Commitment to his craft has made Jake Gyllenhaal an Oscar-nominated star. But, as Joe Ellison finds, researching his role for cop thriller End Of Watch proved life-changing.
Sporting the kind of beard an Edwardian cricketer would be proud of, Jake Gyllenhaal looks almost unrecognisable as he sits down with ShortList in a New York hotel. His cultivated fuzz (sprouted for his Broadway debut in play If There Is A Heaven I Haven’t Found It Yet) is even more notable given the clean-shaven, skinheaded look he recently adopted for End Of Watch – a gritty new thriller in which he and Michael Peña play cops on patrol around gangland LA.
And having spent months immersing himself in the South Central arm of the LAPD, it’s clear that, for the fiercely dedicated 31-year-old, preparation went far beyond merely asking the barber for a grade two.
So how much training did you do for End Of Watch?
It was five months, non-stop. I did three ride-alongs a week, from 4pm until 4am. I also did live tactical training twice a week, sometimes spending up to six hours on the gun range.
Did you have trouble convincing your agent to let you do it?
It’s interesting you say that because [it points out] how the business is taking over any sense of creativity that anybody might have. Everyone’s going after some goal, be it financial or otherwise and, in my perspective, that is totally out of whack. But no, I wouldn’t work with an agent like that.
You’re from Los Angeles – did you see a different side of your city on the ride-alongs?
Totally, man. Our shifts were based around South Central, and while I wasn’t raised too far away from there, LA as I knew it was massively different, almost like another city. It was another world. The violence I saw was disturbing and definitely life-changing. There’s such a stigma in movies about the violence going on in those deprived areas. You don’t see the other stories going on. Police officers and gangs are families, too. Spending time in the neighbourhoods, I was surprised by the culture, the families, the loyalty, and the amazing food they have.
How did the cops treat you at first?
I don’t think either of us realised how much we needed to trust each other. The officers were automatically thinking, “Will you be able to handle the things you’re going to see, and can we trust you not to put us in danger?” While I was thinking, “Can I trust you not to tell people who’s riding in your car?” But the trust came more easily than we both imagined. Most of the real bonding was the time spent between calls, just getting to know each other over a coffee. I suppose witnessing horrific crimes with them also helped me connect with them.
What crimes did you see?
A few gang-related murders.
Which one sticks in the memory the most?
It was on my first ride-along, and before Michael [Peña] was even cast in the movie, so I was alone in the car with the two officers. We got a call. It was a Code 3 [a life-threat emergency] with reports of a shooting. We drove 80mph down Crenshaw Boulevard, an infamous gang hotspot, hopped out at this house and the shoot-out had just ended. I could see a guy slouched next to his car, with a pool of blood around him. He’d been shot by a rival gangster walking down the street, as he was trying to get into his car. He just bled out and died.
How did that affect you at the time?
So many things were going on in my head. My first feeling was how absurd it was that I was there – I’m just an actor making a movie. The officers have gallows humour. They had a relationship with this murdered guy and could guess what the killing was over. It was as if I’d opened a storybook on page 70 and walked into it, and these guys had been there since the first chapter.
Did the officers ask if you wanted to call it a day after that?
They didn’t. The only time I wanted to call it a day was when the job was utterly boring. But that’s when you learn the most – you’d be sitting around watching the world go by, but then get a call at 3.30am and go to a scene of a gang fire-fight and see a bloody body. That’s such a mind-f*ck.
Did you experience any funny encounters on the job?
The laughter comes in the little things – like figuring out where to eat, because people will do crappy things to the food if you’re a cop. Seriously. And when you do eat, like clockwork, locals will come up and ask you questions about parking tickets or when their cousin will get out of jail. Oh, and I got Tasered, which wasn’t as funny at the time [laughs]. The guys asked me if I wanted to feel what it was like and I said, “Yeah, f*ck it.” They put one wire on my chest, the other one on my leg and let the current run through me. It was five seconds, but it was jarring.
Did anyone spot you and ask for an autograph during the ride-alongs?
Weirdly, no. Maybe I did get recognised, but I’d be sitting there with police officers and sometimes detectives wearing bulletproof vests, so most people were probably either too intimidated or too confused to ask for an autograph.
Did officers ever tell you that you’d make a good cop?
They did, but I don’t know if that was just them being nice. Michael and I started to feel like partners after a while. He was also a better shot, without doubt. The first time we went to the range he put eight shots in the X. He put his steady aim down to the fact he plays golf.
Have you ever been on the wrong side of the law?
Not so much. I’ve been talked to by the authorities after some Halloween pranks as a kid – I can’t remember what they were – and I’ve been pulled over for speeding tickets. But except for a little mischief like that I’ve never been to jail or anything. How about you?
I stole a chocolate bar when I was eight and was told off by a shop manager…
That’s badass! You put me to shame.
You came close to playing both Batman and Spider-Man. Are you over the superhero thing now?
At a certain point you realise there’s always someone more interesting, talented and ready to do a role than you are – and you won’t get every role you go for. All I want right now is to hone my skills and become a better actor, not dream about wearing a cape. But you never know.
After nude scenes in Brokeback Mountain and Love And Other Drugs, are you now impervious to embarrassment on screen?
Do you think there is one person on Earth impervious to embarrassment? And do you think it would be me? That’s a rhetorical question, and I’ll leave you with that.
End Of Watch is at cinemas nationwide from 23 November
(Image: All Star)