Jake Gyllenhaal's Climb to Leading Man Material

January 08, 2015
photograph by Dove Shore
Every six months or so it seems a title of Best Leading Man Ever is passed around. Cleverly, the media tries to distract us into thinking there is only one actor who has ever earned the blue ribbon of being leading man material. But really stardom is a cycle: One month it's George Clooney, the next it's Brad Pitt, or Ben Affleck or Matthew McConaughey, and onwards.

Though the media tries to convince us, there's hardly ever just one man in the limelight, behind the curtain, or capable of having it all. One actor comes to mind who has recently popped up on everyone's radar, and has utilized his nearly lifelong recognition in film with attentive creativity and ambition. That guy, which comes to mind, is Jake Gyllenhaal.

For such a mildly young talent (34 years old), it's difficult to remember that he has been tagged with fame since he was eleven years old. And yet his career has garnered just about the right amount of everything it takes to be successful in Hollywood without becoming a warning label of toxic fame for young Hollywood. His climb to leading man material earnestly means that for as far as his career has taken him so far, he always seems on the cusp of re-inventing himself as a starring actor.

The first film I saw Gyllenhaal in, and inspired me as a pre-teen to become a Rocket Boy (something that never sadly took flight passed a cardboard box I used a rocket ship fort in my bedroom), was October Sky (1999)Starring as Homer Hickam, a son of a coal miner who is inspired by the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957 to take up rocketry against the local Coal Town's societal/class system interest and his father's wishes.

As a young teenager myself it was refreshing then to see a mature movie about the ambition of young teenagers trying to escape its societal-wary small town. The film itself is refreshing even now in the wake of teen-driven blockbuster franchises and young adult love stories because October Sky focuses on something other than dystopian governments and hormones. Hickam deals with the usual fare of being a teenager with struggling in school, breaking out of the mold, and dealing with girls in the wake of being inspired by something bigger than himself, to which his town tries to bully the aspirations out of him. Gyllenhaal, as well as his other juvenile co-stars, deliver performances that are emotionally mature as well as instinctively natural. For such a pre-teen young man, he exuded a surprising maturity.

My first hook-up with Gyllenhaal as a movie goer is a lot more tender-hearted than the one which would emerge two years later. In 2001, for Hollywood, he broke onto the scene with Donnie Darko. He portrayed a troubled teenager hallucinating a scary-ass rabbit, who signals the end of the world. Hollywood and teen magazines were quick to dowse Gyllenhaal with affection for his good looks (and rightfully so) as well as his ability to convey a teenager's brooding attitude. The film itself became a cult classic, but unlike so many teen movies of the era, it didn't pigeonhole his talent.

Morphing from teenager to adulthood is cringe-worthy, awkward, and confusing enough for anyone not pursuing the performing arts on-screen or on-stage. Avoiding the pitfalls of scandals or the tragic early death so many starlets fall to, and growing up smoothly on-screen, is a science that seems very few are able to master. Being born into a creative and passionate family certainly helped as Gyllenhaal managed to age on-screen successfully with roles in dramas like The Good Girl (2002) and Moonlight Mile (2002) as teenagers dealing with the same issues he was realistically facing.

Despite the early accolades he earned for roles like Donnie Darko, and the criticism for some of his blockbuster flicks The Day After Tomorrow, Gyllenhaal's fame gradually rose. In the coming years, the kid would become a major star, but that's the thing about his career: He doesn't really feel like a mega film actor, though the characters and genres he's tackled hit nearly every bracket of Hollywood from big budget studios to the independent scene, from drama to romantic comedies and action.

In 2005, Gyllenhaal starred in the major Oscar contender Brokeback Mountain; a book adaptation depicting a complex romantic and sexual relationship between two cowboys in the American West from 1963 to 1983. Gyllenhaal's character Jack Twist struggles to contend with his sexuality on the limited encounters he gets with his partner. His work, alongside the late Heath Ledger, was an unforgettably tender and moving performance centered within a film that gave life to an unbridled love trapped in the misery of society's limitations of gender and sexuality. The film won Academy Awards for direction by Ang Lee, original score and adaptation of screenplay, and was the most honored film of 2005.

What was to come of Gyllenhaal's career was a series of dramatic roles that didn't gain traction on the award show front but provided a range of thoughtful and impressive performances; a frustrated Marine stationed during Desert Storm in Jarhead (2005), a political cartoonist obsessively deciphering a serial killer's identity in Zodiac (2007), and an ex-con brother to a Marine captured by terrorists in Brothers (2009). From war to suspense and another try at a blockbuster franchise, his choices allowed for beneficial learning experience from notable directors like David Fincher and Sam Mendes, and establishing that honest connections with his co-stars was a major gateway to his creative process.

A characteristic that comes through in interviews of Gyllenhaal is awareness. When reflecting on his work he is skillfully tuned into which films of his that might not have garnered thumbs up from critics and audiences, and taking on different tools (emotional/artistic/etc) needed to pursue what fulfills him best. Instead of careening towards a doomed fate of failed franchises (like Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010))Gyllenhaal took stock of the experiences he'd gained so far and was opening to mapping a course different than the one he was taking.


In End of Watch (2012), Gyllenhaal alongside Michael Pena become cops in South Central Los Angeles. I wrote "become" instead of portrayed because the film itself is more like a riveting, humanistic documentary than an action-packed drama. And both Pena and Gyllenhaal bring depth and humor to the average buddy cop roles Hollywood churns out.

Documenting their characters' day-to-day activities and trailing a violent drug gang, their brotherhood in uniform is on display in a cerebral from with cameras installed on the characters' lapels, within the characters' vehicle, and with handi-cams. Physically, Gyllenhaal prepared for the role by shaving off the famous thick brown locks which idealized him as a tall, dark and handsome heartthrob. Alongside Pena, he also spent five months doing twelve-hour ride-alongs with LAPD officers; on one occasion he witnessed a murder. The pre-production process opened the actor up to the possibilities of establishing preparation for his roles, and it's one that he has said changed his outlook as an actor and he pursued work from this movie onward.
More and more, I’ve tried to ask myself about myself … that’s one of the reasons I love other actors, I discover what I want to talk about when I begin to exchange with someone else. You constantly stay alive, stay awake, listen to yourself. V Man
Despite the mix of success Gyllenhaal has faced, his career is remarkably relaxed; watching him perform is not like watching someone always on the cuff of the Next Big Movie or that he's spiraling towards super stardom. Sometimes leading actors can try so hard in the pursuit of showing what a good and ranging performer they are, their work is over-shadowed by their effort instead of just attempting to act well. But he's rooted in dedication to trying new things and being open to what comes his way. For such a young movie star at at the age of thirty-four, performing seems to fit him like a glove; a quiet yet brimming quest to serve film-making and the director's vision.


In the past two years a collaboration with directed by Denis Villeneuve has inspired more heads to turn towards Gyllenhaal in reverence of his dedicated evolution. As a tattoo-laden cop investigating the disappearance of two local girls, Gyllenhaal's Detective Loki is a can't-miss performance from Prisoners. Sometimes a physical performance chocked full of ticks and jarring behavioral mannerisms has a way of giving the opposite effect. Gyllenhaal's Loki beckoned enigmatic curiosity, drawing more interest towards him as a central character than the case itself. Though the film is not among my favorites, his role as tortured brusque detective intellectually overloaded is wonderfully memorable. He's almost worthy of his own spin-off.
What always impressed me about Jake was his steadfast commitment to connection,” Hugh Jackman tells me over e-mail. “His work ethic is like mine: he loves to explore, dig, and extract every ounce of depth in a scene. He has the courage to follow his instincts, and helps create an atmosphere where anything is possible. He is open, always striving for truth and complexity. What he has pulled off in Prisoners is extraordinary. - V Magazine
Gyllenhaal's next partnership with Villeneuve was more than a film in 2014, Enemy was an experience. A worn-out teacher discovers his doppelganger, an actor, and decides to investigate. Where other actors might go out of their way to prove they are portraying two different people, Gyllenhaal takes the nuance approach. He's timid, reclusive, and depressed as the ordinary professor locked in a stagnant, morose routine, and as the actor - commanding, ambitious, and enthusiastic. For a film with a significant modest budget, his performance and the film has garnered every rave review almost imaginable.

And, it may pale in comparison to the work he exemplified in Nightcrawler as a cutthroat entrepreneurial recording the violence for a local news station.  Always in the attack mode of a starving wolf, his character Louis Bloom is a champion of manipulative, bloodthirsty ambition. The realization of enjoyment for preparing for his roles from End of Watch allowed for a new definition of his appearance (losing weight) and a perfected performance of memorizing his soliloquies and emotionally channel his physical hunger. The specificity of his monologues curl you into the back of your seat, glue you to his every word, and stun you into horrified captivation. It's a performance that shows off his natural abilities as an lead actor but also his camouflage himself into a cast and story.
My whole life," he says, "I'd come to a scene and just ask for something real. I'd say, 'Please, just tell me what's going on. All the research, how your character picks up a fork, it'll all come when we know the truth.' Details Magazine
Everyone knows Gyllenhaal, but he nor the media doesn't sell us a hype up image of his career. He isn't portrayed as the ultra-relateable famous guy next door that every woman wants to wake up next to and every guy wants to be.  Throughout his career Gyllenhaal works, maintains his privacy, avoids getting involved in public scandals, and he maintains the presence of a dedicated and regardful performer.

Not corrupted by the press machine to chase the gold stars, Gyllenhaal is thoroughly attentive to his process and the players around him. He's continually inspired to be a team player for his directors and co-stars. There's a refreshing passion to his pursuit of acting not only for him to be continually challenged but his fellow actors as well; he always seems to be rooting for the creative freedom for everyone. Like every actor's career, Gyllenhaal's filmography is marked with hits and misses, but his ambition keeps him on the cusp of leading man material; earning enough worthy attention and credit as a singular star while leaving considerable wiggle room to keep reaching higher.

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