Jake Gyllenhaal Wrecked Himself for Nightcrawler, and Here’s Why

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Jake Gyllenhaal. Photo: Michael Tran/FilmMagic

Jake Gyllenhaal has long been one of our most dependable actors, but he pushes himself further than ever in Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler, delivering what surely must be the performance of his career. In the darkly comedic thriller, Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, a wide-eyed sociopath who starts selling crime-scene footage to a desperate news producer (Rene Russo), then begins to leverage his nascent power in shocking ways. Gyllenhaal dove so deep into character that he lost over 20 pounds for Nightcrawler and even punched a mirror so hard during one take that he required stitches; here, he tells Vulture why he couldn’t help himself.

In your interview with Variety, you said that you’re able to take on all-consuming roles like Lou because you don’t yet have a family to worry about. Do you feel like there’s a time limit on taking these dark, life-warping roles, and that you’re trying to tackle them now while you’re still your own man?

I don’t know. I mean, I am a certain animal, and I think I will always be that animal. When I have my own family, there’s a belief I have in doing the things that make you happy, and I love modeling that for my family now. Whatever your truth is, it is important for you to continue doing that, but I think, obviously, there is compromise and responsibility when you become an adult. You know, Springsteen’s thing is that adulthood is about compromise, and it’s also about just how much you compromise before you start to compromise yourself. So my plan is to always try and be honest with myself, even if that takes me to darker places. That's the plan, more than, Oh, in two years this is gonna happen in my life, so I gotta fit all this stuff in.

When you say you’ve always been that animal who commits so strongly to a role, I wonder what that was like for you, since you started as a child actor. Surely what you get out of acting must have changed since then?
Ironically, no. I think I've gotten closer now to the way I felt about it when I was a kid, and I think there's a real sense of play that I have now that I didn't have for a long period of time. There’s a strange balance now with me where I take this extraordinarily seriously — almost pretentiously so — and then, at the same time, I think about how absurd it is, you know? That's what allowed me to go and do Lou: I was in a dangerous space, and I did things to my body and my mind, but there was a lot of play to it. So, I mean, I like challenging myself. Sometimes when you’re acting onstage, your mind starts wandering. At a certain time in a run for a show, probably like 75 to 80 shows in, you're giving a speech that for the first few nights meant everything to you, but now you're running through your grocery list in your mind and figuring out what you're going to buy at the bodega on the way home. I think that's a good thing and an interesting thing, because you start to realize that the power of the words becomes unconscious and the story tells itself, but at the same time, I think you're always trying to wake yourself up back into the moment. Because that's where life is. The bodega can come after that. [Laughs.]

Did you picture yourself in this movie when the script was first sent to you?

I did not envision myself at all.

Do you do typically do that when you read scripts?

It’s sort of an instinctual feeling. I don’t start seeing myself in it, but I get excited by ideas, or themes, or a relationship — and I can’t get them out of my being. When I read this … it was such a challenge on the page. It is a brilliant screenplay, but I have enough experience to know that sometimes you read a brilliant screenplay and you go, Well, but how do I bring this to life? Lou is not just a three-dimensional character. He’s a six-dimensional character. He’s so well-prepared, he’s like the Bobby Fischer of manipulators.

There’s a scene set in a Mexican restaurant where you’re manipulating Rene Russo’s character to her face, and it’s breathtakingly ballsy.

And even in that scene you start to see how well-prepared he is when he starts spewing out how he looked her up on the internet. He is a product of the internet. His moral code is set by the internet, which means it’s not about human interaction, it’s about an electrical interaction, and he is at the controls of all of it. He deals with humans as if, in a way, they were computers. “Oh, I can just move my joystick and my mouse around if I’ve done enough research, I can manipulate you to wherever I need to.”

It’s like a game to him, and he keeps advancing in levels.

Totally, but it doesn’t veer off into a really crazy place where you go, “I don’t want to root for this guy.” I think he is a real innocent.

At first blush, though, Lou is clearly the most amoral character you’ve ever played. 

Right.

Of course, Lou doesn’t realize that what he’s doing could be perceived as wrong. He’s just doing what seems to be the logical thing to get ahead in every instance.

Well, one of the beautiful things about the character that Dan wrote was that nothing he says I would disagree with. He’s using this corporate kind of speak, self-help, Tony Robbins stuff — and I agree with all of it! I believe in ambition, and that’s an important quality for human beings to have. I believe in persistence and discipline and commitment and drive, which are all the things that Lou has. I think about that moment I look down at my phone and I’m scrolling and someone is talking to me, and I’m totally ignoring them, but unconsciously, I’m answering their questions, and that is where that is where that seedling of Lou can bloom in all of us. It’s that moment we all look down and say, “Is it the State of the Union I’m going to click on, or am I going to click on the video of the cat that survived falling 40 stories?”

That’s an inspiring cat, Jake.

[Laughs.] Yeah, but that’s where Lou thrives, you know. That’s where Lou is born, and he is a walking metaphor for that. I think there is a part of Lou in all of us.

I’m sure people have asked you what you think about paparazzi now that you’re playing a crime-scene paparazzo, but I would think the thing that would be the most easily relatable to you is Lou’s ambition. A lot of actors you’ve worked with must have that palpable desire to get ahead. You may have even had it at some point.

I mean, I think that’s why I love him and I despise him. There’s sort of a simple way of looking at it, like, “Oh, you know people are interested in documenting your life, and how do you feel about that now that you’re on the opposite side of it?” People say that a lot to me in interviews, and first of all, I would say that is pretty much a pittance in comparison to what Lou does, because he is dealing with life and death. But yeah, I’m interested in this idea of ambition and success at any cost, this idea that you’re not taking no for an answer. Any intern anywhere would tell you that anybody that takes no for an answer will not be hired. You have to work all hours of the day, you have to be ready to go, your life and your personal feelings do not come into play, and the most successful people are the people who can actually set all that stuff aside. It’s not something I see every once in awhile. I see it everywhere. I think anyone who has been fed the capitalist idea of what success is — financial success, fame, and attention — has a Lou in them.

That’s one of the perverse reasons that we root for him. As we watch him tangibly move up the ladder and accumulate wealth and possessions, it taps into something that’s inherent in all of us. We want that sense of progression.

People have said to me that the movie is disturbing, and I think, Well, obviously there’s a part of you that you are disturbed by. I don’t think you can be a part of the animal kingdom in any form if you don’t have a piece of him in you.

You were very involved in almost every aspect of this movie. Would you consider directing yourself, or do you depend on a director to be the guy in charge so you’ve got the permission to dive further into your character?

I do feel like I would love to be a part of the filmmaking process. That’s why I produce, but I think as soon as I feel like I’m in a presumptuous mood, I’m definitely going to try my hand at directing. [Laughs.]