Asking Stupid Questions Made Jake Gyllenhaal a Better Actor

By  · Published on October 29th, 2014

Open Road Films

Last summer Jake Gyllenhaal dropped out of Into the Woods to film Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler. When the two production schedules clashed, the actor had to ask himself: should I make some bank off the huge Disney musical or take a pay cut to star in the directorial debut of the guy who wrote The Fall and The Bourne Legacy? Thankfully, Gyllenhaal didn’t base his decision on how many zeroes his check would have had. That’s not to imply Into the Woods is a project without artistic merit, but how frequently does a character as complex as Lou Bloom come along? It’s a question with an obvious answer, but a potentially moronic question is apropos for a discussion with Gyllenhaal, an actor who’s more than willing to ask questions others might deem stupid.

Bloom features the DNA of Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin, but he’s his own scrappy animal. The young freelance crime journalist is naive, unrelenting, childlike, vicious, disgusting and admirable. He’s a self-starter who will risk his life ‐ and sadly the lives of those around him ‐ to capture the most valuable crime scene footage in order to produce the best story possible for a local news network. When the sun goes down in Los Angeles, Bloom goes on the prowl, ready to hit record on his camcorder at the sight of a dead body.

In the eyes of Gilroy and Gyllenhaal, he’s a nocturnal animal.

To take on the look of a hungry coyote, the actor dropped 30 pounds; he’d often run 15 miles to the set to maintain his figure. The weight loss was a big choice, but it’s really just a part of a long list of ambitious decisions made by Gyllenhaal.

“One day Jake says to me, ‘I’m gonna put my hair up in a bun. Is that cool? I’m gonna wear this twisty thing around my wrist, too,’” Dan Gilroy recollects while on the concept of enthusiasm. “I was, like, ‘Yeah, let’s try it!’ There were other people involved in the film who didn’t understand at first. People were going, ‘Ah, Jesus, he’s putting his hair up in a fucking bun again! What the hell?’ I just said, ‘Hey man, this is going to work.’’ If it didn’t work, Gilroy adds, the choice would’ve fallen on its face.

It may seem strange or minor, but the writer/director isn’t joking about the befuddled reactions that hair bun drew. It’s not the first time a choice on Gyllenhaal’s part has drawn that kind of response, though. “Do you know how terrifying something like that eye tic is to a director, producer, and financier?” asks Gilroy, referring to Gyllenhaal’s performance as Detective Loki in last year’s Prisoners. “They just start to flip out, like, ‘He wants to have an eye tic? What the hell does that mean! How often are the eyes going to tic?’ These are the things Jake will fight for. I was right there with him.”

Gilroy respected his process, which, speaking with the actor himself, is obviously one he takes very seriously.

“Yeah, the hair thing…” Gyllenhaal says, before bursting out into laughter. “I didn’t even realize that was going to register, but the hair thing was my ninja take on the whole thing. When he’s deciding he’s going to rock it out and do something bad or something he’s going to get away with, he puts his hair up. He doesn’t want it to get in the way, he’s a ninja.”

In Gilroy’s air tight script, not once is Bloom referred to as a ninja, nor does he ever put his hair up in a bun. “I think it’s a totally subconscious thing,” Gyllenhaal adds. “There are moments where he doesn’t do it and his hair gets in his face. I did have this idea of him doing it while he’s driving, where he’d be driving with his knee. I mean, driving with your knee in Los Angeles? I like the idea of him driving down the street at 100mph putting his hair up ‐ that just adds some sort of humor. Dan loved it. We’d turn to each other and go, ‘Should we go ninja on this?’ Sometimes we’d go, ‘No ninja, no ninja.’”

In case you’re wondering, yes, I felt silly for asking Gyllenhaal so much about a hair bun, but that seemingly simple choice embodies the kind of thought he puts into his performances. “It’s ongoing,” he says, when it comes to finding all these traits to round out a character. “Sometimes it’s initial, sometimes I have an inspiration where I go, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if someone looks like this?’ The script gives me clues. There was a lot of clues in this script, because it was really well-written.” On other occasions, luck or fate leads Gyllenhaal to the answers he needs. “Sometimes I know exactly what I think, but sometimes the universe will give it to me. I’m doing this movie [Demolition] with Jean-Marc Vallée. I was a week out of shooting and I saw this guy wearing this whole outfit, and I took a picture of him and sent it to Jean-Marc. We talked about it with the costume designer and changed the whole wardrobe idea, based on the universe having me run into this guy. I think of them as clues and run with them.”

Gyllenhaal jokes that directors usually tell him his ideas blow, but the fear of an idea or question being shutdown doesn’t deter him in the slightest. “You ask the simple questions, but I always say it’s the stupid questions people would be embarrassed to ask,” he explains. “Those questions always lead me somewhere. Sometimes it just comes up, like, the thing with the hair ‐ that came up a week into shooting.” A few years ago, though, there’s a chance the actor wouldn’t have asked about using an eye tic or doing something unusual with his hair. “I haven’t always asked those questions. I’ve always been incredibly committed to the characters, but I think I was a bit shyer of bringing those questions up [at first], not knowing what I could ask. I’ve become more clear about the job of the actor, or the role of an actor in a movie.”

Posing these questions is the kind of exploration Gyllenhaal relishes. The actor cites preparation as his favorite part of the process, as opposed to the filming or completion of a project. He says Lou Bloom was a long sculpture, but not his most difficult. “A character is as hard as you want to make it,” he says. “When I did End of Watch that took a long time. I had to undo a lot of ideas and a life experience of my own, to become something, understand something, and become a person who was born to be a police officer. That’s not necessarily who I was before I played the part. I had to unsew parts of my personality to get into that, and that process influenced all the processes of the next few characters I played.”

Gyllenhaal has followed up David Ayer’s End of Watch with Prisoners, Enemy, and now Nightcrawler. One similarity between his latest projects is the successful balance between art and commerce. Of course Enemy isn’t a movie anyone in their right mind would take the whole family out to see, unless of course they had a really awesome family, but Prisoners, End of Watch and Nightcrawler are all uncompromising movies with inherent commercial appeal.

But it’s not hard to imagine that he could’ve missed out on all of them. If The Prince of Persia was a hit, there’s a possibility we wouldn’t have seen Gyllenhaal play Lou Bloom or Detective Loki, which are arguably his strongest performances to date.

So is it a conscious decision on the actor’s part to find that balance between, say, a movie meant to sell toys and one that will never get its own Happy Meal (no matter how cool a little Lou Bloom camera kit might be)?

“I can only do what I can do, you know?” responds Gyllenhaal. “I’m lucky enough I can choose the work in my job. I’m just one of those people where it’s hard for me to fake it. If I’m going to do it, I really, really have to believe in it.”

Despite the recent streak, Gyllenhaal doesn’t see himself as being above popcorn entertainment. He enjoys solid political commentary, but he’d also like it to involve a “a dope action sequence.” Whatever kind of film he’s in, expect the actor to search for something with some meaning and, of course, a project that keeps him asking questions. “I just did this boxing movie [Southpaw] with Antoine Fuqua. Yes, it’s about a boxer and we have four sick fights, but it’s really about a father and his daughter. To me, that’s what the movie is about, because I wouldn’t want to make just a boxing film. I wanted to make a movie about what it means to be a man and a father. I love shooting the fight scenes and learning how to fight, and it’s exciting when they’re dope. It is a balance, but I don’t want to just do things. I just want to feel passionate.”

Nightcrawler hits theaters October 31st.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.