Jake Gyllenhaal was almost Batman.
Yes, well before Ben Affleck—and his easily identifiable chin—donned the suit and snarl, Gyllenhaal was writer David S. Goyer’s first choice to play the Caped Crusader in Batman Begins. He, along with Christian Bale, Cillian Murphy, Joshua Jackson, and Henry Cavill (yes, today’s Superman) all auditioned, with Bale emerging victorious. This close call came on the heels of Gyllenhaal nearly subbing for Tobey Maguire in Spider-Man 2 after the latter injured his back on the set of Seabiscuit.
“You can’t ask an actor in Hollywood who hasn’t auditioned or been in the running for one of those roles. It’s almost a rite of passage,” says Gyllenhaal. “But you pay for everything you do—and don’t do. For me, I’ve always wanted to have the opportunity to play a number of different roles, and I knew it wasn’t necessarily the role, but how you played them.”He pauses, choosing his words carefully. “There’s all this strategizing people do where they think, ‘Oh, if I do this then I can do that.’ I think I’ve come to a point where your intention is everything. Your intention is very clear and people can feel your intention, so as long as you’re true to yourself, then people will respond to that.”
Perhaps it was meant to be. Instead of Bruce Wayne, Gyllenhaal starred as Jack Twist, a closeted cowboy in Brokeback Mountain—earning him a well-deserved Oscar nomination—and has since evolved into one of the most compelling character actors in Hollywood, breathing life into a panoply of memorable eccentrics, from the obsessive cartoonist Robert Graysmith in Zodiac to Nightcrawler’s sadistic videographer/voyeur, Louis Bloom.
His latest loner is Davis Mitchell, an investment banker in Jean-Marc Vallée’s Demolition. Davis is a paragon of “success,” but when he loses his wife in a horrific car accident, realizes that the life he’d led was a lie; that it was someone else’s version of the American Dream.
“I think anybody whose focus is only capitalism, it will take its toll,” Gyllenhaal says. “But it’s about making choices based on convention—on the market versus what your instincts tell you.”Instead of returning to autopilot, Davis chooses to destroy any and all remnants of his former self. Armed with a sledgehammer and bulldozer, he reduces his chic suburban home to a pile of rubble. Along the way, he forms a unique bond with another lost soul, Karen (Naomi Watts), and her son Chris (Judah Lewis), who’s suffering an identity crisis of his own.
“What do you believe in when you don’t know what it is to believe?” asks Gyllenhaal. “He has to destroy things in the physical world because he doesn’t know how to do it in the emotional world, and as he does it in the physical world, he starts to meet people who show him how he really feels.” This concept of demolition-as-catharsis isn’t in the cards for Gyllenhaal, personally. When the 35-year-old finds himself losing his center, he chooses the Middle Way.
“I like to meditate as opposed to destroy things,” he says, unleashing his boyish smile. “I think it temporarily feels good to destroy things—or you think it will—but it ultimately doesn’t do much. Creating something is a lot harder, and a lot more satisfying. It takes more time, and you have to sit through the more painful feelings in order to create.” “For me, it’s why I’m an actor,” Gyllenhaal continues. “It gives you a means of expression and a way to go to places where you can find a catharsis in expression, and discover new worlds where you can get away with more than you can in reality.”
And Gyllenhaal is at his best portraying those stalking the fringes of society. When asked why he’s so adept at capturing antisocial characters who some would classify as falling somewhere along the autism spectrum, he takes a long pause, before raising his voice and posture ever so slightly: “We have a desperation to categorize people who are ‘not normal,’” he says. “Normal, to me, is perverse. I don’t know why I enjoy those characters. I think there’s more depth to play, and more choices to be made within the workday. You can really explore a lot of different feelings, and that’s what I’m interested in: exploring my own feelings through different characters. When somebody exists outside of what we consider the norm, you have more opportunity to discover.”
In real life, Gyllenhaal is the furthest thing from a social pariah. It’s a true testament of his acting ability. Two of his close friends, for example, are Jay Z and Beyoncé. “As people do, we met through mutual friends,” says the actor. “There’s a respect there.”
Which leads us to that picture. You know, the one that’s been meme’d to death on the Internet: The trio are sitting courtside at a Brooklyn Nets game, and while Gyllenhaal and Beyoncé are gabbin’ away, Hova is seated in between them, looking like ennui personified.
I show Gyllenhaal the picture on my phone, and he lets out a hearty laugh. “Right, right,” he says, losing his composure for the first (and only) time all interview. “I have no idea what’s going on there! I have no idea, man. We’re definitely in the midst of something, that’s for sure.”