From his turn as a troubled in teen in "Donnie Darko" to his varied performances in recent films like "Nocturnal Animals," "Nightcrawler," and "Okja," Jake Gyllenhaal is no stranger to extreme transformations.
But in his latest film, "Stronger," Gyllenhaal takes on perhaps his most important transformation yet: portraying the real-life story of Jeff Bauman, a 27-year-old man who became a symbol for "Boston Strong." While waiting for his girlfriend Erin Hurley at the finish line, Bauman lost both his legs in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.
Bauman was the subject of a famous photo taken in the aftermath of the bombing. He even helped law enforcement identify one of the bombers. But he faced a long, uphill battle to recovery. Directed by David Gordon Green, "Stronger" is based on the memoir of the same name that Bauman co-wrote. The cast includes Tatiana Maslany, Miranda Richardson and several non-professional actors who were part of the community that helped Bauman overcome his struggles.
For Gyllenhaal, "Stronger" is just the story of films he wants to be making, as an actor and a producer.
I think that we are living in a time where I feel like things are changing so rapidly. There is so much inconsistency in communication, so many things that I feel like I don't understand from the our leadership, what's happening from one moment to the next. I don't know sometimes what we stand for...And I think it's really important that I try and use whatever audience I have to bring stories like this to the screen. Because these are the types of movies that changed me when I watched them. Maybe I didn't discover them in the theater necessarily, but stories about the specific struggle of what it means to be human.
When Gyllenhaal spoke with The Frame's John Horn, he talked about what he learned from Bauman, how the two have become genuine friends and he addresses the criticism that Bauman should not have been played by an able-bodied actor.
What Jake Gyllenhaal learned on how world sees Jeff Bauman:
Jeff says that he was sucker-punched. He was a guy who didn't have a lot of prospects at a particular time. He didn't really have a lot of goals. He was struggling to finish college. He was working at Costco but he wasn't even good at that. He said at the time that he would be totally satisfied living with his mom for a good period of time. So there was this extended adolescence that I think he was comfortable in. And then all of a sudden this event happened, this horrific event, and I think it gave him in one way or another, after he really began to initially heal from it, a sort of sense of purpose. I think it came from the pain. I think it came from going so far deep down into the pain of things that I don't think many of us understand but I do think that anybody who struggles with anything can relate to.
At the end of the movie it happens a lot where all these people start coming up to him and he... has to listen to their stories and initially those stories change him and make him realize, Oh my gosh. I'm a representation of healing, of joy, out of a seemingly inexplicably horrible situation.
On the criticism that Jeff Bauman should not have been played by an able-bodied actor:
I mean, I understand. I have spent so much time with so many people who have suffered from injuries like Jeff. And their stories are extraordinary. And they're incredible humans. So I understand the criticism, you know. At the same time, I feel like, you know, I've done everything I can to understand, as best as I could, his situation. It's hard for me to speak to it, really. That's the irony here. ... It's almost impossible for me to give an answer here because it's really more for Jeff. It's more Jeff to answer because it's Jeff who knows the situation because it's his. And when asked, I feel like I have heard him say that he's very proud of the amount of work that I put into it. And it means so much to him and that's all I can ask for. But I guess I could just say that I understand.
I would just say there's a part of me that feels, in talking about positivity, that as much as I feel like I absolutely understand, I would say how about it's wonderful we're making movies about people who are struggling and who have disabilities. This is a movie that sheds light, I think, on all of those things. And I think I speak for David Gordon Green when I say I think that that should be applauded. It's very important and I've heard from so many people with disabilities in particular how moved they are and how important it is that that story get out there that people understand that pain. But again, I really understand also where they're coming from.
On the importance of casting the real life people from Jeff Bauman's life:
It was something we came to. It wasn't an initial instinct. At first, David Gordon Green was trying to cast different actors and then during the research -- because we spent over a year and a half on and off in Boston in pre-production and just in research -- we met all of his caretakers. And in the midst of it we realized how extraordinarily charismatic and extraordinary all of them are. They're just amazing people. And I think shooting in Boston is where it began. The idea that we needed to have the essence of the city, this place, the energy.
This movie's not only about Jeff. It's about the community around him and the city around him. And this thing, this thing there, why there's so many movies come out of there that are so beautiful. It's this feeling and we wanted that energy in the movie.
On casting Bauman's real-life doctor to play himself in "Stronger":
Dr. [Jeffrey] Kalish, his surgeon, was in for a meeting with us one day. And David turned to me and said, What if we ask Dr. Kalish to read for Dr. Kalish? [laughs] Like, okay. Dr. Kalish went home and he practiced all night. He said he got little sleep which is sort of hilarious because he usually sometimes operates at night. And he was exhausted and he said, I've been running my lines. And he ran his lines, he auditioned and he was terrible. [laughs] And then David said, Just talk to us the way you would talk to your patients. And Dr. Kalish started to talk to us just as if it was post-op and he was talking to parents and it was extraordinary. It was just beautiful. And David just decided, Let's start casting as many people that we can that were around Jeff.
On Jeff Bauman's accidental celebrity status:
I think Jeff is an argument to me, in my narcissistic actor, vain, world, that celebrity is really incredible thing. Because I think Jeff's story and the appeal of his story to so many more people and what he represents is important for the world. I think I see value systems are a little strange. Though I do understand why people are celebrity and actors and things like that, people want to pay attention to them, and I think that's because we're connected to stories. And I think those stories move people. And I think that really the thing that's moving people are those stories and we're the face of that thing. And it's our obligation to behave accordingly.
But I think when I see Jeff out in the world and people walking up to him, even if he didn't ask for it, I think there's also something that's sort of tapping at that piece of him that doubts and is wanting to maybe go into the darker spaces, give up, really not continue because of the things that have happened in his life and to him. And it's those people that come up to him, as a quote-unquote celebrity, that keep him going. And it's their positivity. Occasionally it's laced with, like in the movie there's a scene where people said, Oh, this just a ploy by the CIA, it's a plot... There is darkness and evil there and he has. But I think there no better cause for celebrity than Jeff.
On why "Stronger" is something he wanted to bring to theaters:
I think that we are living in a time where I feel like things are changing so rapidly. There is so much inconsistency in communication, so many things that I feel like I don't understand from the our leadership, what's happening from one moment to the next. I don't know sometimes what we stand for. And so to me I feel somewhat like that from the movie industry. Look, we're in a business where it is important to make money because it's a business. And that is something I respect very much. But I also think we've moved away from audiences. Maybe you can make an excuse, you know, Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Apple, all these different tech companies getting involved in the creative process, which I think has been extraordinary. I'm a huge proponent of that and I believe however people can get their information they should get it. But I think the theaters themselves and movies and why people go is really changed. And I think it's really important that I try and use whatever audience I have to bring stories like this to the screen. Because these are the types of movies that changed me when I watched them. Maybe I didn't discover them in the theater necessarily, but stories about the specific struggle of what it means to be human. And that is the type of movie that I want to be a part of making as a producer and that I want to act in as an actor.
To hear John Horn's full interview with Jake Gyllenhaal, click on the player above.