It has become, Jake Gyllenhaal concedes, ‘a bit of a cliché’ to talk about having some sort of ‘revelation’ during lockdown. ‘You hear people say it all the time,’ the actor chuckles over the phone from New York. ‘When everything stopped, there was a real sense of… taking stock.’ But then, clichés become clichés for a reason. Which is a long-winded way of saying: Jake Gyllenhaal had a revelation during lockdown.
‘It was terrible to see what the world was going through,’ he says. ‘But the silver lining was that I was able to take a moment and realise I’d been neglecting a number of things in my life. I’ve been working since I was 11 — work has always been the undercurrent. And, suddenly, it’s like: my parents are getting older, my nieces are growing up…’ His sigh crackles down the phone line. ‘I think in the movie industry our perspective can be that we’ll do anything for a story. You end up neglecting reality for the pretend.’
We’ll come to reality in a moment. As a ‘pretender’, though, it’s fair to say Gyllenhaal is one of the best in the business. Since his breakout role as the rabbit-befriending hero of 2001 cult classic Donnie Darko, the 40-year-old has powered everything from thrillers to sci-fi to offbeat comedies, bagging a Bafta along the way for his performance in gay romance, Brokeback Mountain. This past decade his career has had a kind of manic intensity: a desire to push the envelope as far as physically possible. He has dived head first into distressing subject matter (Prisoners), dramatically dropped weight (Nightcrawler), piled it back on as muscle (Southpaw) and spent months getting inside the head of a Boston Marathon bombing victim (Stronger).
‘It was a phase,’ he says now. ‘I think hitting 40 [last December] had something to do with me realising that. I’m proud of those roles, but there was a desire to prove something. I wasn’t very patient and as a result I wasn’t very joyful. I feel calmer now. That was the thing I came to during lockdown: I want to have much more fun.’
Gyllenhaal’s latest project — part of the reason we’re speaking — may not initially scream ‘fun’, but he insists he had a ball making it. Crime thriller The Guilty — out now on Netflix — is almost entirely a one-man show: Gyllenhaal plays a police officer who becomes embroiled in a disturbing phone call he receives while manning the emergency desk. The film was shot during the pandemic in November last year and almost didn’t happen when someone close to its director, Antoine Fuqua, came down with Covid-19.
‘Antoine tested negative, but he still had to quarantine,’ Gyllenhaal explains. ‘We’d planned an 11-day shoot, and the quarantine is 12 days, so we were feverishly trying to save the movie. In the end, Antoine directed the whole thing on monitors in a van outside the stage. We didn’t see each other in person once.’ It sounds like an incredibly difficult way to work, but Gyllenhaal insists it played to the film’s advantage. ‘I already felt alone during that [lockdown] period,’ he says. ‘I think we all did. That’s what the movie is about: not being able to get at people, judging people from afar. When I watch the movie back, I see all that in it.’
As the film’s producer as well as its star, Gyllenhaal has seen The Guilty in the edit suite more times than he can count. I wonder how often he rewatches his other movies — does he occasionally stick on Brokeback Mountain or Donnie Darko of an evening? The line is flooded with laughter. ‘I do not.’
Why not? Those films are great! ‘It’s not that I don’t want to,’ he says. ‘I don’t cringe at the idea. But Donni Darko and Brokeback Mountain were very different experiences for me than the finished movies. If I watch them, I remember what happened on that particular day of each scene. I have a strange photographic memory: I can remember exactly who was walking in the background behind the camera during a particular shot. Plus, once something is out there you get a response, people tell you what they think of it, and that clouds your own experience. Luckily, The Guilty was a positive experience all round.’
In the film industry, you end up neglecting reality for the pretend
The film wrapped just weeks before Gyllenhaal’s 40th birthday, celebrations for which were conducted over Zoom due to lockdown. ‘It was wonderful, though. A very reflective 40th.’ I’m interested to know what he thinks the next decade might hold. Does he want to write and direct?
‘That is absolutely what I hope the next decade holds,’ he says. ‘My sister [Maggie] has begun directing and writing, and hopefully that’s somewhere I’m headed, too. As always, she leads the way.’ Are there any traces of sibling rivalry between them? ‘Oh, not at all,’ he laughs. ‘Maybe I felt differently back in the Prisoners phase, but now I don’t. I don’t think she or I would be doing what we do if we hadn’t had each other’s support. I hate to be boring, but I’d walk through fire for her.’
His older sister is a huge part of his life in New York and when he’s not spending time with her, her husband (actor Peter Sarsgaard) and their two daughters, Gyllenhaal can be found rediscovering ‘an old childhood love’: ocean fishing. ‘I go off the Cape, fishing for striper, bluefish, albacore. Those are all probably called different things in the UK. But I love to be on the water. I’m in awe of the ocean.’
This aquatic awe was partly what attracted him to the other project we’re here to discuss: his role as ambassador of the new Prada fragrance, Luna Rossa Ocean. The campaign for the scent involves a brine-soaked Gyllenhaal piloting a boat into an ominous-looking storm. ‘It matched the things I love,’ he explains. ‘I grew up sailing [he was raised in LA], I love being physical on the water. It felt right in terms of my own aesthetic.’ He features regularly on best-dressed lists, but it’s clear from speaking to him that Gyllenhaal’s interest in fashion goes far beyond red carpet attention grabbing. ‘At its highest level, fashion is a beautiful form of expression,’ he says. ‘And you Brits have a wonderful way with it. I’ve such admiration for the grace of [British] tailoring. As you get older, that formality feels like a beautiful thing. Particularly now — when everything’s available instantly, we’re all on the go — it’s lovely to go back to such formality.’
It’s not difficult to see why Gyllenhaal might yearn for a slightly simpler time. This is, after all, a man so famous that a recent offhand remark about his showering ritual sparked thousands of screaming headlines such as: ‘JAKE GYLLENHAAL BECOMES LATEST CELEB TO SHUN BATHING’. As our time draws to a close, I wonder: does it still amaze him that one innocuous comment from his lips has the power to set the internet alight?
‘Absurdity,’ he responds, ‘is a wonderful part of life.’ The laughter comes tinkling down the line again. ‘We cannot do away with absurdity. If we do away with absurdity, we are doomed.’
The Guilty’ is on Netflix now. Prada Luna Rossa Ocean, £74 for 100ml, is available nationwide