Jake Gyllenhaal for “Jarhead”

It’s quite the understatement that this is the year for Jake Gyllenhaal. Playing an idealistic and bored marine in the true story of Jarhead, and then starring opposite Heath Ledger in Ang Lee’s upcoming Brokeback Mountain, Gyllenhaal proves that he is one of Hollywood’s most diverse and remarkable young actors.

As the offspring of producer/writer Naomi Foner and director Stephen Gyllenhaal, it is not surprising that Jake Gyllenhaal has been acting since childhood. Raised in Los Angeles, Gyllenhaal acted in school plays and made his winsome screen debut when he was in the fifth grade, playing Billy Crystal’s son in the blockbuster summer comedy City Slickers (1991). Keeping it in the family, while acting with some of the industry’s most notable talents, Gyllenhaal subsequently appeared in his parents’ 1993 adaptation of the novel A Dangerous Woman with Debra Winger, and played Robin Williams’ son in a 1994 episode of TV’s Homicide that was directed by his father.

Poised to make the transition from child to adult actor, Gyllenhaal earned rave reviews heralding him as a star-in-the-making for his emotionally sincere performance as real life rocket builder Homer Hickam in the warmly received drama October Sky (1999). Though he opted to stay in school and attend college at Columbia University, Gyllenhaal continued his creative pursuits, playing in a rock band and starring as the oddball title character alongside Drew Barrymore in the Barrymore-produced Sundance Film Festival entrant Donnie Darko (2001). Gyllenhaal could be seen later that same year in multiplexes everywhere as the titular character in the ill-fated Bubble Boy.

After co-starring on the London stage in This Is Our Youth in spring 2002, Gyllenhaal was declared one half of Entertainment Weekly’s “It Gene Pool” (with sister Maggie Gyllenhaal) for his aversion to taking the easy teen flick route. In keeping with his preference for off-center work, Gyllenhaal coincidentally played the younger love object of choice in two consecutive indie comedies, appearing as Catherine Keener’s sensitive boss in Nicole Holofcener’s Lovely & Amazing (2002) and Jennifer Aniston’s enticing yet disturbed co-worker in Miguel Arteta’s The Good Girl (2002). As further proof that he had the acting chops to go with his sad-eyed good looks, Gyllenhaal subsequently co-starred with Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon as a young man enmeshed in his dead fiancĂ©e’s family in Moonlight Mile (2002).

With his star on the rise and his status as a heartthrob cemented, it became impossible for Gyllenhaal to avoid the draw of a big summer blockbuster. In 2004, he starred alongside Dennis Quaid in the mega-budgeted The Day After Tomorrow, but his next two films again offer variance. “Jarhead” follows Anthony Swoff, a third-generation enlistee, from a sobering stint in boot camp to active duty, sporting a sniper’s rifle and a hundred-pound ruck on his back through Middle East deserts with no cover from intolerable heat or from Iraqi soldiers, always potentially just over the next horizon.

Swoff and his fellow Marines sustain themselves with sardonic humanity and wicked comedy on blazing desert fields in a country they don’t understand against an enemy they can’t see for a cause they don’t fully fathom. Gyllenhaal will then be seen in Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, set against the sweeping landscapes of Wyoming and Texas. This love story tells of two young men — a ranch-hand and a rodeo cowboy — who meet in the summer of 1963 while driving cattle on a mountain range. They unexpectedly forge a lifelong connection, one whose complications, joys and tragedies provide a testament to the endurance and power of love.

In a wide ranging interview, this intelligent and thought provoking actor talked about both of these films to Paul Fischer in Los Angeles.

Question: Sam Mendes had made the comment that he saw you transform from a boy to a man, with making this movie. What was the journey like for you making this movie, and did you see yourself change and if not how so, if so how so?

Gyllenhaal: Well the main difference is I started the movie with no hair on my body and then I seem to get hair all over my body. With Sam it was like we went through a pretty, I wouldn’t say rigorous but it was a long process of him casting me. It wasn’t really like rigorous necessarily but at least in my mind, you know I went through a lot of things and I really wanted to do the part from the beginning, so I was into it, and along the way, thought at times I wasn’t going to get it.

So for me, he put me through a long process and by the time he cast me I think he was pretty sure he wanted me to play the part. And in wanting me to play the part, I think he accepted that he wanted me, like for me and for the things I had inside of me, in me and he saw that there were things that probably other people, other directors hadn’t seen before and he wanted to push. So I feel that’s part of what being or becoming a man is, you know, in knowing that the choices that you make you have a good enough conscious time to do that, what ever you do will be alright.

So Sam sort of ushered me into not pretending to be something that I wasn’t or putting on something that you know, I thought I should be. It was just purely like oh you’re doing that, that’s fine but I see maybe there’s more there, so in many many scenes he would say to me how do you want to this, we could shoot your coverage first or we could shoot something, or do their coverage first, we can come back, how are you feeling, what do you feel, what are you actually feeling, rather than force you into my agenda. So in doing that it kind of forced me to see me for who I was.

There was the physical stuff of just pushing my body to a limit where it had never been pushed before and then there was also just being around a lot of people who I really respected and looked up to, people like Jamie Foxx, Peter Sarsgaard, who are in my opinion, really admirable men as well as our military advisors who are people who have been and seen some really incredible and awful things and are still kind, caring, really cool people. So I just looked up to all them and the things they did I tried to emulate them at times and then it was just a process of growing up. So Sam opened me up to that, and it’s weird because I think on movie sets, people tend to act immaturely, or they’re allowed to and Sam would actually ask for the opposite so that’s how it went.

Question: Jake, why were you so passionate about doing this, and was it easy for you to relate to this guy?

Gyllenhaal: I first read the book and I thought that the prose in the book was just extraordinary. The way Tony writes sentence after sentence is just, even when I read them in the book, the opening quotes of the movie over black are Tony’s words. We were in the last day of shooting, Sam brought me into the ADR stage and we read some excerpts from the book and we read the voice over that had already been written in the book and in the script, so the book itself just spoke to me somehow. It was like a generation I think of people, a style in the same way that Dave Eggers has defined a sort of generation of writers or like John Sanfranforez defined a generation of writers of deconstructing structure as you know it in books.

Jarhead the book didn’t have that much of it and I just related to it somehow, that idea of like, it wasn’t like a clear through line, I don’t think the movie really has that either, I mean you’re looking forth to war most of the time, but if I was to ask you what scene came before another scene you probably wouldn’t be able to tell me, as I probably wouldn’t be able to tell you and I’ve seen the movie now three or four times, I’ve shot the movie for five months and there’s a style to that that I really responded to.

Then just in the character I think I hit it at a perfect time where I was just the right age where that’s the age where all the guys who’re going over there now, and went over there in the Desert Shield and Desert Storm time, and there’s something about the aggression and harnessing that aggression. Being able to have a part where you don’t have to do your hair or have wardrobe, you don’t have to deal with any of that stuff, and you’re basically you, and that to me seemed like it could have either been a place where you weren’t allowed to do anything and you were controlled or some place where you could do anything and whatever and it ended up being the latter.

So that’s what I was into, it’s just like none of the strappings and going to a place where you could you could really just, I could at least deal with a lot of feelings, that I think are in me but that I hadn’t really paid a lot of attention to and Tony’s book really expressed those feelings pretty passionately so I was just down to get angry and shoot at people.

Question: What kind of respect did you gain for the military and for being a marine leader?

Gyllenhaal: I started off without a doubt with a judgment as probably anybody does who hasn’t had any experience in anything but has a point of view of it and I think I always connected the military with the administration. After being involved with a lot of guys, I realized that I just thought there was a kind of innocence or a non choice. Yet it’s very clear that there is a choice in it, and that it’s a pretty extraordinary place and the things that I learnt just from the peripheral of it, just being near the people who have been involved in the military of any kind was it made me realize things about myself. I can’t imagine what really happens when you’re in it so just a profound respect in the end and I think it’s a shock to you know, to my mother who, who has her own judgments and I think rightfully so as everybody should and does.

Question: You’re an artist of course, you’re a very serious actor but with this movie and Brokeback Mountain, it’s like you’ve hit two out of the park and it’s a great wind up to a year. What is this going to do you think, or has it done for you career wise and it’s both these movies are coming, we’re nearing the awards do you feel like you’re in the Oscar race for one or both?

Gyllenhaal: There’s a lot of talk about things like that when you’re working with a director like Ang Lee or when you’re working with Sam Mendes because they are inevitably two Oscar winning directors, so it’s inevitable that people attach those things to those projects. For me I feel like all that I have as an actor is the process., Peter said something to me after we finished the movie: it’s a very odd profession, a profession where you give a performance and then a year later people commend you on the performance but it’s really odd to separate yourself from that because it’s so far from what you’ve done.

All I can speak of is the process and in that both Sam and Ang have changed my life regardless of the result of any of these films, I’m so happy with the response that has happened with Brokeback Mountain so far, just so far, and we’re just sort of beginning how people are responding to this movie but to me the processes of both movies have changed my life and that’s what I take away with me and everything else is just fun, and it’s a laugh kind of sometimes and it feeds the ego.

Question: Why Brokeback Mountain after this?

Gyllenhaal: I did Brokeback Mountain before I did this movie so, frankly you don’t say no to Ang Lee and you don’t say no to Sam Mendes and you beg both of them no matter what you’re doing in either of the movies, whether you’re wearing a Santa cap over your dick or whether you’re making love to Heath Ledger, you just don’t say no to them. I think that the short story of Brokeback Mountain and the book of Jarhead are just two of the most kind of extraordinary pieces of literature.

Question: Now you’re playing another real person, yes?

Gyllenhaal: His name’s Robert Graysmith, who was a cartoonist with the San Francisco Chronicle and who wormed his way onto the Zodiac case in San Francisco in the sixties and seventies and ended up, sort of solving the case just out of pure obsession and passion. I am actually video taping him now, and that was a choice of mine.

Question: Jake what are you reading at the moment?

Gyllenhaal: I’m actually reading John Didian’s book, Year of Matchbook Making.

Question: What kind of music are you listening to?

Gyllenhaal: Music, all different stuff, I’m listening to, I like . I’m listening to Connie West CD all that stuff, Jamie Foxx’s new album,.

Question: How was working with Jamie?

Gyllenhaal: It was fantastic, he’s, I totally look up to him like, and it’s so hard to say that and not sound so stupid, but I really do, I think he’s extraordinary.

Question: How’s it working without David Fincher right now?

Gyllenhaal: He’s extraordinary in his own separate, very different way.

Question: A different universe?

Gyllenhaal: It’s a totally different universe. I’ve never seen a movie that looks like it, the technical things he is doing are have never been done before and I think that it’s also a different move for him because it’s performance driven too, which is not to say that the other one’s haven’t but there’s lots of dialogue and all this stuff that he’s dealing with and it’s definitely a different universe.

Question: Is Heath a good leading man?

Gyllenhaal: He’s great, he’s fantastic.