After losing 30 pounds for last year’s electrifying performance in Nightcrawler, Jake Gyllenhaal bulks up and adds 45 pounds of muscle to play a middle-weight boxer in Southpaw. A versatile and remarkable actor, he stars opposite Rachel McAdams, who plays his wife, and Oona Laurence, as his daughter.
Today in Los Angeles, the 34-year-old actor talks about the challenges of battling it out in the ring and the extreme transformations he’s endured for his career.
As far as his off-screen life, Gyllenhaal explains his natural affinity for children and his admiration for his father. This year marks the tenth anniversary since the release of the ground-breaking drama Brokeback Mountain (in which he starred opposite Heath Ledger as his lover), and he looks back on how the landscape has changed towards homosexuality.
THERE HAVE BEEN MANY BOXING MOVIES BUT NOT USUALLY ON THE LEVEL OF SOUTHPAW IN TERMS OF THE EMOTIONAL AND PHYSICAL BRUTALITY IT HAS ON A PERSON. WHAT INSIGHTS DID YOU GLEAN FROM THIS EXPERIENCE?
What I learned from researching the movie and what I love about the movie is that there’s a sensitivity to this guy, a vulnerability that I think most professional fighters have when they are fighting at a certain level, and they are hyper sensitive. I mean, they’re reactive in a way because they have to be physically but that’s also because they have to be in tune emotionally, particularly towards their opponent. So, outside the ring they are also reactive because they are hurt easily and their ego is hurt easily.
YOU TRANSFORMED FOR YOUR LAST ROLE (NIGHTCRAWLER) WHICH WAS SHOCKING AND IMPRESSIVE, AND NOW IN SOUTHPAW YOU’VE DONE A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT TRANSFORMATION. CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THE PROCESS? NOT JUST IN TERMS OF THE PHYSICAL BUT THE PSYCHOLOGICAL AS WELL. WHAT DID YOU LEARN ABOUT YOURSELF THAT SURPRISED YOU?
Well, this process was mostly driven by fear (laughs). Fear when the director (Antoine Fuqua) said he was going to shoot the movie without cheating. He said to me, ‘If we are going to do it differently from other boxing movies we are going to have to shoot it for real.’ That means I didn’t have a double and it was going to be shot like an HBO or Showtime fight. So, I had to know how to fight and I didn’t know how to fight when we started. So, most of it was just driven by, ‘Oh, I am going to look like an idiot when I get up there.’ So, I trained for five months twice a day. I was particularly afraid that I would not be doing service to this sport and I was humbled almost every single day. I mean, I was humbled every time at the end of every training session when I was told to go and shadowbox. It was the most humiliating experience. I love being in front of an audience, I love performing in front of an audience, and I love even being behind a table and talking, but in a ring shadowboxing it was so humiliating every time. My coach was watching me and Antoine was watching me and studying my every move, especially my footwork. I was looking really bad for most of the time and so that was very humbling.
WERE YOU A FAN OF BOXING?
I wasn’t an avid fight fan before we started research for this but Mike Tyson shaped my childhood as far as his personality and the way he sort of walked around in the world and all of the craziness around him. And the movies, like all the boxing movies that have been made, I actually tried to steer away from them while we were preparing for this movie because I have seen many of them. And one of the things that is interesting about movies like this, is that there are so many tropes and so many things that you fall into that could be cliché and so the emphasis was always on character and behaviour, because that was what would make things special and individual.
WHAT DRIVES YOU? YOU WORK REALLY HARD IN YOUR FILMS AND SEEM TO LOVE A CHALLENGE.
I think I have pretty high standards for myself and I keep crediting a lot of things to my father but I do credit his sense of hard work and the idea of pushing yourself. And I don’t think that I’d feel comfortable doing the same thing over and over again. I want to push myself farther and I want to know more what that drive is. Probably it comes from some insecurity as well as some confidence, but I just like working really hard at what I do.
YOU HAVE THIS INCREDIBLE RAPPORT WITH CHILDREN, AND WE‘VE SEEN THIS BEFORE IN OTHER FILMS. SO I WAS WONDERING, WHERE DOES THAT COME FROM? IS IT YOUR SISTER’S KIDS THAT HELP YOU WITH THIS? YOU’RE NOT A FATHER YOURSELF SO I ASSUME IT TAKES SOME WORK.
I love to love things. (laughs) I mean, I will do anything for a child. It must be my upbringing and my father in particular, his loving nature especially when it came to children. And in particular, he was always very playful when he was with me and my sister. And he passed on the idea to me that children are more important than adults. And I am not sure what it is and I just think they are just walking around so much closer to their hearts than adults and so I admire that and I kind of give myself over to that. But there is something in me, and I am not sure what it is, but I literally would do anything for a child whether I knew them or whether they were a part of my family or not, it’s just the innocence. And particularly in acting, when you are acting with a child whose imagination is free, they feel like a teacher to me.
DO YOU SPEND MUCH TIME WITH YOUR NIECES?
Yeah, of course. My three year old niece and I have a particular bond and I don’t know where it comes from but we must have had known each other in another life, and my nine year old niece is just like extraordinary and she is just like stronger, smarter and more brilliant version of my sister, Maggie, and I don’t know if that is possible but she is and she’s a true force. So yes, I am so close with the two of them and I would love them deeply and I would do anything for them. I would give my life for them; I love them.
IT’S THE TEN YEAR ANNIVERSARY OF BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN AND WITH THE SUPREME COURT HAVING JUST CHANGED THE RULES ON SAME SEX MARRIAGE IN AMERICA – THE WORLD LOOKS QUITE DIFFERENT FROM TEN YEARS AGO.
My Mother sent me an email with the decision attached to it which read, ‘It’s all about love’. And we talked about it and she said, ‘Think about where you were ten years ago and when that movie came out. And the maelstrom response to that movie and so much has changed and so much needs to change, but that seems to me to be a marker.’ It’s an interesting thing and it made me think about all the people who have come up to me over the years and said how much that movie has meant to them. It gave me faith that you can be a teeny little part of a little bit of change and I think (director) Ang Lee made a movie that was a part of that.