Over the past decade, Jake Gyllenhaal has become a full-fledged movie star. But his rise since Donnie Darko is a very fascinating one, in that he has mostly worked on smaller scale, indie-focused fare which has outgrown its niche audiences, The Day After Tomorrow and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time not withstanding. From Brokeback Mountain to Zodiac to Jarhead, he has covered a wide range of roles that deeply resonate with widespread audiences.

In Source Code, he takes on the role of Colter Stevens, a marine in an experimental program to delve into the memory of a terrorism victim in order to catch a bomber on the lamb. It’s a very slick plot emboldened by Gyllenhaal’s sympathetic performance. Colter is at once a brute, who could break a man’s jaw with a single punch, and a softie, looking for love and meaning in his life. There are a lot of moving parts to the film (and a lot of twists, which is why the film is so vaguely described) so it requires a steady performance to hold it all together. He is a rock at the center of a malleable space-time continuum.

At the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas, I caught up with Jake to discuss this new film and his other roles that have shaped him as an actor. He is forever honing his craft, and clearly gets excited for films that invigorate him as an actor. Say what you will about some of his work, but  it’s obvious this is not a man who works to eat, he works to live. He is looking for roles that explore corners of his personality as yet untapped, and with Source Code, he seems to have found a well-spring of inspiration.

What brought you to Source Code?

Mark Gordon was producing the film and he was developing it with Jordan Wynn. They sent the script to me and after the first ten pages I said “What…is…going…on?” It’s totally up my alley. I hadn’t explored a world like that in a while so it was like finding water in a desert. The story works in a way I love my mind to work.

There was no clear director on it, but it was an amazing script. It really depended on who took the helm. I was in a couple of other movies and then Mark finally said “Listen, who would you love to make this movie with?” A few months prior, I had met with Duncan Jones. I had seen Moon and thought it was incredible. So he came to mind and I told Mark he would be good, but I didn’t think it could happen. We tried, and within a week, Duncan called back and said he wanted to make it. Within four months we started making Source Code.

How long were you looking for a director?

About two years before we sent it to Duncan.

So you were committed to the project?

Yeah, obviously, depending on who was going to take it over. I knew this movie needed a real auteur voice to make it work; someone with a sense of clarity, because it could very easily get confusing. It doesn’t because Duncan has a clarity along with a visual style and a sense of the world that is isolating and fascinating and
funny. As soon as Duncan came on it was very clear to me what the film was going to be. I could finally read it and say this is a movie about a man trying to be reborn; trying to figure out where he is, in a very womb like environment, and then get out of it to be reborn, and in the process, save a lot of people.

By fate, which is a big aspect of the movie, he also happens to fall in love with this random woman who is sitting in front of him. It’s funny, when people say that they meet the person that they fall for, it’s usually like that. “Well, I sat down and I just started talking to this person.” So there is an aspect of fate. He happens to just have to lose consciousness in a helicopter battle and find himself in somebody else’s body on a train to fall in love. There are a lot of amazing qualities and it’s Duncan that brought that all out.

In the last decade you’ve become a movie star, yet your choices all seem like smaller indie films that are received on a large scale. What’s the difference between the larger scale films and the smaller ones?

There are a lot of more wonderful aspects of working on a smaller film. Each film is a journey and a lesson. I take away a lot from each film, particularly working with the extraordinary directors I’ve worked with. Ang Lee, David Fincher, Sam Mendes…the thing you take away is what you very clearly know you need when you’re telling a story, which is somebody who knows why they’re telling a story. Surprisingly we lose track of that. To know that you have somebody who knows why they’re making something is important.

And then patience, which is, to me, one of the most amazing qualities I saw from all of the people I’ve worked with. I find a lot of similarities between Ang Lee and Duncan Jones. In personality, in interpretation of scenes, in the ability to let actors really encompass a world and feel empowered but at the same time have total control over the story that they’re telling. It’s almost like a magician. You feel like you’re creating the thing that’s happening, and in some ways you’re helping it be created, but ultimately there is a true wizard there. Personality-wise, Duncan is very quiet and sort of soft spoken, very introverted, very similar to Ang. When I
met him, it was strange, my instinct connected to a similar thing when I met Ang.

In terms of bigger and smaller films, it’s a testament to the fact that any movie can be any size. They can grow, they can shrink…they become what they become when they are put out into the world. What matters to me is that there’s a human connection to the situation that any character is in. Something real that they’re struggling with. Ultimately, what are they really trying to find? Or, as an actor, why do the movie? Sometimes, when a film gets too large you lose perspective on the sort of smaller aspects of a character, or to a human connection. With Brokeback, Jarhead and Zodiac, these movies always had a human undertone to them. With Source Code, it’s in a similar vein. You go back to the human story even when you’re entertained; you go back to the “why” every time.

You have a very youthful appearance, which leads to roles that are very innocent and
inquisitive. You’re taking on more action roles now, but is your youth a hurdle?

I think it’s all about feeling. It’s all about what you feel you’re responding to. In terms of this film, I don’t think about it like that. I was fascinated with how this guy was continually dying and being reborn, over and over again. That was an idea I was fascinated with and so I explored it. I was also fascinated with how who he eventually finds is at the heart of all this, the reasons for why they’re doing it happen to be sort of what I believe is very wrong in the world.

What’s interesting about growing up making movies and having the opportunity to be an adolescent and then grow up is it becomes a journey of figuring out what you want to do, what stories you’re interested in. Sometimes the footing is solid and sometimes it’s not, but you always hope you have an opportunity to keep doing it. I explore all different things. I have a pretty eclectic taste in things. I have no
intention to…

To punch people?

No, I have no intention to do that, but it is very fun to do action.

3 Comments | Add a Comment
Mr. Poritsky, excellent interview! You've explored Jake's personality and exposed enough of Source Code that I want to see the movie.
Great interview. I can't wait;
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