THE relationship between Jake Gyllenhaal and the man he plays in his latest film, double leg amputee Jeff Bauman, is something to behold.
“Jeff doesn’t stop giving me shit,” says the actor with a huge grin.
One example is a clip from a Facebook Live interview that the pair completed this month where Bauman asks Gyllenhaal when he might make a good movie, something like Fast & Furious.
“I have never been at a table or dinner with Jeff, or in a room or walking in a hallway, where he hasn’t made at least two people laugh,” continues Gyllenhaal, the 36-year-old Californian who rose to prominence on the back of the quirky time-travel movie Donnie Darko.
“And on top of all of that, he’s also fierce, driven, ferocious, committed to not only living but thriving. Holy shit, man, I don’t know many people like that.”
Bauman’s story is a tale of struggle in the face of adversity. He lost both his legs above the knee in the infamous 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, and co-authored a New York Times bestselling memoir, Stronger, a deeply personal account of his journey along the road to recovery.
Gyllenhaal’s film, which is directed by David Gordon Green, shares the book’s title and exerted a profound impact on its leading man. The actor spent time not only with Bauman, but also working with other amputees at a Boston recovery clinic. “I was observing people initially dealing with an injury, trying to cope with it, how much they were watching, how much they were in themselves, the feelings of doubt, feelings of horror and struggle,” he says. “But a sense of humour was something that I felt was pervasive amongst so many and that really struck me.”
This experience, he says, helped put his own life in perspective. “We take so much for granted. I speak for myself, and the incredible things in my life — very often, half the time, I take a lot of those things for granted. I am not to say that Jeff doesn’t but man does he laugh.
“He just stops and laughs at himself. He is angry, he makes a mess of a lot of things, he is a complicated human being but he is always laughing. That’s the biggest thing that I took away from this experience.”
He might well emerge with even more, as the film could prove as an awards season contender especially for its leading man. Gyllenhaal was last recognised by the Academy Awards with a nomination for his performance in Brokeback Mountain (2005) opposite the late Heath Ledger, and despite fine subsequent performances in the likes of Jarhead, Zodiac, End of Watch, Prisoners and Nightcrawler, but has yet to snag another. Stronger might change that.
“This has been very challenging,” he says of the role. Indeed, not only did Gyllenhaal have to work on the psychological aspects of Bauman’s injuries, and the very specific movements required when learning to walk on prosthetic limbs, he also had to grapple with intangibles. Bauman ended up as something of a poster boy for the Boston tragedy, a symbol of the wider community’s determination to stand and heal together.
The blast, which ripped through spectators on April 15, 2013, killed three, and injured hundreds. Sixteen people lost limbs. Bauman’s courage saw him take a prominent role in public life, waving flags and throwing the first pitch at a Red Sox baseball game.
“He understood that he had a role to play for a bit,” notes Gyllenhaal. “Playing the hero to a lot of people when he felt really miserable and was struggling to figure out who he was, again, in what he calls real loss. That’s not easy to comprehend as an actor.”
Another key tenet is the film’s exploration of masculinity. The aftermath of the explosion prompted a major shift in how Bauman approached this aspect of his life. “He was doubting himself, doubting his own masculinity,” says Gyllenhaal.
“One of the things he always talked about was trying to show his strength to his girlfriend, Erin, and pretend like he was a guy who was a lot more together than he really was.
“He didn’t want to lose her and he thought that by not showing her that vulnerability he would keep her, whereas in truth all she wanted was for him to say, ‘I need you’. She didn’t want him to push her away.
“And yet he kept pushing her away, pushing her away, going into the darkness to maintain this sense of being strong and not showing how much he was struggling.”
Gyllenhaal says that prior to his injury Bauman, who was 27 years old at the time, was content to keep working at the deli department in Costco. “He was content staying in an adolescence. Before the event he would have been fine working where he was, and carrying on living with his mother. That’s very interesting. We have a generation where there is a certain kind of coddling that happens.”
This is an interesting point. Though he spent a lot of time with his filmmaker father Stephen, who encouraged a love of sports and physical activity, Gyllenhaal also cites his mother, screenwriter Naomi Foner, and his actress sister Maggie as powerful influences in his life. As a consequence, he says he has at times struggled to understand his own relationship to masculinity.
“Being the youngest in that family, I have always struggled with trying to understand the idea of what it is to be a man, in this space. When do you show vulnerability? Also, it is strange because in the US we have a leader who almost believes he is a pre-adolescent in his responses to things. I think that is very confusing to a generation and it is very interesting to me that the character I play was very content.”
His mention of Trump comes as no surprise. Gyllenhaal has a long-standing interest in politics and once campaigned for Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry. When conversation turns to the expertly delivered speech by Barack Obama in the wake of the Boston bombing, he smiles.
“As an orator, Obama is absolutely extraordinary. I think sometimes there is a criticism of him that the fight wasn’t there. I think he was walking a very careful line as leader and the extraordinary feat that he accomplished being an African-American and being the leader of the country. But I think that he has his faults. You look at where we are now and everyone should take responsibility.”
Responsibility is a word that echoes across our interview. Gyllenhaal recalls the moment that Stronger was first shown in Boston to a number of survivors from the blast, as well as to others at the rehabilitation centre where they convalesced.
At one point a 90-year-old man in a wheelchair stuck out his hand and asked whether the actor was the star of the picture, “and I said, ‘Yes, sir, I am’ and I had yet to really wear that idea up until to that point.
“But I think that was another generation telling me that this is part of what being a man is. You have to take responsibility for the thing you do.” Few would doubt that Gyllenhaal has taken responsibility for Stronger. He believes Bauman and the majority of those in Boston are pleased with the film. As for any further plaudits, especially from the Academy Awards, only time will tell.