Jake Gyllenhaal’s powerful performance in The Guilty, a film he nurtured and brought to director Antoine Fuqua after seeing the Danish-language original at Sundance in 2018, has won tremendous plaudits ever since it debuted on Netflix earlier in the year. For the actor and producer, it marks the latest chapter in a new approach to making movies, not least because of the creativity required in its shoot to figure out safe ways to work during the pandemic. It’s also a big year for the Gyllenhaal clan generally, as Jake’s sister Maggie releases her feature directorial debut, The Lost Daughter.
DEADLINE: Your sister, Maggie, has made a film this year that has been so warmly received. What has that been like for you to witness?
JAKE GYLLENHAAL: I’m so close to it since I’ve been through the whole process of it. It’s almost like being in it, where I don’t have any perspective really. But to have been there with her in Venice, sitting behind her the first time it screened for an audience, it was like a huge relief followed by a huge celebration. It’s been amazing, and it isn’t surprising. Maggie is so smart, and she’s so brave to talk about complex feelings. I think it’s rare that feelings that complex get expressed, and it’s rare that they get the positive attention she has been getting for this movie, so I’m really excited about that. It gives me faith. She got so much support, and an incredible cast. She’s got all these nice little booster rockets.
DEADLINE: What does it do for your own aspirations, both as an actor and as an artist?
GYLLENHAAL: I do hope the movie inspires actual change, and I hope that perspectives like The Lost Daughter, which are already profound literary expressions, can be brought into the world more. I think there are many of them, and that was why I wanted to make The Guilty. You could see there were so many filmmakers at the start of the pandemic wanting to make the movie. Because it was contained, because it was centered on one character, it was a safe thing to do, and everyone was eager to be getting back in. Everyone jumped in.
Then, George Floyd was killed. It’s hard for me, because I don’t want to give away too much of the story to people who may not have seen it, but let’s say that there was a moment where everybody said, “Well, we can’t tell this story now.” I think it was an immediate reaction, with people not really looking at what was underneath; what this movie was about. When I finally sent the script to Antoine Fuqua, he said, “This is everything I want to be talking about right now, and it’s entertaining. People can listen again.”
Both of us, Antoine and I, said, “Now is the time to tell this story.” And it wasn’t just about the relative ease of making it with the restrictions of the pandemic. It was because putting it into the American context was important. These are the times to tell stories like that.
DEADLINE: What was the atmosphere like when you shot this film, given what was going on in the news media both with George Floyd and the pandemic?
GYLLENHAAL: When I look back at it now, it was very much an expression of that moment for me. It’s an allegory. It’s very Greek, it’s very dramatic. I couldn’t go backwards when we shot, so we shot in order. It progressed into these kinds of big feelings that emerge toward the end of the movie. And there were many other big feelings under those big feelings.
DEADLINE: You nurtured The Guilty from script to screen, bringing Antoine aboard. You’ve become an accomplished producer. Are you ready to write and direct?
GYLLENHAAL: Both Maggie and I were raised to talk honestly about what’s inside us, and I want to continue to do that. I think I’m moving to a place where I just want to have more fun. And part of the fun, definitely, is being able to express those feelings myself; to create movies and tell stories on my own that communicate that, as my sister has done.
And also, to be in movies as an actor for hire that are just great fun to do. To enjoy the process.
That’s not to say I haven’t had fun before, though I don’t know how much I was letting myself enjoy what was there. Some roles had been great fun over the years. Nightcrawler, even though people have a certain perspective on those characters, I found great fun to do. But the longer you’re lucky enough to get to do this, the more genres you explore, and if you can get stuck in there…
I think I’m starting to get more interested in what an actual hero is, as an archetype and as an idea. And I’m interested in challenging that. I think most of the characters I played before have been more like antiheroes. Now, I’m sort of interested in what makes a real hero.
DEADLINE: You mentioned Antoine’s reaction to this script, that it had something to say, and it was entertaining. Balancing the two has not always been Hollywood’s strong suit, just like balancing the business and the art elements is always tricky. How challenging has it been for you to navigate those tightropes?
GYLLENHAAL: When you do it long enough, you start to work it out. Not to say those conversations in the past haven’t been a part of it. At a certain point you learn to let go of doing what’s “right for the career.” That’s never made me feel good, and I’ve never been very good at it. I’ve done it at times, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. But I would say it has accounted for less than 10% of my career. Everything else has been stuff I’ve done where people have told me, “What do you think you’re doing?” Or, “We’re not interested.”
It has to be something I believe in. It’s the same with Maggie, and she pushes me. We push each other. Denis Villeneuve has been that voice for me too. From the moment we finished Enemy, I remember sitting down for dinner with him and saying, “Oh, I might do this, or I might do that.” He said, “Well, what do you want to do?” I need reminding of that.
But the expression is so fun. If you were to ask me, “What are you writing right now?” I would honestly tell you that I don’t know what it is. It will reveal itself to me, but I’ll be in the room, writing, and allowing myself that experience.
That to me is what’s interesting, whether it’s a success or failure. Because I do still have my day job. And look, when I’m producing movies like The Guilty, I’m very aware in my relationships with financiers. I love the business of movies. I also love that. Outside of the creative is something I really enjoy. And I enjoy it because I love learning the language. I love knowing the minds of those people and how they work, what they need, and satisfying that. It’s not as simple as, “I’m going to follow my own vision, and if I don’t satisfy an audience, so what?”
DEADLINE: Was that balance always there with The Guilty or did it require some work?
GYLLENHAAL: It just drove us all the way throughout. I always saw it in a particular way. I had a vision of it being what it was. Executing it, I had a vision of it being streamed. I don’t think there was ever an intention of theatrical really, in my mind. The challenge became: how long can you keep an audience intrigued without them clicking off to watch something else?
DEADLINE: In that sense, then, there was a different language to the construction of a movie that was bound for theatrical.
GYLLENHAAL: Right. Using the experience for the viewer as a technique. That’s how we tried to do The Guilty. What I loved about it so much was, how long can you hold someone’s attention? Can you do that? And then, do you have to do it over 40 days of shooting? Can you do it in five? All of these were processes that made it really fun for me and Antoine. It was such a different challenge to everything we’ve done before, and it was really interesting to think about the process of making a movie. We designed the process of shooting the movie to be just as entertaining as the movie itself. We didn’t build in any allowance to go backwards. Antoine said, “We’re shooting this thing, we’re doing it in order, and when the day is done, it’s over. That’s what we have to use.” It was almost like he was making his own set of Dogme rules. And in doing it, it didn’t feel restrictive; it felt liberating.
DEADLINE: Given the themes The Guilty explores, do you believe in the power of art to foster understanding and bring change?
GYLLENHAAL: I’ve witnessed it, on movies like Brokeback Mountain, and other movies I’ve done. Definitely not all of them [laughs]. But some of them break through, and what you hear is, “That movie, that expression changed my life.” There are so many people in the industry who are doing what we’re doing because their lives have been rocked and shaped in the right way about the issues that are the most important. So, you do want to try to do work that is going to change someone’s mind, for the better. That’s what I want to continue to do, and that’s why Antoine and I wanted to make this movie, and why we will continue to work together [in the future], because that’s who we are.
When I came to him with the script, I said to him, “Read this thing. I’m thinking about shooting it in five days.” He came back and said, “This is a story about mental health. It’s a story about people who need help, and who have no way of getting it.” I think that’s the discussion that matters. The discussion we’re having right now is about mental health, and about priorities.
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