It would be hard to find a more serious and articulate observer of his profession than Jake Gyllenhaal. He answers every question with deep consideration and is keenly aware of the inflated status of actors in the context of modern celebrity culture. Yet he also believes in the importance of film in its ability to reach people and explore the human condition, meaningful issues and critical events.
A sumptuous stint of commercial successes on the big screen – culminating in 2019’s Spider-Man: Far From Home – set the 41-year-old actor up for something of a hiatus, yet he has roared back in the past year with an undertaking of projects, as both actor and producer, that appears catastrophically large.
Gyllenhaal’s upcoming list of appointments – projects either announced, rumoured or in pre-production – are well into double figures, ranging from thrillers (The Interpreter, The Division, Road House, Snow Blind), drama (Francis and the Godfather), through to all-action fodder (The Anarchists vs ISIS and Combat Control).
There are also two mini-series thrown into the mix – The Son, in which he plays an escaped convict; and Lake Success, where he embodies Barry Cohen, a hedge fund manager looking to break free from the shackles of humdrum. Gyllenhaal even recently switched back to theatre mode in playing the lead role in Sunday in the Park with George at the Savoy Theatre.
The actor is clearly hungry for more, refusing to subscribe purely to box office spectaculars. He is at a stage in his career when it seems he has little to prove… and if there is something, it’s purely to himself.
Q: Is fighting convention something you’ve tried to do during your life and career?
GYLLENHAAL: I think we’re all always fighting convention in a way or we’re not and then we succumb to that. Ultimately all that matters is what you as an individual believe in regardless of what other people tell you you should believe. I guess in a way that’s something I’m trying to do as an artist, but all humans beings should be doing that because if we did, we’d have a totally different world.
Q: You have always been willing to push yourself to the limit in films like Nightcrawler, Southpaw and Everest. Is that something that you feel driven to do?
GYLLENHAAL: I’ve always been anxious to challenge myself as much as possible. I’ve never wanted to do things that were easy or too comfortable. They feel that that’s the way you grow as an individual because you’re forcing yourself to exit your comfort zone. For me, life is all about discovery and risk and exploring new aspects of yourself as well as the world in general.
Q: Does that sometimes mean you take things too far?
GYLLENHAAL: [Smiles] I’m hardest on myself. I’m very passionate about what I do and I can’t take the easy way out. I just can’t… acting offers you an opportunity to find catharsis through the way you express the emotions of your characters and by behaving in ways that you wouldn’t dare to in your own life.
Q: Do you have a natural predilection towards characters that are either extreme or as emotionally complex or conflicted as possible?
GYLLENHAAL: I like characters who are as messy and complicated because that’s who we are as humans. It’s much more interesting for me to explore those states of being than playing characters who don’t find themselves under stress or need to face up to serious problems. We’re all struggling in our own particular ways, and we all live in different states of joy, hope, fear, and anxiety. That’s what makes us interesting and those are the kinds of characters I enjoy portraying.
Q: Is this what you feel is the essence of acting for you?
GYLLENHAAL: I love performing and I am constantly fascinated by getting into a story and exploring what I can do with a character and be able to help tell interesting stories that reveal something about us as human beings. Maybe I’m too idealistic but it means so much to be to get at the truth of ourselves and use acting as a way of examining human nature.
Q: How would you label yourself as an actor?
GYLLENHAAL: I’m not at all interested in becoming the kind of actor who needs to worry about his box-office performance with each film. That defeats the purpose of what you want to accomplish as an actor. Of course, you need to have some sort of standing that enables you to get cast in bigger budget films, but the main goal is find good stories and directors who have a strong vision and interesting sensibility. I love my work, I love being excited and drawn to it, but I felt I had moved away from the work itself, and I was being asked questions that I didn’t know how to answer. About, you know, life, films, everything.
The reason why I started acting was because I deeply, deeply love acting. You know, I love storytelling, I really do, and I just felt like I was moving farther and farther away from that idea. And I thought, well where can I find projects and work with people that will allow me to be involved in a way that will fulfill my life, and make me feel like when I’m on my deathbed, I’m going to go ‘Yeah, like that’s the way I want it to be’.
Q: You’re often identified in the media as a kind of heartthrob. How do feel about that?
GYLLENHAAL: It has nothing to do with me. It’s the media image of me and it’s not really something that defines who I am. I go to very few public events, I live very quietly, and don’t really do anything that attracts attention to me beyond my work in films and promoting them by doing interviews.
Q: You’ve spoken candidly in the past about your relationships – [Gyllenhaal has been with French model Jeanne Cadieu since 2018] – do you think it is so difficult for couples to stay in love or commit to relationships once the initial buzz of sexual attraction gives way to something else?
GYLLENHAAL: I don’t know, really. That’s the great question that everyone finds themselves trying to answer at different points in their lives. What happens is that sexual and physical attraction is gradually overtaken by deeper emotions and also by practical considerations and decisions. That’s when you have to think very seriously about whether your love for another person is so great that you want to spend serious time with them going forward, or not. Or maybe that the intensity of your feelings is so great that you can’t think straight, and you need to see whether you can actually live together in one place and find those little ways of accommodating each other’s needs and desires. That’s the challenge, isn’t it? It takes a lot of thinking about.
Q: Speaking of which, do you still follow Buddhist teachings?
GYLLENHAAL: It’s something which has enlightened me in many ways. When I started reading about Buddhist philosophy (while making the film Donnie Darko) I saw right away that I had an intuitive grasp and conviction about so many of the same ideas and principles. So I naturally gravitated towards it. It’s not something which I think about as much as I try to follow some of the teachings because I believe in them, and I feel I am a better person for trying to be open to simple joys and truths about life, and appreciating the beauty in other people. I believe there’s a spirit and energy that links us all in some way.
Q: How do you feel you’ve evolved over time?
GYLLENHAAL: I’ve learned to trust myself more and worry less about making the right decisions and being too careful and serious sometimes about my work. I think in general I’m more relaxed and I have less apprehensiveness and anxiety about myself and other people in general. There was also this dichotomy between my approach to films and my approach to life. I think I’ve sorted a lot of that out now.
Q: Your career has seen you play a wide variety of characters. You seem to enjoy both the physical and psychological transformation involved?
GYLLENHAAL: I have so much fun creating a character and I love observing people and all the complexities and oddities of human behavior that inform what I do. I enjoy the kind of creative expression that comes with mimicry, and I love exploring human psychology, how we interact with each other, and going beneath the surface of human behavior. As an actor, I like the catharsis that comes with pushing the boundaries of what you ordinarily feel comfortable with doing. My parents encouraged me to express myself and test my limits as far as possible and not take the easy way out.
Q: What’s the biggest kick you get out of acting?
GYLLENHAAL: When I play a character, the most interesting and exciting thing for me is being able to express myself very differently and more intensely than I could ever dream of in my own life. It’s also interesting to see yourself actually feeling and behaving the way your character behaves without even being aware of it. I also find that as an individual I learn so much from looking at the world differently when I work on a film and I’m seeing things from the perspective of my characters.
Q: You’ve been described by your colleagues as being very intense when it comes to your work?
GYLLENHAAL: [Laughs] I take my work seriously in ways that people outside the business would never appreciate or find particularly interesting. The thing that really drives me as an actor is my curiosity. I’m far less adventurous in my own life and my work gives me the ability to exceed my normal boundaries and explore things about myself that I wouldn’t do otherwise. I need to challenge myself. I usually listen to my instincts and pursue projects that appeal to me artistically as well as personally. I like working with people who share the same vision and artistic approach that I have simply because that makes the process so much more enjoyable. I’ve developed some wonderful creative relationships over the last several years and I want to keep working with people who help me be as creative and expressive as possible.