Nightcrawler: Starring New, Mature Jake Gyllenhaal

nightcrawler_poster“Nightcrawler,” starring Jake Gyllenhaal, world premiered at the Toronto Film Fest on September 5.

Open Road Films will release the movie on Halloween, October 31.

Playing Sleaze Ball

In this thriller, directed by Dan Gilroy, Gyllenhaal plays one of his most challenging roles, a twisted crime photographer. “Nightcrawler” centers on Lou, a fast-talking sleaze ball who chases ambulances to catch footage of accident victims on his camcorder—he’ll do anything to succeed. The film wouldn’t work if audiences don’t root for its antihero. The story deals with the timely idea of privacy in an Internet Age, and the proliferation of tabloid journalism in supposedly serious news organizations.

Several years ago, Gyllenhaal, who’s 33, made a conscious choice to change his career. He left behind popcorn actioners and fantasies like “Prince of Persia” (which was a commercial flop) and “The Day After Tomorrow” (which was a success) in favor of smaller, but more provocative features.

nightcrawler_1_gyllenhaalHe veered toward edgier, darker, more ambiguous material like “End of Watch,” in 2012, in which he played an L.A. cop. In “Prisoners,” he was cast as an obsessed detective. In “Enemy,” he portrayed a pair of mysterious twins. But the new, smaller films managed to make money too. “End of Watch,” which cost only $6 million, made $41 million at the domestic box office, and “Prisoners” grossed $122 million worldwide last year for Warner.

“A lot of people see Jake as a nice young Jewish kid from Beverly Hills,” says Antoine Fuqua, who cast him as a professional boxer in the upcoming Weinstein release “Southpaw,” which had strong buzz out of Cannes based on a teaser clip. “I said, ‘Nah!’ He’s a man now. There’s something in his eyes that people don’t see. He’s got anger in him.”

Gyllenhaal grew up in an industry family. His father, Stephen, is a veteran film and TV director; his mother, Naomi Foner, is an Oscar-nominated screenwriter, and his older sister, Maggie is a movie star too.

He made his acting debut at 11 as Billy Crystal’s kid in 1991’s “City Slickers.” Gyllenhaal first appeared in dramatic roles in smaller movies like 2001’s “Donnie Darko” and 2002’s “The Good Girl.” He also boldly played the part of Heath Ledger’s lover in 2005 hit “Brokeback Mountain,” for which he received a supporting actor Oscar nomination.

“I never would have thought the movie would have gotten the response that it did,” Gyllenhaal says. “It was a life-changing story, and career changing for all of us. It was inexplicable.”

nightcrawler_2_gyllenhaalGyllenhaal has returned to his roots with his latest roles, even if it means taking smaller paychecks. “I don’t have my own family right now,” he says. “I have an opportunity to make those choices.”

With “Nightcrawler,” Gyllenhaal was most taken by the poetic soliloquies in Gilroy’s script. He memorized every sentence of dialogue before the 28-day nocturnal shoot through the streets of Los Angeles.

Gyllenhaal, who is also a producer on “Nightcrawler,” spent three months in pre-production brainstorming with Gilroy on the look of his character. He had the radical idea of making Lou look gaunt, which meant losing 30 pounds from his 180-pound frame.

When the film’s trailer debuted over the summer, his physical transformation was shocking. “I would try to eat as few calories as possible,” he says. “I knew if I was hungry that I was in the right spot. Physically, it showed itself, but chemically and mentally, I think it was even a more fascinating journey. It became a struggle for me.”

On some nights, he wouldn’t eat at all, or he’d only nibble on crackers or kale salad. “When you watch the film and see the angularity of his face, the hollow cheeks, the way that his eyes become prominent,” Gilroy says, “it’s such a haunting look.

Gyllenhaal ran 15 miles from his house to the set in the evenings to stay lanky. The inspiration for the fast-talking character came from the animal world. “He was like a coyote,” Gyllenhaal says. “I just wanted to live that way.”

nightcrawler_3_gyllenhaalIn the film, Lou takes interest in his boss, a local TV news producer played by Rene Russo, who happens to be married to Gilroy.

Gilroy is following a similar path as his older brother, “Bourne Identity” scribe Tony Gilroy, who made his directorial debut late in life, with 2007’s “Michael Clayton.” At 55, “Nightcrawler” is Dan’s first film as director, at 55, after writing scripts for films like “Two for the Money.”

Some of Gyllenhaal’s methods were unconventional. He went on an undercover scavenging mission to find Lou’s 1990s-style wardrobe. “I would drive around L.A. sometimes in rehearsal and take pictures of guys I’d see on the street, and send them to Dan,” he says. He went on a ride-along with real paparazzi ambulance-chasers. “There was a car that went over the 101 Freeway down a ridge, and crashed into a wall,” he says. “We arrived 30 seconds before the cops got there.”

Gyllenhaal admits that playing a dark character like Lou will sometimes sneak into his dreams. “I always have nightmares,” he says, before catching himself. “I don’t really believe in nightmares. I don’t believe the things that scare us are in our dreams. I think they are us communicating with ourselves. Even if I’m scared, I think they are helpful sometimes.”

The one scene in “Nightcrawler” that’s true to life features Gyllenhaal shattering his own image. Gilroy says he was taken by surprise that the star did that on set, but it’s become a crucial part of the story. “We didn’t plan on the mirror breaking,” he says. “It was honest. It was dramatic. It becomes a pivot point in the character.” Now Gilroy can’t imagine “Nightcrawler” without the scene. “It was an accident we put in the film because it worked so well,” he says. But he’s recently thought about how Gyllenhaal will always carry the character of Lou with him. “The movie has become a permanent part of his physical being,” Gilroy says.

Gyllenhaal isn’t fazed by the role that scarred him. “As an actor, you’re constantly true to your feelings and the feelings of a character,” he says. “The most interesting moments are always the most unexpected. I’m not saying it’s a positive thing to get hurt and have to get stitches in your hand. But to me, the scar is about a certain type of commitment.”

Asked what drove him to more vulnerable roles, Gyllenhaal says he had an epiphany when he turned 30. “You wake up and you say, ‘I know who I am. Why am I not able to communicate through my art?’ ” he says. “I just realized I was sitting in the wrong place.”