Jake Gyllenhaal is gazing at the floor with a quizzical eye. “Is that me?” asks the actor, nodding at a smattering of scuffs in the thick-pile hotel carpet. A legacy of his nervous energy, I suggest. “I guess it must be,” he says. It’s midway through a day of interviews and the 36-year-old Californian has been chattering away for hours, his shuffling feet taking their toll on the floor. “I enjoy it,” he says, “conversations are good. I hate small talk but I love banter. I can banter all day.”
He lifts his face and smiles. The handshake is firm, the smile pleasant, though it’s the big blue eyes that have it. Gyllenhaal’s saucer-sized peepers are his on-screen signature, deep pools that beguile the viewer and add all sorts of flickering nuance to his performances. It is worth noting, however, that for all their radiance his eyes fail in their core competence; Gyllenhaal suffers from legal blindness. At school in Los Angeles he wore bottle-deep spectacles.
“I was an easy target,” he says of his school years. “And I was always a sensitive kid.” The unwanted attention made him angry and he wasn’t averse to some schoolyard scrapping. These days he tries to keep his anger in check but concedes that it’s not always that easy.
“It is like when someone cuts you up on the road,” he says. “It is scary. It could have been an accident, but then there’s your next response. The people I admire are those that just acknowledge they were scared. But I tend to go, ‘Hey, f--k you!’” I’m the same; it’s a matter of honour. He laughs. “I say this with a smile on my face by if you walk the world expecting respect you are going to be disappointed.”
Gyllenhaal’s conversation is soft and evenly paced, defined by lengthy and thoughtful responses. In the past he’s proved a rather restless subject, prickling when probed about his personal life, a subject he does not like to discuss. Over the years he has dated a string of high profile stars – Kirsten Dunst, Reese Witherspoon, Alyssa Miller – and has for years dodged questions about his relationship with Taylor Swift whose track All Too Well is rumoured to be about their time together.
Even when grilled recently by his friend Jeff Bauman, the double leg amputee that Gyllenhaal plays in his latest film, Stronger, he shifted awkwardly in his seat. “If you lost your legs in real life, do you think Taylor Swift would write a song about it?” Bauman asked, jokingly. “Maybe a country song?” Gyllenhaal flat-batted it: “I think she does pop now.”
Today he appears more at ease, admitting that he was an awkward teenager, rebelling against his parents and earning their displeasure when dropping out of Columbia University in a bid to pursue acting. Given his subsequent career, it appears a sound move; Gyllenhaal has become one of the most bankable stars of his generation, with critically applauded performances in the likes of Brokeback Mountain (for which he earned an Oscar nomination), Jarhead, Zodiac, End of Watch, Prisoners, Nightcrawler, Southpaw and Nocturnal Animals.
“I was a wild kid in my teenage years. I definitely rebelled. I was contrary in a lot of ways, possibly because I was not the best student.” How did this rebellion manifest itself? “I partied, had fun. I don’t know how I was seen but I was definitely not super straight laced. I was never like that, though usually our perception of ourselves is very different from what other people think of us.”
He comes from a family of artists, born in Los Angeles to director Stephen Gyllenhaal and screenwriter Naomi Foner. He is the younger brother of fellow actress Maggie while the family are also distant relations to Swedish aristocracy. Being raised in showbiz he was encouraged to dive in, taking his first role as Billy Crystal’s son in 1991’s City Slickers.
His parents hoped he’d complete his university education before taking up acting full time, but his performance in 2001’s kooky time-travel movie Donnie Darko boosted his profile and he was suddenly in high demand. He has since taken on more independent movies as well as a clutch of big-budget blockbusters like The Day After Tomorrow and Prince of Persia. He is happy doing both.
“My mum would bring me to Mike Leigh films when I was at a pretty young age so I would say that those filmmakers were a huge influence on what I love. But at the same time, and my dad is an influence on this too, I loved big commercial movies.”
He has made two films that were executive-produced by Harvey Weinstein — Proof, released in 2005 and Southpaw, 2015 — and though we meet before the allegations against the producer sent reverberations rumbling through Hollywood, it seems safe to say Gyllenhaal would be appalled. He is a keen advocate of women’s right, marching with his sister in Washington DC earlier this year.
“We are living in a time where, thankfully, feminism has evolved into a space,” he tells me. “I was brought up by an amazing, incredible sensitive father, a strong man but also by a very strong mother and a very strong, and a very smart, sister.”
His relationship with his sister has been a huge influence. “She was an actor before I was. I watched her and admired her and she has pretty extraordinary taste and a brilliant intellect. She is my older sister so she can always boss me around.”
Gyllenhaal’s career has now eclipsed his sister’s, at least in terms of box office figures; she remains best known for her work in a string of indies – the likes of Secretary, SherryBaby and Crazy Heart.
“Early on when we first began working there was competition,” he adds. “Now, we are really just dealing with one another as brother and sister, and in my case as an uncle. We have stopped watching each other’s work in a way.”
Big sister will surely watch Stronger, her younger sibling’s latest film and a determined tilt for awards season glory. He plays Jeff Bauman, a 27-year-old, working-class Bostonian who in 2013 was at his city’s marathon trying and win back his ex-girlfriend when the race was bombed. Bauman lost both legs in the blast and the film charts his bid to overcome the tragedy, to learn to walk on prosthetic limbs, and to get his life back on track.
“It’s been my most challenging role,” says Gyllenhaal. “I have been trying to understand Jeff’s mind set and what it means to have your physical life, your emotional life, your mental life wrecked, and also to have also to have all this attention and having no choice in it.”
Bauman became a poster boy for his city, a symbol of Boston’s determination to show unity in the face of adversity. One wonders, however, if a film about the subject might have come to soon? “I don’t think so. For some people, maybe, but I think for Jeff, no. I think if anything it has given him a perspective on himself. He has come so far. More than anyone I have known in my life.”
A publicist hovers at my shoulder. The interview is done. As we shake hands I glance down at Gyllenhaal’s feet; there are a few extra scuffs in the carpet.