Could Jake Gyllenhaal be any more relaxed? He’s midway through a day of interviews in a central London hotel room and rather than the tired, slightly irritable character that journalists so often meet at interview junkets, the 34-year-old actor is remarkably laidback, giving off the air of a man happy to take everything in his stride. He talks slowly and thoughtfully – he even manages to throw a reference to ‘mindfulness’ into our conversation.
It’s a very different Gyllenhaal from the one in his latest film, Southpaw, in which he plays volatile boxing champion Billy Hope, alongside Rachel McAdams and Forest Whitaker. On the film’s poster the actor is barely recognisable: all shaved head, tattoos, bulging muscles and popping veins. Gyllenhaal has become known for his all-or-nothing approach to acting; for Southpaw he lost 25 pounds, embarked on a gruelling six-hour-a-day gym routine and shut himself off from friends and family. He learnt to box too so that, in a bold move, the punches thrown in the film would actually be real.
Gyllenhaal hasn’t followed an obvious path to stardom. Despite his immersion in Hollywood – his first film appearance came at age 11, his parents are both filmmakers, and his sister Maggie has had a successful and eccentric movie career – he’s favoured more offbeat and challenging roles, from Donnie Darko to Oscar-winner Brokeback Mountain and last year’s surprise success Nightcrawler. In Southpaw he gives a typically committed performance: it’s a grimy and tense film about a fighter trying to rebuild his life after he’s hit by tragedy. It gives us a Gyllenhaal we haven’t seen before, his ‘method’ approach clearly visible in the stilted speech patterns and nervous body language of his character. He might be zen in person, but as he says of his acting: ‘I take it extraordinarily seriously.’
You really immerse yourself in your roles – is it difficult being so ‘method’ in your approach?
‘I would never call acting difficult: it’s just not comparable to difficult things in the real world. Though I believe that there’s a history to
cinema and to film that has to be respected. But it’s all within the realm of sanity, you know what I mean? Within the realm of being mindful. It’s always a challenge, but sometimes it can become absurd!’
Does the process become addictive?
‘I don’t know. I believe that freedom’s the other side of discipline. I’m not sharp enough to just show up and deliver. It takes a lot of preparation. I’ll take anything I can get in order to fill out a character, stuff that will complement the classical technique.’
Eminem was the inspiration for this role and was initially lined up to play the lead character.
‘I’ve never met Eminem. When I first came on to the project there was a lot of talk of the role having initially been developed for Em but when I came along I had a whole slew of other ideas. So it sort of became my thing.
I know he saw and really loved the movie and he’s the executive producer for the soundtrack. I’m planning to meet him after the release.’
The film has a hip-hop soundtrack. Did you use it to get in character?
‘Yes, it was pretty much all hip-hop, some old-school RnB. I was listening to a lot of Nas, Drake, Danny Brown, Eminem, The Weeknd, Jay Z, Wu-Tang Clan, Dr Dre, and J Cole.’
And it’s a boxing film, so we have to ask… If you had to go head-to-head with someone in the ring, who would it be?
‘Oh, man, are you kidding? I don’t want to fight anybody! There are fights that I’d like to go back and see, and people that I’d like to see fight each other, but I don’t think there’s anybody that I’d really want to fight.’
You’ve tended to steer clear of blockbusters, in favour of smaller, interesting projects. How do you choose a role? Is it about the director?
‘Not completely. Sometimes it is and sometimes it’s the director, editor, cinematographer, set designers, producers. I think that a movie is never made with just one mind. I try and have the knowledge of every single department, and what they’ve done.’
Would you like to direct?
‘Yes I would. It hasn’t come up yet. It’s starting to, but I see how hard it is, and how many people think they can do it. I think you really have to know what you want to say. And you really have to be prepared: not just prepared in terms of skill, but as a human, because it takes such patience. I have more to learn, but I’d like to try my hand at it some day.’
Your next film is Everest, with Keira Knightley and Josh Brolin. Did the earthquake in Nepal have an impact on the film?
‘I didn’t film my section in Nepal, but there were a lot of sherpas who helped film the movie. Their lives have been really affected: some of them passed away in the earthquake; others just need help now. I think it’s a really wonderful thing that the movie is coming out when it is, because we have the opportunity to bring awareness about what’s happened – and continues to happen – in Nepal. It’s a long journey to recovery. ’
Your sister recently spoke out about ageism in Hollywood: she was told she was too old to play the lover of a 55-year-old. Have you observed this kind of prejudice yourself?
‘I agree with her. I’ve seen it happen, and not just with actors. In the movie industry there’s a tendency to go with the newest thing because it seems like it has a sense of perfection, no flaws. But in fact I think we can learn from our elders. Everything I’ve learned and been inspired by has come from people who have been through so much more than I’ve been through. I think if the business echoed that more it would be a wonderful thing, and movies would be a lot more interesting.’
Southpaw is out in UAE cinemas from Thursday August 27.