It’s hard to believe, but Jake Gyllenhaal has been working in front of the cameras for nearly a quarter century—since debuting as Billy Crystal’s son in 1991’s City Slickers. In the ensuing time, he has had an increasingly remarkable filmography, including such edgy and groundbreaking films as Brokeback Mountain, Zodiac, End of Watch, Prisoners, The Enemy and the upcoming Southpaw. But his role as creepy TV news cameraman Lou Bloom in Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler might be his most powerful work to date. Gyllenhaal describes the character as a “human coyote.” Channeling an animal’s innate hunger and drive, he nails it.

What appealed to you about taking on this film, as the star as well as a producer?

This character was beautifully written. The dialogue is pretty extraordinary. Just even the style of the script was an amazing read. I found it satirical. The irony is that I think it’s incredibly funny. There aren’t many movies that are subversively communicating an idea through a character. I think we all have a part of ourselves who is a little bit like Lou. We all (should) feel a little complicit in creating Lou because he’s a product of our need to consume.

I’ve worked in TV and did entertainment news shows. I saw them switch into tabloid news…

There’s a point when you have unimportant information being important and important information being unimportant—when you can go on the home page of a major news site and have a story about the State of the Union address alongside videos of a cat surviving a 40-foot fall. Journalists and the media are giving the audience what they want. When I look at someone like Lou, or local news, I say, “Well, they’re enabled by the person who’s buying this footage, and then those people who are buying footage are enabled by us.” There was this really interesting moment when we were shooting where one of our grips got into a car accident. And she was fine, but she came to the set a few days later and she said, “I was being pulled out on a stretcher and there were stringers videotaping me. In one moment I was feeling my life flash before my eyes, and then somebody was videotaping it.”

This is such a great performance because it’s so on the edge. How much collaboration did you have in creating this character?

A lot of choices I made were from discussion—the look of the character, and, internally, my relationship with Dan and us basically figuring out every little detail of who this guy was right off the page. The brilliance of great writing is that it can obviously be interpreted many different ways. And we struggled with that throughout the shooting, where I would do a take and I was really big, and then I would try and do a take that was a little bit more cunning and a little sharper. In fact, people asked, “Where’d that mirror scene come from?” And I’d say, “Well, we were doing that to every piece of dialogue and soliloquy. It’s just not all over the place.” We had to modulate everywhere, because that was always the difficulty for us. And it’s really a creation of me and Dan and, ultimately, Johnny Gilroy, who edited the movie.

You lost a lot of weight for this role. Your eyes stand out so much because of it. How important was it to create such a gaunt look?

I always thought Lou was a coyote. He looked like that. And so, coyotes are starving, in a way. Ambition is a huge part of this film, and how it’s preached as a very good thing—which I think it is. But it can be a very dangerous thing. That hunger—that literal and figurative hunger—was a state that was really important for me to be in. It just drove the scenes. It gave me an opportunity to have a firm foundation. When anybody came to me in a scene and tried to challenge me, I knew what I was doing and how hungry I was. I mean, again, literally and figuratively. And I would drive through them. And that’s Lou. He preys on vulnerable people. But at the same time, no matter what, he knows where he’s going because he needs to get that food.

And like a coyote, you came out and shot this film at night. How did that help?

Well, on a production side it helped, and also didn’t help, in that we were shooting during a period of time of the year where we had less nighttime, so (we were) always racing. We probably lost an hour and a half (every day) of what we could have gotten if we were shooting during the wintertime. It also helped, because we got locations and we could shoot places where obviously you would never be able to shoot for a smaller budget because there’s traffic, and things happening, and people working. From an actor point of view, just chemically, it was very interesting. It affected the entire character and the experience. You get into a different state of mind. There were moments, three-quarters of the way through, where I remember desperately not wanting the sun to come up, not only as a producer on the movie but really as the character, kind of getting sad as I knew daytime would arrive.

Jake Gyllenhaal on Nightcrawler set
Jake Gyllenhaal, far right, on the nighttime set of Nightcrawler.

Rene Russo is so great in this film. The scenes between you two, of just one feeding off of the other in every way imaginable, were great.

Well, I also credit the script. Oftentimes it seemed as if I had been given this 50-caliber machine gun of dialogue and she’d been given a spoon. But she somehow intimidated me throughout the whole thing and made it a lot harder than I expected in terms of getting away with what Lou gets away with. And that’s a testament to her. She’s a real artist. She doesn’t compromise. She loves to play, she loves to fuck with you, and that’s my favorite kind of actor. When you have a much smaller wand it’s pretty impressive what she does. I mean, Dan tied her hands behind her back in these scenes. Nina is desperate and doesn’t even say as much or have as much information as Lou does, and is struggling. And Renee imbues her with so much more than the word. The word is pretty fucking great.

This is one in a line of recent films that you’ve made that have been impressive, darker movies. Is this what you’re drawn to?

I’m looking for wonderful characters and to be in a relationship with my director where I can try and kill it for him, to be totally honest. You might say the movies are dark, but I also have relationships with all of the directors I’ve worked with in the past four or five years that are really intimate. We work really hard to make a good movie and create a great character, and that’s all I’m really looking for, something that just excites me. I go to work and I can’t wait to say the words or do the thing or whatever it might be.

Was it hard to stop with such a great script like this, to let it go?

Yes. But I really believe Dan should make it into a play. The dialogue is so amazing in the script; I memorized it like a play. There were logistical issues, too, with the shoot, and I knew that preparation was everything. Production would could come to me and say, “Oh shit, we lost this location. We’re going to have to go shoot here. Are you ready?” And I’d have to be ready to do (a scene) in two takes because we only had a half an hour on the location because we could only afford that. And so I knew (the script) like that, and I fell in love with the speeches. They’re still in my mind. I can still recite pretty much all of them. It was sad when we’d finish (a scene) and I’d say, “Oh, that was the last time I’ll ever say that,” because I had spent months with those words.

Photograph of Jake Gyllenhaal by Mark Mann

Below, Gyllenhaal talks about how his Nightcrawler character, Lou Bloom’s entrepreneurial spirit aided him as a producer on the film:

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