Following in his famous family's footsteps, Jake Gyllenhaal's rise to big-screen acclaim has come by way of Hollywood rivalries, romances and an Oscar nomination, all before his 30th birthday. The actor talks to John Hiscock about his latest role in Brothers. It was a casting choice that set Hollywood buzzing with speculation. Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal in a film together? Jake and Tobey? Surely not.
After all, the two young actors have a rivalry going back to their early acting days. Both dated Kirsten Dunst, with Gyllenhaal living with her for a while; and when negotiations stalled for Maguire to appear in Spider-Man 2 Gyllenhaal was touted as his replacement, a ploy that rapidly brought Maguire back into costume. Yet here they were, working together in Brothers, Jim Sheridan's dark, emotional tale of two vastly different siblings. It was an astute, if sly, piece of casting by Sheridan, who knew the two actors had a strained relationship. "They've been up for the same parts and they know the same girls so there's naturally tension between people in that world," Sheridan has said. "There was tension between them before we started which I never tried to alleviate. There was natural competition between them."
Their co-star, Natalie Portman, who once briefly dated Gyllenhaal, tactfully declined to go into details of the troubles on set but admitted: "I don't like fighting and I don't like problems so I suppose I was sort of a mediator. And boys can be such girls sometimes." Gyllenhaal, looking completely at ease as he relaxes in a suite at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, not far from his home, allows himself a slow grin as he considers the situation.
"There are all these interesting rumours that fly around and it was so long ago. As a result, our relationship was awkward but respectful. This business pits people against each other who would actually love each other if they spent some time together. That's just how it goes. We came into the process with things unsaid that all went into the making of this movie. Without a doubt I look up to Tobey and admire his career. I always have. There was also undoubtedly competition between us, but I am always game for complications."
In Brothers, Gyllenhaal plays Tommy, a charismatic drifter just out of jail, while Maguire is his strait-laced brother Sam, a Marine captain embarking on his fourth tour of duty in Afghanistan. When Sam is presumed dead after his helicopter is shot down, Tommy tries to fill in for his brother at home, forming a close bond with Sam's wife (Portman). A serious, convincing and occasionally emotionally harrowing portrait of fractured family life, war, the nature of duty and the human heart, it is based on the 2004 Danish film, Brodre, which in turn took its story from Homer's Odyssey.
Sheridan found Gyllenhaal's methods of improvisation and invention were a total contrast to the precise methods of Maguire, who comes to work tense and prepared and knowing his lines. This provided an additional irritant to both Maguire and Sheridan. "Jake drove me mad for a few weeks because I couldn't figure him out," said Sheridan. "He was improvising and changing nearly every word in a scene. He wasn't doing it on any negative level, but he's so confident it's unnerving."
Portman, Gyllenhaal's co-star and ex-girfriend agreed: "Jake is so- spontaneous. Every take is completely different." Gyllenhaal didn't need any persuading when he was offered the role. "I had seen the original movie, so I loved the story," he says. "I thought it was beautifully crafted and the twists and turns it took were fascinating. I just loved the character of Tommy. I thought he was a wonderful character."
Talking to the 29-year-old actor, it is possible to see in him some of the wit and charm he imbues in Tommy. He has a twinkle in his eye and an impish grin that says he refuses to take much of life too seriously, although he has clearly demonstrated his intensity and talent in films such as Donnie Darko, The Good Girl and the Oscar-winning Brokeback Mountain. He has a fashionable stubble of several days and is smartly dressed, in a dark suit and tie. He was raised in a liberal, politically active household, and his intelligence and sensitivity shine from his deep-set eyes.
And Gyllenhaal is not about to let Sheridan's comments about him go unanswered. "I may have been a complicated person to work with at times, but working with Jim is kind of a beautiful mess," he says with a smile. "One day there was an assistant who brought the coffee and then she was sitting behind the monitor and he was asking her what she thinks of the scene and we're changing dialogue according to what she thinks. The next day he invites some guy he met on a plane to the set to rewrite the dialogue for him. It's like a really interesting mess." Then he adds, philosophically: "But it turned out to be a good result in the end."
Most of Gyllenhaal's 20 films have been a success, possibly because he has steadfastly refused to be typecast in any one role and has always made interesting choices. There is something of the lean, rangy cowboy look about him - a throwback to the days of Tom Mix or Gary Cooper - but it is impossible to imagine any Western hero of the past even considering taking the part of the homosexual cowboy Jake Twist in Brokeback Mountain, a difficult role which won him a handful of awards and a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination.
Despite his easy-going demeanour and penchant for improvisation, he can become so immersed in a role that his intensity can lead to trouble. Sam Mendes, the director of the Gulf War drama Jarhead, recalled that he had been unsure whether the apparently laid-back Gyllenhaal could be sufficiently enraged and emotionally ugly for the role of the battle-weary marine Tom Swofford. Gyllenhaal quickly proved that he could, and his wholehearted commitment led to violence. He remembers that a playful fight with actor Brian Geraghty suddenly became serious. "Something happened and I just started hitting Brian," he says. Geraghty walked out and refused to talk to him until a scene in which Gyllenhaal's character apologises was written into the script. On another occasion, he was filming a scene with actor Lucas Black in which he was holding him down and throttling him. Finally, a choking Black had to hit Gyllenhaal in the face to make him let go. "It was the weirdest moment I've ever experienced," says Gyllenhaal.
Mendes has a theory about him. "Jake feels very lucky having been born into a showbiz family and acting since he was a child," he says. "He feels he needs to suffer for his art." It is not something Gyllenhaal wants to analyse, although he concedes that, like his friend Gwyneth Paltrow, he was born into the Hollywood elite. "Yeah, I was born into the film industry and I grew up very, very well-off in many ways and there are things that I've had that I never even realised I had," he says. "But that doesn't stop me being angry and being able to use the anger in a movie, I hope."
Brought up in the exclusive Hancock Park area of Los Angeles by his father, director Stephen Gyllenhaal (Losing Isaiah, Homegrown) and his mother, screenwriter Naomi Foner (Running On Empty, Losing Isaiah), there was never any doubt that he would follow his family into show business. Paul Newman, a friend of his parents, taught him to drive and spent time with family friends that included Jamie Lee Curtis, who is his godmother, and Dustin Hoffman. One of his earliest memories is seeing his sister Maggie, three years his senior, performing on stage.
"When you're six years old and you see your sister acting on stage and doing her thing up there, you look up to her and you say, 'Wow, I want to be doing that, too,'" he says. By the time he was 11 he had played Billy Crystal's son in City Slickers and had turned down a role in The Mighty Ducks because it would have taken him away from his family for two months. When he was 13 he appeared with his sister in A Dangerous Woman, a family project, written by his mother and directed by his father.
As a teenager he attended one of Los Angeles's most prestigious private schools, but his parents, determined to keep their children grounded, insisted he and Maggie take summer jobs. Jake worked as a lifeguard and a kitchen helper, with occasional television appearances and a night job singing with a band called Holeshot. When he was 18 he appeared in his father's comedy Homegrown and the same year had his first starring role in October Sky, in which he emerged as a highly watchable screen presence and a bright new talent.
The spiritually minded Gyllenhaal moved to New York to attend Columbia University, where his mother had received a master's degree and where his sister was enrolled. He worked towards a degree in eastern religions, but abandoned his studies when he felt the pull of Hollywood and the lure of a promising film career. Eschewing typical teen fare, he gave a brooding performance in the incredibly odd Donnie Darko and played Jennifer Aniston's boyfriend in The Good Girl.
He starred with Dustin Hoffman in Moonlight Mile and, at Hoffman's urging, ventured into theatre, making his debut in London's West End in 2002 in the Kenneth Lonergan play This Is Our Youth, about a group of privileged, aimless teenagers in the 1980s. His efforts won him an "Outstanding Newcomer" theatre award but he showed no inclination to expand his stage work and instead returned to Hollywood and, a first for him, opted for a big-budget, special effects-filled summer movie, Roland Emmerich's The Day After Tomorrow.
It was his role in 2005's Proof, the adaptation of David Auburn's prize-winning play, that established him as one of the most respected young actors in Hollywood. His performance as a self-effacing mathematics student who forms a tenuous bond with his teacher's troubled daughter, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, caused the director John Madden to say of him: "He's got a very instinctive, unusual, loose kind of talent."
He made another good impression in David Fincher's Zodiac, and last year finished work on the yet-to-be released medieval fantasy Prince Of Persia. Following the lead of his parents and sister, Gyllenhaal has grown up to be a political and social activist. He joined John Kerry's 2004 election campaign, encouraging young voters to turn up at the polls, and extended his involvement with social advocacy to work with the American Civil Liberties Union and various environmental initiatives. He still works on behalf of New Eyes, a charity which sends donated prescription glasses to developed countries and in the US distributes vouchers to patients for a free check-up and free glasses.
While researching for his role in Brothers he visited prisons in the Los Angeles area and talked to young inmates at the city's Juvenile Hall, something of an eye-opener for a privileged young Hollywood star. "When the kids get out of jail most of them hopefully get jobs and change their lives, but unfortunately many of them are still in prison," he says. "We sat around a table and they read me their poetry and they were so open and honest. I was pretty shocked when everyone said what they had done and what their crimes were. They were totally open about what they had done and what drugs they were on when they'd shot somebody. It was pretty extraordinary."
Because Hollywood is a small, closely knit community, its denizens tend to gravitate towards each other in the kind of romantic merry-go-round that saw Gyllenhaal meet and become involved with Kirsten Dunst when his sister Maggie introduced them on the set of Mona Lisa Smile. In a semi-reciprocal arrangement, Maggie met, married and has a daughter by Peter Sarsgaard, with whom Gyllenhaal co-starred in Jarhead.
For the past two years Gyllenhaal has been romantically involved with Reese Witherspoon, his co-star in the CIA thriller Rendition, who had just separated from her husband, Ryan Philippe, when they met on the set. When work schedules have allowed, they have spent time at the actress's farmhouse 90 miles north of Los Angeles. On the day we talked the internet was humming with reports that their romance was over, something which Gyllenhaal did not want to discuss, although he still referred to Witherspoon as "my girlfriend" and their publicists both later denied the rumours.
"It seems to me if two people really love each other they'll go through hard times but they'll figure it out," says Gyllenhaal, talking generally rather than specifically. "I've seen that with my family and my parents and they've never had the scrutiny of people following them in cars with cameras and things like that. So I think if the love is real and strong, then it will last." His involvement in the lives of his niece, Maggie's three-year-old daughter and Witherspoon's son and daughter, aged 10 and six, has given him a new perspective and respect for children.
"I have learnt and continue to learn so much from the kids in my life," he says. "Somehow they just become the centre of your life and change the way you look at things. Obviously, I exist in my girlfriend's world and my sister's world in different ways and they're different relationships, but it's opened my heart up to the things that are really important in the world and I feel much more grown-up and wanting to be more grown-up as a result of it.
"More and more as my sister and I have grown up, we've talked less about the work we do. We used to discuss it in the past but now our interest is in having a relationship and keeping our family together. She and her daughter are more important to me than our performances. "I think our family has been so encompassed by the movie industry for so long that now we would like to just work on being a family."
Since Jarhead, his films have tended to be powerful and dramatic with little opportunity for him to show his humorous side. But now he is turning to lighter fare with Nailed awaiting release, and he is due to begin work on a light-hearted satire, Love And Other Drugs and a movie version of the musical Damn Yankees is planned. But just because the stories are less intense, it doesn't mean he will be adhering to the script, reining in his predilection for improvisation and, in some cases, driving his directors to distraction.
"I'm always a challenge," he says with a smile.