The workaholic actor is one of the finest of his generation and his new sci-fi horror Life the latest example of his skilful character-building. But perhaps its best not to ask him about Taylor Swift …
Jake Gyllenhaal arrives at todays interview carrying his own chair. Specifically, the chair he dragged across the fancy hotel suite so that he could sit in a normal, upright position, rather than recline on the designated chaise longue that had been set up for him next to me. The chair is a good call having Gyllenhaal lie back while I ask about his life story might have made this encounter seem a little bit too much like a therapy session.
Oh, was that the kind of interview you were expecting? he says, with acheeky widening of those intense eyes. We can do that. If you dont mind me lying down, youll definitely get some interesting stuff.
We laugh, although in an hours time, when things arent quite so amicable, a therapists couch might have come in handy. Which is a shame, because theres no reason why this chat with Jake Gyllenhaal should have been anything other than cordial. Hes easy enough to talk to, with a pleasing dose of oddball intensity lurking beneath his sleepy exterior. And its not as if he needs to be defensive about his career hes one of his generations finest actors, rising to fame while still in his teens, and taking on roles loaded with inner turmoil: a troubled, rabbit-hallucinating teenager in cult-hit Donnie Darko; Brokeback Mountains yearning, repressed gay sheep-herder Jack Twist; Tony Hastings, a man tormented over his failure to prevent the rape and murder of his wife and daughter in Nocturnal Animals.
Today hes promoting Life, a sci-fi/horror film in which a six-person crew on the International Space Station discover the first evidence of life outside Earth, only for their curiosity with it to get the better of them: cue things spiralling rapidly out of control. Life follows many tropes of the genre, but with enough neat twists and lessons on human nature to keep it interesting. The screenplay, says Gyllenhaal, left him legitimately terrified, although he admits his main reason for taking the part was that after playing role after role where Ive given a ton of time in preparation, Imade a resolution to just enjoy myself making a big, fun movie.
And so he did just that. The director, Daniel Espinosa, gave him the freedom to build his own character, Dr David Johnson, and Gyllenhaal opted for a largely speechless introvert with minimal desire to ever return to Earth. Could I relate to that? Yes! he laughs. But also no. I think I am fully committed to being here.
Despite his attempts to just have fun, Gyllenhaal, a renowned workaholic, still couldnt help pushing himself. He spoke to astronauts, took guidance from a trauma doctor and worked with a zero-gravity-movement coach, so that his personality would be better reflected in the way he floated through space.
Many of his roles dont actively require such punishing levels of preparation but Gyllenhaal does it anyway he bulked up for boxing movie Southpaw, with 2,000 sit-ups and six-hour training sessions each day, before starving himself back down to play wiry Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler, amorally bankrupt ambulance-chaser emblematic of all the scummiest aspects of tabloid news.
My sister [the actor Maggie] and I have this argument often, he says. Ive lost weight or learned a new skill and shes said: You dont have to change your body to play a character, and there are times where I agree and other times I dont.
Does he ever get frustrated on set, when hes been doing thousands of sit-ups every day, and other people arent matching his intensity?
He seems horrified by this question. Oh, so you think doing sit-ups are equated with craft? Is that what youre saying? Well maybe you dont know what the craft of acting is. I mean, putting the time into preparation, being agile no, I dont think transforming your body physically has anything to do with the craft of acting.