and we rolled the camera and I rolled out there and three quarters of the stadium had stayed. And they stayed ‘cause of Jeff and they stayed ‘cause they knew that it was a story and that was our sendoff. The city of Boston was everybody chanting Jeff’s name and then chanting USA and it was overwhelming. It was really, really overwhelming.

GD: Wow. You’ve had a lot of great roles in your career. Just to name off a couple, Oscar nomination for “Brokeback Mountain,” Globe nominations for “Nightcrawler” and “Love & Other Drugs,” BAFTA nomination recently for “Nocturnal Animals.” What has that kind of recognition meant for you in your career and what kind of projects are you attracted to? What attracts you to the roles you take on, the various ones?

JG: I think earlier in my career I would have probably answered this with a little bit more of a… I’d be a little more aloof and probably a little bit more full of a sense of false humility. I would say that they mean a lot to me. I would say that when you make movies and you have the opportunity to make movies for as long as I have, I think it creates a community and you feel a part of that community and I think that some movies are recognized through being recognized by different awards and things like that, and when you care deeply about people seeing a story, you’ll do anything to make sure they see that story, even if they haven’t initially when it’s first come out, but my god have I been part of movies that didn’t initially get a certain response and I love it. I love the idea of being recognized for one’s work. I also love the idea that you are part of a community and a community of people. That’s why I love the work that I do is for that reason, the relationships that I make and have made. So it means a lot. It’s a lovely feeling. I also do feel like Philip Roth was right when he said that they’re really nice, they excite the child inside of you, and then the next day you have to go back to work (laughs). And… what was the second question?

GD: They’re such varied roles. I wonder what attracts you to these parts that you play? “Nightcrawler” is so different from “Brokeback Mountain” which is very different from “Nocturnal” and certainly different from this.

JG: Well to me, I don’t really know why one gets into the profession of telling stories or even particularly being an actor if you don’t want to explore many different worlds. I’m curious about the world around me. I think maybe partially because I’ve been working since I was a kid, maybe I haven’t always had access to the world and been able to go on adventures of my own in certain ways. I had been working. So somehow I’ve been able to translate that into the work itself, where I’ve gone into different worlds to learn about the world and really see what’s important about the world. I think in the movie business we tend to think of ourselves as very important in one way or another, and I think what it actually allows is when you tell stories you see what a real job is (laughs). And I think that’s why I love my work. It’s about variety. It’s about accessing different parts of yourself, being able to explore and empathize with more perverse parts, darker parts, more joyful parts than you experience in your own life. That’s what I see as the blessing of this job, so that’s why I try and make them different and that’s why I’m attracted to all different types of characters.

GD: This is another great movie, Jake Gyllenhaal, thank you so much. Congratulations.

JG: Thank you. Thanks for talking to me.

GD: Of course, have a good one.

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