You could never accuse Jake Gyllenhaal of not having a strong work ethic. The word “overachiever” may come to mind when talking about the 34-year-old actor’s vast career.
A brief look back at his résumé illustrates this man cannot — and will not — be typecast. He played a troubled teen in Donnie Darko. A lovestruck cashier in The Good Girl. A closeted cowboy in Brokeback Mountain. A bulked-up action star in Prince of Persia.
The L.A.-born actor has no issue at all with transforming himself for a role. In 2013, Gyllenhaal lost a staggering 30 pounds to play a sleazy videographer in Nightcrawler. Mere months later he was on set for Southpaw, where he had to gain back all those pounds — and then some — to play Billy Hope, a light heavyweight boxing champ whose career takes a tumble after a family tragedy.
While in Miami, Gyllenhaal, soft spoken and polite, talked about the experience and his fierce commitment to the project.
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“Southpaw” was shot a year ago. So how are you doing now?
I’m very well. When we wrapped, I’d been training for five months twice a day so I was physically and just, you know, emotionally exhausted. All the things my character went through. I’ve done a number of projects since then. Now I’m just traveling around the United States talking about the movie so that’s not very intense — sitting and talking. Compared to what most folks are doing around the world, I’m good. I’m very proud of the film, and I love reliving it. I can’t wait for people to see it.
A lot of prep went into this. How difficult was the process?
When I started I really didn’t know how to box. When I first met [director] Antoine Fuqua he said, ‘There have been a lot of boxing movies, and what I want for this one is to be different. I want to shoot it like an HBO fight.’ He didn’t want a close-up after a fake punch. He didn’t want stunt doubles. I was terrified because I didn’t want to look like a fool in the ring. I quickly realized I was actually going to have to learn the sport. I knew I was in for it!
So you probably have the skills to beat someone up right now, right?
Well, now that you mention it, probably. I learned five different styles to incorporate into the choreography. So I do know what I’m doing. It was a question of me learning how to box. I think everyone knows ultimately how to get fit. That’s a pretty simple equation. But to look like a professional fighter I would have to learn how to protect myself since Antoine really wanted people to throw punches. So there was counterpunching; then more of a flicking, jabbing style; as well as footwork and defensive techniques.
So how badly were you hurt?
I got punched. Often. But that’s really motivating. I was looking for a sense of reality; at least I know Antoine was. Body shots are not my favorite thing. They’re the worst, actually, and usually why people go down. Being hit in the face is not as bad. Getting hurt, that was inevitable. But I think boxing is a wonderful outlet for kids. It’s a great sport to learn in order to understand the connection between the mind and the body. It gave me a confidence that I now bring into everything I do in my career.
What was the chemistry like on set?
The girl who plays my daughter [Oona Laurence, Penny Dreadful] was a lovely young actress. I mean, she is so talented that she would often take the lead and guide me. Our scenes together, you see the movie is really about family. And Forest Whitaker — for him to play my coach you needed to have a sense of someone you admire and who’s wiser than you. And that’s who he is. He’s a legend.