In Demolition, Jake Gyllenhaal plays an investment banker who questions the conventional choices he’s made in life after the sudden death of his wife. The story arc mirrors the 35-year-old actor’s own path — not the dead-wife part (he’s never been married), but the fact that he’s recently veered away from traditional career moves like action franchises (Prince of Persia: Sands of Time) and rom-coms (Love and Other Drugs). Rather, he’s favored darker, more complex films like End of Watch, Nightcrawler, Enemy, and now Demolition.
The parallel isn’t lost on Gyllenhaal. “You go through periods of time when you’re convinced following the conventional route is the way towards happiness,” he says. “A few years ago I realized that following my own route was the way to happiness, and I was probably going to get a lot of flak for it. The irony is I have gotten more praise than flak, at least creatively.” Gyllenhaal talked to Vulture about the objects he got to obliterate in Demolition, his feelings on Donald Trump, and his memories of making City Slickers.
What drew you to Demolition’s script initially?
The unconventional quality of the whole thing. It’s a movie about loss, but it’s not. The movie starts in a very conventional way, and all of a sudden you just you have no idea where you’re headed. It knocked something in me like it does with my character, Davis. It’s not this huge epiphany or massive catharsis. And three quarters of the way through the movie you realize how unconventional it is, but in a very palatable way. A couple people have said to me, “Oh, he’s like Tyler Durden,” and I was like, “What?” [laughs] That’s the darkest movie ever made, and there is hope in the end of this movie.
You’ve never lost a spouse, and both your parents are still alive. What do you draw when you play a character in this situation?
I’ve lost people that I love and am very close to. It’s sort of easy to generalize loss, but it’s all different. [Director] Jean-Marc [Vallée] wanted there to be an awkwardness to the way you felt about my character. He struggles between apathy and numbness. I constantly struggle with my own feelings, like “What do I actually feel if I’m feeling anything?” I’m spending a lot of my time trying to exist within convention, and it was very easily relatable to me.
Do you feel like you’re at a stage where you can pick and choose projects now?
Well, there are still filmmakers who don’t want to work with me.
Yeah, [laughs] so many of them, but there are also filmmakers who do and as long as there are a few, then I hopefully will continue to keep working. But in terms of picking and choosing I try now to create stories that I really love and want to tell. I think storytelling is the most important part of movie-making over performance.
Yet Jean-Marc Vallée’s films are distinctive for the performances, like Matthew McConaughey’s in Dallas Buyers Club and Reese Witherspoon’s in Wild. Do you consider him an actor’s director?
Absolutely. He’s eliminated all that Hollywood vanity and the kind of bloated moving blob that a movie set can become. Simplicity is the key. Within simplicity we can get into the mess of human behavior. He comes at it from an editor’s point of view, so generally he’s always looking for truthful moments. He is an actor’s director, but he is truly a filmmaker, and the visuals are extraordinarily important to him. It’s a balance. He’s just an all-around wonderful director.
Davis reacts to his wife’s loss by literally and figuratively trying to destroy his world. Did you have a favorite thing to break?
I really loved taking a sledgehammer to that marble tabletop. That was fun. There’s something satisfying about cracking something and breaking it into pieces. I still have a piece of that marble as a paperweight that Jean-Marc gave to me as a wrap gift.
Did it feel dangerous? Did you ever think you might get hurt?
I feel like I’ve been asked that question on a lot of movies I’ve made recently. [Laughs] Yes, and that’s probably why I wanted to do it.
So are you an adrenaline junkie?
No. I mean demolishing a house is not an adrenaline junkie’s job, but there’s no success unless there’s a level of risk. And obviously in risk there is possible injury in the physical world, but also in the figurative. I always try and stay safe and thoughtful, but yeah.
In terms of what the demolition represents, I’ve seen you say you’ve always thought it was easier to destroy something than to create something. Do you feel like that’s a trend going on in the culture now, whether we’re talking about art or politics?
I see it everywhere. I see it in bullying. It’s a pre-adolescent behavior. Kids at a certain age build up blocks and a second later, they’ll kick them all down, and there’s this satisfaction. I see that when we talk shit about each other, when we criticize each other about things that are obvious projections, but hurt. People should be held accountable for that. Even in the political spectrum at this moment, I feel there’s an engagement of that preadolescent piece in all of us. I feel like Trump seems to be engaging that preadolescent part, but we need an adult as a leader, and we need an adult who ignites the adult in us. I only speak that way because I act in an adolescent way, so I need someone who’s my leader to show me how to act.
How do you act in an adolescent way?
Well, I’m an actor. [Laughs]
So you pretend for a living?
I actually don’t think I do, but I do think there is some sort of absurdity to the job. Kids should be allowed to have a tantrum. They’re in a world way bigger than they are. Their feelings are huge, and they’re very small. But you can’t do that when you’re an adult. Sometimes I get overwhelmed because I see the state the world is in. Sometimes I can shut it off, and apathy is ever present. But finding how we really feel — no matter how hard it is — I think that’s the journey.
This is the third film you’ve made with Chris Cooper, who plays your father-in-law in Demolition. You did 1999’s October Sky and 2005’s Jarhead with him. How did it feel different each time?
When I did October Sky with him, I had no tools on my belt, very few. I was flying by the seat of my pants. I tried to use as much talent fuel as I could, and I ran out halfway through. Chris had this massive tool belt of choices and techniques, and I didn’t understand him. He was cold to me the whole shoot. I was confused, but also I could feel his heart, very much like my character would feel about his character in that movie. When the movie ended, his heart totally opened up to me. He took all his tools and put them away into a shed, and we became friends. Then when we did Jarhead, I was obviously still continuing to learn. But when we did this movie, I came to it with my own tool belt, and I could see him really for the first time saying, “Oh I love that, I use that choice.” We laughed a lot and enjoyed each other in a way I didn’t know how to when I was young. It’s been a wonderful evolution with somebody who’s a legend and somebody whom I actually love.
You also work well with Judah Lewis, the young actor who plays the son of your quasi-love interest, Naomi Watts. Did the fact that you started out as an actor in movies around the same age he is now help you relate to him better?
Yeah, it’s tough being a kid in this business. It is an adult’s business, and he’s incredibly talented, sharp, and charismatic. And he believes in himself, which is really important. He has a family that’s supporting him, which is fantastic. At the risk of sounding totally cliché I definitely did see a lot of myself in him, and that was also really wonderful.
You made your film debut as Billy Crystal’s son in 1991’s City Slickers. What do you remember most about making that movie?
I remember a cow shitting all over a minivan [laughs] and watching 14 people from a movie crew try and clean it up and frantically stress about it like they never should. That’s my favorite thing about a movie set, when somebody runs up in a total panic like, “Oh my God, this is the most important thing in the world!” And in two days this moment is gonna mean nothing. [Laughs] That was the feeling I got from the memory of watching a cow shit in a minivan.