If there’s ever been a potential candidate for a future pretentious Hollywood brat, Jake Gyllenhaal’s your man. His parents are both film industry types, his sister is an actress, and – hello – he used to study East Tibetan Buddhism. Oh, and to top it all off he spent a whole Walt Disney movie rolling around in a plastic bubble. On paper it doesn’t look too good, yet on screen and in the flesh, incredibly, it’s a totally different story.
Slumped on a leather couch in a West London bar, Jake Gyllenhaal is knackered. Dressed in the epitome of Converse slacker cool, his big eyes are drooping and his big hair is all over the place. He’s got reason to be a little tired, having recently finished his London theatre run as Warren in Kenneth Lonergan’s This is Our Youth with Anna Paquin and Hayden Christensen. It’s tiring work smoking fake joints on stage every night for eight weeks with Hayden Christensen (“He roles them man, he’s a genius and they’re rolled really well,” Gyllenhaal says of his co-star’s onstage skinning up skills).
Since his first standout role in October Sky in 1999, Jake Gyllenhaal hasn’t rushed into making a mark on screen. Largely forgotten roles in Bubble Boy and Highway (both straight-to-video in Australia) followed, and his seminal performance in Donnie Darko was let down in America by a cagey distributor that was at a loss as to how to market the future cult classic. In short, all his films have eluded commercial success. Nevertheless, this hasn’t bothered the young actor, who’s been happy to take it steady. “Everyone I respect has taken a long time to get into the business,” reasons the 21-year-old Gyllenhaal. “That’s the advice I’ve been given by a lot of people – don’t jump in too fast, do the things that you care about and see what happens then.”
His role in the excellent Donnie Darko showcases Gyllenhaal’s full range as an actor, from dark comic humourist to tortured soul brooder. Two qualities that are apparent in the forthcoming double volley of films that will quicken the pace of his acting career. In Lovely and Amazing, an ensemble piece about three sisters who are trying to face their various neuroses, Gyllenhaal plays the gentle-natured 17-year-old boss and subsequent lover of a thirtysomething played by Catherine Keener. “Catherine’s fucking amazing,” gushes Gyllenhaal, suddenly sprouting into life at the mention of the actress who’s probably best loved for her Oscar nominated turn in Being John Malkovich. “She’s one of the coolest people I’ve ever met. She’s one sexy woman!”
Gyllenhaal gets to reprise his toy-boy role, be it in a more obsessive fashion, in The Good Girl, with Friends star Jennifer Aniston, an actress still looking to make her mark in film. Gyllenhaal has no doubts that The Good Girl will be Mrs. Pitt’s breakthrough movie in terms of gaining big screen respect. “She’s the lead, man, and she’s amazing,” says Gyllenhaal. “She’s different than she’s ever been before. It’s a dark movie but it’s funny – it’s totally different from anything you’ve seen her in before.”
Gyllenhaal, who plays a character who thinks he’s an incarnation of The Catcher In The Rye’s Holden Caulfield, shares some pretty intimate scenes with Aniston, who’s character sees the young Holden as an outlet to break free from her empty life. So how was Brad Pitt with Gyllenhaal making out with his wife over the course of a few weeks? “Brad said he didn’t mind sharing,” laughs Gyllenhaal. “We even rehearsed at their house – he was really cool with it and made me feel at home when I was there.”
One actress that didn’t provide as smooth an experience for Gyllenhaal was one Maggie Gyllenhaal – his sister. With forthcoming appearances in both the Sundance festival hit Secretary and Spike Jonze’s next film Adaptation, her career seems to be successfully running in sync with her brother’s. This wasn’t always the case though, with Maggie none too keen to be playing second fiddle when cast alongside her younger brother in Donnie Darko. “We didn’t get along,” admits the younger sibling. “We definitely had friction and she didn’t take any of my crap. I was on the set and I wanted all the attention, and she was like ‘you’re an asshole’. However, we also really love each other, so in not getting along it’s a brotherly/sister kind of healthy competition. She’s starting to prove herself more and more now, so it’s not really a problem.” The film world has always been a family affair for the Gyllenhaals. His mother, Naomi Foner, is the Oscar nominated screenwriter of Running on Empty (1988). “Watching Martha Plimpton and River Phoenix rehearse with director Sidney Lumet. That was a big influence on my life,” says the actor of his first sniff of movie making.
Sharing parental duties in film education, Gyllenhaal’s father, director Stephen Gyllenhaal, let him hang around the set of his film Paris Trout, which starred heavy hitters Dennis Hopper, Ed Harris and Barbara Hershey. “There was one time when Ed Harris was in this big scene in a courtroom,” says Gyllenhaal, retelling his experience. “I was there. I think I was making a noise or something at some point between takes. Ed turned and shouted, ‘Can you tell that kid to shut up!’ I remember running out crying – I was so sad. That night I got back to my dad’s hotel room, and under the doorway was a note. It said ‘Jake’ on it. It was a letter from Ed, saying he just wanted to apologise for yelling, telling me he was just preparing for the scene. Those moments of watching people like that go through a process, I completely understand now – it really is a process. When you grow up watching, it’s hard not to want to do it yourself,” he adds. Growing up as an actor, Gyllenhaal successfully rode backlashes to nepotism. “In Hollywood it’s pretty cynical,” says Gyllenhaal. “But they mask it with bullshit optimism. There’s tremendous competition with people in your same peer group, but there’s absolutely no need for it because there’s plenty of roles to go round.”
Having made the conscious decision to take up acting after dropping out of university after two years, where he was studying Indo-Tibetan Buddhism (“It was the only thing intellectually that actually stimulated me.”), under the tutelage of Robert Thurman (Uma’s dad), his recent first professional theatre role in This Is Our Youth signals the seriousness of his acting intentions. “Everyone I’ve ever respected has done theatre,” says Gyllenhaal, “I just worked with Dustin Hoffman on a film called Moonlight Mile, and he told me I needed to do theatre: ‘You’re pretty good, but you’ve gotta get up on the boards.’ He said, ‘it’s always a real testing ground for a new step – go back and test it out, go back and test it out’.” The play also proved to represent a landmark in his career. “This play was really the end of a series of roles,” declares the actor, about his slate of transitional teenager parts. “The roles that are Donnie Darko, The Good Girl and Lovely And Amazing. It finalises the end of a period of time for me.”
Now, it’s “Welcome to the Big Time” for Jake Gyllenhaal. With Moonlight Mile to come featuring the “heavy duty” cast of Dustin Hoffman, Susan Sarandon and Holly Hunter, he’s now due to start filming The Day After Tomorrow, Roland Emmerich’s (Godzilla, Independence Day) global warming epic. Potentially going against the grain of previous roles, Gyllenhaal may welcome the exposure from a Hollywood blockbuster. It might stop people comparing him to Tobey Maguire. “I always get that comparison,” says Gyllenhaal. “I get compared to many different people. People say I look like Robert Downey Junior. They say [opting girlie voice] ‘Oh, your eyes are like Jared Leto’s’. Everybody says different things. It’s the trials and tribulations of being an actor. Time will tell, time will tell…” reflects the young actor.
Donnie Darko is in cinemas now. This article was first published in 2001.