Jake Gyllenhaal is used to his place in the spotlight… so what did he learn from a man who had fame thrust upon him?
When Jake Gyllenhaal was cast as Jeff Bauman, whose catastrophic injuries at the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing resulted in both of his legs being amputated above the knee, the choice was criticised by an American foundation angry that real amputees weren’t considered for the role. It is hard to think of anyone, however, giving a more rounded performance than the actor famous for Donnie Darko, Brokeback Mountain and Nightcrawler.
That said, Bauman didn’t mollycoddle him while they worked together, on and off, for a year. “He was constantly reminding me that there are a lot of people who could have played this, maybe even better than me,” says Gyllenhaal, laughing loudly, when we meet. Bauman’s honesty was humbling to someone who “lives in a world where people are always trying to make me feel special,” he admits. “Jeff reminds me of the fact that I’m not, and I think that’s important for a narcissistic actor.”
Gyllenhaal – who turns 37 this month – grew up in LA, the son of film director Stephen Gyllenhaal and screenwriter Naomi Foner. He started acting young, making his screen debut at the age of ten as Billy Crystal’s son in City Slickers. It was, by his own admission, a privileged upbringing. Even so, Gyllenhaal has convincingly inhabited characters from all different backgrounds.
He knew bringing Bauman’s story to the screen in Stronger would be especially challenging but, he admits, hadn’t expected it to make him fundamentally “question my intentions as an actor, and why I do the whole thing. Jeff has a pretty good bulls**t meter and pointed out to me my own falseness… he illuminated my fraudulence.”
For a lot of actors, the parts they play tend to be wish-fulfilment, suggests Gyllenhaal. In this instance, though, he found himself “in a space with somebody who’d gone through something I don’t think I would be able to survive.” This created “extraordinary doubt”.
If Gyllenhaal was worried, it doesn’t show on screen, where nothing about his portrayal of Bauman’s struggle to “recalibrate his life” rings false. In large part, this is down to his preparation. There was plenty for Gyllenhaal to research, including the effects of PTSD, and the mental/physical impact of losing one’s legs. He collaborated with a dialogue coach to nail Bauman’s Boston accent and listened to numerous interviews to discover “who he really was, because he wasn’t very forthcoming with information”. Gyllenhaal also met Bauman’s family, and the medical teams who’d helped with his rehabilitation, as well as the technicians who designed and built his groundbreaking prosthetic legs.
He observed how Bauman got around without any aids, and became obsessed with the way his stumps moved, particularly the speed made possible by not having the weight of the lower section. “His legs were moving at a pace that I wasn’t used to seeing,” Gyllenhaal explains. “So how do I put that in my physicality?”
Methods of creating the illusion of amputation ranged from holes in the ground to holes in a bed, to the actor wearing green socks (so they could be digitally erased) with his legs stretched out straight. It was tough, physically. “But incomparable to what Jeff goes through, or went through.”
We are talking soon after the Las Vegas mass shooting, and we discuss how President Trump cited the terrorist attacks in Boston, and Orlando in June 2016, to justify measures such as the travel ban on people from specific, predominantly Muslim, countries. Gyllenhaal is no fan of the former reality TV star or his policies, but says that because an “electoral majority” of his fellow citizens decided to make him president, “I have to take some responsibility in that.”
He asked Bauman if he’d forgiven the bombers, and was told: “I don’t know about forgiveness, but they’ve done what they’ve done and I don’t really think about them much.” Does terrorism play on Gyllenhaal’s mind when he attends big events? “If I were to answer that, I feel like we would be edging back into the same conversation that I’m trying to move away from with this story,” he says. “And because I’m relatively savvy in this job, I know how my response will become the more important headline.”
The film isn’t about “the fear of the event,” he insists, “or the extraordinarily complicated, sometimes incredibly frustrating and terrifying political situation that we find ourselves in, but in the triumph of the human spirit in the face of what seems like the impossible. And that’s what I want to make the headlines.” “
I believe in hope. I also believe there is darkness and there are moments where you feel like you will never get out of that darkness. But in the end, because it’s how I was brought up, I believe in love. I really do,” he exclaims, laughing. “I’m a positive person!”