SXSW Interview: Jake Gyllenhaal on the Charms and Heroics of ‘Source Code’

By  · Published on March 24th, 2011

Jake Gyllenhaal last foray into the action lead world wasn’t exactly a successful one. If you don’t know which film I’m referring to, it was the one where he had that interesting accent and played a prince of Persia. Still don’t recall that film? Understandable. But a year after seeing it, you may actually still remember director Duncan Jones’s Source Code and the lead hero of the film, Colter Stevens.

Gyllenhaal is a charming guy. He’s the type of person you could throw a stupid question at who would give you back an interesting or, at the very least, a funny answer. Gyllenhaal rarely gets to show these charms on the big screen, which is a shame, but Duncan Jones smartly allows him to. Gyllenhaal’s Colter Stevens is the type of leading man all us nerds like: he’s brash, witty, vulnerable, and even acts like a jerk at times.

During a recent roundtable interview at SXSW we discussed what type of hero Colter is, Duncan Jones’s style, the script, the ending, and what’s going on with Nailed. There are a few spoilers, but they’re all clearly labeled and skippable:

Press: There were a few scenes where you really had to kind of show humor while everything was very serious around you. And I wonder, as an actor, what do you think about when you’re doing all this serious stuff but you’re trying to throw some humor into the overall sense of it?

I had to be totally aware of what was going on in the story. I had to think about the many different variations that the audience would be thinking about at the same time as being present in the story itself and what was going on with this guy.

Like on a subtle level, like…I watched it last night for the first time, the final version of the movie, and I remembered that…you know, there’s that sequence where I asked the woman for her phone. And it was written I ask her for a phone and then she gives me her phone after she’s freaked out that I beat up the guy downstairs. And I take her phone and I’m looking through it.

And I thought, “That’s a big jump for an audience to do that.” So I realized, Duncan and I talked and I said, “Maybe I have money. I’ll just offer her money.” And he’s like, “That’s a great idea. Get us 100 bucks. Put it in his wallet.” So we tried a take, you know.

And I guess that’s all to say that so I gave her the money, took the phone. And then when I called up Rutledge to say, you know, to think about, “Oh, shit. How am I putting all this stuff together so fast?” You know what I mean? And Duncan and I would continuously have to think about all these things. So that’s all to say that a lot of the choices, particularly narrative in this movie, were thinking about how the audience, as an actor, thinking about how the audience is going to respond.

So the humor comes out of that, knowing…we did variations of it, but knowing that the audience might have to go, “What?” And then we go, “What?” And then they go, “Oh! They know too!” And I like that. I like being involved in…I love playing a character that’s engrossed in the situation he’s in, but also is sort of bringing the audience along too. Duncan and I both love movies that involved those kind of characters, you know?

Press: It’s just a real easy way to connect.

I genuinely care a lot about the audience that’s watching the movie. And I was so excited last night because I thought, like, we pulled so many things off that we were worried about or whatever. I thought, “We’re all together here!” And no better place than Austin, but, you know, I just felt like there’s a real…this is very abstract, but there’s a real connection with an audience that’s hard to make because it’s not live. It’s not live when you’re acting. But you know some day someone will see it. And we pulled it off. And the humor comes from that.

I don’t believe any situation is about humor. Regardless of the oddities of being a human being, they’re tragic, and joyful, and humorous all at the same time.

Press: In the pod when you were acting, it was just you, right?

Just me in the pod. It was so much fun. I actually am an actor that feels most comfortable on stage, and to me it felt very much like a…we would place things out six, seven days each scene on one take. I have a harder time doing little pieces. I have a much easier time one whole take.

And it was wonderful because someone would either be reading the lines to me through a speaker, or sometimes Jerry would say the lines and act out a variation of the lines. But it offered me endless possibilities, and opportunities, and choices. There are takes in our movie that are just crazy, and I love that. I loved it.

And yes, there was no one on the screen. I was just talking to a green screen. Gosh, it’s when you feel like a movie really…people are all on the same page. You know, there are scenes where…nothing was written where I look up and there’s a window because the production designer put a window up there, obviously for light. But as soon as you put a window, there’s a huge question. So how do you answer that question?

Well, you know, I look up there and what’s up there? We have an entire take where I am up there trying to find out what’s up there. We do it for a little bit and the editor, she’s brilliant, asked that question and we answered it. I don’t know, the whole movie’s so fun because it’s full of questions all the time.

Jack: The thing that’s interesting about Colter Stevens is he’s very vulnerable. How important was it to both you and Duncan to have a hero that wasn’t exactly the macho type?

I mean when somebody’s tried like that, I mean how would you feel? [Spoiler Alert] I mean it’s like he says, “One death is service enough.” And then you take me and I’ve apparently signed another thing that says, “Oh no, not one death, five deaths.” Or, “Oh, you get to get reincarnated by the US military.” [Laughs] You know, it’s, “What? I didn’t agree to that!” [Spoiler Over]

You know, there’s going to be a lot of emotions that are stirred from that. Duncan never ever said anything was wrong or steered me in a direction differently. Sometimes he would…I would go nuts on a take and he would say, “Just go do something different.” And he knew I would get him what he needed.

Yeah, he’s a character that’s going through…he gets an opportunity to kind of know he’s going to get reborn. You know, he’s in the pod, but they’re going to send him back in, so he can throw a bit of a tantrum because they still need him and he knows that. He can’t just totally behave himself. He doesn’t need to totally behave himself. And in the train it is the same thing. It offers a lot of opportunities.

Jack: Can you talk about working in an environment like that with Jones where he does not correct you on everything, versus, say, David Fincher, who’s specific on every little detail?

Well, Fincher’s specific on details, but he lets an actor be free within, you know, the number of takes that he does, but he lets an actor be free. And I think that’s a mark of a great director is, you know, as soon as you start trying to put your hands all over a wet sculpture, it starts to fall apart. There is over-kneading that happens with…there are many different examples I can give, but a great director, regardless of their process, always has an actor feel like they have a mind of their own. Everyone just has very different processes. [Laughs]

Press:What was the one moment when reading the script that sold you to do this?

The first 10 pages. Well, the first 10 pages I read and I was like, “Ah, I love this movie!” And then I thought, you know, “It’s gotta suck. It’s gotta fall apart.” [Laughs] It’s just got to! But I think ultimately, even when it didn’t, it was when Duncan wanted to make the movie. I went like, “All right, this is it. I’m so psyched.” I geeked out on him and I geeked out on it…

Press: How was it for an action script like this to come across your table that isn’t just about being in a high concept situation, but also stresses characterization that represents an acting challenge?

Rare. It’s rare. But I also knew the script was taut. The script was wonderful to read. Like so wonderful to read. But I knew that the characters and the ideas…the ideas could get really muddled. Someone could avoid them very easily and say, “OK, well, it works so we’re not going to go there.” And as soon as…again, emphasizing the director, but as soon as Duncan came on, I knew we were going to go there, the emotional place. Which I think basically works because Duncan wasn’t afraid to go to the cerebral aspects of the movie and then immediately, in the end, go to the heart of it too.

And it is rare. But I think it’s even more rare that a director can pull it off. You know, a lot of times they try. “Oh, it’s in there, but we’re going to avoid it a little bit or coat it with this.” And Duncan doesn’t do it. So I think it’s the director even more than the script that’s handed to you.

Press: The scene where you jump off the train, how was that scene shot?

Ah, that’s Duncan. I mean if we had more money to make this movie, you would have had more shots like that from Duncan. I mean he basically had to very, very finely pick what moments he wanted to emphasize. And that’s also what’s brilliant about it. This movie was a small movie in comparison to what it looks like.

And the shot was…you know, it’s three different shots. Takes place over three different sort of environments. The first one was on stage on a non-moving train, which is green-screened, and the shot was a crane shot that came around…the train was cut in half, which they cut in half after we finished shooting the train stuff because we could only afford one train. So they cut it after we had got whatever we needed. And then the shot starts at the back of my head and the crane pulls around. As the crane pulls around to the front of the train, I jump off and I land. And I had to roll in a certain way, which on the first take worked perfectly.

Then we shot the second part outside at the train station and I had to roll like four or five…I had to throw myself into a roll four or five times and then land there on a spot where the crane stopped every time in that exact spot.

Then we put the two together and it’s CGI in the middle so it all becomes. You always want it to be one shot.

But the way he did it, it was all…that was not written in the script. That was not…and he jumps off the train, but Duncan was like, “That’s an opportunity. That’s an opportunity.” I just can’t wait for when he has even more resources for what his mind’s going to do.

And I love directors…and Fincher does this, like when he did the twins in The Social Network where he uses computer generated graphics to actually help the story. They’re all over this movie. And they’re not about showy, you know, “We’re just going to make it look like…”

[Spoiler Alert]

Press: How did they make the dismembered version of you at the end?

That’s a mold of me. That’s a mold. I didn’t see that until I finished shooting. And then I was just doing off camera lines for Vera [Farmiga] on that set because I wasn’t on that set. So I would just sit in a room, in this like dark room, and read lines, see her on a monitor and I’d read her lines…my lines to her.

And then one day he was like, “Come here. I want you to see this.” That was the second day and it was like…I have one picture of me like… [Laughs] And then everyone was like, “Whoa!” And I was really afraid. I didn’t want it to get out on the Internet that that’s what happens, because that’s sort of the essence of it.

Press: As pleasant as the ending is, do you feel like there’s a darkness there in the sense that Colter does take over Sean Fentress’s body?

Yeah, but I also have this belief that the movie is kind of about how we all… souls kinda meld and we become different people and new people within every intersection that we have. Like, whoever’s with us, we interact with them and we become a different person. It shapes us in a different way.

And little do we know that that’s happening all the time. And I think that there are little berths and little debts on a daily basis. And so, who knows? I mean Colter isn’t necessarily… I mean we look at the reflection in the mirror of the beam at the very end, that’s Sean Fentress. You know? I mean, where’s Colter? Is that really Colter? We see Colter but she sees Sean Fentress. So who’s getting the raw end of the deal here? I think it’s a question that’s up in the air.

Duncan said last night when I said, “Well, where’s Sean Fentress?” He was like, “He’s dead.” [Laughs] But I think you need a very steady hand to make rules in a director. For me I think it’d be a little flightier. But I think they’re both all good.

[Spoiler Over]

Press: This over movie you have coming out, Nailed, is there anything you can tell us about that? I mean David O’Russell is no longer associated with that, right?

Well I wonder who’s associated with it if David O’Russell is not associated with it, because it is David’s movie and I made a movie.

Press: Were there reshoots after the fact?

No. It’s still in the process of a number of people who are, you know, non-creative’s trying to figure out how to make something creating. In my opinion, I’m anywhere where David O’Russell is. If he’s not there, I’m not either.

Source Code hits theaters on April 1st.

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