Interview| Jake Gyllenhaal Discusses New Film ‘Demolition’, Dealing With Grief & Identity In The Modern Age
As smart as he is eclectic, Jake Gyllenhaal‘s intelligent approach to both his career and the individual roles he has explored has led to a remarkably diverse output. Since his debut as Billy Crystal’s son in the 1991 comedy City Slickers, he’s moved seamlessly between big-budget blockbusters like Prince of Persia and The Day After Tomorrow to cult classics like Donnie Darko, tackling rom-com (The Good Girl, Love and Other Drugs) and drama (Brokeback Mountain, Jarhead, Prisoners, Everest, Zodiac) along the way.
In the last two years alone he has embodied the skeletal and psychopathic newshound Louis Bloom (Golden Globe nominated role) in Nightcrawler, losing 30lbs for the role, and soon after transformed himself into the pumped-up, fighting-machine Billy Hope in Antoine Fuqua’s boxing drama, Southpaw.
It was while filming Southpaw that he first became aware of Demolition, an intense and often touchingly wry rumination on grief,loss and life itself, from director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club, Wild) and co-starring Naomi Watts and Chris Cooper. Gyllenhaal plays Davis Mitchell, a Wall Street banker who loses his wife in a car crash and struggles to feel the heartache he’s ‘supposed’ to feel.
“Davis is a very well-off guy, working in a job I think a lot of people would like to have, living a life a lot of people dream of,” he says. “But in a lot of ways he really doesn’t know where he is because he’s made a lot of choices not based on his own instinct. We get to ask, ‘Where does joy and happiness exist for all of us?’ It’s a very important question. And in the case of this movie, he’s not happy and, beyond happy, he’s not himself.”
It takes the death of his wife for him to fully realise the depth of his misery, and to begin the journey back to his authentic self.
“He’s a character that’s dealing with the complications of having lost somebody he was in a relationship with that there was a false quality to,” he says. “In her memory, and out of respect for her, he decides to really ask himself the questions that are important to him.” Helping him on his journey is Naomi Watts’ Karen Moreno and her son, Chris (Judah Lewis), who become unexpected catalysts in Davis’ re-birth.
“It happens by pure fate and chance,” he explains. “He had a problem at the hospital the night his wife is killed, a stupid problem, and he ends up writing to the vending machine company that gets his M&Ms stuck, and the vending machine company ends up becoming his therapist. The woman at the other end reading the letters has an equal amount of troubles in her own life and they strike up a friendship that ends up changing them both and showing him the person that he always wanted to be.”
Crave: How did this project come to you?
Gyllenhaal: It was all a bit of a whirlwind. I was in the midst of shooting Southpaw and Jean-Marc called me up and said, ‘I’m shooting a movie in a few months, do you want to do it?’ My hands were wrapped and I had boxing gloves on, but I’d wanted to work on anything that he was doing, regardless of the material. He’s such an interesting director, with such a fantastic point of view. I was really eager to read it, and once I did, I said OK. We basically had two weeks from the wrapping of Southpaw to shoot – it was a really appropriately quick process.
Crave: How’d he pitch it to you?
Gyllenhaal: He talked about the character’s journey through grief in an unconventional way, and anything with the word unconventional before or after it, I’m always interested in.
Crave: You said you’d do anything with him. What do you like most about Jean-Marc’s work?
Gyllenhaal: I think he really loves the process of making a movie. Very often filmmakers are focusing particularly on the results, anticipating what’s going to happen in the future, what they expect to happen. Often it becomes a dizzying task. With Jean-Marc I think he recognises that you’re putting a lot of different personalities and types of people together and it becomes this organism as you’re making it. I loved that about him and his approach; I think his movies feel like that. There’s a presence that you don’t often feel in movies.
Crave: He’s known for a very stripped-down approach to filmmaking, for working very much in the moment. How was that for you?
Gyllenhaal: It becomes incredibly fun. You’re running in and out of shots not knowing if he’s coming in for a close-up, or if he’s running out and getting a wide shot, and there’s no lighting, and there’s wardrobe but no fussing and no make-up, and you come to work and you walk to set and you’re there in five minutes…. to me, it’s the ideal arena for making a movie. I’m not much for make-up unless it helps you more as a character – the biggest concern we had on this movie was the growth and trimming of my beard for continuity! So Davis, my character, has nothing to do with any of that stuff. The aesthetic comes later, from the feeling.
Jean-Marc says there’s no such thing as a mistake, and if you see the performances he’s crafted you get that sense. When everyone on the crew and the actors feel free to make choices, the things you may have dismissed in the ordinary process of filmmaking do not get dismissed; everything has equal value. That’s really inspiring.
Crave: As an actor, you’re very much known for physical transformations, but this character starts out as an ordinary man and transforms both physically and mentally throughout the movie….
Gyllenhaal: Yes, I think the beautiful thing about this movie is the subtlety of the movement of who he was and how he changes. I had done three or four movies in a row where there was a particularly drastic transformation for the character to even become a character. I love that this was about a guy who changed very little physically, but profoundly. There are not enough movies in the world that are saying to an audience that change happens slowly, and you don’t know when it’s going to happen, and it’s sometimes in small increments. I think that’s what’s beautiful about this movie and what was fun about creating this character… there’s a quietness to him and a real beauty in the respect of that quietness.
Crave: You also manage to imbue him with a warmth despite the fact that, on the surface at least, he appears completely devoid of human emotion.
Gyllenhaal: To speak frankly, he’s a wealthy white guy, so why feel sorry for him, right? And I understand! I think it’s important to recognise that everyone is human, even the people we may resent. Look… it depends on what you value, you know? This guy had massive deficits in his life in an emotional way, and a lot of things he filled in in conventional ways. It’s the emotional topography of his world that would brand him really sad, so to me that’s what was most interesting. Some of the sadder people in the world are very, very well off, and there is great joy where you wouldn’t expect it. Navigating his journey was really about seeing how shallow the world he was living in was.
It’s not hard when you look at the world of money how there is no real depth in any of those things. He was just lost: the connections he made were not real connections; they were based on working relationships or what he was supposed to do at a certain age.
Crave: Is that the modern condition of the relatively privileged?
Gyllenhaal: I think it’s the modern condition. I don’t think it’s the modern condition of privilege. I think the modern condition is that we are living in a culture of convenience, and in a culture of convenience we all turn infantile in one way or another – and I’ll speak for myself! As a result… ‘Oh, my Uber car is 5 minutes late,’ or, ‘My food delivery that I ordered in 3 seconds isn’t here,’ or ‘I’ve been on the tarmac for an hour, can you believe it?’ All these miracles that are happening we dismiss. Beyond that, I think connection is lost.
In that way, regardless of socio-economic hierarchy, we are all suffering from the same thing, based on the number of technological advances that are leading the world. That doesn’t have to do with privilege, that has to do with everybody. I take the subway and everybody is on their phone – no one is asking anyone what’s going on. We will look back and see that this is a decade with the emphasis on convenience, and I think Davis is a product of that. I feel the same way about my character from Nightcrawler: he is produced from this culture of convenience, and I think Davis is a much more innocent character with a little less drive, and he’s victim to that.
Crave: On the surface, though, some of his behaviour is somewhat sociopathic…
Gyllenhaal: I think grieving is individual; again, convention leads us to a place where we’re told we have to have some sort of catharsis. If someone can tell me the exact time the flower blooms, please tell me, I’d love to hear it. Nobody can point that out. To me, no one can tell you when you come to something – things do just happen, and I think we look to movies to give us some behavioural definition. The response he has is human; apathy is equally as human as empathy. I think that’s where the confusion lies. That’s true, but even though he doesn’t respond to grief like we expect him to, we don’t seem to judge him for it. It’s interesting. What it does is push you one way or the other and say, ‘Well, why isn’t he responding like I would?’ That was the exciting thing to explore; what this guy, who is doing weird things, is trying to feel. He’s having a very hard time feeling, a hard time facing what he’d even lost.
Crave: Do you personally think there’s a correct way to grieve?
Gyllenhaal: I think there’s no correct way to do anything as long as you’re not meaningfully hurting someone. We will be hurt and we will hurt people without knowing it, particularly the people we love. I don’t believe in rules; I believe in respect.
Crave: Why do you think he wasn’t in love with his wife?
Gyllenhaal: Because I think they met and followed this conventional route of what they’re told they’re supposed to do, which is by this time, by this age, this is what’s supposed to happen in your life. Everyone else around them was doing it, and they were interested and attracted to each other enough, and they were friends. I think he loved her, but I don’t know if he was ever in love with her.
Crave: From the title down, there are a lot of metaphors in this movie, but it manages to avoid cliché. How do you think it finds its balance?
Gyllenhaal: There is a lot of metaphor: When he destroys things, when he demolishes things, he’s really trying to work out his inner journey, his inner life. Chris Cooper plays my father-in-law, Phil, and he says to Davis, ‘You have to take things apart to put them back together.’ But in Jean-Marc’s hands it’s beautiful to look at – he’s an extraordinary visualist. He’s figured out a way to constantly create tension in the visual aspect of the movie and, in that way, it’s palatable. Always in his films there’s a great sense of hope and compassion, with all of his characters, even in the darkest moments. As long as that is your safety line, as long as that’s your main intention, you can always go to places that are off-putting. And ultimately it’s something that everybody goes through, will go through, and it’s a situation where it’s totally relatable. I don’t know one person on earth who can’t relate at least to the idea of losing someone and the difficulty of coming to terms with that.
Crave: Davis quite literally indulges in some spectacular forms of demolition; he completely destroys his very upscale home. Was that in any way cathartic for you to shoot?
Gyllenhaal: That was great fun! I’m a particularly physical person and so I like anything in a scene that calls for anything physical. There’s such a great expression in that. Jean-Marc built a whole piece of this house and he said, ‘We’re going to destroy it all and film you while you do it.’ When we were doing it, we were listening to music, Jean-Marc was running around with the camera… we were kids playing in a bit of a fantasy we’ve all had. It was great fun – incredibly cathartic. You have a significant feeling of accomplishment when you’re done – other things in the world don’t give you that same sense of accomplishment. I don’t know if you could be a boy and not want to break stuff.
Crave: Your partner in crime for the scene was Judah Lewis, who plays Naomi Watts’ character’s young son. How did you enjoy working with your co-stars on this?
Gyllenhaal: Oh, they were lovely. Everybody involved was such a good actor and so wonderful, particularly Judah, who really is a wonderful, young talent. Working with Naomi was something I totally geeked out on – I will safely say that I got nervous being around her because I’ve always really loved her work and wanted to work with her. I never thought she’d ever want to work with me. And Chris Cooper I love as basically a second father. We’ve made three movies – he played my father in one of the first movies I was in, called October Sky, and he did a small part in Jarhead, and I’ve known him for many years. He’s one of the best actors of our time: it’s such a joy to watch him work.
Crave: You’ve picked such diverse characters over the years with your work; how do you decide what you’re going to take on?
Gyllenhaal: Picking a role is an ephemeral, perpetual question mark. You’re trying to listen to your instinct and you have to practice and keep your instinct attuned, so I try and stay close to my instinct and see what it tells me. Oftentimes it’s not a blazing yes, sometimes I’m scared of it, sometimes I don’t feel right for the part but it’s a particular challenge, but all of the characters that I’ve played are inside of me. They stay there, and sometimes they come out when, you know, I’m ordering coffee or walking onto a plane, which in my case is as comforting as it is disturbing. You birth these characters, and each one has taught me something about the world.
Crave: What did Davis teach you about the world?
Gyllenhaal: That feelings are not what you expect them to be, and our expectations usually lead us to places of great disappointment. And to allow yourself to be exactly who you are in the moment that you’re in. If you do that, you will find the life you want to live.
Demolition is in cinemas around Australia now.