Although the character Jake Gyllenhaal plays in the new sci-fi thriller Life, Dr. David Jordan, is at the center of the movie's action, he pretty much always keeps his cool, save for a few particularly nerve-wracking moments. An astronaut who's spent more time in space on the International Space System than any of his teammates, David is an "observer," in Gyllenhaal's words, calm and focused in even the tense situations caused by an alien life-form gone rogue. Playing that kind of character would be an interesting challenge for any actor, but for Gyllenhaal, it was particularly exciting.
"One of the best parts of this whole process was the discovery as we went along of who this guy was," Gyllenhaal tells me, speaking via phone the week leading up to Life's premiere. "It was fun every day as a result of that."
Throughout filming, Gyllenhaal worked with director David Espinosa to develop David's personality and actions, something the star says was a key part of his enjoyment on set. Explains the actor, "Unless the character has already been written by the author to be very, very distinct, with very specific layers, I’m one who always likes to try and have something show me, as opposed to just follow rules."
"I’m not much of a rule follower," he continues, laughing. "I mean, I believe in morals, deeply. But I don’t believe in rules."
That's for sure. Throughout his career, Gyllenhaal has been in practically every genre under the sun, from sci-fi indies to tear-jerking Westerns, defying expectations with every new role. Yet the last few years of his career have seen one type of movie taking center stage — tense dramas, films that leave your heart pounding a hundred miles a minute. There was Prisoners, and End of Watch, and Nightcrawler, and now there's Life, in which Gyllenhaal's David is one of several astronauts struggling to keep an alien life-form from destroying all of humanity. It's as intense a situation as it gets, and even for Gyllenhaal, an actor all too familiar with nerve-wracking drama, the movie's plot managed to stir up some fear.
"The script was terrifying," he tells me. Gyllenhaal isn't much of a scary movie fan, he says, but Life's storyline struck a chord nonetheless. Explains the actor, "I’m always looking for something that is entertaining and holds a lot of tension, and this one definitely does that."
One look at his career choices, and that becomes crystal-clear. Gyllenhaal has always taken on roles that defy the norm, from Zodiac to The Good Girl. The actor swears, though, that there's no intense method at work when it comes to the trajectory of his career — but that's not to say it's as random and unplanned as some people might think.
"I’m sure you speak to a lot of different people, and I’m sure they’ll say to you generally, as actors, they don’t have a plan, and I think most of the time that’s bullsh*t," Gyllenhaal says. "It’s some way of pretending there’s not some conscious decision and choice, and some huge team around them telling them what would be the right choice to make."
Still, while he admits he does have a team of his own to help him choose parts, "there’s never anything about what I choose that’s based on what I’m trying to project out there. I think for me, it’s more about, certain things move me and certain things give me a little bit more depth to explore."
Right now, Gyllenhaal is in the middle of several projects that likely do just that. His action film, Okja, is set for a June release on Netflix; a Boston Marathon drama, Stronger, is in the works; his Broadway production of Sunday in the Park with George is playing in New York right now. Gyllenhaal is excited to be back on stage, and his performance in George has earned him significant acclaim. Although he admits taking on a role that challenging stirred up some fear, he jokingly calls himself "a bit bullish" and says "that’s the reason to do it." And besides, he's no stranger to the stage, having starred in productions of Little Shop of Horrors and Constellations, among others, over the years.
"Being on stage and singing and being in that world strangely feels really like home to me," Gyllenhaal says. "I express myself through music and also through acting, which is why it always feels like the perfect spot."
Most people wouldn't think that an actor capable of fighting off aliens and saving all of humanity would consider Broadway musicals his sweet spot — but then again, Gyllenhaal has never been someone who does what people expect.