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On ambivalent heroes and, um, perms

Cara Buckley, NYT, Jan 28 2018, 21:26 IST

Jake Gyllenhaal did not land a Golden Globe nomination for his lead performance in Stronger, in which he played Jeff Bauman, the real-life young man who lost the lower half of his legs in the Boston Marathon bombing. But the actor is still in contention for an Oscar nomination. Rather than tracing the familiar arc of the hero's journey, the film plumbs Bauman's ambivalence about being noisily celebrated as a patriot after the atrocity.

Gyllenhaal, 37, said that he and Bauman, who turned 31 this month, grew extremely close on the movie. "He has a light," Gyllenhaal said during a chat with me late last year at his production offices in SoHo, which featured a hefty supply of addictive chocolate chip cookies and the amiable presence of Gyllenhaal's German shepherd, Atticus. Here are edited excerpts from the interview:

'Patriots Day' was another film about the Boston bombing, and made around the same time as 'Stronger'. But it was more about getting the bad guys, and yours is questioning the idea that just surviving this automatically makes you a hero. Did you worry that the films had too much overlap?

All of us focus on the spectacle of a horrific event, and then also the people who've committed a crime. And it's about getting justice served. And something about Jeff, his story wasn't about the conventional idea of the triumph of the human spirit; it was about the struggle with that idea, which I was fascinated by. We all live in a world where resolution is what we desire. This didn't really give you that. All of his problems still remain. I believe in changing - I have deep hope. But I don't think we can dismiss our complications for that.

What do you mean by "change" in this instance?

Jeff now is somebody who is a dad, who didn't believe he could ever do it. He's sober now 15 months, post finishing the movie. He has changed exponentially in the past 15 months. More than anybody I know. But it doesn't come without him struggling. It's not like, 'Oh, I've had my troubles with alcohol and then all of a sudden they're just gone.' Sometimes, movies do paint things like that, and I think some of those things are misleading.

The physicality is amazing. Your hair was really curly. Did you get a perm?

Yep, I got a perm. Yes, I did.

I didn't know that you could even do that anymore...

Yes. It was a soft perm, because we didn't want it to be too curly. When you see Jeff's hair, you know, it's a distinctive feature. His hair is very specific. So, Donald Mowat - he's an amazing make-up artiste - said, 'I think to get the kind of messiness that Jeff has, we should do a perm.' And I was, like, 'I'm always down for a perm, you know?'

How many have you had? Was it tough, chemically?

It was my first. And yeah, it was smelly.

Obviously when I said physicality, I meant the fact that you had to haul around your whole body with your arms and pretend you didn't have legs. How do you prepare for something like that?

I spent almost a year with Jeff before we started shooting the movie. The first week that I met him, we all met up, we went to dinner in (a hotel) banquet room. Jeff took off his Genium Ottobock legs and showed me how he put them on, took them off, and how he moved around the room. And that was the very first moment that I saw him navigate a space without his bionic legs.

And then over a year, I saw it over and over and over again. When he would get on the floor, I would get on the floor with him, and it was a perspective and a height differentiation that was sort of infantilising. People end up talking to you and treating you differently in a way, not knowing how to relate. Also, one of the keys was - The New York Times did a Pulitzer Prize-winning piece on him. And I asked Jeff if there was any outtakes. That was really during the period of time where he was just totally lost. It was only a month or so after the event. Everything was raw. It's palpable, his feelings, and his eyes, and experience of what's going on. For me, behaviorally, it was a gold mine.

Had you spent this much time with a subject?

Only once before kind of, with a number of police officers when I was doing End of Watch. One of the police officers is one of my closest friends now. But nothing compares to this. I feel like it's so much more than a movie now. Because (Jeff's) my friend, and because all the people around him I know, and I love them. When you're with him, anything that you might normally complain about ends up seeming so petty and small. That's how he makes you feel. It's his spirit. He has a light.

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