Dashingly handsome Jake Gyllenhaal moves quickly from romantic comedy Love and Other Drugs to action-thriller Source Code, where he plays Colter Stevens, a soldier who wakes up in the body of an unknown man to find himself on a mission to stop a bomber of a Chicago commuter train. He sat down with Buzzine to talk about his acting process, doing long takes as though he's on stage, and how much he loved this brilliant script.
Izumi Hasegawa: We are glad you can make it today, because the LA Marathon has congested the traffic in Beverly Hills. We thought you'd be running!
Jake Gyllenhaal: I thought so too. I would like to...perhaps in a parallel universe.
IH: What did you think when you read this script? Did it feel like Groundhog Day?
JG: I read the first 15 pages like you would watch the first five minutes of the movie, and I was completely engaged. Ben [Ripley] had written a script that was so vivid and visceral, and I remember even sentence by sentence with the vivid description of the coffee spills, so you could really follow along in a very logical way. There was a lot of clear logic to it. I put it down after the first 15 pages because I thought there's no way it's going to be as interesting...it must have been a writing sample that someone is very good at writing, and all of a sudden he's dancing with aliens at the end. I had no idea what was going to happen. So I was enthralled in the script. It was amazing. They asked me, "If you had a wishlist of directors, who would you want to work with?" and Duncan Jones was at the top of the list. I told them I had just seen Moon and I thought Duncan was amazing. It felt to me like he was original. He had a character in the middle of his first movie which was actually going through human issues while at the same time being in a visually stunning world, and the rhythm of his movie was amazing, which is incredible. I never thought he would do it. And he ended up wanting to do it. It was a shock, and literally four months later, we were making the movie, which is kind of crazy. But in making the movie, we all knew that the only way the audience would be engaged is with variation within each Source Code. And because Ben had written such a tight script and because each Source Code had a specific theme, when you really read the script, we named each Source Code chapter by chapter. So the first Source Code was absolute confusion, and we couldn't make it--the more confusing the better. The second one was very clear, and so on and so forth, with the different themes. So the second one, knowing it was the same, Duncan would come up to me and say, "Make it weirder. Treat every one like they're a computer game. Make it even weirder. Respond to them even stranger." And because we had these clear set rules, we could then vary it. Not to get even more complicated about it, but we kind of knew that Michelle Monahan was going to be the unconscious aspect to the viewer, so any variation she had would be an unconscious response by an audience. So if her arm went up, you wouldn't know if there was a variation, but they would kind of sense it. I was more conscious in that I could affect the people around me, and the audience would say, "Oh, there is a difference." And Duncan could enter the scene and exit the scene, and shoot the scene in many different angles again on an unconscious and conscious level. We were constantly thinking about variation, and I think that's what makes each time you go back so intriguing. By the second one, you know you're not entering or exiting the same way.
IH: Did you shoot chronologically?
JG: In a way. I mean, the train sequence for me was shot chronologically. So we shot the first day of me waking up and so on and so forth, every Source Code. Occasionally we would pick up pieces because we had Paul Hersh literally upstairs editing the movie while we were shooting it. So he would say, "Well, I need a close up here...I need this, or can you get an insert of that?" So we would do that. And after we finished the train sequence, we moved onto the Pod sequence and we shot chronologically within the Pod sequence. So in a way, yes, and in a way, no.
IH: Did it help to have that much structure with where your character was in his head?
JG: I had great faith in the script and knew that it worked, and I knew that no matter how we shot it. I had great faith in the fact that we had Don Burgess shooting a movie, Paul Hirsch editing a movie, Mark Gordon and Jordan Wynn producing the movie, and we had Mark Gordon, who is a veteran in so many senses, and we also have Jeb Brody, a young youthful aspect too. The first scene, I asked if we could shoot it again--my coverage when I wake up, because you learn so much. The thing about playing this character is that you learn so much even as you go on, so to me it was an advantage, but it also felt a bit like a disadvantage because...every clue you put in...someone could come back and watch it again and go, "Aha..." And I had those "Aha moments" while we were in the third Source Code about the first Source Code. It's a constant process of exploration.
IH: Your scenes with Michelle [Monaghan]--did it feel like acting class 101? "You're sitting at the table..." It felt like you actually got to 'act' in those scenes and you were given the ability to re-act because you were talking about those different variations. Did it feel like acting class 101, and now we go back and do the same scene again?
JG: It did. All the Source Codes, and in particular the Pod, felt like real acting exercises. A lot of the time, I was acting with myself. I didn't see Vera [Farmiga] on the screen. I didn't see anything. I was literally doing the solo, one-man show with myself like a kid would when they pick up an object and go, "Oh hi, Mr. Cup. How are you?" It was that kind of world. That really brought out a lot of exploration. Duncan doesn't shoot little itsy bitsy pieces of coverage--he shoots scenes all in one go. The situation of doing the first Source Code was amazing because we had real confusion at first. When you read the scene, these are two people in two different scenes. If we were doing it on stage, it would have been incredibly difficult because we would have had to hear different lines which were being said to us, which was essentially what was happening. What we did was we wrote responses on her coverage, which I would say to make her feel not as uncomfortable, so [Michelle] would say, "I took your advice, which was really good advice," and I would say, "Oh thanks, it really wasn't anything." And she would be like, "You're acting a little strange..." Not like, "I don't know who you are strange." And on my side, I would say, "My name is Captain Colter Stevens." And she would say, when she wasn't on camera, "Okay, I can help you out...do you need my help?" So it was an acting exercise every single day. It was great fun because of that, and great fun because Duncan really lets his actors go. And that's a testament to him as a filmmaker. That's what I saw when he made Moon, and that's what he let us do here. I liken him to Ang Lee–maybe it's because of his attitude, and his demeanor on set is very quiet. He behaves like Ang in a lot of ways. He's quiet. He lets his actors do what they are going to do, and he has confidence in everybody, what they are doing. If there is an issue or if he has a question, it's put very simply. He would come up to me and say, "Make it weirder. Just be weird." And that's a very simple, clear direction that I could work with. And he would come up after the next scene: "Even weirder." Ang Lee said to me once, "Not sexy at all." [Laughs] I'm like, "Okay, I'm gonna work with that. I will try to for the next one." But that type of confidence, that type of very clear, simplistic direction was the way Duncan directed. So it was kind of like an acting exercise, and it made it incredibly fun.
IH: You've worked with a lot of directors who have very different styles. Do you like mixing it up? Which style do you respond to more?
JG: First and foremost, after all the experience I've had working with directors, I've learned so much from all of them. What I can be to them is an actor they can rely on and can fit their process and make them feel like: "I don't have to worry about Jake. Jake's got it under control. He's going to deliver even beyond what the script delivered," which is what they always want, I can see. What I love: I do have a process. In order for me to get to where I need to go for a director, I feel very theatrical as an actor, even much more than cinematic. I think my strength is being able to play a whole take all the way through, which is why Duncan and I worked so well together in that we do a seven-page-long scene, and he will let me do one whole take. It's as if I was on stage. I'm definitely not someone who can always deliver a sprint. I can't just do one line. I find the line through the understanding of the whole scene. It could mean that I'm not that smart [laughs], but I find it when I'm in it. It takes me a second to find myself in it. I love being pushed. I love being challenged. The thing I love with Duncan in particular is that we feel like contemporaries. I just always knew the choices he was going to make would be interesting. I trusted his sense of style, his sense of visual, his sense of rhythm. I just totally trusted in him. I think he felt he could trust me. So as long as you can establish your sense of trust between an actor and director, you're golden, and we have that. That's what I need. I know that's sort of blur, but it's a very hard and simple thing to figure out.
IH: How did this role change you, personally and professionally?
JG: I trusted my instinct wholeheartedly on this film. I read the script, I responded to it. There was something that connected in my unconscious and in my conscious, in my heart, in my head–it all seemed to work in terms of the story and the character. I just knew I could do it. There was a confidence that came after I finished it. It starts to swell up inside you when you read something and you know you're trusting your instinct. The same thing with Duncan. I saw his movie and I really never thought he would want to do this movie, but when they asked me who my top choice of director was, I said "Duncan Jones." I knew something in my heart about it. Very rarely do you have that kind of cosmic connection when it works, when someone agreed to do it too. But that worked, and it happened and it was strange. Compromise is a big thing about being an adult--that I've learned. But compromising certain instincts creatively isn't always good, unless there's someone who knows more about you than you do yourself, and that happens when you're working with a brilliant director a lot of times. I am never going to compromise the choices artistically that I make. I've got to trust that instinct, because I did with this, and I'm so proud of it.
IH: Did you improve this film with adding comedic elements?
JG: It came from us knowing that my character is always with the audience all the time. My character is the audience's eyes, so in order to be a step ahead of everybody, we had to respond to the skeptics in the audience. So we had a character in that way doing it every once in a while in the movie, and we got that part of the audience who were sometimes eye-rolling. The comedy element came out of us questioning parts of the story, saying, "What is the Source Code?" There's got to be a moment when you're like, "What?" So because of that, it allowed for a sense of comedy. I also think--even in tragic, strange, sad moments in life--there is always comedy in those moments. My favorite moments are the comedic moments. We were at SXSW, and that guy did that arm thing. I love that line, "Oh wow, we have to cerebrate." I love that part. Everyone cracked up and I was like, "We got it, man." An hour and 20 minutes, they were laughing out loud, and that was great.
IH: Are there any moments in your own life that you'd like to repeat and possibly make a different decision?
JG: I've been asked this question a couple of times, and I've keep thinking I've lived a blessed life, and I think regret--regardless of what it might be, if you listen to it--is the best teacher in the way that it has allowed me to live more presently. But in the wake of something like what is going on in Japan, the things happening around the world, I can't think about something that I would want to go back and re-live in my life because my life has, so far, been pretty extraordinary. I would want there to be something like this computer program in the movie. Imagine if you had the ability to go back into a nuclear scientist's body in Japan, or eight minutes before something would have happened--you could warn thousands of people what was going on. That's what I would use it for. It's hard for me to think about something for myself in the situation that is going on right now. It keeps making me think about what is happening in the world more.
Summit Entertainment's 'Source Code' is released on April 1, 2011.