Jake Gyllenhaal Talks Destroying Everything in Demolition

The increasingly enigmatic Jake Gyllenhaal talks about his craft and playing a widower in Jean-Marc Vallée's Demolition.

In recent years, actor Jake Gyllenhaal has been taking more risks with the roles he’s played, starting with Denis Villaneuve’s 2013 one-two punch of Prisoners and Enemy, and continuing into 2014’s Nightcrawler, as well as last year’s boxing movie Southpaw.

Now, Gyllenhaal teams with another French-Canadian filmmaker, Jean-Marc Vallée, for Demolition. In this new dark humored drama drama, Gyllenhaal plays Davis Mitchell, a Wall Street banker whose wife dies suddenly in an accident. When he loses his spare change in a candy vending machine, Davis starts writing letters that become increasingly more personal to the vending company where they attract the attention of customer service rep Karen (Naomi Watts).

Vallée directed Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto to their Oscar wins for Dallas Buyers Club, and Reese Witherspoon to a nomination for Wild, but it was his earlier film Café de Flor that got the producers of Demolition interested in having him direct a movie from Bryan Sipe’s Black List script. Gyllenhaal didn’t come onto the movie until early 2014 around the time where Dallas Buyers Club was getting awards attention.

“What I loved about it was what I initially didn’t like about it,” Gyllenhaal told Den of Geek at the film’s New York junket recently. “When I first started reading it, I thought that it was a conventional way of starting a movie. In a way, structurally, I felt like I had seen it before, but every time you start to roll your eyes, all of a sudden you get sideswiped, just like the first time in the movie.”

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The director agreed with his star’s sentiment. In a separate phone interview Vallée said, “I related so much to everything, from the writing to what the character was going through to its rock ‘n’ roll spirit to the humor and comedy. I laughed out loud and I cried like a baby at the end.”

Gyllenhaal felt Vallée added a lot when it came to pushing Sipe’s script even further away from typical film conventions.

“What I love is that the original script that Brian wrote, he sort of tied everything up,” Gyllenhaal said. “It takes a wonderful director to take the writer and say, ‘You don’t have to.’ It was really the collaboration between the two of them that makes the movie what it is, but Brian wrote a wonderful script that’s irreverent and funny and not afraid to be insensitive, not afraid to feel what it’s supposed to feel about a subject that most people would say, ‘You have to feel this way. You have to do this scene. Why isn’t that scene in there?’”

When asked about whether his character might be viewed as unlikable to some viewers in such a context, Gyllenhaal added, “The insensitivity of the character is actually what makes them human. What was challenging for me was deciding early on that apathy was equal to empathy and then I went, ‘How do you play that?’ Then I thought about movies that I loved like Being There that are semi-comedic but are [about] odd characters that if they came out today, everybody would say, ‘What an insensitive asshole.’”

“I can understand his affluence being connected to what would look like his insensitivity, which does happen most of the time,” Gyllenhaal replied when pushed to talk more about Davis’ wealth and position in the financial world—which is not necessarily a relatable lifestyle to most people. “Sometimes the mistake that’s made is that everybody has to ask themselves, ‘How is the character relatable?’ You hear that a lot while making movies, and the irony is that when somebody does really what is truly them, often times it’s not going to be relatable to half the people. That means they’re doing what they believe in.

“Davis is a guy who starts the movie out having made choices even before the movie begins that convention tells him that he should [make]. He says, ‘I’m going to marry this woman because [that’s] the age you’re supposed to marry someone. I’m going to get this job, and it’s easy for me to work in this world because of how I was brought up and I’m going to make this much money cause that will make me look more successful.’ He’s a capitalist in that way, and as he is doing everything that convention tells him to do and quote-unquote succeeding, I think he loses his sense of himself. He doesn’t even know how he feels because he hasn’t listened to himself.”

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“I think you’re not looking at what the story is about, if that’s what you see,” he says about how Davis’ actions might be criticized. “It’s really about someone you can feel pretty bad for, somebody who has lost themselves in trying to do what everybody says is the thing everybody would want.”

But the role does have Gyllenhaal doing a lot of things we haven’t seen him ever do before, as Davis bonds with Karen’s troubled teen son Chris (Judah Lewis), and in one scene, dances through a busy Grand Central Station while listening to some of Chris’ rock music. Gyllenhaal even learned how to drive a large bulldozer for a pivotal scene towards the end of the movie when Davis and Chris put the finishing touches on his prize home.

Gyllenhaal was quite taken by Jean-Marc Vallée’s directing style, which often involved not setting up camera shots in advance but having the camera circle around the actors freely to capture their actions in certain scenes almost documentary-style. (Vallée says that nobody in Grand Central even realized it was Jake dancing among them while filming those scenes during rush hour.)

“It’s a director’s medium and the reason I wanted to do this movie is because I loved Crazy and I loved Café de Flore, and I think Jean-Marc has this way of creating this inner world of his main characters with his style,” Gyllenhaal confirmed. “He sort of floats around you as he films and at the same time, he’s creating what you see, what you don’t see, how you see things as a character. I recognized that he was going to be creating visually and emotionally behind me, and around me, this experience for an audience while they’re watching me and that apathy became something that began to boil.”

Upon whether such filmmaking brought him out of his comfort zone, the actor reflected, “We shot pretty much in sequence, and I was put into some really weird places working with people. I was put in situations where he never really gave me time to think and every time there was something I decided to put an emotion towards, he’d pull me back. And then occasionally I would try things. There was a scene on the train where I said ‘I don’t love my wife,’ and I wouldn’t do that in every scene, by the way. There were choices where I wouldn’t do anything or I would try and not listen or I’d think about something, and then I’d try another take where I’d say, ‘Okay, where is the moment?’”

Vallée, meanwhile, sees much of the success in the film being related to Gyllenhaal. While the actor credits the narrative imprint of the film to Vallée and the editor, the director offered plenty of praise for his onscreen collaborator.

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“I think it’s because of Jake that the humor works well, and we get to care for the character,” Vallée said, giving his leading man far more credit than he does himself. “He has some depth, intelligence, and something sensitive, and yes, of course, he’s handsome but there’s also a sadness, and you want to follow and care for him.”

Demolition also reunites Gyllenhaal with Oscar-winning actor Chris Cooper who plays Phil, the father of Davis’ dead wife as well as Davis’ boss. Gylllenhaal played Cooper’s son in the 1999 drama October Sky directed by Joe Johnston (Captain America: The First Avenger) and they both appeared in Sam Mendes’ Jarhead in 2005.  Gyllenhaal shared an analogy of his working experiences with Cooper over the years:

“When I was 16, I remember not understanding why he was so aloof and why he wasn’t talking to me, and why I felt like maybe he hated me for real,” he told us. “At 35, what I realized was that I had stolen different techniques and when we finished that movie, he was actually so warm and loving, and open to me and we became friends. What I realized when I worked with him again was I had accumulated my own tool belt but looking at that experience, I now know why he was doing the things he was doing because I do them, too. I make people feel uncomfortable and that’s the craft of acting.”

Gyllenhaal also addressed his recent decision to take more challenging roles. “I did make a conscious decision to move towards people who actually love me as opposed to people I hope to love me,” he says. “Some of the things I didn’t really think I could do, characters that had skills I didn’t think I could pull off and I wanted to try and learn those things. Also, just being true to what I loved and characters that I was moved by, not by things that somebody told me people would want to see. The irony is that you make them for a reasonable price and you make the money back then you can do it again.

“I like being in a space when not a lot of people are watching and I like doing work like that,” he added even more enigmatically. “I like being in that environment and then I feel safe to express. The irony is that I like being on stage, too, where you can do that in front of everybody else, but the rehearsal process is where you get to shape that. I also changed my outlook in terms of preparation. I love preparation. I love the research for the role. I think being an actor can be and should be an intellectual process early on, and then you exhaust your brain and [turn] those choices into instinct.  I think craft shows you what you should be doing, and it takes an education and intelligence to be an actor, not just a nice set of teeth.”

Hopefully that gives you a little more insight into how Gyllenhaal has transformed himself into such an intriguing leading man with his recent roles and movies. Demolition’s Davis is another character that will have Jake’s fans questioning whether they can fully stand behind his character’s actions, but it also will leave them with plenty of thought-provoking questions about themselves and what they might do if put in a similar situation.

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Demolition is in nationwide theaters today.