Jake Gyllenhaal is sometimes regarded as a tough interview, though I've found him to be anything but.
In fact, he once barnstormed through Philadelphia as part of a stunt to hit three cities in a single day to promote the movie Nightcrawler, and despite the insane demands of the tour, he was generous with his time and an enthusiastic talker during his whistle-stop.
At the time, he was particularly excited about a decision to redirect his career, taking on more challenging and less commercial roles, Nightcrawler — in which he played a conman turned unethical crime journalist — being Exhibit A. What followed was a string of adventurous pictures — Southpaw, Stronger, Okja, The Sisters Brothers (still in theaters), all leading to his latest role in Wildlife.
It's adapted from a Richard Ford novel about a Montana family falling apart in the early 1960s, a disintegration set in motion when Gyllenhaal's character, a golf pro named Jerry, decides to walk away form his job and leave his wife (Carey Mulligan) and son (Ed Oxenbould) to fight a fire raging nearby.
Gyllenhaal sees Jerry as a man who married young, had a child early, and is feeling itchy in his head-of-the-household role. He has what in the early 1960s was an ideal life — pretty wife, good job, good kid. But something's gnawing at the character and he feels guilty for not being happier.
"When I looked at the character of Jerry, I kept thinking of a Springsteen song, you know? That guy who can't stop thinking about what's beyond the edge of town, who went out for a ride and never came back," he said.
Jerry is a "Hungry Heart" guy in a "One Step Up (Two Steps Back)" marriage, so Gyllenhaal has a lot to play and a short time to play it. He takes pains to note that his character is often off screen and that the movie really belongs to Mulligan and Oxenbould, as a teen who watches his mother change radically when his father is away.
"Carey is so great in this movie. It's so much about what she does with Ed, so that needs to emphasized," he said.
Gyllenhaal produced the movie, in part because he loved the melancholy nature of the story, in part because he had a chance to help good buddy Paul Dano, directing his first movie. The two are very close and are good friends with Mulligan — in fact, Gyllenhaal met Dano at Mulligan's wedding (the two actors also worked together on Okja and Prisoners, and Gyllenhaal and Mulligan costarred in Brothers).
"I met Jake through Carey, so I knew both of them, and I knew they really wanted to work together. But that only takes you so far, because we all know what making a movie entails, and just to ask as a favor, it's too much work. You look at what Carey does [as Jeanette], for instance, she's just so all-in. She's messy on screen in a way that she's never been before. In fact, we talked about that. Her performances are sometimes dialed back in the edit, but there were none of those kinds of restrictions on this role," said Dano, who showed the movie at the Philadelphia Film Festival last month. "And, Jake, when he read it, it just hit home for him. We got on the phone and just talked about family for 90 minutes. It just stoked something in him, and that was obviously a great asset to me."
Gyllenhaal was also all-in.
"I'd started a production company to make projects like this, that really studios don't make anymore. And Paul came to me with this script, and it was just a perfect fit. I was sort of looking for this new adventure, and this seemed like the right thing," said Gyllenhaal, who is also friends with Dano's partner Zoe Kazan, who cowrote Wildlife.
Given that everyone was so close, I asked the actor if it was weird taking direction and instruction from a buddy.
"It's actually really helpful, and it's not weird at all. I think in part because we're actors, because we know how the process makes you vulnerable in those intimate emotional spaces, so trust becomes very easy."
He also was wowed by Dano's passion for the story, which translated to extremely detailed preparation.
"You have to know how meticulous Paul is. You could see this through preproduction just how completely he had planned everything out. And that gives you great confidence as an actor when you are working with a director who knows what they want to say and how they want to say it."
Gyllenhaal is also pretty meticulous, careful about the roles he selects. He won't, as he once planned, be doing the Leonard Bernstein biopic — that role has reportedly gone to Bradley Cooper, who – small world — is said to be pursuing Mulligan to costar.
Gyllenhaal is not hurting for work, however. He's doing another movie with Nightcrawler writer-director Tony Gilroy, called Velvet Buzzsaw, about devious people on the fringe of the art market. Gyllenhaal plays a character with the fabulous name Morf Vandewalt.
He laughs at the mere mention of the name Morf.
"I've had some pretty good character names over the years, But that may be my favorite."
More familiar to movie fans and comic book readers will be the name Mysterio, the character he plays in the next Spider-Man movie, Spider-Man: Far from Home.
A return to blockbusters?
"I don't think so much about the size of movie as what there is to play. And though I can't talk much about [Mysterio], I can say that it was great fun to play," he said.
"So I'm psyched for Spider-Man, but I'm also psyched for Wildlife. And I hope people get a chance to see it. "