Sharp - - CONTENTS - By Eric Mutrie Pho­tog­ra­phy by Eric Ray David­son / Trunk Archive

Jake Gyl­len­haal plays a real-life hero in Stronger, and proves he’s one of his gen­er­a­tion’s best ac­tors while he’s at it.

back in July, Jake Gyl­len­haal achieved one of New York men’s fash­ion week’s most mem­o­rable looks in just a white cot­ton T-shirt. Not a to­tal sur­prise, given that his blue eyes add depth to even the most ca­sual of his en­sem­bles. But in this case he had some help — his crew­neck, de­signed by Raf Si­mons, was adorned with a poignant slo­gan: “New hor­rors / Old dreams.”

Gyl­len­haal’s lat­est film cuts to the very heart of that di­chotomy. Stronger is based on the best­selling mem­oir of Jeff Bau­man, a man who lost his legs in the Bos­ton Marathon bomb­ing but gained fresh re­solve in its af­ter­math. Or­phan Black’s Ta­tiana Maslany co-stars as Erin Hur­ley, Bau­man’s strong­willed ex, who finds her­self bal­anc­ing lin­ger­ing feel­ings for him with fresh doubts about his de­pend­abil­ity. In one sense, the movie is a time­less love story; in an­other, it’s an all-too-timely look at the lives af­fected by re­cent ter­ror­ist at­tacks. Hope, fear — it’s all there.

So, safe to say Gyl­len­haal’s choice of T-shirt at that fash­ion week event was a case of at­tire mim­ick­ing art. Know this about the ac­tor: he’s will­ing to take crit­i­cal anal­y­sis of his cloth­ing se­ri­ously — per­haps even too se­ri­ously. “I’m a big be­liever in the un­con­scious,” he says, “so I do be­lieve in hor­rors. And there are many hap­pen­ing ev­ery day. But I also be­lieve that your his­tory takes you through the world. And if you want to learn about it, you evolve — and you can turn it into some­thing new. So never deny those things.”

At least, that’s his deep an­swer. The guy spent his years at Co­lum­bia Univer­sity study­ing phi­los­o­phy, af­ter all. But then, as if an­tic­i­pat­ing hav­ing to un­pack this some­what mys­ti­cal re­sponse, he breaks char­ac­ter and comes clean: of all the clothes Si­mons sent him to con­sider for his event, the slo­gan T-shirt was the only item that fit. “But it def­i­nitely had res­o­nance,” Gyl­len­haal in­sists, chuck­ling and begin­ning to sound com­fort­able. “It might have just been fate. I’m glad that it makes me seem more in­ter­est­ing than I am.”

Mod­esty is a hand­some celebrity’s old­est trick, but it doesn’t quite work in this case — we al­ready know that Gyl­len­haal is in­ter­est­ing. Or, at the very least, that he has a knack for choos­ing in­trigu­ing roles. Among his co­hort of tal­ented young-ish char­ac­ter ac­tors, the 36-year-old is the rare one dodg­ing comic book fran­chise con­tracts in favour of sto­ries about tor­mented souls.

Case in point: in 2015, the year Gyl­len­haal’s gutsy per­for­mance as an ob­ses­sive crime pho­tog­ra­pher in Nightcrawler be­came one of the most con­found­ing Os­car snubs to date, Academy Award nom­i­na­tions for Best Ac­tor in­stead went to Bradley Cooper and Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch — the fu­ture Rocket Rac­coon and Dr. Stephen Strange, re­spec­tively. The cat­e­gory win­ner that year was Ed­die Red­mayne, who now head­lines a Harry Pot­ter spinoff se­ries. But Gyl­len­haal has made no such re­cent play for main­stream movie suc­cess. It’s hard to imag­ine that’s be­cause stu­dio ex­ec­u­tives haven’t tried. For his part, the ac­tor has a gra­cious but groan-in­duc­ing re­sponse when ques­tioned about the ab­sence of colour­ful span­dex in his life: “Peo­ple al­ways ask why I don’t play the su­per­hero, but I’m play­ing one in Stronger,” he says. In other words: if any Marvel cast­ing agents are read­ing this, it’s prob­a­bly best just to go ahead and delete Gyl­len­haal’s phone num­ber now.

Granted, he was briefly ru­moured to be re­plac­ing Tobey Maguire as Spi­der-man at one early point in his ca­reer, and did give block­busters a go with lead­ing roles in 2004’s apoc­a­lypse thriller The Day Af­ter To­mor­row and 2010’s video game adap­ta­tion The Prince of Per­sia: The Sands of Time — both dis­as­ter movies in one sense or an­other. (When Gyl­len­haal says “I be­lieve ev­ery movie is about tim­ing — it’s like a re­la­tion­ship. Some­times things are great, and they just don’t work be­cause of tim­ing,” it’s safe to as­sume he doesn’t mean for that line of thought to be ap­plied to his desert ad­ven­tures as a royal war­rior, or to Tay­lor Swift. For the record, he was re­spond­ing to a ques­tion about how the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has height­ened the rel­e­vance of the re­cent en­vi­ron­men­tal fa­ble Okja, which stars Gyl­len­haal as a twisted tele­vi­sion per­son­al­ity.)

Whether as an ad­verse re­ac­tion to his ex­pe­ri­ence on Prince’s theme park– like set or not, the ac­tor has spent the past seven years de­liv­er­ing in­creas­ingly in­tense por­tray­als of in­ner tur­moil. Af­ter first show­ing prom­ise as a moody teen ex­pe­ri­enc­ing dis­turb­ing hal­lu­ci­na­tions in Don­nie Darko, he has made a ca­reer out of em­brac­ing his dark side. At this point, a case can al­most be made that Gyl­len­haal has warped into ex­actly the sort of an­guished char­ac­ter he is drawn to play­ing. His prepa­ra­tion reg­i­mens for his ever-more-har­row­ing movie roles verge on down­right ob­ses­sive. He shed 30 pounds to play Nightcrawler’s rail-thin re­porter, did 2000 sit-ups a day to trans­form into South­paw’s bulkedup boxer, and now, for Stronger, shot a film in which his legs were dig­i­tally re­moved in post-pro­duc­tion.

The lengths to which he will go to in his com­mit­ment to em­body­ing a role have made him a favourite of many ac­claimed au­teurs: Sam Men­des, David

Fincher and, more re­cently, Okja’s South Korean vi­sion­ary Bong Joon-ho and past Palme d’or win­ner Jac­ques Au­di­ard. In turn, these fig­ures have played a role in shap­ing Gyl­len­haal’s ap­pre­ci­a­tion of films as a craft, rather than a com­mod­ity. Sure enough, when asked what drives him as an ac­tor, he quotes his Broke­back Moun­tain di­rec­tor: “I pre­sented Ang Lee with an award some­where and he said, ‘We pre­tend so that we can get closer to the truth.’ I thought, What a per­fect way to sum­ma­rize what we do.”

In that sense, Gyl­len­haal’s own truth may be div­ing to ex­treme emo­tional depths to gain rare in­sights into the ex­tra­or­di­nary lives car­ry­ing on along­side his own. “I act to try to un­der­stand the world around me a lit­tle bit bet­ter,” he says. For him, act­ing is emo­tional ex­er­cise.

This isn’t to sug­gest that he isn’t also drawn to the me­chan­ics of moviemak­ing. On the con­trary, Gyl­len­haal has in­di­cated mount­ing in­ter­est in ex­plor­ing the art of sto­ry­telling from new cor­ners of a film set. Stronger is the first pic­ture pro­duced by Nine Sto­ries, a pro­duc­tion com­pany he founded two years ago. This move could be seen as paving the way for an even­tual Af­fleck-ian tran­si­tion into di­rect­ing. In any case, Gyl­len­haal cred­its the emo­tional po­tency of Bau­man’s nar­ra­tive about per­se­ver­ance through hard­ship for fi­nally con­vinc­ing him to try his hand at pro­duc­ing. “I was just so moved,” he says, bal­anc­ing the sin­cer­ity of a man who truly means that with the pro­fes­sional ded­i­ca­tion of one who would very much like you to see his new film. “I thought, This thing needs to be told.”

As both the star and a pro­ducer of Stronger, Gyl­len­haal has a lot rid­ing on the movie’s gala pre­miere at this year’s edi­tion of the Toronto In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val. The event serves as an early launch­ing pad for Os­car cam­paigns and will act as a lit­mus test for how au­di­ences re­spond to the film’s raw sub­ject mat­ter.

Printed as the front page of the April 16, 2013, edi­tion of many news­pa­pers, a graphic pho­to­graph of Bau­man be­ing wheeled down Bos­ton’s Boyl­ston Street with his legs re­duced to jagged bones be­came the defin­ing vis­ual for an event that rocked the world. The fol­low­ing day, Bau­man awoke from surgery and met with the F.B.I. to help iden­tify one of the bombers — ce­ment­ing his sta­tus as a man for­ever as­so­ci­ated with the resilience of the “Bos­ton Strong” move­ment.

“I do re­mem­ber that image of him,” Gyl­len­haal says when asked how he first heard about the bomb­ing. “I re­mem­ber it strewn across tele­vi­sion sets.” He goes on to con­fess that the morn­ing the Stronger crew recre­ated the bomb­ing on set pro­duced a lot of vis­ceral re­ac­tions. “It was a very in­ti­mate, emo­tional day for ev­ery­one,” he says. “And con­nec­tive. That’s what I felt. It con­nected all of us.”

Even af­ter the movie has moved on from the morn­ing of the marathon, it is by no means easy view­ing. Sure, there are enough funny mo­ments — most of them Red Sox jokes — to re­mind au­di­ence mem­bers that Stronger di­rec­tor David Gor­don Green’s re­sume also in­cludes The Pineap­ple Ex­press. But this is still very much a story about a dou­ble am­putee. And Gyl­len­haal — no stranger to mak­ing au­di­ences un­com­fort­able — does not hold back while por­tray­ing ev­ery­thing that Bau­man en­dures. One early hos­pi­tal scene feels like it lasts for 15 min­utes. Filmed as a close-up on the ac­tor’s face as a doc­tor re­moves su­tures from his char­ac­ter’s out-of-fo­cus stumps, it is a blunt study of ex­treme pain.

For such an in­vested ac­tor, re­flect­ing that level of agony on screen of­ten goes hand in hand with ex­pe­ri­enc­ing it. “You do carry those things with you,” he ad­mits. “There were a num­ber of times on this film where I’d come in the next morn­ing hav­ing done a scene and then not hav­ing slept be­cause I had those mo­ments run­ning through my mind and I was think­ing about what Jeff went through.” Gyl­len­haal spent weeks with Bau­man prior to shoot­ing, study­ing his man­ner­isms and learn­ing how he shifts his weight to move both with and with­out his pros­thetic legs. Now, the two con­tinue to text reg­u­larly as friends.

Yet, as much as each of Gyl­len­haal’s new projects brings its share of fresh psy­cho­log­i­cal bag­gage to process, the ac­tor isn’t feel­ing worn out just yet. “As you get older, [per­form­ing] con­tin­ues to bring you back to a very youth­ful place,” he sug­gests. “When I was re­ally lit­tle, I couldn’t be­lieve that I could have so much fun do­ing it. And I’ve got­ten back to that. But I also think that can be dan­ger­ous. You can be Do­rian Gray in that space.”

Mind you, Gyl­len­haal might wel­come leav­ing a set with the odd dig­i­tal fil­ter still ap­plied to his body. As he en­ters his late thir­ties, he is feel­ing the chal­lenge of main­tain­ing a cover star’s physique with a slow­ing me­tab­o­lism. “The bask re­ally doesn’t last,” he laments. “It sucks. And I haven’t stopped eat­ing any­thing, un­for­tu­nately.” This is a funny ad­mis­sion com­ing from some­one who once lost a fifth of his body weight in prepa­ra­tion for a role. But it’s also a re­as­sur­ing in­di­ca­tion that there is still a pri­vate, real-life per­sona be­hind the worka­holic who is seem­ingly al­ways get­ting into char­ac­ter — and who some­times talks about his movies like he’s afraid a fun an­swer will hurt his cred­i­bil­ity as a se­ri­ous ac­tor.

Thank­fully, when asked about his favourite high-calo­rie in­dul­gence, Gyl­len­haal man­ages a fun an­swer. “Haribo holds a dear place in my heart,” he says. Haribo, for those un­ac­quainted, is the Ger­man in­ven­tor of the orig­i­nal gummy bear. In North Amer­ica, the candy com­pany cre­ates bags of as­sorted gum­mies sold with names like Polka Mix, or Starmix, or World Mix. And yet even this choice of vice quickly re­lates back to Gyl­len­haal’s ap­pre­ci­a­tion of trans­for­ma­tion. “What I love about them is that they have all these va­ri­eties of es­sen­tially the same thing,” he says. “Which is re­ally a mind­fuck in a way. But at the same time, re­ally en­ter­tain­ing. They’re do­ing their duty as en­ter­tain­ers.”

As is Gyl­len­haal, a mod­ern master of be­com­ing hun­dreds of ver­sions of a brown-haired white guy — each one fac­ing off with his own fears in pur­suit of his own dreams. In any guise, the ac­tor is an un­matched force. And por­tray­ing the po­tent con­flict be­tween hope and fear — well, that’s his sig­na­ture style.

“Peo­ple al­ways ask why I don’t play the su­per­hero, but I’m play­ing one in Stronger.”

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