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Jake Gyllenhaal Talks Nightcrawler

Jake Gyllenhaal dropped a stone and ran with wild animals to prepare for a performance that’s about to secure his place in cinematic history. Andrew Dickens meets a man at the top of his game...
Jake Gyllenhaal is not one to stay still. It might look as if he’s sitting still, in his medium-sized hotel room chair, but that’s just external stillness. Inside his head, I’m pretty sure the neurons are on fire, beaming thoughts around his skull like trillions of explorers searching for things far, far away from the conversation we’re having. I’m not saying Gyllenhaal is rude. Far from it; he’s exceptionally friendly and polite. We’ve even chatted about the most polite subject on Earth: the British weather, in particular our reaction to sunshine. He notes our inability to leave an inch of grass uncovered by human flesh; I explain our distrust of good weather and subsequent reluctance to leave umbrellas at home.
No, Gyllenhaal is lovely. It’s just that he just gives an air of not quite being 100 per cent present. As if, while engaging with you, he’s also engaging with dozens of other plans, appointments and theories. Perhaps it’s those dreamy eyes, perhaps it’s his penchant for complex characters – or perhaps it’s what he’s just said. The 33-year-old is in Toronto (experiencing its own heatwave), at the film festival, promoting his latest project Nightcrawler. The film is phenomenally good; Gyllenhaal is phenomenally good. I’m talking career-best performance. I’d just put that notion to him.
“I’ve heard that, but I say, ‘That’s cool, I’m on to the next film,’” the actor had replied. “I’m about to make a movie [Demolition] with Jean-Marc Vallée, and that’s my focus. When I was here last year, doing interviews for other films, I was memorising my lines for Nightcrawler. I had a piece of paper in my pocket and tried to memorise soliloquies between interviews – that’s where my head is.”


For an interviewer, it’s not quite like your partner telling you they think of someone else during sex, but you do feel the need to up your game. And – cue lazy link – talking of upping games, Gyllenhaal has shoved his into orbit with this film. I said it’s a career best, but it could be career-defining. I’ll stick my neck out and say that for his Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler, read Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Yeah, that good.
Like Bickle, Bloom is the archetypal movie ‘Triple-L’ – loner, loser, lunatic – and just as much a product of his time. Where Bickle was inspired by the cesspit that was Seventies New York, Bloom is the product of consumer capitalism and the cult of the individual. Bickle was angry, Bloom is calculating. Making his living from petty crime, he has big dreams. He learns from online self-help courses and quotes them like scripture. He’s a go-getter, but what he’s going to get is as deep as Clingfilm. “He’s a product of what we’ve created,” says Gyllenhaal, “a generation of people desperate for jobs who have been told that it’s success at any cost. And that success really is monetary or fame, convention would say. So Lou is looking for that.”
He finds it through gruesome serendipity. Passing the scene of a car crash, he encounters a couple of ‘stringers’: freelance cameramen who make a living from selling up-close footage of shocking incidents to local news channels. After questioning one (Bill Paxton), Bloom hears the sound of opportunity knocking, and we see a witty, unnerving, occasionally hilarious satire unfold. He gets himself a cheap camera and begins to get work from a struggling night-shift editor (Rene Russo), thanks to a willingness to stick his camera where others won’t at crime scenes and accidents, pushing this business model to ever more extreme levels. In his quest for ‘success’, he takes no prisoners, exhibits few morals and leaves no bloodied corpse unturned.
“Lou is, to me, a representation of this generation where privacy no longer exists,” continues Gyllenhaal. “There’s a sort of apathy where there’s no sense of ‘what we’re doing not everyone wants to know about’. He is the epitome of right now. What a job is, that’s evolving. It’s harder to get a job, so people like Lou find jobs in these strange cracks within the system, that are going to become larger. They’ll become openings for people like him. Lou wants to be the guy who owns the station.”


Fascinating and frightening a reflection of society as Lou is, as crisp and pointed his dialogue, any character is only on paper until an actor gets hold of him – and Gyllenhaal’s performance is pretty much perfect. By that, I mean you forget he’s Jake Gyllenhaal. He becomes Lou. He sells Lou. You believe in Lou. Gyllenhaal’s transformation, off screen, was rather public. You might remember those pap shots of him last year looking like an unwrapped mummy. Well, despite the rumours of illness or a new He-Man film, that was just the emaciated Lou emerging. But unlike some actors who have ‘morphed’ on the instructions of a director, or because a role clearly requires it (or to win plaudits), Gyllenhaal just decided that’s what Lou looked like. He actually chose to look like that.
“I’ve spent the past few movies trying to follow these weird instincts I have,” he says. “When I did Prisoners [as a fairly messed-up police officer on the hunt for missing children], I had this idea that he had this certain way of communicating, this sort of tick, and I just sort of went with it. The same with Lou. I went to the animal kingdom for him. This guy’s like a coyote; someone who is hungry and preying on desperate individuals.
“Growing up in LA, coyotes are a fixture, and I think Lou is essentially at the heart of a dark side of Los Angeles – this sort of shallowness, this ambitious side that lurks there in the shadows, always, in such a bright city. The vision of him being a coyote, far beyond losing weight, it was about running 15 miles every day, running in Griffith Park in the woods with the coyotes, thinking I was with my brethren. He needed to be like an animal – to look and feel like an animal. It was a mentality.“
Now do you believe me when I say Gyllenhaal is a deep thinker? He is not, it’s safe to say, business-like when it comes to his career. This coyote doesn’t seek megabucks roles and he’s thus far steered clear of pension-padding franchises. He’s a man finding himself, marking out his comfort zone – which might well rely on him feeling uncomfortable for it to be comfortable, if that makes sense. It’s hard to say. But what’s easy to say is that he’s on a roll. He’s at a point where he could upgrade from good to great.


Nightcrawler might well be a career-topper, but it’s a close-run thing. Prisoners and Enemy, the films he was promoting in between line-learning last year, also saw Gyllenhaal in fine fettle. In Prisoners, he battled with an equally impressive Hugh Jackman and Paul Dano for plaudits. In Enemy (released here in January), to quote a sporting adage, he’s only competing against himself. Quite literally; he plays two men who find they’re doppelgängers, and not in a fun way.
Before that, there were the surprise hits End Of Watch and Source Code. These are all low-to-medium (in Hollywood terms) budget films that made 
a lot of money, not because they were marketed to death or had a ‘name’ on the poster, but because they were intelligent, well-made, well-acted adult films that dealt with real issues and, believe it or not, people will actually spend money on that kind of thing. It’s a style of film Gyllenhaal has always done best: Brokeback Mountain, Zodiac, October Sky, Brothers, Jarhead. This is his comfort zone, and it is full of flawed, confused, occasionally dangerous, occasionally heroic, but always strikingly human characters. There are no fluffy pillows in this zone. 
“I feel like, right now, I’m trusting myself in a way that I feel clear about myself, I feel calmer,” says Gyllenhaal. “I’m very proud of this role, and the work I’ve been doing and the people I’ve worked with. My intention is to keep mining – I go down, do my thing, I come back and someone tells me I’m doing good. Though sometimes they don’t say that. I’m happy about staying true to my instincts. Nothing else comes into play.“
“My decisions have been me going, ‘This is my life, I’m going to spend two, three, five months with this person and I’m going to try to give my all. This is my life, I don’t want to waste that time.’ Over time, I’ve learned that there are certain things I can’t do, then there are certain things I really can. To use my discretion. Often you don’t have that.”


As dark, damaged, deranged or delusional as many of his characters have been, Gyllenhaal has had lighter roles, in comedy dramas such as The Good Girl  and Love & Other Drugs, though even these leant towards more shady laughs. And let’s not forget his holidays on the Costa Del Blockbusta with The Day After Tomorrow and Prince Of Persia: Sands Of Time. These, again, made vast sums of money, even against their enormous production budgets; in fact, the latter is still the most successful video-game adaptation ever.

I ask if he’d ever return there, or if he’s happier on the less sunny side of the street. The impression I get is that this man, who doesn’t stay still, is probably more interested in moving forward. “The answer is just as unknown to me as it is to you,” he says. “I can’t say where I will go or what will inspire me. I was a different person then. Yesterday, three people came up to me at this party and said, ‘I want you to know I love October Sky,’ a movie I made when I was 17 years old. I love that film, but I’m no longer the person that was in that movie. I’m a different incarnation of that person.
“I oddly don’t consider the roles I play to be dark – I feel like there’s an honesty to them. They’re dealing in dark worlds, but many of them have had good moral compasses – with the exception of one. Dark worlds feel more real to me than everything being bright, shiny and happy. It’s a sunny day, but we’re still carrying an umbrella.”
OK, so maybe he was paying attention.
Nightcrawler is at cinemas nationwide from 27 October



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