SXSW Interview: Jake Gyllenhaal: “Finding out the ‘why’ is always the most important thing”

Jake Gyllenhaal talks about his Source Code injury, how acting against a green screen was freeing and give us his advice to actors!

The Jake Gyllenhaal that I met during the roundtable interview at SXSW has never really been seen on screen; he was affable, funny, warm and smart. Love and Other Drugs showed pieces of that and Source Code ( yes, Source Code!) gets even closer. Directed by Duncan Jones, it’s a sci-fi action adventure but it also has a nice romantic sub-plot that really works for the movie.

It was filmed in two parts; the train section with Michelle Monaghan and the pod section with…himself. He occasionally worked with Vera Farmiga but most of the time it was him and a green screen.

Jake talked about his on-set injury, his desire to direct, how acting against a green screen was freeing and give us his advice to actors.

The interview had some spoilers that I removed so if you’ve already seen the movie, check out the audio portion.

For the full interview, click the audio link above or download it from iTunes

Prince of Persia, that was your first foray into action heroism, are you more comfortable now beating up guys and jumping off trains?

Jake Gyllenhaal: [laughs] Wait, is that a similarity between the 2 movies?

There was definitely a little bit of a confidence. When we did that shot jumping off the train, there’s a shot that Duncan did which is kind of brilliant. I hope he does Anatomy of a Scene for that shot ‘cause it was 3 different parts and I have to do the first jump off of the train, and it was timing and the camera, and the whole thing. And then it was like, “I got it guys. I know. I’m cool.” And then I injured myself. But in terms of the process of doing things like that, I got a lot of experience off of a number of the movies that I’ve done that have action or a little bit of fighting and stuff in them.

What was the injury?

Jake Gyllenhaal: If you see in the movie, when I jump off the train and then my legs go up and then I land on my shoulder, I just injured my shoulder and then I rolled. Rolled from jumping off the train. It was kind of an intense impact, rolling off of a…or jumping off of a moving train. It wasn’t moving when we shot. [laughs]

You actually introduced Duncan to the script. Can you talk about what about Moon appealed to you and how he came on board?

Jake Gyllenhaal: Well, with Moon when I saw it I was just so impressed by the confidence and the sense of rhythm and the visuals and the sense of humor that was very subtle. And at the same time, a nod to a lot of other films and filmmakers and styles that I could feel instinctually that was coming from him. And then also, in the middle of it, a really nuanced, incredible performance by an actor who is clearly allowed to feel free within the confines of all these things.

Which means that the person who’s directing it has such a fine hand and such a great confidence that clearly, he knew what he was doing. And when you see that, with such a rare quality… It’s such a rare thing to have all those qualities that I was like, I would love to work with this guy. And he had written it, and he had made it happen for very little money and just wonderful, fascinating. And so I met him and I was sort of attached to Source Code as a thing, but I didn’t meet him with the intention of having him direct the movie, I didn’t think I had that kind of say in the situation. I met him… it was a general meeting where I thought he wanted me to play a small part in the movie that he was writing. So we just met and had a nice time, he was a cool guy and had a laugh and left and I thought, “Wait, there’s something I want him to read maybe he’d want to direct this,” totally thinking he would say no but I would love to hear his ideas. And we sent it to him as kind of a role of the dice and like 5 days later he was like, “I wanna direct the movie.” I was like, “What are you kidding me?” And 4 months later we’re shooting the movie.

I mean literally it was like so fast. And that’s him though, I mean not to sound cliché, but he’s in the world of like, he tweets, and he’s involved and he’s very savvy. He’s like let’s do it, let’s do it, I know it. And then, ironically in that world of he’s very fast pace, he pulled all these things that made it much more complicated and confusing out of the screenplay and there was a real simplification of everything, and as a result, I think the movie is incredibly narrative, incredibly successful because of the choices he made.

The movie did not work until he came on it. It didn’t totally make sense to what it was to me until he came on it, and then I realized, it was gonna be something fascinating when he did.

You spend have the movie with Michelle and then the other half by yourself. How was that?

Jake Gyllenhaal: What I loved about it was the sense of isolation. Duncan was always there with me, so even when I was talking to the green screen in that pod, I’d hear either Vera’s voice or a variation. Someone will be reading the lines to me or sometimes we would do it without anybody reading it, and I would just memorize. I memorize their lines too ‘cause you do these like 6 minute long takes, and it was so fun. I mean, I could make any choice that I wanted. ‘Cause so often, you work with people and you’re responding. But I mean, I was literally talking to the screen that would eventually become Vera, and I loved it, I loved that, and it didn’t present a challenge, it really presented opportunities to me. It was like I could respond in any way and then I also, I loved how confined and structured the train was. And that was what we shot first, so we had that and then we broke out into this. I love shooting this movie. It was so much fun and Duncan made it so fun, it made me feel empowered and he just wanted it weirder and weirder and weirder, every time I can make it stranger he would love it and that’s just, that’s my kind of guy..

You found the script, you brought Duncan the script, you were really like a huge part of this. It feels like collaboration with you and Duncan.

Jake Gyllenhaal: I think with a great director they make you feel like you’ve been part of collaboration when really you’ve been masterly manipulated. And that’s a great feeling ‘cause you feel like you’re in the hands of somebody who knows exactly what they’re doing and yet your ideas are important because if you happen to be in every scene it matters that you’re a part of the journey with them. So, I think Duncan is a master of that, and he definitely always wanted my opinion, and I sat in a couple of screenings and he always wanted to hear thoughts and stuff like that.

Do you have any intention of directing?

Jake Gyllenhaal: Yeah, yeah, I would love to. I’ve sort of grown up loving storytelling and to me what was more important is the movie being great, even more than my performance. And that’s what I care about. I’ve worked with such incredible people and working with David Fincher and working with Ang Lee – and that’s somebody that Duncan reminds me of is Ang in a way in his demeanor, he’s very reserved and quiet yet incredibly stable. I mean he jokes with you guys but when you’re shooting the movie, he’s very quiet and has a lot of confidence in his actors. And gives you what would seem like free reign. And so because I’ve been involved with these people, I can’t help but take things from them. I love storytelling, so I would hope one day that I get to do that. Try my hand. Because I think it also gives you a perspective as an actor, you see how hard it is, I think a lot of actors go like, “Oh, yeah…”. And it’s so hard.

Along those lines of acting, what would your advice to actors be?

Jake Gyllenhaal: I think mostly, my advice to anybody making movies that I can see that works is know why you’re doing something. Know from the start. Even if it’s something you’ve been cast in that you’ve wanted, you auditioned for and you just need a job. The finding out the why is always the most important thing. It’s like, when you go to a Sundance Lab, which I happen to have the opportunity to go to as an actor there, working with filmmakers who are trying to make their first films or independent films, the best questions that a mentor would say there is, “Why?”, like, “Why do you wanna make this movie?” And it’s amazing to hear someone when you ask that like there’ll be, “Whoa! ‘Cause like…” No, it should be a sentence,”Why?” And if you can answer that question then you’re good, you’re good to go. Cause no matter what, you’re losing it ‘cause you’ve done it a million time and you’ve lost the sense of what the scene is, you go back to that one sentence, this is why.

So what is your one sentence for this film?

Jake Gyllenhaal: It’s a movie about rebirth. It’s a movie about… that’s another sentence is that ok? [laughs] It’s a movie about how I believe and I can see that in everyday, said this last night at the screening, but I believe every day that we have little births and little deaths. And if we pay attention to them in their interaction to the people, we can see that there’s a cycle to things and this movie seems like, at least philosophically, that idea to me. Every time I would come back in to the Source Code and as an actor, and I think every time the character does, it’s like another chance, it’s another chance, and it’s about, even as you believe things die they are reborn.

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