STORY WRITTEN BY AMY LONGSDORF
For 21st Century Media
When Jake Gyllenhaal was struggling to get a grip on the wily newsman he plays in “Nightcrawler,” he hit upon the image of a lone coyote on the prowl.
The more the actor dug into the character, the more he kept thinking about the feral creatures who occasionally make their way from the wilderness into suburbia.
“Anytime that I talk to somebody who’s seen the movie, and I tell them I based this character off of a coyote, and they go, ‘Oh, right!’ If you live in Los Angeles [where the movie is set], you’ve probably had an exchange with a coyote.
“They are not intimidated by you at all. In fact, when they look at you, they’re looking for the most vulnerable aspect of you. And they’re a beautiful animal.
“I have grown to love them because I’ve done so much research on them, and felt like I was one of them while I was playing this character. But they are ruthless, you know? Partly because [many of them] are starving.”
“Nightcrawler,” which marks the directorial debut of “Bourne Legacy” scripter Dan Gilroy, revolves around a scavenger named Louis Bloom. At the beginning of the movie, Bloom is selling stolen scrap metal for cash but, before too long, he stumbles upon a gig as a freelance cameraman who dashes around Los Angeles photographing grisly crime scenes.
Eventually, Bloom falls in with Nina (Gilroy’s wife Rene Russo), a news director who makes Faye Dunaway’s ambitious TV boss in “Network” seem like Mary Poppins. It’s Nina who pushes the already-driven Louis to do anything for a story, including dragging bodies from car wrecks so the blood looks better in the photographs.
Described by Variety as a “Network” for the TMZ era, the movie is, like most Gyllenhaal projects, challenging and more than a little unsettling. While the actor has flirted with superhero roles (auditioning for “Batman Begins” and “Spider-Man 2”) he’s one of the few leading men in his age group without a big-money franchise.
Instead, he’s opted for dark, edgy projects like “Donnie Darko,” “Brokeback Mountain,” “Zodiac,” “End of Watch,” “Prisoners” and “Enemy.”
Recently Entertainment Weekly called him “one of the most daring and complex actors of his generation.” Gyllenhaal says he picks movies at least, in part, because of what they have to say about modern life.
“I believe that movies are political, no matter [if they’re popcorn movies]… or they’re overtly dealing with something political … So I don’t think … any story is good unless there’s a bit of a commentary.”
“Nightcrawler” is a commentary on the less than savory aspects of the media, especially the kind of TV and Internet outlets that pay paparazzi for photos of cadavers and car wrecks.
“We’re living in a world where unimportant information is now important, and important information is now unimportant, and it all exists on the same plane, we just need to feed and consume,” says Gyllenhaal, 33.
“I think there is a sense of no one taking responsibility [for it]. We’re all just in it. We’re all just needing information, and getting it. I think whatever shocks us is what we’re bound to go towards, even if we don’t want to. We’re terrified by it, and interested in it. It’s the same idea as [staring] at a [car] accident.”
In “Nightcrawler,” Lou thrives in the seedy underworld of camcorder-toting vultures.
“Lou is a product of a generation where jobs are … scarce,” says Gyllenhaal. “He’s kind of a walking metaphor; that’s how I look at it.”
If Gyllenhaal appears wan and drawn in “Nightcrawler,” that’s because he dropped more than 30 lbs. before production began. While his metamorphosis isn’t quite as extreme as Matthew McConaughey’s in “Dallas Buyers Club,” he still manages to alter his good looks considerably.
Taking off the pounds was a snap for the actor, who reportedly subsisted on little but kale salads and chewing gum.
“As we were getting into shooting, I would do stuff like run to set, and at a certain point I was just running through [Los Angeles’] Griffith Park all the time, eight to 15 miles a day. I was just training myself as a coyote, with all the coyotes and stuff.
“And then my face just changed. I don’t think I was really even aware, until a few months ago, as we were going through all the cuts of the film. [I looked at the movie] and went, like, ‘Wow!’”
In addition to providing a showcase for Gyllenhaal, “Nightcrawler” marks a comeback of sorts for Rene Russo, who hasn’t had a starring role in a film since 2005’s “Yours, Mine & Ours.” Gyllenhaal says he adored the actress, who is best known for her turns in “Be Cool” and “The Thomas Crown Affair.”
“She’s separated herself from the whole Hollywood thing, as much as she can, and she’s really creative, and very sensitive, and very loving and open,” notes Gyllenhaal.
“When you think about her in ‘The Thomas Crown Affair,’ there’s a real intimidation factor about her beauty, and her charisma, but I think, deep down inside, she just likes to garden, and chill out … It was great fun to work with her.”
Gyllenhaal was born into the movie biz. His father is director Stephen Gyllenhaal (“Losing Isaiah”). His mother, Naomi Foner, is a screenwriter (“Running on Empty”) who recently turned to directing with “Very Good Girls.” And his sister and brother-in-law are actors Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard.
Jake always wanted to be an actor and got into the biz early, playing Billy Crystal’s son in “City Slickers” when he was 11. As he gets older, he imagines that one day he’ll want to direct.
“My father’s a director. My mother’s a director too. I know from a certain amount of experience, from watching a lot of people do it … that it would be presumptuous of me to say that I would be good at it. At a time when I am looking to be presumptuous, then maybe, yeah, I’ll do it … I would like to try my hand at it.”
While he was born and raised in Los Angeles, Gyllenhaal moved to New York recently to be closer to his family.
“I live in New York because my family lives there. My nieces live there. My mother lives there … And my family is more important to me than where I live but … [New York] happens to be a wonderful city, too.”
Coincidentally, Manhattan is the setting for Gyllenhaal’s next movie “Demolition,” which was directed by “Dallas Buyers Club” helmer Jean-Marc Vallee. The actor plays an investment banker unable to cope with the death of his wife. In another upcoming movie “Southpaw,” he plays a tough boxer.
With those films in the can, Gyllenhaal will return to the stage for the romantic drama “Constellations,” which will mark his Broadway debut.
“I’m so excited, I can’t wait! It’s my favorite place to be, up on stage,” he says. “I feel like a musician getting to go on tour, you know. In my acting, the movie is my album. And the theater is the live show. So I can’t wait.”