Those into cult and indie films like Donnie Darko or Nocturnal Animals probably already know that one of a scarce handful of actors who will never sell out is Jake Gyllenhaal.
Any film starring this now-mature star who made his name in Brokeback Mountain, knows that the latter is actually one of his least impressive films.
Gyllenhaal, alongside actors the calibre of Joseph Gordon-Levitt (500 Days of Summer) and Paul Dano (There Will be Blood) are, for this viewer, a guarantee of excellence… a golden seal that merits at least two hours of your precious time.
Why, therefore, has Hollywood passed up so often on Gyllenhaal? God knows he has lit up the screen in films like Nocturnal Animals (he plays a writer who pens a bloody tail as an allegory of the pain caused by his deceptive ex-wife) or Nightcrawler (in which he is an amateur reporter who records violent events late at night in Los Angeles, selling the footage afterwards to TV stations).
He favours raw, tense characters who mask their emotion behind a steely exterior. Gyllenhaal has physically and mentally transformed into a seemingly different species in films like Southpaw, in which he plays a world champion fighter who falls on hard times, has all his possessions taken away from him, and enters the ring once again to get his daughter back.
He recalls that training for the film was tough; he trained as a boxer for five full months to obtain the muscley yet fibrous physique required for his character. He told bodybuilding.com,
“I went into full training-camp mode and I got myself — what I consider in my mind as an actor — in shape to fight. I was literally learning the skills of boxing, which is not only for the body, but also for the mind. You can’t play a boxer and just look like a boxer; you have to believe you can exist in that world.”
Of course, physical transformations can be annoying whenever they exist merely to manipulate the Oscar vote. However, many actors have set new standards with transformations that extend to body, mind, and soul. De Niro in Raging Bull is arguably the most memorable of method actors of this calibre, though Christian Bale (The Machinist) and Daniel Day Lewis (My Left Foot) also spring to mind.
Perhaps Gyllenhaal is so often ignored by the Academy because his roles are usually on the subtle end of the spectrum; most of the action takes place on the interior with his characters and the changes are subtle; expression, body language… a viewer has to be observant to witness his transformations; audiences will rarely see him shout or cry. He’s just not cut out to provoke obvious reactions.
Gyllenhaal is arguably best known for his blockbuster films, but to really witness what he is capable of doing, we recommend three films. The first, is Donnie Darko, a teen cult film in which he plays a schoolboy suffering from dreadful hallucinations, who travels in time to preserve the lives of those he loves. The film is an introduction to the rawest, darkest, most ironic side of his personality.
Next up is Nightcrawler, in which he transforms from insecure geek to confident reporter, losing his sanity for a taste of the American Dream. Finally, and perhaps most spectacularly, is Nocturnal Animals, where he has the fortune of dialoguing with one of Hollywood’s finest actors, Michael Shannon (the latter plays a dying policeman willing to take the law into his own hands to help Gyllenhaal’s character exact the revenge he deserves).
This year, Gyllenhaal fans falsely got their hopes up, thinking the Academy would finally make up for years of cruel snubs, for his role as Jeff Bauman, a survivor of the Boston Marathon bombing who lost both his legs. In the end his portrayal only garnered him a Critics’ Choice nomination… neither the Golden Globes, SAG, BAFTA nor the Oscars honoured his work.
Those of us who see him as he is – the inimitable Jake Gyllenhaal – couldn’t care less. It only gives us more reason to think of him as all our own.
Words Marisa Cutillas