Dan Woburn sat down with the ever-impressive Jake Gyllenhaal to discuss his latest film Southpaw.
From acclaimed director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) and screenwriters Kurt Sutter (Sons of Anarchy) and Richard Wenk (The Mechanic), Southpaw tells the riveting story of Billy “The Great” Hope, reigning Light Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the World (Academy Award® nominee Jake Gyllenhaal). Billy Hope seemingly has it all with an impressive career, a beautiful and loving wife (Rachel McAdams), an adorable daughter (Oona Laurence) and a lavish lifestyle. When tragedy strikes and his lifelong manager and friend (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) leaves him behind, Hope hits rock bottom and turns to an unlikely saviour at a run-down local gym: Tick Willis (Academy Award® winner Forest Whitaker), a retired fighter and trainer to the city’s toughest amateur boxers. With his future riding on Tick’s guidance and tenacity, Billy enters the hardest battle of his life as he struggles with redemption and to win back the trust of those he loves.
There have been a lot of great boxing movies over the years, but what was it about this script and subject that stood out for you that made you want to take the role?
I think that there are two things. I’m very aware, very aware of the cliché of things that have already been established and, and the brilliance of the movies that have already been created in the genre. One, was a personal thing for me, which was that this is a character who begins the movie using his anger with hatred really, like, his rage as a motivation and as a way of gaining success and money and all the conventional forms of success and fame and – and then through that same form, y’know, destroys his whole life, that same anger with hatred in ends up destroying his life – and he has to learn through evolution, like, how to fight with anger but without hatred in it – and that comes with him facing a lot of things. And I was fascinated, very curious, with my own anger – and curious about exploring it, and looking at it in a context that’s safe – at least, pretty safe. And that was interesting to me. Also I think the story with him becoming, really becoming a father even though he was a father, and learning how to do that – and Antoine and I discussed very early on that if we could do anything that was a message… Particularly because he was a very young father. And I think in most movies I’ve seen, in sort of, Hollywood films, y’know, fathers [are] a certain age, and had a kid at this age, [and] our idea of what the appropriate age of whatever it is is a certain thing, and to be a young father, and to take responsibility, and to think that job is a really honourable one, is something that Antoine really wanted to get through, and I love that story. I just – I love the story of what it is to be a father, which I think essentially the movie is saying is, to be strong enough to be vulnerable.
The cliché is [to] never work with children or animals. You did children this time – Oona seemed remarkably wise for her years – what was it like working with her and playing a dad for the first time?
I think Oona’s – y’know, you talk about… Oona is probably one of the best actors I’ve ever worked with, to be honest. Y’know, there’s something about her curiosity and intelligence, but also just the fact that she’s a regular girl with no performance [experience]. But she’s highly skilled. I mean, she is a Tony award winner, but, um, [laughs], she came in with these oversized tennis shoes, and the same outfit she wears in the movie, and her glasses and everything and that was her – when she came in and read, we were improvving and we improvved a lot throughout the film – and her improvisation was extraordinary. It was like, she had created this world… and I had been reading with a lot of other actors and they were all very talented and all saying things that were very interesting, but all of a sudden, we were talking at one point about dolls, and she said oh, this is this doll, and she’s named this, and then he’s named this, and don’t mind his curly hair, all this stuff and I just thought – her imagination is right there. And that’s exactly the imagination that needs to be able to draw him back, and that attitude needs to draw him back, and she’s also really an adult in a lot of ways too, she’s very mature somewhere, she has a lot of wisdom about her, and yeah, she brought that too, so *claps* I think she’s brilliant.
What can you as a person and as an actor learn from a boxer?
Jeez, I mean… How do you mean? I think there’s a sacrifice and a, um, sort of obsessive preparation and a true science, really, to how a boxer approaches their job and their work. And I actually do believe that not the same type, but I think, preparation and research and time and craft is something that is essential to being an actor, and the amount of time I believe you put into preparation is the, y’know, it shows itself in a performance and is ultimately much more interesting for an audience to watch. Just in terms of preparation you can learn a lot from that, from a boxer. I could go on and on, but there are probably other questions people wanna ask, but I could literally go on and on. I mean, I think also just sort of the, just maybe frankly the humility that, y’know, it’s not all about your face is very important too!
How do you feel about being hit, what goes through your head if you’re being hit, how do you react to that?
First, it’s just… shit!
[More laughter – Jake is a funny guy!]
I don’t really love body shots. I would say being hit in the body, particularly in just the right spot, really is no fun.
But being punched in the face is?
Well I would say what’s interesting about a body shot, and if you look at many fights, and a lot of knockouts, they are – initially a knockout is sort of pre-empted by a body shot. So, not always, but a lot of times it’s – the most weakening spot is like, is getting hit in the body. There’s so much pain in an organ, that you then have access. So yeah, that is very – that is not fun. But y’know, they’re all different types of hits. So… some kind of feel like, ‘that was nothing, and it’s ok’. And some are really sort of debilitating and strange [and] make you very vulnerable (at least for me, personally). And it’s interesting just in terms of the metaphor of it, because I think the movie is about someone becoming vulnerable, as opposed to, ‘oh you hit me, now I’m gonna hit harder back.’, it’s ‘you hit me, and that hurt. And I’m gonna express that, by the end.’
Are there any ways in which playing this role changed you personally, or in your views on life?
Yeah, I mean I think every movie is a journey. And everything we all- whatever we do will have an effect on our lives. I spent a very long time with the professionals who are in the fight game and the fight world. I came away with a skill and a discipline that I will have for the rest of my life. I will box for the rest of my life, I will train like that for the rest of my life. I think it’s confidence-inducing and very humbling and real work of body and mind. And I also think that relationships I made with people in the boxing world and particularly with people who were working with me every single day – y’know it’s a year since we finished and I’m still talking to them all the time and still see them all the time. And then the many other things I picked up – I’m now an avid boxing fan and follow boxing. So there are many things.
How was it to be in the ring with the pro boxers? A lot of it is acting, but were they told to hold back, not to hit you too hard?
Yeah, better to be in the ring with a pro boxer, to be honest. Because the accuracy of their punches is very reliable. And their sense of distance and the science of that distance and the geometry of angles is really confidence-inducing. Much more scary to be with someone who is an actor in the ring. Because they are full of something to prove and insecurity and no expertise. So to me, that scene with Victor Ortiz, and I have no- I can’t fight against him and I have to just defend, and he’s just popping me over and over again? Well, y’know, some of those punches really do land, but a lot of the times I knew I could move and I could move the way I would move and know Victor knew the angles. So he could kind of pop me but he wasn’t really gonna knock me out. And that was strangely much more calming, because they’re experts – he knows the difference between, y’know, literally, half an inch, and a quarter of an inch, and then a whole inch. He really knows, and he can feel that instinctually. So really the difference is just like, becoming friends with them first.
But there’s a real respect also I think, for a professional fighter, when you’re in there with them, that you’re in there with them and their space – and that you respect their space and to me it is that way with everything I’ve prepared. Any role I’ve ever played where someone does it professionally, I have the utmost respect for the job before I get into it. Because I know that respect will reflect back on them and I will learn more and I will ultimately earn their respect because I deeply respect what they do. Not just walking in like “I know what I’m doing.” All the professional fighters I fought with, I mean- I love those guys. It means a lot to me that they would get in the ring with someone who really knows very little and give me the same respect they would give another fighter. I was really moved by that.
Did you follow boxing before the film?
No, not really at all, no. When I was a kid I knew Tyson and I knew those fights, those big fights you hear about? Like kids probably heard about the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight. But no, not really at all. Not until I started doing this movie and then five months of it non-stop and I love the fight game, and I love boxing, and I follow it avidly.
Obviously you had to bulk up for this role, and you came from this situation on Nightcrawler where you had to lose a lot of weight. Tom Hanks has said that the weight fluctuations that he had to put on over his career have heavily contributed to him being diagnosed with diabetes. And Christian Bale has said that after putting on the pounds for American Hustle he probably shouldn’t do another role like that for another ten years because it would seriously affect his health. Obviously your weight has fluctuated a lot with your roles, does that potential health impact worry you at all?
I think that being careful about all of those things is very important. I think there tends to be a narrative of actors taking risks that I think is dangerous to put out there particularly as they’re young actors, or people thinking about craft or what your devotion to craft is? Y’know I think if someone came to me and said “Oh you know I’m playing a drug addict – do you think I should try the drug?” And I was like, “no.”
Do you know what I mean? Like, no. I think that there’s a fine line. You have to have a craft, you have to have a technique and you have to know that these things are done with preparation and with the watchful eye of an expert. When I did Nightcrawler I went to a doctor first, and it wasn’t like I was doing what Christian did in The Machinist, y’know? But I was very careful about it, and I had an intent and my intent was a feeling that I was trying to get at- and when I hit that feeling and I knew, I stayed there. And then I just tried to stay in it. So it just depends on intent, it depends on why you’re doing it, and I think you have to be very mindful about that and then this was- yeah, I mean look, it affects your body. It definitely does. But I try to be as safe as I can, and sometimes things get a little dangerous, and then you… But you always have to be mindful.
How hard is it to say goodbye to characters when you finish a shoot, and is there any you’d like to revisit? Maybe check in on Lou Bloom in a couple of years, see how things are going?
There are some characters I’d like to, y’know, I’d love to be able to play again. Though I probably shouldn’t. And y’know, yeah, I mean I think there are ways of that happening but that’s the great thing is like, you let it go. And then there’s another way of finding another character. “Back by popular demand! Lou Bloom!”
No, but I do love- you do fall in love with the big characters and that’s the main thing I’ve decided over the past four of five years. ‘Can I fall in love with this character?’. Which means like, how far can I go? So you wake up every morning, even when it’s this crazy character, having a great time.
Some people say you’re the new Robert De Niro.
Oh really, who?
Okay, I’ll take it.
Are you at ease with that?
No! Come on, that’s not okay. It’s not true. I think it’s nice. In a way… someone was telling me- because people drew conclusions [between] Nightcrawler [and] Taxi Driver… so I understand when some people say that. But it’s just not true.
The preparation for the role was all so different in the way that the director was always with you [from the beginning, during training, etc.]. Were you happy with that approach?
It depends on the director, and it depends on what they want. But I really do prefer getting to know somebody because I think when I get to know somebody then I can give them even more. When we both sacrifice a little bit, to get to know each other, I think there’s the opportunity to really be vulnerable for them. But then there’s some people that you just respect in a certain way initially, and they want a certain thing and you are there and you’re their actor for hire and that’s how it is. Every relationship is different. But I really do love having a relationship with my director, I mean, when I made two movies in a row with Dennis Villeneuve it was just this sort of second-hand we had, because we had spent so much time together, that sort of- even if one movie was a rehearsal for another movie; I mean it’s not, but it almost functioned that way. It’s just so much easier to be creative in my opinion. But I think sometimes like, that tension and the fear [of] what they’re gonna think and your preparation and not hearing from them, that can work too.
Did this help you to actually stay with it, or did you think ‘shit, what have I gotten myself into’?
What, having him there? Mm, no. I’m a big boy.
[Chuckles from the room]
No, I don’t use a director as a parent. Y’know, I… I have my own. And what they didn’t teach me I have to learn for myself. But I don’t expect it from them. I’m there to do a job, I’m there to try and service my vision, I’m very very particular about what the boundaries of that is. And I think that’s allowed me to do work that I feel really good about because I recognised how solid my family I have in my life is, and so no matter what, no matter what risks I have I feel I definitely still have them. So that allows me to just- I don’t need a director in that way. It does make it easier and more comfortable. Y’know, I find myself in an exchange with people I know you’re just comfortable, and when you’re more comfortable I think you have more access to certain feelings. And it doesn’t mean you have to be in a comfortable state in every scene but I do think like… Man, Antoine, there was a day when Antoine, he knew we didn’t know exactly what the scene was, he knew we didn’t know exactly where we were going. And he said you stay in your trailer, and I really want everybody to be quiet when you come out on set. So I’m gonna call you when we’re ready for you. So you do your thing, and when we’re ready, we’ll call you. I was like OK, ‘cause like I don’t want any noise, I don’t want anything. And he like set it up, to make the space real for me. He knew how tough the scene was gonna be. And he just loves his actors, and he does that for actors all over the place. He just creates a space. And he called me, and I went up in the elevator, and I went down- it was really amazing, the whole crew was there, everyone had done their work, I came on, I sat down to the scene. And we did another take, and another take, and then we finished the scene. And he got what he needed from me, because he created the space, because he knew me and he knew that like, there were things in that scene in particular that really messed with me, y’know? So he created that space. It was this moment, I might be a little jetlagged, so it might make me emotional because of that- but there was a moment you went ‘oh wow’. This thing we do which is kinda crazy when you talk about it, and a little absurd to think about what it involves, really does require trust. And he really really earned my trust. And I hope I really earned his trust. And he got things from me as a result of it. I mean, sometimes I joke that being a director is like, the ultimate manipulation, because ultimately they’re doing it to create this thing but… I don’t believe that about him. Y’know, we talked a few months ago in the edit of the movie and he was debating what to cut out and stuff and he was like “I just don’t want to take this out, I just don’t want to take this out, I just love what you do.” And I remember I had to say to him, it just doesn’t work for the movie. It’s okay, y‘know? And it was almost like he had to go, ‘I care about what we did so much’, like, what he created. And that’s the directory of actors. So that was very important, that relationship, and having that time with him.
Close-Up Film: Being that the movie in its infancy was created for Eminem, was there any part of his personality that you tried to, or wanted to infuse into the role, knowing that was the origin?
No, no. I think there were conclusions- I think there were things early on that he had influence in, that he developed early versions of the script. And then as soon as I came on I had I think a totally different perspective on what the story was, it would’ve been a different movie. But, no, I mean… Y’know, none of the research I did really involved him but I think he saw the movie when he saw the movie and he really loved the movie, and that’s why I agreed to do… I think it does reflect something he feels or has been through, and that means a lot to me. And he is by proxy and also indirectly through his music which was with me in like, almost every day and probably on loop within every 30 minutes of the two hours and then another two hours every day, his music was always motivating me. So like, he is definitely deeply a part of the character and the movie as a result of that.
Southpaw is released in cinemas on July 24th.