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Jarhead - Jake Gyllenhaal interview

Jake Gyllenhaal in Jarhead

Interview by Rob Carnevale

Q. You lobbied for the role very hard. Why?
A. I always do that, there wasn’t anything special about this one, I like to pretend that I’m interested, feign interest and sometimes you fool people and sometimes you don’t [laughs].
As soon as I read this book I fell in love with it and when I heard Sam Mendes was directing it I thought there is no way I am ever going to get that part.
Then strangely enough and serendipitously I heard a couple of months later that Sam wanted to meet me in a diner in New York city.
We met and he handed me this script and he said ‘I’m not offering you the part but I want to hear what you think of it’.
I read it and I told him I loved it and that I wanted to do it and he said ‘Heh, heh, heh, of course you do’. Then began our sado-masochistic relationship but I remember calling him, I had read with him, and I said maybe I shouldn’t read because I’m not very good in auditions.
But I read and I was horrible and then I didn’t hear from him so I called him on the phone and said I was perfect for this part and would do anything to play it and he never called me back!
It continued like that and then a couple of months later I got the part, but it was a long audition process…

Sam Mendes: The truth was that I wasn’t being a sadistic or power-crazed director, although that was 90% of it. The reality is that when you read a book that’s a first person narrative, you feel like you know the author, you know the person who’s telling you the story, but when you transform that into a screenplay it’s notoriously difficult to retain the personality of the central character because the personality is there in this narrative but he doesn’t speak in dialogue.
I realised when Jake read it aloud to me that the part didn’t really exist yet, he didn’t really have a personality; it was a kind of cipher and there was always this great danger in the middle of the film that Swoff was the observer but he didn’t engage that much because the war didn’t force him to engage.
During that time when I wasn’t calling Jake back, Bill Broyles, the screenwriter, and I were trying to work out who the character was – whether it was Jake or someone else because I didn’t know what the requirements of the role were yet. We always had him in our mind and at the end of the day we came back to the first person I thought of and the first person I gave the script to who was Jake.

Q. Can you now begin to understand the terror that young men must feel going into war?
A. No I don’t think we would be able to understand that. It did put us on the periphery. We experienced what a Marine would experience to become a Marine, and then also a little bit of what it’s like to wait to fight. There was also a little bit of action but it came with the exception of the threat of being killed or killing someone ourselves, which I think is what it’s all about.
But I don’t think we really know what it feels like to go into war.
You can feel something when you put on the uniform and you can feel something when you have your head shaved. I remember putting on the flak jacket and the helmet for the first time and feeling all of the energy in my body turning inwards. I remember that feeling of being sucked in.

Q. Did your physical training help when it came to the semi-nude scene? And how did you prepare for that? Did you need much persuading?
A. If you knew me at all you would understand that there is not a lot of preparation involved in asking me to get naked! The training and getting in shape involved was primarily for the role and that was my real way in.
We always joke with Peter that he was really strong right here (indicates forearm) because he lifted his cigarette like that and his way in was thinking about how learning the idea of what it is to kill was more important than actually getting in shape to do it. With me it was the opposite.
I felt I need to get into shape to understand the idea of it, so not for that scene but in terms of preparation, when the story and the people involved are as good as they are I will do pretty much anything for it.
If you don’t believe me, this past year in movies from what I’ve been through you can probably understand that, or you will and so this movie in particular I don’t even think about.
It was one of those scenes that was written. As an actor you go through and read the dialogue but the only dialogue that was written in that scene was ‘Merry Xmas’. Then we move on to scenes where there is more dialogue and more fun and I was really more interested in those until I found myself sitting naked in the desert with a Santa Claus hat on my crotch. So there was no real preparation involved and no fear either!

Q. Was your off-screen friendship with Peter a hindrance or a help?
A. I have very few close friends and I feel that even though we do insult each other in private and in public, for some reason I think it was a blessing. Speaking for myself, I spend a lot of time throwing tricks that I consider to be honest but which aren’t necessarily honest but they work with people that don’t know you that well.
What I noticed from working with my sister just a little bit and in working with Peter is that no matter what I threw that was dishonest, they just kind of know. It was just like ‘No thank you, next’ – and until you threw something honestly it just forces you to be really present and be real and that’s essentially what Sam wanted from the very beginning.
That’s what he asked of all the actors and that’s why all our relationships are pretty much on screen. Besides Peter and I, there are actors that I didn’t talk to for months and we eventually apologised on screen. Sam eventually rewrote a scene for us to apologise on screen. But ultimately Peter is the one I am closest to and Pete may have my sister’s hand if he wants it.

Q. What was it like working with Jamie Foxx so soon after his Academy Award? Did he try and lead in the same way as his character?
A. I think he’s like a ray of light – no pun intended, I really do. Whenever he is around there is an air of positivity. I remember we had finished shooting and all three of us – Peter, Jamie and I – were supposed to do a photo shoot together but Peter couldn’t get there. Jamie came in and I was sitting there thinking, ‘Great, photo shoot, whatever’. But Jamie walked in and I could literally feel the positive energy enter the room.
I’m sure you’ve talked with him and I’m sure you feel that when he walks into the room. He does that with everybody.
I remember two days before the Academy Awards we were shooting the scene in the oil. It wasn’t oil, it was burnt molasses, brown sugar and black food dye. We were all covered in it and Jamie was sitting there – it was a really windy, cold day – but Jamie was sitting on the ground for something like two hours while they were figuring out something with the rain machine and he didn’t say much of anything, but a smile or a joke here and there.
I thought this man is about to win the Academy Award and he is covered in oil and he is still having a good time and not a complaint is coming out of his mouth. That was how it was from the very beginning. Even Sam would use it as an example when he was punishing us.

Q. What’s next for you?
A. I’m doing a movie right now called Zodiac with Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jnr. David Fincher is directing and it’s about the Zodiac Killer – the serial killer in San Francisco in the late Sixties and early Seventies. It’s a true story and it’s very David Fincher and very good, hopefully. Then again, if it’s not good David will make it good.

Q. What was your worst experience of boot camp?
A. My worst experience was waking up in the middle of the night with a glass bottle hitting my head. I later found out that Lucas Black decided to throw a bottle into the air to see where it landed and it landed on my head. I think I cumulatively got eight hours of sleep over the five days that we were there.
But by the end of it I said to myself as we were driving back: “Remember this feeling of going back into civilisation because this is the only little taste you are going to get of what it actually feels like.”

Q. What were the war movies that inspired or really affected you in some way?
A: [Sarcastically] The war movies I grew up with were Navy Seals and GI Jane, which were two extraordinary films that were truly inspirational to me. They really helped me to do nothing in the movie. And The Battle of Algiers.
Actually, I saw a print of that movie when I was at the agency that we’re all represented by. I’d been invited and William Broyles and I were the only two people there and I didn’t even know that Bill was writing the script – but it was right after I’d read the book of Jarhead.