Movie Interviews
4:18 pm
Fri November 8, 2013

Jake Gyllenhaal, Going After What's Real

Originally published on Fri November 8, 2013 7:08 pm

In the movie Prisoners, now in theaters, a detective investigates the abduction of two young girls. Things get a little more complicated when the father of one of the girls takes matters into his own hands, kidnapping and torturing the man he thinks is responsible.

The detective, a terse, tattooed cop, is played by Jake Gyllenhaal, an actor perhaps best known for his Oscar-nominated role in the 2005 film Brokeback Mountain. NPR's Audie Cornish visited him on the set of the upcoming film Nightcrawler, where she talked with the actor about Prisoners, torture, and the changes he's been making to his career.


Interview Highlights

On the tight shooting schedule for Nightcrawler

Well, this movie in particular ... it's a smaller-budget film. And we're shooting this movie in 28 days, which is a short amount of time to make a film. The only shorter film I've made is 22 days, which was this film called End of Watch ... [where] we spent most of our waking and non-waking time making the movie. You know, it was sort of like a bender the whole time.

This movie's very similar. So we push as the week goes on. We start at 6 a.m. on Monday. [Now it's] a Thursday night, and we'll probably go until 3 or 4 a.m. to finish it off.

On getting in and out of character

I've sort of approached my work in a different way recently, in the past few years, which basically means I've spent, probably, about six or seven months preparing for each role. ... One role blends into the next role. I mean there's strange idiosyncrasies from roles that I play that I picked up that will never go away.

You know, I played this role, [Detective Loki], in this movie Prisoners, and every once in awhile while, I'm in a scene in this movie I'm filming now, I have — [Loki] has this strange sort of facial tick — occasionally I find myself wanting to do [it]. Like the urge will come up.

And sometimes it's an instinct that's similar to an instinct that he had. Which is just strange. And I have to ask it to go away, or force it to go away, tell it to stop, it's not right for this movie.

And it happens in my regular life too. I mean, it's fun to get so immersed that it's just as difficult to find your way out as it is to find your way in.

On playing a character, like Detective Loki, where there's a lot going on underneath the surface

There are so many pieces to that. I mean to me he's just not clear about how to express his emotions. You know? ... For him it's a very interesting sort of line to walk, where in order to be a very good detective — as I did research, and as I've spent a lot of time with law enforcement — [I learned] there has to be a deep fascination with the criminal mind, as well as a want to bring it to justice.

There is not one character in the movie that has one clear through-line, who is just doing the right thing, who is a "good person," or whatever we might consider that to be. Everybody's complicated, everybody's really struggling.

On the torture depicted in Prisoners

I can't make a movie unless I believe in the themes behind it. I mean that's the first question I ask myself, always, is what is this movie about? You know? And for me I always thought — and continue to to this day, which is a testament to the fact that Denis Villeneuve, who's the director of Prisoners, really pulled off what he said he would — which is that violence begets more violence, and that's the idea of this film.

And that, really in this case, it's about control. The question of what do we do when we feel out of control? And oftentimes, in a situation like this, violence seems to be the answer. But I think what Denis Villeneuve is trying to say is that it really isn't. That it gains nothing, [it] does not give you more control.

On his shift in his approach to his career

It just stemmed from my family. You know, all of it stemmed from wanting to be near my family, feeling like there were all these families I had made when I was making movies, but that I wanted to be near my real one. And I wanted, you know, my life in particular to be focused and centered around that. So I moved to New York, and got to hang out with my nieces a lot more, and my sister and my mom. And I've always been close with my family, but I just wanted to be literally, physically closer to them.

On moving away from blockbusters

I just felt like I wanted to be excited. I love my work, and 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.

I just — I felt like 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."

And I also, I really do think that that came from a lot of things in my life. Like when I mention my family, it's because at a certain point — you know my parents got divorced when I was 30, you know what I mean, which is a very strange time. My sister was having these two beautiful kids and I wanted to be around. There's so many things — and I just said "Wait a second, wait a second, wait a second, what's real here? I want the real stuff." And I want my work to be as close to that as possible.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block in Washington.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish at NPR West.

And you didn't think we'd leave California without dipping a toe in Hollywood, did you? Last night, we scored an invite to chat with actor Jake Gyllenhaal on the set of his latest movie now shooting in Los Angeles. We arrived around 7:00 last night during the cast and crew's lunch break.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Lunch, everybody go to lunch.

CORNISH: And in a meta-moment, a production assistant led us with our multiple microphones...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It's super tight, so we're going to slip in...

CORNISH: ...through a set. Hi. Audie. Nice to meet you - made to look like a working news studio.

JAKE GYLLENHAAL: No. And you guys are, like, sort of maybe a little bit at home, too.

CORNISH: Jake Gyllenhaal is here to shoot a film called "Nightcrawler," but we were there to talk about the movie out now that has critics singing his praises. It's a crime thriller called "Prisoners." In it, Gyllenhaal plays Detective Loki, a brooding, young cop searching for a pair of abducted girls. He's racing the clock against the kidnappers and the vigilante father of one of those girls who abducts and tortures a suspect.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "PRISONERS")

GYLLENHAAL: (as Detective Loki) Were you planning on taking two little girls?

PAUL DANO: (as Alex Jones) No.

GYLLENHAAL: (as Detective Loki) Have you done it before?

DANO: (as Alex Jones) No.

GYLLENHAAL: (as Detective Loki) Did you ask them to come inside?

DANO: (as Alex Jones) No.

GYLLENHAAL: (as Detective Loki) Did you ask them to come inside the RV and then you take them away?

DANO: (as Alex Jones) No.

GYLLENHAAL: (as Detective Loki) Did you put those girls somewhere?

DANO: (as Alex Jones) May I sit down?

GYLLENHAAL: (as Detective Loki) Did you put those girls somewhere?

DANO: (as Alex Jones) Please don't touch me.

GYLLENHAAL: (as Detective Loki) I know you put those girls somewhere.

CORNISH: Dark stuff. I asked Jake Gyllenhaal how he shakes it off at the end of the day.

GYLLENHAAL: I mean, there's strange idiosyncrasies from roles that I play that I picked up that will never go away. You know, I played this role, detective in this movie "Prisoners," and every once in awhile, while, I'm in a scene sometimes, in this movie I'm filming now, I have - he has this strange sort of facial tick. Occasionally, I find myself, like, wanting to do - like the urge will come up. And sometimes that - an instinct that's similar to an instinct that he had, which is just strange. And I have to ask it to go away, or force it to go away, tell it to stop. It's not right for this movie.

(LAUGHTER)

GYLLENHAAL: And it happens in my regular life, too. I mean, it's fun to get so immersed that it's just as difficult to find your way out as it is to find your way in.

CORNISH: Now, in the movie "Prisoners," your character, Detective Loki, I don't even know if he has a first name.

(LAUGHTER)

GYLLENHAAL: David.

CORNISH: OK.

GYLLENHAAL: But we made that up.

CORNISH: Really? I mean, you don't hear very much from him. He's very solemn and quiet. And like you said, I guess, kind of, there are sort of ticks here and there. But how do you approach a character like that where there's obviously a lot going on but you're not getting to say it all?

GYLLENHAAL: There are so many pieces to that. I mean, to me, it's - he's just not clear about how to express his emotions. For him, I think, it's a very interesting sort of line to walk, where in order to be a very good detective - as I did research, and as I've spent a lot of time with law enforcement - there has to be a deep fascination with the criminal mind, as well as a want to bring it to justice.

So there is this duality that exists all the time with each character. There is not one character in the movie that has one clear through-line, who is just doing the right thing, who is a good person, or whatever we might consider that to be. Everybody's complicated, everybody's really struggling.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: And a core idea of the film actually is torture, in a way. And it tackles something really core, I think, that people are thinking about these days, which is, is torture forgivable if it means you could save a life? And how has that shaped your thinking about this topic?

GYLLENHAAL: Well, I think the idea behind this movie - and it was the reason why I wanted to make the movie - because I can't make a movie unless I believe in the themes behind it. For me, I always thought - and continue to, to this day, which is a testament to the fact that Denis Villeneuve, who's the director of "Prisoners," really pulled off what he said he would, which is that violence begets more violence, and that's the idea of this film.

And that, really, in this case, it's about control. The question of what do we do when we feel out of control? And oftentimes, in a situation like this, violence seems to be the answer. But I think what Denis Villeneuve is trying to say is that it really isn't, that it gains nothing, does not give you more control.

CORNISH: Last year, there were a lot of interviews where you talked about wanting to make a kind of shift in your career or approach to craft. And what did you think that that was going to be like and how has it actually been?

GYLLENHAAL: Well, all of it just stemmed from wanting to be near my family, so I moved to New York and got to hang out with my nieces a lot more, and my sister and my mom and - I mean, also knew that I wanted to be back on stage. There were just a couple of things I felt like I had moved far away from. I've always been close with my family, but I just wanted to be literally, physically closer to them.

CORNISH: I asked because it sounded like you had a pretty strong reaction to the kind of, you know, "Prince of Persia" blockbuster difficulties and deciding, I'm going to go in another direction with my career. And it's one thing to say that, it's another thing, right, to actually make that happen.

GYLLENHAAL: I just felt like I wanted to be excited. I love my work and I had moved away from the work itself and I was being asked questions that I didn't know how to answer, you know.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: About the films themselves or just about what...

GYLLENHAAL: Just in general, you know, life, you know, films. I felt like the reason why I started acting was because I deeply, deeply love acting.

(LAUGHTER)

GYLLENHAAL: 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, you know, make me feel like when I'm on my deathbed, I'm going to go, like, yeah, like, that's the way I want it to be. And I also - I really do think that that came from a lot of things in my life.

Like when I mention my family, it's because at a certain point, you know, my parents got divorced when I was 30, you know what I mean, which is a very strange time. You know, my sister was having these two beautiful kids and I wanted to be around. There's so many things, and I just said, wait a second, wait a second, wait a second. What's real here? I want the real stuff. And I want my work to be as close to that as possible.

CORNISH: Another shift that I feel like I've seen is you pulling out of the kind of tabloid presence. And I don't see, really, social media stuff from you, like tweeting what you had for lunch.

GYLLENHAAL: Why? Are you on your social media - oh, you've been checking out my social media?

CORNISH: I mean, I...

GYLLENHAAL: You've been searching for me everywhere, haven't you?

CORNISH: I might have been one to Google, perhaps.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: What's the deal? You don't want to be in this, it sounds like, and that heart of it.

GYLLENHAAL: I just - I'm old school, you know? Like, I really believe that you can do your work and it will be seen. Like, I also realized, like, I'm not so good at performing myself, like I really don't do that that well. And I think I thought I could do that well for a long time. But I don't feel like I do. And it gives me great relief to know that I can play characters, which I love doing, that I find comfort in being there as - many people might think that's very strange, but I really do love that and find great comfort there.

And all the rest of my stuff in my life has to do with and is shared with a small group of people. And most of them, you know, my little nieces, they know a lot about me, probably. If they told me I should go on social media, then I might go on social media. But I doubt that they will.

(LAUGHTER)

GYLLENHAAL: They're the only two that can convince people.

CORNISH: And how old are they?

GYLLENHAAL: One of them can't even really talk yet.

CORNISH: Oh, OK.

GYLLENHAAL: So, yeah, I'm just going to...

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: It's only a matter of time, though. I mean...

GYLLENHAAL: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

CORNISH: ...it's going to be a minute.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Well, Jake Gyllenhaal, thank you so much for speaking with us.

GYLLENHAAL: Thank you for talking to me. And I just have to say, I'm a huge fan of you and the show and it's an honor to be here. So thanks for coming to visit me.

CORNISH: On set with actor Jake Gyllenhaal, his latest movie is called "Prisoners."

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.