Jake Gyllenhaal on Southpaw: ‘You Can’t Fake It Anymore’

The actor talks becoming a boxer and exploring his rage for his new film.

Following his stunning turn as the emaciated, spectral crime scene photographer Lou Bloom in last year’s Nightcrawler, Jake Gyllenhaal has transformed himself physically into light heavyweight world champion Billy Hope for director Antoine Fuqua’s Southpaw. The emotional drama centers on Hope’s fall from grace and success after tragedy strikes his family, and how he wrests himself back from a pit of self-destruction and despair to win back the love of his daughter (Oona Laurence) and settle a score with the contender for his crown (Miguel Gomez).

Gyllenhaal does intense work as the primal, barely articulate fighter in the film, and he sat down recently with Den Of Geek and a small group of other outlets to discuss his training regimen, channeling his anger, and who hit him the hardest on the set.

You went from looking pretty skeletal in Nightcrawler to this. What was that process like for you, physically?

Jake Gyllenhaal: I did Nightcrawler, then I did Everest, and then I did Southpaw. We shot a majority of Everest in the Dolomites on the Austrian/Italian border. So there was a lot of really good pasta. So, I finished Nightcrawler and then I went into that, and then the training started for Southpaw. I spent five months training for this movie, two times a day, because I didn’t really know how to box when I started. I figured if I trained twice a day over five months that’d make 10 months.

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I was motivated totally by fear that I would look like a fool, knowing how Antoine was going to shoot the movie, which was no doubles. He wanted to shoot like an HBO/Showtime fight where he’s going to have the real cameramen there. It was going to be medium shots and full body shots where you are going to see footwork. I’m going to be moving around. Not just going to shoot from one side and cut. (The camera was) going to move from the back of your head all the way to the front of your head.

So I just went like, “OK. Well, if I’m going to do it…” And also knowing there’s no other way to shoot a boxing movie. We’ve seen it so many times. You can’t fake it anymore like that. You have to do it that way. And short of hiring a boxer who can act, I had to become an actor who could box. That was basically the discussion we had.

So, every day I just went and I was just always going crazy. I would spend sometimes the mornings just working on technique. I mean I remember days upon days when we were just working on my jab. I’m just shuffling around the ring working on footwork — backing up, moving forward, sideways, pivoting, backing up, moving forward, sideways, pivoting, moving forward, moving forward, back, back, back, punch, move back, punch. And then he’d hit me, back up, back up. Hours upon hours of that.

And then we would condition. And then we would do mitt work. Every single aspect of the training regimen of boxing takes a separate technique. You can’t just hit a heavy bag. Two weeks of learning how to hit a heavy bag and then two weeks of just getting speedbag work down, and then adding heavy bag and speed work. Then we’d go do mitts.

So that was five months of that all the time.

You seem to gravitate towards darker roles. Would you say that is true? And if so, why is that?

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I don’t know if I do. I mean I have recently, I think. I think the past few movies I’ve done, I guess, they are just the stories that move me. Maybe I’ve been in a place where those are just the things that have touched me. And I also feel like, when I give my time to a character or a movie, I want it to feel substantial. I want it to have weight. And if I were to do a comedy, I’d want it to not have a darker substance. I’m looking for a certain type for intelligence and entertainment. I just seem to have found it in this space.

But if there was like a comedy — I mean, I just did Little Shop of Horrors for a couple nights at City Center. That’s essentially a comedy. It’s a dark comedy, but it’s a comedy. I don’t know what people call that. But I’m on stage with Ellen Greene and I’m about to cry because what she’s saying is so moving and the audience is cracking up. To me it’s not really about whether something is funny. It’s just whether I’m moved by it.

What was your mental process for this one?

Well, I started off, because he’s an angry character full of rage — I’m quick to jump at things, and I have my own responses. And I was interested in kind of exploring my own rage. So, at first, when I was training…I was in exploration, right? I was looking for motivating things. In boxing, I thought, “OK. If I start off, I go hard. If I go hard, I can get angry. If I go hard, that’s going to give me the fuel I need. Put on that hardcore music. That will give me the fuel I need.” Then I’d get exhausted so quick. I’d be like, “Wait. That doesn’t work.”

All of a sudden, I started to realize technique, sort of meditation, a relaxation. My motivation for this was really the idea of family and what you would do for family and your love of your family. My love of my family, my love of the children in my life in particular, like the nieces that I know, but just in general, I would do anything for a child. That was a motivating factor in this one.

Would you say that when you take on roles like this that there’s a cathartic aspect?

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There can be, yes. I’m grateful for this role, because one of the hardest things for me to do is being able to say, “Whoa. I’m starting to get pissed,” and to stop, be curious about that feeling, and then give myself a little bit of time before I react. Within the five months preparing for this movie it was interesting being curious about my own anger. And yes, that’s cathartic, because I think a curiosity in your feelings is much more interesting that letting your feeling just control you. I think feelings are so important. But I think how we act on them is a delicate, dangerous thing.

Miguel Gomez said he was surprised how spiritual the whole boxing world was. Did you find that as well?

Absolutely… I think it’s a communication at a very high level. And anybody who does their job at that kind of level understands that it has nothing to do with the skills you know but where you get to not use those skills, but you get to communicate your mind. And when you see a fight at a professional level that’s what I see now. I see a communication; someone trying to find an angle, find a millimeter of a space where they can find that angle. That’s a science, and I think that’s also incredibly spiritual, yes.

He said also you guys had to be very trusting of each other, but that occasionally you would get hurt, or you’d have to know when to back off or know when you could come at each other really hard. Talk about that a little bit.

Yeah. It’s funny, because you are making a movie and you are at each other. And then when shit gets real and you actually do hit each other and stuff like that, we had to give each other the permission to do that without taking it personally or feeling like it was somebody’s fault. It was a decision that we had made. When fighters walk into a ring, it’s interesting. Just like, ironically, when two actors playing fighters walk into a ring, you have to make a decision that you decided to be there. That means you are going to get hit. You are going to get hurt. If that happens, it’s not the other person’s fault. That’s the skill and that’s the job you are there to do, which is amazing when you see two professional fighters hug it out at the end with respect. They come over and they say, “I just beat the shit out of you and I knocked you out and I’m going to give you a hug.” We both made a decision early on. We said, “These things are going to happen and you gotta keep going because it’s for the good of the movie. If you hit me and you knock me out, stay in character, because it will be great for the movie.” (laughs)

That was the attitude in every scene, whether we were boxing or…Oona was in the scene where she’s hitting me and she’s yelling at me, and she’s telling me she hates me. It was me saying to her, “Guess what? I made the decision to be here. So I know what this scene is about. And you know what this scene is about. I want you to open up and tell me how you feel and that’s OK. We made this decision together. So you are not hurting me. All we’re doing is helping this movie.”

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That was always the feeling. And, you know, we got hit. But I have to say, Oona throws a hard right hand. (laughs)

Southpaw is in theaters Friday (July 24).